Sunday, 31 January 2016

Goodbye Sinjura Vassallo, Hello Signora Sangiorgi

After two years as the London Dead's header photograph I decided, after much agonising, to retire Sinjura Vassallo. Her memorial, in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow is, as photographer Stiffleaf says "as kitch (sic) as a Jeff Koons." The New Yorker's kitsch is of course all post modern irony, while the Rayford Memorial Co Ltd's (now in Ilford, formerly in Stratford) is innocent and authentic. It is one of London's best modern monuments; there is a general rule of thumb that says if a monument is interesting then so the person buried there. In the case of Mrs Vassallo this is impossible to verify as I have not been able to find out anything whatsoever about her. The life of this presumably Maltese matriarch is so obscure that I have not been able to uncover even a single fact about her life. There are quite a few Vassallo's in East London and we can assume that this is perhaps the founder of the current dynasty. She was probably born in Malta but came to the UK when, the 1950's? Her stiff, formal pose, clearly culled from a wedding photograph, gives little of her character away. But to her family she was clearly supremely important. In these egalitarian days even the rich and famous settle for unostentatious grave stones of standard size and shape, maybe allowing themselves a slightly classier epitaph but otherwise trying really hard not to stand out from the crowd. Sinjura Vassallo's family didn't let the modern democratic spirit inhibit them - they went in for something as big and bold as any bourgeois nineteenth century golden age memorial. Good for them; if only more people would follow their example we might still be creating cemeteries that future generations would like to see.

Much as I love the Vassallo memorial I thought two years featuring as the header to the blog is more than enough and it is time for a change. Once I had replaced her I realised that I don't have the photograph (which I also love, even though I took it) anywhere else on the blog. Hence this post. As well as the eye catching statue of Mrs Vassallo the memorial also features the figure of a young girl presumably personifying grief. The skill of the sculptor is immediately obvious in the rather stiff pose of the deceased but it is clear to see in this depiction of mourning. There also flower vases decorated with reliefs of roses (all of which were filled with flowers when I was there) and sculptured cushions.  

To replace Sinjura Vassallo I chose another Mediterranean lady, this time a French (though married to an Italian), Signora Barbe Maria Theresa Sangiorgi whose memorial in Brompton Cemetery is justly famous. You can read her story here.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Tyburn Tree (Dark London) - John Harle & Marc Almond (Sospiro Noir)

John Harle & Marc Almond pose in front of the Oppenheim/Schroeter Memorial in Nunhead Cemetery

When speaking of John Harle the composer and saxophonist it is obligatory to mention that he wrote the theme tune to ‘Silent Witness’. Marc Almond presumably needs no further introduction.  Their collaboration on the song cycle of Dark London was two years in the gestation with Harle responsible for the music and Almond for the lyrics. Folk songs, nursery rhymes, jazz, modern classical, penny dreadful, pantomime villains, progressive rock, music hall, John Dee, William Blake, murder and walking spirits ....the pair  throw so much into the mix that it could have been a real mess, but somehow it works.  The blend of tradition and modernity, past and present, fact and fiction works for me as the musical equivalent of a Peter Ackroyd novel, the soundtrack to ‘Hawksmoor’ or “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem”. Fresh air is breathed into many a tired old trope including  the Ripper murders, Ratcliffe Highway, Spring Heeled Jack, and the Tyburn Tree.  It could have one long cliché but Harle’s music is sufficiently atmospheric and Almond is on fine form doing what he always does best, going manically and magnificently over the top.  They have created their own bit of alchemy turning dross into gold; this is a fine record.

