Friday, 21 September 2018

Deer stalking at Brookwood Cemetery

Visiting Brookwood Cemetery I did not expect to spend almost as much of my time deer stalking as grave hunting. It had been a last minute decision to go to Woking; I’d actually planned to spend the afternoon at Kensal Green. I had wanted a day off work but couldn’t get the morning because of a meeting I absolutely had to attend. On the way to the office I received a message saying the meeting was cancelled, my boss let me take the whole day off and I swiftly rejigged my plans to take advantage of the extra half day. It was a glorious late summer day. The sun was shining in a cloudless blue sky but luckily a breeze kept the temperature from rising too steeply.  I wasn’t really suitably dressed for a day out in the country, being in a black pin stripe suit. In the cemetery I could have easily been taken for an undertaker I suppose.

Uniquely I think, in Britain at least, Brookwood has its own train station, reached directly from Waterloo (making my way to the train I was swimming against the tide of commuters pouring along the platform on their way to their offices, shops and other places of relentless wage slavery). I was only the only person who got out there. The cemetery is huge and not quite what I expected. I’ll write about it in another post. Just before lunchtime whilst I was taking photos of a mausoleum, from the corner of my eye I caught something moving swiftly out of clump of bushes. I looked up to see the back end of a roebuck disappearing amongst a group of tall headstones. I was mildly surprised but not tempted, at that point, to try and follow. An hour later I was sitting on a tree stump in the sunshine, my jacket off and draped over a funeral urn, eating a sandwich when I saw the deer trot briskly over the road in front of me and take cover under some trees. I stuffed the last of my sandwich in my mouth and threw on my jacket before setting off in pursuit. I cornered my quarry standing next to a road sign announcing St Chads Avenue. As I crept up, telephoto in trembling hand, he watched me nonchalantly over his shoulder, even letting me take a couple of shots before bounding off. For the rest of the afternoon our paths crossed at various times and when they did I trailed my fleet four footed acquaintance as best I could. He gradually started to get used to me I think. He certainly realised I didn’t move quickly enough to pose any sort of threat. He wasn’t dealing with a young Finn Mac Cool who could outrun a deer and wrestle them to the ground before finishing them off with his knife.  After a while he didn’t even bother running from me. When he was tired of my presence a brisk trot was enough to leave me gasping for breath in his wake. But he was pretty tolerant and would stand there watching me creep up on him, nose and scut twitching in unison, posing when I paused to take pictures. In the late afternoon two deer broke across the path in front of me. I thought they were two does at first but 10 minutes later I stumbled across the roebuck in the company of a doe so I must have been mistaken. She took off as soon as she caught sight of me but he stood his ground, allowing me to get my best picture of the afternoon (the one at the top of this post if you aren't sure which one I'm referring to).

Roe deer are not unusual in cemeteries either in the UK or in the United States. In the UK they have been spotted in cemeteries from Sussex and the South coast all the way up to the Glasgow Necropolis. Old cemeteries with their patches of woodland mixed with carefully maintained lawn make ideal habitats. Flowers left on graves are an added attraction. Roe deer love cut flowers, particularly roses. In some places they are considered a pest because of their pilfering of funeral flowers.   In Dufftown, in Moray, home of the Glenfiddich distillery, residents are furious with the local roe deer who brazenly filch flowers from Mortlach cemetery. Some of them demand that the local council take tough action the borough’s cervids. Miss Ross, the village florist (Rustic and Roses on Fife Street), says that her customers “come in and tell us with disappointment that flowers bought from us have been eaten, sometimes on the day they have been put down. It is very upsetting, and it costs a lot of money.” She has been using a special spray on her floral tributes, meant to deter rabbits but so far it has been a losing battle. Moray council has however responded to the clamour for action from the community.  A spokeswoman confirmed that requests for teeth proof metal cages to protect floral tributes can be made through local funeral directors and will be supplied free by the council.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Charity Begins at Home; Miriam Levy (1800-1850), Jewish Cemetery, Brady Street

James Aspinall Turner MP: “All that you infer from this transaction is, that Mr. Levy is a very sharp man of business?”
George Ramsay, Assistant Director of Stores and Clothing: “Very.”

Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of the Store and Clothing Depôts at Weedon, Woolwich, and the Tower (1859)

This is the only memorial singled out for attention in Brady Street in the London East volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England.  The cemetery is, according to Pevsner, “crowded with mainly later Victorian monuments, some of considerable lavishness (e.g. that of Hannah Levy, c1850)…" Although he seems to have muddled up Miriam Levy and Hannah Rothschild, the date indicates that he is definitely referring to the Levy memorial. In truth the monument erected by the middle class rag merchant Moses Levy for his wife is considerably more lavish than the relatively plain identical double chest tombs of the multi millionaire banker and financier Nathan Meyer Rothschild and his wife Hannah. Sharman Kadish in Jewish Heritage in Britain (2006) points out that the memorial has “a very rare Jewish example of a bust of a woman: Miriam, wife of Moses Levy, identified as Miriam Levy 1801-1856, a welfare worker who opened the first soup kitchens in the East End. Her tomb is in the form of a square obelisk with four faces, decorated with figurative reliefs.” We know very little about Miriam Levy but whenever she, or the memorial, is mentioned it is obligatory to say that she was a welfare worker who opened the ‘first kitchen for the poor in Whitechapel.’ Some extend her charity work to ‘the sick and mothers in confinement’, quite possibly assuming she was also responsible for the founding of the former Jewish Maternity Hospital in Spitalfields, popularly known as Mother Levy’s nursing home. In fact there is little evidence to suggest that she was a charity worker, and the respected Cemetery Scribes website, which has investigated the claims remarks that ‘her much vaunted connection to the founding of the Jewish Soup Kitchen still eludes us.’ As the mother of ten children who died at the relatively early age of 50 it is difficult to imagine her ever finding sufficient time to spare from the demands of husband and offspring to feed or nurse the deserving poor of Whitechapel.

The inscriptions on the memorial are in English and Hebrew. The much eroded English is just about decipherable:  Beneath this monument .. deposited the remains of Miriam the beloved wife of Moses Levy Esquire of [L]..[r]oke Terrace, Notting Hill ....... who .. her .. life .. on the .. of November AM ..[5]. 561[6] in her fiftieth year of her age. This monument is erected by her disconsolate husband may her soul rest in peace.
The Hebrew Inscription (courtesy of CemeteryScribes) is a little more effusive and interestingly contains a discrepancy in her age with the English version: 'The tombstone of a pleasant woman; beloved of her husband and of her children too [alt. and a jewel to her children]; departed her home to the deep distress of the husband of her youth and all her family; she is Miriam bat Mr. Yekutiel, the wife of Mr. Moshe bar Eliezer; passed away on Monday 2nd Kislev and buried on Wednesday the 4th inst.; and her husband ,descendants and all her family will deeply mourn for; and "the days of her life" were fifty five years.'
Moses Levy was born in Aldgate c1790, the son of Eliezer and Rosetta Levy who were almost certainly born somewhere in Eastern Europe. Moses was in his fifties before he appears in civic records. In the 1841 census he gives his occupation as rag merchant and he lives with his wife (whose name was recorded as Mary) 9 children (Hannah, Israel, John, Rosetta, Isaac, Sarah, Lewis, Isabella and Rebecca) and one, overworked, servant, Martha Dunstan, in Gravel Lane, E1. As Moses’ business premises are known to have been at 109 Gravel Lane it seems likely that the family effectively lived ‘above the shop’. By the time of the 1851 census there had been something of a miraculous change in fortune for this Jewish East End family. 4 of the children were no longer living with their parents and Miriam had given birth to another daughter, Matilda, in 1844. Moses’ now gave his occupation as the respectable sounding Government Contractor rather than rag merchant and the family was living at Highbury House in Lavender Hill, a house large enough to be called a mansion, in what was then the Surrey countryside. The 3 live in servants now included a coachman!  

