Friday, 22 September 2017

'East End Jewish Cemeteries' by Louis Berk (Amberley Books) £14.99



The often tiny Jewish cemeteries dotted around the east end are exotic vestiges of a London’s lost Mitteleuropan past.  Surrounded by high plain brick walls and tucked away on odd scraps of land, the rows of weathered headstones inscribed with Hebrew script are often completely hemmed in by blocks of flats, warehouses, schools, factories and other utilitarian buildings. Fear of vandalism ensures their doors and gates remain locked and visiting discouraged by the need to make appointments with impossible to locate officials from the synagogue.  With no burials and few visitors they quickly revert to nature; trees and shrubs grow from windblown seeds, grass and weeds flourish and foxes, birds take up residence in the hidden piece of countryside in the centre of the city. In a celebrated and evocative passage in Austerlitz W.G. Sebald describes perfectly the slightly otherworldly atmosphere of these cemeteries when the eponymous hero offers the narrator the use of his house and insists that he;
 
...should not omit.. to ring the bell at the gateway in the brick wall adjoining his house for behind the wall, although he had never been able to see it from any of his windows, there was a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried ever since the eighteenth century, including Rabbi David Tevele Schiff and Rabbi Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London. He had discovered the cemetery, from which, as he now suspected, the moths used to fly into his house.…only a few days before he left London, when the gate in the wall stood open for the first time in all the years he had lived in Alderney Street. Inside, a very small, almost dwarf-like woman of perhaps seventy years old – the cemetery caretaker, as it turned out – was walking along the paths in her slippers. Beside her, almost as tall as she was, walked a Belgian sheepdog now grey with age who answered to the name of Billie and was very timid. In the bright spring light, shining through the newly opened leaves of the lime trees, you might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time…..
Austerlitz would have approved of Louis Berk’s five year project to document the changing seasons in the Brady Street and Alderney Road burial grounds. The photographer is also a secondary school teacher who has worked in Whitechapel, on Brady Street, since 2004. He was unaware of the existence of the burial ground until he was idly staring out of a second storey window at work one afternoon and realised that he was looking into a cemetery. As the place was always locked he expected never to get inside but then one day he heard contractors at work in the cemetery he knocked on the door and asked if he could look around.  The workman allowed him in and from that moment he was smitten “It was as though I had entered a country forest in the middle of Whitechapel, complete with a fox which loped down a path ahead of me. Grabbing my camera I took snapshots of headstones with intricate carvings as I wandered beneath the cool green canopy overhead.” He approached the cemetery owners, the United Synagogue of Great Britain, and asked them to allow him regular access to carry out a project to capture the graveyard over the course of a year, photographing it in every season.  His first winter on the project failed to provide weather cold enough to produce snowfall. He had to wait almost three years in fact for a suitably photogenic dusting of ice and snow. He was eventually asked by the Synagogue to photograph their older burial plot in Alderney Road.
 
 
Berk’s photographs are mainly taken on film using a medium format camera. In the spring and summer shots the graves are enclosed in a world of green; grass and flowers carpet the ground and a canopy of leaves occludes sun and sky.  In one of my favourite images across almost half the photo sycamore leaves hang like a diagonal swag of heavy curtain parting to allow a view of a row of chest tombs in the foreground and trees in the distance, evoking a closed, secret world. The trees keep the outside world at bay, the buildings that surround the cemetery are effectively invisible and although photographs are silent, the silence feels like part of the image, the trees are muffling the noise of trains and traffic in the surrounding streets.  In other pictures the trees stand like sentinels, huddling over the fragile headstones, protecting them from the elements. In the winter shots the denuded trees open up the photographic space and the cemetery becomes resolutely urban. In the backgrounds of the pictures we can blocks of council flats or the concrete towers of the Crossrail station being built a few hundred yards away. If the urban invades, so does the sky, the hemmed in space finally opening up to the sun. There is a beautiful shot of the sun rising into a sky that is a network of skeletal trees, flaring above a collection of grey headstones that look as monumental as Stonehenge from the low angle the shot is taken from. The natural world is everywhere in these images; trees, flowers, berries, a thrush perched on a headstone, fox tracks in the snow.  But they are also a matchless documentary record of the lost world of the Jewish east end, the physical traces of which continue to be eroded and destroyed and will eventually disappear altogether. If the anyone needed reminding of this one the photographs shows two Hebrew inscribed headstones, the russet coloured stone green with lichen with a block of late Victorian workers  dwellings in the background. The stones are no more; shortly after Berk photographed them a falling tree smashed both into irreparable fragments.      
 