The record does have its rickety moments – Almonds theatricality at times takes the whole thing dangerously close to sounding like ‘Tyburn Tree The Musical’ as performed by the cast of the London Dungeon.  I can’t get on with Sarah Leonard’s painful shrieking of words by John Dee on ‘Dark Angel’ and ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ is just a bit silly with Almond’s atrocious cockney accent and Harle’s rather obvious musical punning (a selection of boings for the springs in the heels of Jack). The lyrics of ‘The Vampire of Highgate’ are trite ('Red eyes peer from the gloom/of a freshly opened tomb) but if you had to pick one track that stood any chance of making it into the charts this would probably be it; disturbingly catchy as it is. Iain Sinclair is allowed one track to solemnly recycle Yeats tag that ‘the living can assist the imagination of the dead’ and to hypnotically invoke the spectres of Hawksmoor, Chatterton and Blake but the musical accompaniment adds nothing to the poets mesmerising delivery. But the flaws are forgivable, perhaps they even add to the charm. 

There are plenty of high points; the bleak opener ‘The Tyburn Tree’,  ‘Black Widow’, the reprise on Tom Pickard’s and Harle’s ‘City Solstice - A Song For London Bridge’ in ‘My Fair Lady’ and perhaps best of all the final track where Blake’s brilliant lines ‘To the Jews’ from his epic poem ‘Jerusalem’ are set stirringly by Harle and belted out with great aplomb by Almond.  ‘Ratcliffe Highway’, forever synonymous of course with the infamous murders of 1811, demonstrates best how Almond takes other people material and rewrites it as magnificent melodrama.  The song dates from roughly the 1820’s; three London publishers issued broadsheet versions of it before 1830 with the title ‘Rolling Down Wapping’.  The ballad made it into the ‘Penguin Book of English Folk Songs’ edited by Vaughn Williams and relates the story of a sailor strolling around the East End who “chanced to pop into a gin shop” where a young doxy relieves him of a guinea for a bottle of mother’s ruin. When he asks for his change he gets nothing more than a verse of her song and a telling off for his uncouth behaviour. The cheated sailor spots a chance to get even when he sees

A gold watch hung over the mantel, so the change of my guinea I take,
And it's down the old stairs I run nimbly, saying: “Darn my old boots, I'm well paid”

He escapes across the river to his ship at Deptford from where he warns “all of you bold young sailors, that ramble down Ratcliffe  Highway” to beware the consequences of staying overlong in a gin shop;  which despite all the fuss seem to be nothing worse than the prospect of being overcharged and short changed.  In Almond’s rewritten version there is nothing so mundane as a stolen watch and a far more chilling denouement. The gin shop becomes a whore house and the cheating doxy gets much more than she bargained for:
Then I put my old knife to her white throat and for my change her life did I take
And down the stairs I run nimbly, saying "Damn my old boots I'm well paid

As does the young sailor, who finds that the killing has unleashed his murderous instinct:

And it seemed that the Devil within me had opened a dark doorway to hell
For the spirit of killing was in me and the others didn't live long to tell

The final lines of both versions are almost identical but where in the traditional version the expression ‘going to the devil’ means nothing more than the equivalent of ‘you can whistle for your money’, Almond’s version ends with a whiff of diablerie and a genuine frisson;

For the wine and the women invite you, and your heart will be all in a rage
If you give them a guinea for a tumble, you can go the Devil for your change
It may be pure melodrama but it works brilliantly well, transforming a trivial tale of petty criminality into a beggar’s opera  of  blood and thunder. I can't wait for 'Dark London; Volume 2.'

He steadies a second and then leaps down
To the heart of the rookery where hope is drowned
His eyes reflect the thin crescent moon like a
Candle light in a red brothel room

Monday, 18 January 2016

Jolly Jumbo, the King's Heaviest Subject; William Thomas Ecclestone (1862-1915) Manor Park Cemetery

“Who is the greatest living man? Some say Chamberlain; some Marconi; others might pin their faith to Dan Leno. But for genuine all-round greatness there is none to beat Mr. W. Ecclestone, whose geniality and ponderosity have earned for him the nickname Jolly Jumbo.”