How did Moses change his fortunes around? On 28 June 1858 the Tory MP  for Chippenham, Henry George Boldero, an ex army man who was still referred to by Hansard as Colonel Bordero, stood up in the House and ‘humbly addressed’ Her Majesty (in the form of Her Government) to institute a Royal Commission looking at the War Department’s clothing establishment at Weedon.  One of the scandals of the recently ended Crimean War had been the inadequately clothed soldiers and the suffering caused as a result during the severe winter weather conditions in the Caucasus. Formerly regimental Colonels had been responsible for kitting out their own troops with funds supplied by the army. Almost all of them took a cut, larger or smaller, from the money that was supposed to be used for their solder’s kit. A new system was introduced after the war with the Government taking charge of procurement. Unfortunately the new arrangements seemed as prone to financial leakage and irregularities as the old and no doubt Colonel Boldero was pleased to be able to outline the intelligence he had received about the behaviour of War Department Officials, particularly the Assistant Director of Stores and Clothing at Weedon Army Barracks and Government contractors. The substance of Colonel Boldero’s allegations were that George Ramsay, the Assistant Director, was disposing of ‘surplus’ stock to contractors at a loss to the army which then bought back some of the same stock making a double loss for the army and an instant profit for the contractor and, by implication, George Ramsey himself.   According to Hansard he told the house “during the years 1856–7, 800,000 pairs of boots had been received at Weedon, and that 170,000 pairs had been disposed of, but where they had gone to it was impossible to ascertain. A person named Levi, who had made a large fortune, and who was rather shy about coming forward to give evidence, had stated that he had bought 50,000 pairs, and that he had paid for them at an auction at the rate of only about 5s. 5d., notwithstanding that they had cost the Government from 8s. 6d. to 8s. 9d. per pair. Those boots bought at 5s. 5½d. had been resold to persons who were in the habit of contracting for the army, and one of the witnesses who had been examined had honestly stated that he had supplied five militia regiments with some of the boots thus cheaply purchased, and that the Government had paid for them at the rate of 12s. a pair.”   

Rather surprisingly Lord Palmerston’s Whig administration listened to Colonel Boldero and appointed a three man Royal Commission to look into the “state of the Store and Clothing Depôts at Weedon, Woolwich, and the Tower.”  The chairman was Henry James Selfe, barrister, metropolitan police magistrate, and, in his spare time, a dedicated chess player supported by James Aspinall Turner a Manchester cotton manufacturer, Whig MP and amateur entomologist. Turner’s close cross examination of Moses Levy was reported in detail in the Times and other newspapers. In his evidence he reported that he was living at 2 Stanhope Terrace, Hyde Park, and confirmed that his place of business was 109 Gravel Lane, Houndsditch.  He was asked about the purchase of 20,000 pairs of boots which it was claimed he had bought in 1856 from Weedon and which had then turned up at the Tower of London having been bought back by the army in November and December 1856. Moses denied having bought any army surplus boots in 1856 but said that he had bought a consignment of boots that had come from Deptford in July 1857, which he had sold onto a Mr Shaw, and which may perhaps had been purchased by the army from him.  He admitted that he sometimes made mutual arrangements with other contractors not to bid for certain consignments, effectively eliminating competition and keeping the price low. Though he denied buying boots at the Tower he admitted buying 20,000 yards of Oxford Gray cloth at 2 shillings 8 pence a yard from a friend who had bought at 2 shillings 7 and a half pence a yard from the army. He then sold it on to Gilpin the army clothier in Northumberland Street at a price ‘he was not dissatisfied with.’ He did not see anything wrong with the transaction, ‘it was very good cloth and ought not, in his judgement, have been sold. He did not see why the War Department authorities could not have made use of it.’  Mr Turner, the Cotton manufacturer, remarked that the impropriety was not in the witness who bought the cloth, but in it having been to the Tower for sale in the first place. Mr Selfe, who clearly fancied himself a wag, said that the cloth ‘was such as might have been available for the Irish people if it had not been made into trowsers for soldiers.’ The court dutifully laughed, perhaps even Moses raised a smile. After some further questioning by the Chairman during which Moses insisted that he had always bought his goods from the army ‘fairly and honestly in open competition’ and that he ‘was sometimes a loser and at others a gainer’ from his business dealings with the war office. No action was ever taken against him.