East End Jewish Cemeteries by Louis Berk (with an introduction to the history of the cemeteries by Rachel Kolsky) is available from Amazon and directly from the author      

 
All photography copyright 2017 Louis Berk 

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Archaeologists and the Archbishop's teeth; Arthur Richard Dillon (1721 - 1806) Old St Pancras Burial Ground

The entry in the St Pancras burial register for Arthur Richard Dillon
It is odd that a French Catholic Archbishop fleeing from anti-clerical persecution in revolutionary France took up residence in Protestant England. Even odder that he came from a notorious family of Jacobites who were close to the exiled Old and Young Pretenders. In 1806 The London Review reported the death on 5 July  “at his house in George Street, Portman Square, [of] Arthur Richard Dillon, archbishop and duke of Narbonne, primate of the Gauls, president of the states of Languedoc, and commander of the order of the Holy Ghost.”  Archbishop Dillon had been living in exile for 15 years. With no official Catholic cemetery to bury him in he was interred in St Pancras burial ground which had become the favoured final resting place for the dead émigré community.


Arthur Richard Dillon, a portrait in the Narbonne archives

The Archbishop was the youngest of the five sons of Arthur Dillon of Roscommon and Catherine Sheldon who was from a prominent English Jacobite family. Arthur the father was a Jacobite General who had been forced into French exile at the age of 21 following the defeat of the Irish Jacobites at Limerick by William of Orange. In France he became a Maréchal de camp in the French army and encouraged his sons to follow him into the military. Arthur Richard, as the youngest, was the token clergymen. He became Bishop of Evreux by the age of 32 and Archbishop of Toulouse by 37. He was what is euphemistically known as a ‘worldly prelate’. In public terms this meant he was far more interested in temporal matters like public works than spiritual ones. He was keen on engineering and sponsored various bridges, canals, and harbours within his diocese as well as creating chairs of chemistry and physics at Montpellier and Toulouse Universities.

In his private life the Archbishop was devoted to the hunt, financially extravagant and, by all accounts, the lover of his widowed niece Madame de Roche (his sister’s daughter). The celebrated memoirist of the ancient regime, Lucie de La Tour du Pin, was the granddaughter of Madame de Roche and great niece of the Archbishop. Her memoirs paint a vivid portrait of life in her grandmother’s houses; the hotel de Roche in the Faubourg St-Germain and the Château Hautefontaine. Lucie noted that her great uncle had lived with her grandmother “for twenty years without paying a sou of rent to his niece” and commented that “the archbishopric of Narbonne, which paid him 250,000 francs a year, he had an abbey which was worth 110,000; still another which was worth 90,000; and he received an allowance of more than 50,000 francs for giving dinners every day during the meetings of the States. It would seem that with such an income he should have been able to live honourably and at his ease, but nevertheless he was always in financial difficulties.” She also remarked that he spent as little time as possible on his official duties in the provinces, preferring to return as quickly as possible to the Faubourg St-Germain “in order to live en grand seigneur at Paris and as a courtier at Versailles.” Lucie passed discretely over the exact state of relations between the Archbishop and her grandmother but did say that he was “dominated and influenced” by her and even that he “feared my grandmother too much.”
 