London Daily News - Friday 16 September 1904

William Thomas Eccleston, was a builder, the publican of the Coach and Horses in Stonebridge, The Canterbury Arms in Kilburn and the Chequers in Alperton and a trainer of world class prize fighters. He specialised in taking care of the training requirements of visiting American boxers and looked after the first black world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, the only Canadian born world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns and the greatest boxer never  to win a world title (who also happened to be Canadian and black) Sam Langford.  His sporting achievements tended to be overshadowed by Ecclestone’s other claim to fame, his weight. He was patriotically celebrated as the Kings Heaviest Subject although a publicity postcard candidly admitted he was still only “the second heaviest man in the world.”  Possessed of a Falstaffian girth of 6 feet 1½ inches, he had 30 inch thighs and his heaviest recorded weight was an impressive 38 stone.  His sunny disposition and his imposing stature gained him the nickname of Jolly Jumbo; when he died at the age of 52 in 1915 the sobriquet was inscribed on his memorial in Manor Park cemetery and The Guardian described his funeral:     

The funeral yesterday of William Eccleston, the sporting publican, who was known to a great public in London and Brighton as ‘'Jolly Jumbo” was an East End event. It was at Manor Park Cemetery. The body was brought from Brighton by motorcar, accompanied by motors with mourners from many of the Brighton inns. It was a curious gathering of many sections of sporting society—publicans, bookmakers, billiard players, pugilists, and horsey men of a type that is fast disappearing. There were many ladies in dark furs, velvets, and mourning hats, but as Eccleston had been some years out of London and many of his connections here had been severed the crowd was less than expected. Some were brought by curiosity to see the interment of this modern Daniel Lambert, whose coffin was over seven feet in length and nearly three and half feet in breadth. It was borne by ten bearers, and the greatness of the strain could be seen in the condition of their collars when their task was over. Among the assembly were some who followed the ceremony with curious connoisseurship.  One of these, a woman, who noted that the widow in her agitation had thrown the wrong wreath into the grave, said that that it was ‘bad luck.’ From the demeanour of the chief mourners there was no doubt of the misfortune that had befallen them.

Appreciation of the loss was unaffectedly shown by several of the rough-looking men who stood in the background. One man with a hard-bitten face and colour of a mulberry, who wore a muffler tightly tied round his neck and stood with his hands to his side like one who was used to sudden encounters, seemed least likely to show emotion. He looked like a bookmaker’s runner or a ‘Charley’ who took chance jobs outside a tavern. As the earth fell on the coffin he choked and there were tears on his cheeks. This world must have become a bleaker place to many when ‘Jolly Jumbo’ was gone.
Manchester Guardian April 1915

As a young man Jolly Jumbo was an accomplished all round athlete.  In the army he practiced a training regime so effective that it was adopted as standard. He maintained a keen interest in sport despite his blossoming girth and as well as training boxers he also trained runners, became owner of the Kensal Rise Athletic Track and was a keen devotee of the turf.  In 1897 Jolly Jumbo took a prize fighter called Greenfield to court for the return of £100 stake money that had put up for the fight and half the winnings which amounted to another £50. The trial provided a valuable insight into Jolly Jumbo’s working methods.  The facts of the case were that Greenfield “a professional boxer of repute” approached Jolly Jumbo in April 1896 asking him to match him against one Burns of New York for the sum of £100. The proposal was agreed, JJ offering to put up half the required stake money if Greenfield could find someone else to guarantee the other £50.  The boxer had trouble finding another backer and JJ agreed to put up the rest of the money. No sooner had he done this than Greenfield asked for another £50 to “keep his wife” whilst he was away training in Brighton. The money wasn’t forthcoming but other money did change hands over the colours from the fight which JJ paid £8 4s for. Greenfield won his fight, collected the winnings and the stake money and pocketed the lot leaving JJ at least £150 short.  There was great interest when Jolly Jumbo tried to take his place in the witness box, much of it caused by the fact that he couldn’t fit inside it because of his size. “He was said to be the heaviest man connected with pugilism in England. At any rate the witness-box could not accommodate him, and he gave his evidence behind that structure,” said the Illustrated Police News. “In the course of his evidence he said lie had backed hundreds of boxing men in his time, and had always paid their training bill. The ‘Olympic’" Club paid, he was told, the defendant's training expenses.” The Judge believed Jolly Jumbo and “expressed the opinion that the plaintiff had made out his claim, and gave judgment for him with costs.”