I found one other reference to Moses Levy of Gravel Lane in the newspapers. In July 1858 the Nottinghamshire Guardian ran the following intriguing piece:
The London Old Clothes Market.— Mr. Moses Levy of Gravel Lane, Houndsditch, London, has written the history of the Old Clothes .Market, about which the common council of the city have lately made so much noise. Mr. Levy states that this famous mart has existed upwards of a century; but that a few years since, in order to protect the poor dealers from the inclemency of the weather, he was induced by several benevolent members of the Hebrew race to erect a covered building for the use of these small traders in cast off garments, and the mart was removed from Petticoat Lane. Mr. Levy believes there is no discredit attached to the proprietorship of this famous institution; and having incurred a heavy risk in its construction, he does not think he ought to be deprived of the results of what the guardians of public morality lately viewed as a social convenience. He says: — "There are many ‘vested rights’, neither so well founded nor so necessary to the community, concerning which the common council have called out very loudly lately ; but he hopes it will not be forgotten that there is a class of persons— nay, if you so please, the lowest of the low— for whom such a market is — sad though it be to say so — an actual necessity . How the poor live, and how they are clothed, is one of the mysteries of London life. That mystery is solved only by those who are compelled to know thoroughly the Clothes Market in Houndsditch."

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Jewish Cemetery, Brady Street, E1

‘The old Jewish cemeteries are small secretive places, a few acres hidden by high walls and locked doors, often cheek by jowl with new buildings and identified from outside only by the trees that overhang walls topped with broken glass. Brady Street is an oasis in a wilderness of East End urban desolation comprised of waste land and forbidding council flat blocks.’
Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons “London Cemeteries.”
I am not at all happy with the photographs I took on a recent visit to at the Jewish Cemetery in Brady Street, they are truly a substandard crop.  There are two reasons for my disappointment and I hold Louis Berk responsible for both.  Firstly my visit was short, coming at the tail end of a guided walk by Louis through Whitechapel. To be fair he allowed us to wander around the cemetery for much longer than the 20 minutes allotted in the walk timetable but it wasn’t enough for me. I can’t take photographs in a hurry, I need to wander around a site, gradually circling my subject until I find the right angle and then make increasingly miniscule and painstaking adjustments to angle, aperture, exposure etc until I think I might have done enough to get a decent shot. I often end up with 10 almost identical shots of the same subject but that’s the digital revolution for you; only professionals or the extremely wealthy could have afforded to be so meticulous in the age of the film camera. The time available during our visit to Brady Street was too short to indulge in photographic fussiness of this sort and therefore I am convinced I somehow managed to miss out on some great shots. The second reason for the dissatisfaction with my pictures is that last year Louis published a beautiful book of his own photographs taken during a five year project to document Brady Street. Even if I had five years I’m not sure I could come up with anything to rival Louis’ shots so maybe he did me a favour keeping the visit down to a mere 40 minutes.