The Archbishop's teeth

Following the revolution the Archbishop fled France and the guillotine with his niece and in 1792 took up residence in London in a series of relatively modest rented houses until his death in 1806. His body lay undisturbed through the first set of exhumations from St Pancras when a large part of the burial ground was taken over by the Midland Railway Company for the mainline into St Pancras. He was not so lucky in 2006 when a team of archaeologists working for the firms Giffords and Pre-Construct were given a year to exhume 1,500 bodies that were buried in the way of a proposed Channel Tunnel Rail Link platform. The Archbishop was discovered inside a lead lined and lavishly engraved coffin. Sitting securely in his skull was a pair of almost perfectly preserved Sèvres porcelain false teeth complete with gold springs. The dentures were of exceptional quality and are believed to be the work of the Parisian dentist Nicolas Dubois de Chémant. The Archbishop’s remains were sent briefly to East Finchley Cemetery before arrangements were made to repatriate them to France. In 2007 the Archbishop was reinterred, with great ceremony, in the Narbonne Cathedral. His dentures however remained in England. They were put on public display on World Smile Day in October 2006 at the Museum of London. In 2008 they found a permanent home in the Cobbe Museum. 
Archbishop Dillon  is one of the 'illustrious dead' commemorated on the Burdett Coutts sundial in St Pancras Gardens.  
 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Preserving God's Acre - the Burdett Coutts Memorial Sundial, St Pancras Gardens

The Burdett Coutts Memorial sundial with St Pancras Hospital (the old workhouse) in the background

The Baroness Burdett Coutts and the St. Pancras-gardens. — The special committee for the laying-out of the old St. Pancras and St. Giles-in-the- fields burying grounds as gardens have reported to the vestry that the Baroness Burdett Coutts had evinced her great interest by erecting a marble monument to preserve the head stone originally standing over the grave of John Walker, author of ‘Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary’; also that they had approved of a very handsome design for a memorial sundial to be erected by her ladyship to the memory of the illustrious dead lying in the grounds, at a cost probably exceeding £3,000. The committee reported further that the sum of £1,000, presented by the baroness, had been expended in the erection of a green- house, in accordance with the suggestion of her ladyship. The report was approved on the motion of Mr Westacott, chairman of the committee.
Morning Post - Friday 21 December 1877


In 1866 when the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles sold portions of their burial ground to the Midland Railway Company it caused a huge controversy (see ‘Horrible Desecration of the Dead at St Pancras’). Eight years, in 1874, the controversy flared up again when the Railway Company approached the St Pancras vestry and enquired if they were willing to sell the reminder of the cemetery. The resulting public outcry was so great that the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles decided not to proceed with the sale but instead to turn the land into a public garden. They even voted on spending £1000 of the vestry’s own money to lay out the grounds. But when it was decided that to properly enclose the proposed garden some residential property adjoining the burial grounds consisting of 4 houses and 5 cottages belonging to the St Giles vestry needed to be included in the plans the vicar of St Giles withdrew the vestry’s permission; he felt that the property was worth at least £5000 but the committee was only proposing to pay a £1500 in compensation.  When the matter ended up in the courts the Midland Railway Company spotted a chance to get its bid for the burial ground back onto the negotiating table and also started proceedings questioning the legality of the decision taken to open a public garden. The Railway Company used its political influence to get the Government to propose a Midland Bill, granting the company use of the land. At a fraught meeting of the ratepayers of the two vestries, supporters and detractors of the bill argued ferociously about what should happen to the remainder of the burial ground. Many resident ratepayers were in favour of selling to the railway company because the grounds would no longer be their financial responsibility. Others, many with family members buried in the churchyard, demanded that the desecration of the dead at the hands of the railway company stop. The Government finally settled the question by convening a public enquiry chaired by Philip Holland, Medical Inspector of Burials at the Home Office. After duly hearing the evidence Holland determined in favour of the public garden. 