Jolly Jumbo with the black Canadian boxer Sam Langford
Jolly Jumbo was not quite as comfortable with his weight as his nickname implies.  In 1905 he was interviewed by the newspapers after the death of fellow publican Thomas Longley of Dover, whose gargantuan 46 stone made him officially the Kings Heaviest Subject.  Following Longley’s demise Jolly Jumbo inherited the honorary title and merited a few column inches. "In my opinion no man ought to weigh over 18st, and I cannot see where the 'jolly' comes in when a man is over that weight," Eccleston frankly told the reporter. "Now, I am talking from experience, being the King's heaviest subject, but had I the choice I would rather be his lightest, when I should not require the doors made larger, or when travelling have to go in the guard's van. In the presence of my friends I am jolly, but when I have to wait to have my boots put on or taken off I often have the hump, and wish someone else could have the jolly fat instead of myself. My opinion of fat is that it is a disease, and no good to anyone."

Jolly Jumbo's grave in Manor Park
In 1910 the public would have been astonished to learn that Jolly Jumbo was planning on taking to the air in the company of pioneer aviator Claude Grahame White early in the new year in aid of charity. The proceeds of the flight were to go to the Willesden Cottage Hospital; Jolly Jumbo was hoping to raise enough to endow four new beds. He told the papers "I shall go up with Mr. Grahame White or any other pilot without the slightest hesitation, and be glad of the chance.  I'm the heaviest man in Britain, and I have an ambition to take my big weight into the skies. You may be sure the event will come off."  The confidence was misplaced, the plan seems to have been abandoned; perhaps Jolly Jumbo was just too much for Grahame White’s plane.   
For many years Jolly Jumbo presided over the annual Cabbies Charity Festival at Wembley Park. The London Daily News of 16 September 1904 gives a vivid account of that year’s event:

Yesterday Jolly Jumbo, whose home is the Chequers, Alperton, was the presiding spirit the London Cabmen and Busmen’s Charity Festival at Wembley Park, which is held every year under his superintendence in aid of the Willesden Cottage Hospital. “The greatest show ever presented,” said the flaming poster at the railway station; and nobody disputed the fact when he beheld Jolly Jumbo, ”the man who turns the scale at 40 stone and is still able to walk.” When a Daily News representative found himself breathing the pellucid atmosphere of Wembley Park yesterday the first thing he saw was “Jolly Jumbo” with his panama saucily tilted over one eye, running amok in his specially made horse-trap among the sightseers who had trespassed into the enclosed ring on the sports ground. Cracking his whip he plunged through the surging mob and ordered them outside. Meanwhile nobody was paying attention to the cabbies’ go-as-you-please race that was being run round the track. ..... A terrific bang, as if a fenian hand were trying to blow the Watkin Tower, caused a commotion in another part of the field. The Wembley Stakes had commenced, and prize whippets, such as Annie Laurie, Spider, Little Jim, Don’t Know, Wet, and Coronation, were flying over the I50 yards handicap like lightning. Another explosion, more terrific than before, and the rabbit coursing was in full swing. Splash! and cabbies and busmen in regulation swimming costume were ploughing through the waters of the lake. There were foot races for old and young, obstacle races with an eleven foot jump at the finish, cycle races on the gravel track, which, after the heavy rains, resembled in parts a ploughed field; bucket, costume, and sack races, grand wrestling bouts in the variety hall, and tugs-of-war between drivers and ostlers, each of the winners receiving a silk handkerchief. It went on from eleven o’clock in the morning till nightfall. "Five hundred competitors,” said the programme, “eight hours continuous pleasure.” Next to Jolly Jumbo, the hero of the afternoon was Cabby Chirgwin, who won the first prize of two guineas and an oxidised silver shield for the best equipped hansom cab and horse. A rousing cheer greeted him when he drove past the grand stand, in his picked green and white cab drawn by a beautiful roan mare. His number was 14,317, and in his immaculate top hat and red and white everybody proclaimed him the smartest cabby in London.  The display of hansom cabs was one of the finest on record. There were special prizes lot the smartest-looking drivers—new hats, opera glasses, bottles of whisky, and boxes of cigars. 'The only jarring note of the day’s fun was the hoarse-throated uproar of the betting men in front of the grand stand, who were allowed to do a brisk business, despite the prohibitive notices placarded all over the field. And far away in a leafy corner of the grounds, almost beyond earshot of the crowd, a band was wasting its sweet cadences on the desert air. But a roundabout organ in the next field suddenly struck up, “Oh, listen to the band” completely drowning its rival. For half an hour without a stop that organ was crashing out, “Oh, listen to the band” and it was still when our representative left.
According to Probate records Jolly Jumbo left an estate worth £6717 17s and 6d to his widow Anne. She later remarried and only died, at the age of 89, in 1955. The grave inscription insists she was the “beloved wife of Sol Goodman” but she choose to be buried with Jolly Jumbo not her second husband and she joined him in Manor Park after a forty year separation.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

