Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Secret Portuguese Jews, floating coffins, Edgar Allan Poe, a Victorian masterpiece and a pair of Australopithecines - Old St Mary's Churchyard,Stoke Newington


It was the unexpected pairing of a Portuguese surname on a 19th century chest tomb in a north London churchyard that ignited my obsession with graveyards and cemeteries.  The tomb belonged to John Furtado, the son of Isaac Mendes Furtado according to the rather worn inscription. Idle curiosity started me researching and a digital copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1803 revealed the startling fact that buried in “May; At Stoke Newington Mr. Isaac Furtado, a Jew merchant, who was buried in the Church-yard, in a grave dug North and South, instead of East and West, according to the usual custom. His son and two daughters were baptised and confirmed in the Church of England in March 1799, and their conversion was announced to the public in a printed letter addressed to them by the late Rev. Wm, Jones.” Further research uncovered that Isaac Furtado was a Portuguese Marrano, a secret follower of Judaism 300 years after all Jews in Portugal faced the blunt choice of converting to Christianity or accepting exile. Once in England Isaac openly practiced Judaism and apparently never converted even though his children did.  Quite how Isaac managed to get himself buried in an Anglican churchyard is a mystery I have not been able to solve.


Stoke Newington was a small village 3 miles North East of London before the burgeoning metropolis swallowed it in the 19th century. There were only a hundred communicants when William Patten 'new builded' the church of St Mary in 1563, replacing the stone, flint and pebbles of the medieval building with brick. The church has been repaired and ‘beautified’ several times but by 1791 the growing popularity of Stoke Newington as a rural retreat for rich Londoners meant that the church was already cramped for the five hundred or so parishioners who turned up for Sunday morning services. A survey in 1827 revealed a rotten roof and drainage so bad that coffins were floating in the vaults beneath the church floor. It was restored by Sir Charles Barry (architect of the Houses of Parliament) in 1829 but even though space was made for more seating the church was still too small and in 1853 a decision was taken to build a much newer bigger church across the road.

In another improbability Old St Mary’s makes an appearance in a minor classic of American literature. Edgar Allan Poe plundered his memories of attending church services there in his doppelganger story ‘William Wilson’. He attended Manor House boarding school in Stoke Newington for 8 years from 1815 until 1823 and drew on his recollections of the school, the church and the village as background for his story. He describes how twice a day on Sundays, the boarders “were paraded in the same formal manner to the morning and evening service in the one church of the village. Of this church the principal of our school was pastor. With how deep a spirit of wonder and perplexity was I wont to regard him from our remote pew in the gallery, as, with step solemn and slow, he ascended the pulpit! This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powdered, so rigid and so vast, -- -could this be he who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian laws of the academy?”


I have been reading Thomas W. Laqueur’s book “The Work Of The Dead” with great pleasure. One of the many things I have learnt from it is that the churchyard in the well known Victorian painting ‘The Doubt: Can These Dry Bones Live?’ by Henry Alexander Bowler was Old St Mary’s.  Laqueur merely mentions the fact in passing but I was curious about the circumstances which led Bowler to Stoke Newington and this particular churchyard and tried to find out more.  I have drawn a complete blank and not even able to verify from any other source even the bare fact of the churchyard in the painting being  St Mary’s. Lacqueur’s extensive end notes give no clue to his source for this information. I have started to  have doubts even though I desperately want it to be true. The church in the background of the painting is clearly built of brick. Old St Mary’s is also built of brick but in the 1820’s virtually the whole of the exterior was rendered in 4 inch thick cement to make it look like stone; Bowler didn’t paint his picture until the 1850’s, he wasn’t born until 1824 by which time the brickwork had already disappeared. Whether it is true or not what Laqueur has to say about the picture is interesting:

When an important nineteenth-century painter takes on the subject of mortality and immortality, the scene is set in a churchyard, not a cemetery. There were no bodies evident in the latter. Henry Alexander Bowler’s The Doubt: ‘Can These Dry Bones Live?’ was painted in 1855 as a meditation on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. A young woman is standing amidst the genteel disrepair of what appears to be a substantial country churchyard (but actually is the churchyard of the London suburb of Stoke Newington). The box tomb on her right has lost its siding, exposing the brick vault beneath; this is the sort of shelter that sparked late eighteenth-century litigation, an effort that went against the nature of the place, that somehow tried to bring order to an individual grave by claiming for it a permanence that some opposed. The stone behind her has sunk almost out of sight; further back, an old-fashioned and short-lived grave board with elaborately carved posts running laterally along the body beneath is visible among a picturesque array of variously angled slabs. She rests her arms on the gravestone of John Faithful and looks onto the disturbed earth of the grave—there is no hint why it is in this condition, but it is almost a trope of churchyard representation. More specifically, she contemplates the skull that is lying there and the femur and bits of ribs that are poking out of the ground. This would have been unthinkable in the new regime of the cemetery. The red brick buttresses and a few windows of the church building itself stand out as if to make the point of a historical continuity of the Christian community of the living and the dead, represented by the field of markers in various stages of decay—its past, by the church that serves the living, and by the visit itself. John Faithful died in 1791, and the woman’s costume makes clear that the scene we are witnessing occurred sixty years later, in the 1850s.

The stark fact of death is counterpoised with the promise of everlasting life: I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE, it says on Faithful’s stone, which we, but not the young woman, see; RESURGAM (I shall rise again) is written on the slab nestled in the ground at the foot of a large, very much alive and growing chestnut tree. Although topologically specific, the painting’s landscape, like that in Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego or the imagined landscape where Ezekiel confronted “dry bones,” is prototypical: the universal country churchyard.




The churchyard’s best grave is this late 18th century one with double skulls. The inscription is so worn as to be almost completely illegible; the last three letters of the surname appear to be WEB so I would guess the owner was a Webster. The skulls have also been ravaged by inclement weather and acid rain and now look more like a pair of bleached fossil Australopithecine craniums than anything human.