One of those who took a fervent interest in the future of the disused burial grounds was the philanthropist Baroness Burdett Coutts who felt that as they were “no longer used for their original purpose, they have lost the protection of the living, without securing the sanctity that should protect the dead.” In a letter she later wrote to the vestry of St Pancras she goes into some detail about her motivation for involving herself in the preservation of London’s old burial grounds, explaining that “the feelings and reflections which even an unnamed tombstone is calculated to excite …. would be lost if the graves of the dead were obliterated from the land, for a number of stones huddled together, possibly as carefully as circumstances permitted, cannot convey the same feelings as does a grave, even to the least reflective mind. The mere fact of closing over and stamping out of remembrance the dead renders them lifeless indeed and denies to their memory those tender and salutary lessons so often given in the quiet of ' God's acres.'” The Baroness was determined that the garden should be a memorial to the dead interred there and that it should preserve the principal tombstones and key features of the burial ground. She funded works to conserve headstones and to landscape the gardens but her most lasting contribution to the project was the enormous sundial dedicated to the memory of the illustrious dead placed at the heart of the garden.




St Pancras Gardens were opened to the public by Sir James McFarel-Hogg, chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works on the 28th June 1877, at a ceremony during which Baroness Burdett Coutts laid the foundation stone of the planned memorial sundial. It wasn’t until two years later, on the 8th November 1879, that the Morning Post were able to report, at length on the elaborate unveiling ceremony for the sundial itself, held the previous day: “Yesterday afternoon, in the presence of an immense concourse of persons, consisting of the local authorities and the inhabitants of the surrounding district, a very interesting ceremony took place at what is known as the St. Pancras-gardens, formerly the burial grounds of Old St. Pancras and St. Giles's-in- the- Fields, situated in the St. Pancras-road. The occasion was the presentation to the vicar, churchwardens and vestry of St. Pancras of what is termed a memorial sundial, an exceedingly chaste and beautiful, as well as novel -structure, standing upwards of 30 feet in height, and erected at the expense of the Baroness Burdett Coutts at a cost of upwards of two thousand pounds.” The Baroness and her party of ten arrived at the entrance to the gardens at 3.10 to be met by the vicar of St Pancras, the reverend Canon Spence, Sir Thomas Chambers the recorder of London, and the churchwardens, vestry members and board members of St Pancras.  The two parties made their way to the front of the memorial enclosure where the Baroness produced a key to the gates and ‘ventured to offer a few observations’ before handing them over. She offered sincere congratulations to all present for having rescued “the ancient resting for the dead…from the dilapidation and the desecration which at one time threatened it.” She said that the churchyard of St Pancras deserved particular consideration “for it contained the remains of some of the most eminent men of the age in which they lived, and if it were only for the fact that it contained the bones of that great man, Flaxman, who had done so much to impress upon the human mind all that was beautiful, it would have been worth preserving. That burial spot was an evidence at once of the history of religious toleration in this country, as exhibited in the fact that not only Christians of every creed and of every faith, but even those who did not profess themselves to be within the pale of Christianity, could be laid to rest side by side in their mother earth.” As the English like nothing better than to be told how tolerant they are this last remark was greeted with cries of “hear, hear.” This only encourage the Baroness to further remarks which I won’t go into except to say that she did tell her audience that she thought the memorial, which she was seeing for the first time, was “exceedingly beautiful.” To loud applause from her restive audience she finally handed over the keys to the enclosure to the Rev. Canon Spence who immediately tried their patience by launching into a eulogy of his own. He told the Baroness that he wished she had had an opportunity to see “the happy children and the anxious mothers lining the paths of that God's Acre enjoying the fresh air of the previous evening.” He told the Baroness how indebted the poor of the parish were to the vestry for the chance to enjoy a green space and to the Baroness for taking an interest in their welfare (more cries of ‘hear, hear’ but probably not from the parish poor). The Baroness and principal company then inspected the memorial, the architect George Highton being on hand to point out the key features. Inspection over the Rev. Canon Spence offered up a prayer and the outdoor part of the ceremony was concluded with the children of local schools singing ‘God Save the Queen’. The ‘immense concourse’ of local (poor) persons were then dismissed while the quality adjourned to the vestry hall for a

banquet.