H.M.S. Worcester and the Lord High Admiral’s Testicles; the gallant life of Captain John Henderson Smith (1826-1904), Highgate Cemetery

Captain John Henderson Smith was born, according to his gravestone, on 27 December 1826 and was married to Jessie. The brief obituaries that appeared in the papers after his death in 1904 contain the intriguing information that he was “Younger Brother of Trinity House, commander of H.M.S. Worcester (Thames Nautical Training College) for 25 years, from which position retired 1892, has died Folkestone, the age 78. It was during Captain Smith's command of the Worcester that Admiral Togo received his early training on board that ship.”  H.M.S. Worcester was the training ship of the Mercantile Marine School and was generally moored at Greenhithe in Kent and cadets run through their paces sailing in the busy traffic of the Thames estuary though occasionally it took its pupils out to sea.

The Chelmsford Chronicle of 17 September 1869 contains a stirring account of the saving of the crew of the 25 ton yacht Bamba by Captain Henderson-Smith and his naval cadets.  HMS Worcester had left its usual berth and was luckily weathering out a heavy gale in Southend otherwise the owners of the Bamba, Mr W.H. Roberts a solicitor of Moorgate and his wife, and most of their crew would almost certainly have drowned.  Mr Roberts had set out from Greenhithe to sail a relatively short distance across the river to Southend when his yacht had been caught in the fierce gale. The captain of the Bamba managed to run it into a sandbank 120 yards east of Southend Pier in the squall. The Chronicle takes over the story:
“In the darkness of the night, and against a roaring gale, the crew and party on board the yacht shouted loudly for help. Hour after hour passed by. A barge not far off was spied, and the yacht's boat, with two of the crew on board, put off for it in the hope of gaining help. They made the barge, but the gale had increased so terribly that they found it impossible to render any assistance to the vessel. Meanwhile the yacht was rapidly filling with water. The deck was gradually being covered, and both Mr. Roberts and his wife, who had been for three hours crying loudly for help, actually resigned themselves to the prospect of a watery grave with the remaining crew, and were endeavouring, with the hope of living a few minutes longer, to climb upon the boom, being then up to their necks in water, when well-manned boat from the ship Worcester made her appearance just in time to rescue them and save their lives. Captain J. H. Smith, with fresh crew, then started from his ship with view to save as many as possible of the stores and fittings of the yacht, and was successful in recovering many articles which, owing to the gale then raging, were being sunk and destroyed. The yacht, however, had gone down immediately after Mr. and Mrs. Roberts had been rescued and safely shipped on board the Worcester, where the kindest attention and assistance were rendered them by the Captain and Mrs. Smith. The gale continued without intermission to violently rage; and although attempts were made on the following morning to raise the craft with the aid of barges and chains, they were unsuccessful. The continuance of the gale, moreover, frustrated the attempts on the part of Captain Smith to land Mr. and Mrs. Roberts and the crew, and they saw from the Worcester the vessel break up and become a total wreck.”