I was grateful to get into Brady Street at all. These closed Jewish cemeteries in the East End can be difficult to access and I had long wanted to visit here and Alderney Road. In 1761 the New Synagogue helds its first services in hired premises in the Bricklayers Hall, Leadenhall Street. That same year the synagogue trustees leased a former brickfield in Ducking Pond Lane, Whitechapel for the sum of 12 guineas a year and opened the East End’s fourth Jewish Cemetery (the Velho cemetery in Mile End Road was opened by the Sephardi community in 1657, Alderney Road, the first Ashkenazi cemetery, was opened by the Great Synagogue in 1691, and the Novo Sephardi cemetery, also in Mile End Road, in 1733). Demand for burial plots was brisk and despite being extended in 1795 space quickly ran out. The cemetery managed to stay in use for close to a century by adopting the expedient of piling a four foot layer of earth to a large central section to allow additional burials (this solution to the problems caused by high demand and restricted space would also be used by both of London’s Catholic cemeteries).  The new area became known as the Stranger’s Mound as many of those buried there were not affiliated to any particular congregation.  The headstone from the older burial was placed back to back with the headstone from the more recent one (a precedent not followed by the Catholics).
The tombs of Nathan Meyer Rothschild and his wife Hannah can be seen at the back of this shot

The crowded cemetery finally closed for burials in 1857 and remained quietly undisturbed and slowly returning to wilderness for over a hundred years. In the 1980’s Tower Hamlets Council began eyeing up any unused plots of land in the borough that looked like that they may have redevelopment potential.  Four acres of walled off brambles, sycamores and  crumbling headstones within a stones throw of the Mile End Road were crying out to be cleared, levelled and have apartment blocks built on them. Brady Street was saved by Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild, one time Labour party peer who later worked for Margaret Thatcher’s government, ex MI5 man, Cambridge Zoologist, head of research at Shell and old friend of Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby (the rumours that he was the ‘fourth man’ in the Cambridge spy ring were scotched when it became clear that that title belong to Blunt, and the speculation that in that case perhaps he was the ‘fifth  man’ similarly died when MI5 belatedly admitted that that was John Cairncross. Eventually it had to be accepted that there might have been at least one person who joined MI5 during the war who didn’t end up spying for the Russians and that that person may well have been Victor Rothschild).  L.B. Tower Hamlets were planning to serve a compulsory purchase order to force the United Synagogue to sell the burial ground as it had not been used for 100 years.  When Victor Rothschild died in 1990 he became the first burial in the cemetery since 1857 and effectively prevented redevelopment of the site for at least another 100 years. His pink granite tomb stands next to his ancestors Nathan Meyer Rothschild and his wife Hannah.    
The grave of Solomon Hirschel
Among the prominent memorials in the cemetery is that of Rabbi Solomon Hirschel, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain from 1802 until his death  in 1842. He was a great friend of Nathan Meyer Rothschild according to Bell’s Weekly Messenger who ran short piece on the pair in August 1836;
The late Mr. Rothschild’s manner of evincing kind feelings towards Soloman Herschel, the Grand Rabbi of Duke’s-place had something in which was both singular and whimsical. When any good speculation was afloat, Mr. Rothschild deposited on Dr. Herschel’s account a certain sum, proportionate to his own risk, and whatever percentage or profit accrued therefrom was carried by him to the Rabbi, to whom he gave a full and true account, even to the utmost fraction, the Millionaire, on such occasions, invariably dined with the Levite, and the day was usually passed by the two friends in innocent hilarity and pleasing conversation.
The Rabbi presided over his friends funeral obsequies when he died of an infected abscess in 1836. Rothschild was fabulously  wealthy (some estimate his fortune to be worth the equivalent of around $450 billion today – though these estimates always have to be taken with a pinch of salt) and his funeral was spectacular.  According to the newspapers “among those present on this solemn occasion was every Hebrew of any respectability in the metropolis, as well as several merchants of eminence in the City, “ and “at least 10,000 persons assembled during the procession.” This set off from St Swithins Lane, close to the Bank of England, at 1.00pm on Monday 1 August, headed by a party of city police 4 abreast with a mounted inspector bringing up the rear.  Next came the beadles of the various synagogues and the hearse and forty mourning carriages containing members of the extended Rothschild clan and their Jewish associates. There were a further 35 carriages belonging to the Lord Mayor and Sheriff of London, foreign ambassadors and British noblemen.  As the procession reached the East End it was joined by numbers of silent children from the Jews Orphan School and the Jewish Free School, staff and patients from the Jew’s Hospital. At Brady Street the funeral service was conducted by Mr Aarons, the burial ground rabbi and by Solomon Hirschel who delivered a eulogy in English.  According to the Bucks Herald:
The body was then removed towards the grave, which near the North West corner of the burial-ground. It is built of brick, is only five or six feet deep, and nearly square. The outer coffin is considerable size, and somewhat different in shape to those generally made in this country. It is made of fine oak, and so handsomely carved and decorated with silver handles at both sides and ends, that it appeared more like a cabinet or splendid piece of furniture than a receptacle for the dead. A raised tablet of oak on the breast is carved with the family arms of the deceased. From its great weight (it was said nearly a ton,) some difficulty was experienced in lowering it into its resting place. This, however, was accomplished, and the four sons of the deceased, performing the last melancholy ceremony of acknowledging the judgement death, which is done throwing three handfuls of earth into the grave and on the coffin, were very much affected, so much so that they were obliged to be supported in its performance.