The sundial was designed by the architect George Highton of Elm Park, Brixton and built by Messrs H. Daniel & Co. of Highgate. Cast iron railings enclose. According to Building News of 07 November 1877 “the superstructure, which is in the Early Decorated style, consists mainly of Portland stone with four marble tablets, and clustered granite columns at the angles. The tablets are surmounted with reliefs representing St. Pancras and St. Giles, also Night and Morning, by Signer Fucigna. On the tablet under the dial are inscribed the Beatitudes…. The terraces, which are constructed to form flower-beds, are mainly of red Mansfield stone, worked at the quarries. The panels of the two upper terrace tiers contain flowers — with butterflies as the emblem of immortality — in mosaics; the top one has panels in relief, representing the four seasons, by Messrs. Wills, of Euston-road. The bottom tier panels are also in mosaics. The whole of the mosaics have been executed by Messrs. Simpson and Sons, of St. Martin’s-lane. The whole is in-closed by kerb and iron railing and gates; the latter by the St. Pancras Iron Works Company.” Standing at the corners of the enclosure are Portland stone statues, two dogs and two lions. The four faces of the central shaft contain panels listing the names of the illustrious dead who were interred in the two old burial grounds. There are some omissions; William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, quite possibly the two most famous people buried here do not rate a mention, almost certainly because they were radicals and freethinkers. The panel of the south west side, facing the entrance to the gardens, contains a lengthy verse dedication which starts:
Here in Christ’s acre where this dial stands,
With pious care and borne by reverent hands,
Lone wanderers garnered in from east and west
Among the home-loved lie in solemn rest;
Severed in life by lineage, race, faith, clime
They bide alike the last soft stroke of time

The sundial is in the gable above this panel with an inscription which reads TEMPUS EDAX RERUM; time devours all things. The other panels list the eminent dead whose graves had been disturbed by the railway company, 86 names in total including Sir John Soane, Baroness Burdett Coutts’ favourite sculptor John Flaxman, Pasquale Paoli the liberator of Corsica, Sidly Effendi the Turkish Ambassador, the crossdressing swordsman the Chevalier D’Eon, John Walker author of the Pronouncing Dictionary, and Tiberius Cavallo the Italian natural philosopher.      

Contemporary illustration of the memorial from the 'Building News' of 7 November 1877




Controversies over the routing of train lines through cemeteries did not end in the era of Victorian railway expansion. The issue has flared up again in the 21st century because of the Channel Tunnel rail link, Crossrail, HS1 and HS2. Both HS projects as well as the Channel Tunnel rail link have affected the disused burial grounds lying just to the north of King Cross, St Pancras and Euston stations. In 2002 the Channel Tunnel rail link cut through land containing, according to English Heritage, around 4000 graves from the Old St Pancras burial ground, the bodies were to be reinterred in a mass grave in the new St Pancras cemetery in Finchley.  Archaeologists were given a relatively short period of time to examine the graves and remove what humans remains were left and protested vociferously when they were unceremoniously kicked off site when they overran their allotted time. They accused the rail company of coming in with bulldozers to dig up old graves. Amongst the archaeologists finds were the Archbishop of Narbonne’s false teeth. This indignity had nothing to do with the 2012 Archbishops Council petition to parliament against the HS2 bill to include a cause allowing for the dignified removal of human remains from cemeteries lying on the route of the new line. In London St James’ Gardens, the site of the former disused burial ground of St James in Piccadilly, lie directly on the new route and was scheduled to be cleared. The old burial ground lies in St Pancras Parish and the latest incumbent, the Reverend Anne Stevens, who feels she still has a duty to care for the souls of the 35,000 people she believes are buried there, led a protest against the proposals in November 2015. All to no avail, the old burial ground was cleared by the railway company in the months that followed.