The paper fumed that although the accident had happened just a few yards from the Pier and that the “shrieks and cries were distinctly heard on shore at Southend, ”and therefore were also clearly audible on the pier itself “a person named Fox, who is stated to be the master,” when asked if had heard them simply “stated it was no business of his to look after vessels in distress.” The following week a wounded Mr William Fox, pier master at Southend defended himself in the correspondence column of the paper; “Dear Sir, in your impression of Wednesday last it is stated that I said it was no business of mine to save life. This I deny, for I am at all times ready to assist to save life anywhere, and have done so. See the Morning Advertiser of February 10, 1869, giving an account how I rescued a man near the pier here from drowning by going into the sea and bringing him out.” In December 2010 the gold watch presented by a grateful Mr Roberts to Captain Henderson Smith was sold at Christies in New York for $21,250. The 18 carat gold hunter case,  two train minute, repeating grande and petite sonniere, keyless lever watch has an engraved representation of the H.M.S. Worcester to the front, and an inscription on the rear reading “Presented to Capt. Henderson Smith Comnd. R.N.R. Commanding H.M.S. Worcester by W.H. Roberts, Esq. as a token of gratitude for the gallant rescue of Himself, Mrs. Roberts & the Crew of the Yacht Bamba which became a total wreck. 10th September 1869.”

Tōgō in the 1870's during his sojourn in England
Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō Saneyoshi was Henderson Smith’s greatest pupil.  Known as the Nelson of the East, Tōgō’s most famous victory was at the Battle of Tsushma in 1905 when the Japanese navy shocked the world (and some of its own commanders) by destroying the Russian Baltic fleet. The defeat prompted the 1905 naval uprisings in Vladivostok and the Black Sea (where the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied) and therefore Tōgō, and indirectly his mentor Henderson Smith, played a not insignificant part in formenting the Russian Revolution.  The Admiral’s strategic skill and iron nerves were famed; a legendary story about him has his second in command at the battle of Tsushma uncontrollably nervous about the outcome of the battle with the supposedly superior Russian navy. The 57 year old admiral invited the vice-admiral to insinuate his hand into the admiral’s rather loose fitting trousers and gently take hold of his testicles. Astonished at the order he may have been but the vice admiral instantly obeyed. His nerves were immediately calmed to feel his superior’s balls still hanging loose in the scrotal sac and therefore betraying not the slightest hint of anxiety about the progress of the battle.
Tōgō spent three terms on board HMS Worcester in 1873/74. The son of a samurai, Tōgō had come to England in a shabby second hand suit (Japan at that time having no tailors capable of turning out a western suit) as one of a contingent of 12 naval cadets in 1871. He spent his first months studying mathematics at Cambridge and improving his English. He was keen to enrol at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth but his age, 25, effectively barred him as he was considered too old. Instead he took and passed the entrance exam for the Thames Marine Officer Training School on HMS Worcester. The trainee officers of the Merchant Marine were not especially welcoming to a foreigner and called Tōgō Johnny Chinaman to his face. According to the Rev. Capel, his Cambridge Mathematics tutor, “the young samurai did not like that, and on more than one occasion he put an end to it by blows." He also found the diet and the size of his rations “I swallowed my small rations in a moment. I formed the habit of dipping my bread in my tea and eating a great deal of it, to the surprise of my English comrades." Perhaps to the astonishment of his colleagues he graduated second in class. Henderson Smith would probably have been less surprised; he took a keen interest in the young sailor and Tōgō reciprocated, remembering his former master with esteem for the rest of his life.