The Cheltenham Journal and Gloucestershire Fashionable Weekly Gazette of Monday 28 November 1842 carried a quite detailed account of the funeral of Rabbi Herschel:
On Monday, Oct. 31st, Rabbi Solomon Herschel, Chief Rabbi of the German and Polish Jews in England, expired at his residence in Bury-court, St. Mary-axe, after a long and severe illness. He had been confined to his house for the greater part of the two last years of his life, in consequence of an accident which he met with about two years ago, by which his thigh was dislocated…. his mortal remains were deposited in the Jews' Burial ground, in North-street, Mile-end-road. At ten o'clock the body was removed from his late residence, and conveyed on a bier to the synagogue adjoining, where it was received by the Rev. S. S. Ashur, the principal reader, attended by the several readers of the different synagogues of the metropolis. The synagogue was crowded to excess by the most wealthy and influential members of the Jewish persuasion, all of whom were most anxious to offer this last tribute of respect to the worth and talents of the deceased. On the entrance of the hearers with the body, the Rev. S. S. Ashur, commenced the service by saving "This the gate of the Lord into which the righteous shall enter," and preceding the body towards the holy ark, chanted the 15th Psalm. The bier having been deposited front of the ark, the Rev. gentleman, assisted by the choir and the congregation, read the following Psalms, viz., 17th, the 23rd, the 49th, and the 44th Psalms. At the conclusion of this part of the ceremony, the bearers commenced removing, the body for conveyance to the burial ground, during which the reader pronounced several verses  from the Old Testament, and as they drew near the door of the synagogue, said, " Behold his bed, which Is Solomon’s, three-score valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel, they all hold swords  being expert in war, every man hath his sword upon his thigh, because of fear in the night" and concluded with, "The Lord bless thee, and ke ep thee, the Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious onto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." ….The hearse, containing the body , was followed by upwards of 100 carriages filled with the friends of the deceased, and other members of the Jewish persuasion. The private carriages of the Lord Mayor, Mr. Baron Rothschild, Sir Moses Montefiore, and several other gentlemen, closed the mournful cavalcade. On the arrival of the procession at the burial-ground, the body was deposited on a bier at the centre of the synagogue, attended by six boys, holding lighted wax tapers, three on each side the coffin. The Rev. S. S. Ashur, with the other readers, then placed themselves at the feet, and when the whole were commenced reading extracts from the Old Testament after which they performed various circuits round the bier, chanting the 91st Psalm after every circuit. The body was then conveyed to the burial-Ground, preceded by the readers, and the boys holding the lighted candles, and finally deposited in a brick grave, about seven feet in depth, situate about the centre of the ground, and the ceremony being completed, the whole of the friends and attendants retired.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

'Sinners prepare to meet your judge!'; Sarah & John Wheatly (died 1790 and 1823), Bunhill Fields

The Grade II* listed Swithland slate headstone of Sarah and John Wheatly of Ave Maria Lane, EC4 is unusual, perhaps unique, in London; in the midlands however there are thousands of them. It was produced in 1790 and has the original elaborate mason’s signature; J. Winfield of Wimswould (now generally spelt Wymeswold) along the bottom edge.  In his book Of Graves and Epitaphs Kenneth Arthur Lindley notes that ‘the proximity of Swithland and its beautiful slate and the genius of native craftsmen have made Wymeswold churchyard one of the finest in England.’  The town was a centre for production of finely crafted slate products which included sundials, clockfaces, milestones, fireplaces and thousands of headstones. The slate came from quarries in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire and was finely grained, allowing for sharp, detailed, carving. It is a very durable material, making this one of Bunhill’s best preserved memorials.  The lettering and carving are almost pristine, as crisp now as they would have been when John Winfield first chiselled them out 220 years ago.  

Historic England’s official listing of the memorial says that “slate from the Midlands began to be available for use in London in the later C18 due to the growth of the canal network,” implying that the memorial made its way sedately to London along the various braches of the Grand Union Canal but this can’t be correct. When John Winfield completed the headstone in the early 1790’s the canals were not yet built and it must have come the 112 miles from Leicestershire packed carefully in straw on a horse drawn cart.
John Wheatly presumably had Leicestershire connections and either he or Sarah (and quite possibly both) may well have grown up there. When his wife died he commissioned John Winfield to produce this beautiful headstone with its elegant lettering and inset roundel .  As well as such well worn metaphors of mortality as a skull and crossbones (with the word 'mortality' helpfully inscribed across the top of the cranium), a cross, an anchor, a snuffed candle, an urn (‘dust to dust’) a scroll (‘ashes to ashes’) we also have a globe with the words ‘the great globe itself shall dissolve’ which is, of course, a quote from Propero’s speech at the end of ‘The Tempest’:
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The headstone is divided into two equal columns, the one on the left initially being left blank for John Wheatly’s details to be added when he eventually died. The right hand column contains Sarah Wheatly’s details in a variety of flowery and ornate scripts and contains a short devotional verse:
Sinners prepare to meet your judge, your God
His Throne approacheth w[ith] Faith in Jesus Blood
Redemption's only Price, Man's ransom paid
Long in Affliction's Night my Soul allay[e]d:
Triumphing in his Cross, her house of Clay
Now cheerful quits for realms of endless Day

The verse seems to be an original composition albeit cobbled together out of a variety of well worn biblical phrases, perhaps John Wheatly fancied himself a poet? His own epitaph simply records his name and dates of birth and death in a simple copperplate script as though no one could really be bothered to think of anything more to say about the old man when he finally died at the age of 84 in 1823. We don’t know much about John Wheatly. He was a newsvendor who lived at 4 Ave Maria Lane and he was a subscriber to Paul Wright DD’s resoundingly titled The Christian's New and Complete British Family Bible, being a New, Clear, Full, and Universal Exposition and Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Containing the Whole of the Sacred Text of the Holy Bible, as Contained in the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocrypha, at Large. Illustrated with Most Valuable Notes and Annotations, Theological, Critical, Moral, Divine, Historical, Geographical, Systematical, Biographical, Practical, Admonitory, Chronological and Explanatory.  The Wheatly's son Edward took over the family business when John grew too old and infirm to carry it on himself. Other than that his life is a cipher.  
Ave Maria Lane by the way is a street to the west of St. Paul's, an extension of Warwick Lane between Amen Corner and Ludgate Hill.  Tradition has it that on the feast day of Corpus Christi, monks would hold a procession to St Paul’s setting off from Paternoster Row chanting the Lord's Prayer (Pater noster being the opening words of the Latin version of the prayer).  They would reach the final "Amen" as they turned the corner into Ave Maria Lane which to this day is still known as Amen Corner  after which they would chant the Hail Mary, which of course in Latin is Ave Maria.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Entropy sucks; “To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.” Mark O’Connell (Granta £9.99)