Admiral Tōgō at the time of the coronation of George V
Forty years later the world renowned admiral returned to England as an official guest at the Coronation of George V in 1911. Whilst he was in the country he visited what was now called the Thames Nautical Training College  and HMS Worcester at his own special request and made a speech to the officers and cadets in English calling England his second home. In a signal mark of respect he donated his own personal battle flag to the college; this flag had flown from the mizzenmast of the Mikasa, the flagship of the combined battle fleet during the battle of Tsushima. After paying public homage to his alma mater he also took the opportunity to visit Highgate cemetery and pay his private respects at the graveside of Captain Henderson Smith. Tōgō was accompanied by a contingent of his junior officers and Yakamoto Sanheiko, the publisher of the famous Japanese magazine Kaizō. In his book “The Cultural Evolution of Post War Japan.” Christopher T. Keaveney says that “Yamamoto noted that Tōgō held Smith in esteem, approaching reverence, and that the admiral stood before his former teacher’s grave with head bowed for a full ten minutes.”  

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Undertaker at Work 1900-1950 - Brian Parsons (Strange Attractor Press £15.99)

“FUNERAL, n. A pageant whereby we attest our respect for the dead by enriching the undertaker..."
Ambrose Bierce – The Devil’s Dictionary

The most fascinating story in Brian Parsons’ book is of the extraordinary shenanigans at the death of the celebrated illusionist, the Great Lafayette.  Born Sigismund Neuberger in Munich in 1871 Lafayette emigrated with his Jewish family to the United States when he was 19. He took to the stage, initially as a professional quick change artist but slowly started to incorporate magic tricks into his act. He became close to another struggling magician on the vaudeville circuits, Erik Weisz, who later became better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini. It was Houdini who presented Neuberger with the love of his life, a little dog called Beauty who completely reciprocated her masters feelings and couldn’t bear to be parted from him, even when he was on stage.  Lafayette made her a fixture of his act, teaching her small parts in his magic routines and with Beauty at his side success suddenly came to the magician and he became one of the biggest box office draws in America.

Neuberger moved to London, where he set up home in swish Tavistock Square and became the highest paid magician on the circuits, earning £40,000 a year, taking bookings up to ten years in advance and employing a team of 40 to help stage his elaborate illusions. Despite the many temptations that women offer the hugely successful man, Beauty remained his one true love. Outside his house hung a plaque declaring “the more I see of people, the more I love my dog.” And inside the house visitors were greeted with more printed encomiums ‘you may eat my food, you may command my servants, but you must respect my dog’.  An unshakeable rule of tragedy is that all great loves are doomed and so it proved for Neuberger and Beauty. In 1911 Neuberger was in Edinburgh on the Scottish leg of a British tour.  On Saturday 6 May, at their suite in the Caledonian Hotel Beauty suddenly became ill. A veterinarian was hastily summoned but before he could come to the aid of the stricken dog, she died.  Beauty’s distraught master somehow persuaded the officials of Edinburgh’s Piershill Cemetery to allow him to bury a dog in a white tiled vault designed for the reception of a human being.  They did stipulate however that he must join Beauty in the same vault when his term on earth finally came to a close. Neither they nor the great Lafayette could have imagined just how soon that was to be.  

The Great Lafayette with Beauty
Neuberger had his dog embalmed and laid him in state in a glass case in his hotel room until the funeral scheduled for the following Wednesday. On Tuesday evening he was back at the Empire Palace theatre in his role as the Great Lafayette, performing  his pièce de résistance, the Lions Bride in which he played the role of a sultan throwing a girl from his harem into a lion’s den with a real lion.  At the climax of the act the lion would pounce on the girl and then reveal itself to shocked audience be the Great Lafayette himself dressed in a lion skin. It was a complex piece of stage magic involving a genuine lion and a double and some tricky lighting. It was the lighting that let Lafayette down that night, a fuse blew, a short circuit overheated, a spark started a fire and the fire engulfed the stage so quickly that 11 people burnt to death. The audience, all 3000 of them, were safely evacuated from the building to the calming accompaniment of the orchestra playing the national anthem. The Great Lafayette’s body was found on stage, his identity confirmed by his manager and several of the cast.  Despite the tragedy Beauty’s funeral went ahead as planned on the following day and further plans were made for Lafayette to follow as soon as the formalities associated with his death could be completed.  But then a few hours later a further body was discovered beneath the gutted stage at the theatre, a body identified by theatre staff as belonging to Lafayette! His solicitor was called up from London to resolve the confusion which he soon did by identifying the second body as definitively belonging to his client and the first body as belonging to Charles Richards, Lafayette’s stage double in the Lions Bride illusion. Quite why no one had wondered where Richards was in the aftermath of the fire has never really been explained but all’s well that ends well and both men went to their rightful graves (we think). Lafayette’s body was taken to Glasgow to be cremated and his ashes returned to Piershill to be placed in the glass case, between Beauty’s paws, in the white tile lined vault.  

Dead dog; "My Dearest Beauty - the passing has caused a wound that can never be healed"

Not all of the author’s stories are quite as entertaining as this. A couple come close, the bizarre story of the burial of Lord Kitchener’s empty coffin for example, or his account, including a photo of the victim in his coffin, of the first ever recorded hit and run accident in 1905 in which the four year old Willie Clifton was left dead in the road outside his home in Hertfordshire. (The driver was eventually tracked down and prosecuted. Convicted of manslaughter he was sentenced to a mere six months in prison, so beginning the tradition of indulgent leniency to killers in cars which continues down to the present day.)  The stories sit slightly uncomfortably in a rather sober account of the rise of the funeral industry professional from late Victorian undertaker to post war funeral directors. Early chapters concern themselves with the introduction of American embalming techniques in the early 1900’s, the formation of professional associations such as the British Undertakers Association and the British Institute of Embalmers, and the Cremation Society etc. We are given accounts of how the funeral industry coped during the First World War and an interesting chapter on it dealt with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 based on the author’s research in cemetery and undertakers records in East London.  The rise of the Co-operative funeral service is given a chapter of its own  and the author discusses in some detail the part played by the industry in events of national significance such as the 1920 burial of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey and the R101 disaster. The first part of the book closes  with the Second World War.

The second third of Mr Parsons book are an interesting selection from the authors collection of images illustrating all aspects of the undertaker at work, photographs of funeral parlours and other  premises, coffins, horse drawn, hand drawn and motor hearses, biers, funeral directors adverts, the work of monumental masons and of funerals themselves. Brian Parsons was for many years a funeral professional and is now a consultant in the industry specialising in training and education. He has published many previous books including the fourth edition of Hugh Mellers’ definitive work on the capitals burial places “London Cemeteries; An illustrated Guide and Gazetteer.”  His voice is always authoritative, he is definitely a man who knows what he is talking about, but his professional background and I suspect years of having to deal with raised eyebrows whenever he told anyone what he did for a living, have made him perhaps overly respectful towards his subject. His inclusion of the story of the demise of the Great Lafayette clearly show a man drawn to the grotesque and bizarre (and surely no one becomes professionally involved with the funeral trade who isn’t drawn to that aspect of things in some way) but this side is suppressed in order to provide a reverent   account of the professional rise of the undertaking business that at times carries no more emotional resonance than would the story of chartered surveying or buildings insurance.  This book is always interesting and well worth reading but I would have appreciated a slightly less decorous account of the business of corpse disposal.