‘To be A Machine’, Irish journalist Mark O’Connell’s book on the transhumanist movement, won this year’s Wellcome Book Prize. The chair of Judges, Edmund de Waal called it “a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever. Mark O’Connell brilliantly examines issues of technology and singularity. In doing so he brings into focus timely issues about mortality, what it might mean to be a machine and what it truly means to be human.” It’s also very funny, but we are talking about death, the most fertile ground for comedy after sex, so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising.

O’Connell is quite a stylist. His book opens resoundingly; “All stories begin in our endings: we invent them because we die. As long as we have been telling stories, we have been telling them about the desire to escape our human bodies, to become something other than the animals we are…. We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendour. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves.” It is hard to resist quoting him, the book is crammed with elegantly expressed ideas and observations. And it isn’t just me – all the reviews of ‘To be a Machine’ are littered with sizeable chunks of O’Connell’s own prose. He makes the task of paraphrasing him very difficult. Take a pedestrian example, what is transhumanism? Transhumanism is, according to the OED “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” But for O’Connell transhumanism is “a movement predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology to control the future evolution of our species. It is their belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.” Lexicographers, eat your hearts out.

Aubrey de Grey "we should be prosecuting a great counteroffensive against our common enemy, mortality itself’
O’Connell nails his colours to the mast early on in the book “I am not a transhumanist,” he says “but my fascination with the movement, with its ideas and aims, arises out of a basic sympathy with its premise: that human existence, as it has been given, is a suboptimal system.” There is nothing much to argue with in these sentiments; ageing, suffering and death are generally not positive experiences and who wouldn’t be tempted by the possibility of escaping them if they could? Until relatively recently religion was our only real option if we couldn’t face up to the existential anguish of having our existence snuffed out by death.  But since the early 19th century Science has been seen, at least by some, as a contender in the fight for eternal life. The early notions of the reanimators and resurrectionists who thought they could bring a corpse back to life by passing a few hundred amps of voltaic current through it may seem absurd now but the guiding principle was no different from today’s transhumanists. The science may be more sophisticated but Aubrey de Grey is essential pursuing the same goals as Victor Frankenstein, the discovery of the secret of life and its essential corollary, the abolition of death. As O’Connell explores the various transhumanist visions of eternal life, even the idea that improved longevity might be a good thing starts to be eroded and as for immortality – the versions on offer here are generally pretty unpalatable.   

O’Connell’s tour of transhumanism starts with Swedish academic Anders Sandberg, who wants to enhance human abilities through brain implants. “What would be a nice scenario,” he tells the author, “is that we first get smart drugs and wearable technologies. And then life extension technologies. And then, finally, we get uploaded, and colonise space, and so on.” To O’Connell this looks less like liberation from the constraints of being human and more like a “total enslavement to technology” In particular the idea, which crops up again and again amongst transhumanists, of being able to upload the brain into an electronic device that is more durable than the human body. Do we even really continue to be human without a corporeal body? Isn’t a digital version of a human mind, no matter how close the resemblance to the original, just a simulacrum?
Zoltan Istvan, 2016 presidential candidate on the immortality ticket

Another early chapter deals with Max More and his wife Natasha Vita-More, who run the Alcor cryopreservation facility where technicians will, for $200,000, carefully freeze your body upon death or, if you can’t afford that, just your head for $80,000 and keep it until technology has advanced sufficiently to allow you to be thawed out and brought back to life. O’Connell has a masterly way with bathos, he writes of Max More “I wanted to know how a man who had ostensibly dedicated his life to the overcoming of human frailties, to a resolute transgression of the principle of entropy, had come to spend his days surrounded by corpses in an office park, between a tile showroom and a place called Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies.” He also notes that “when the time came to make the necessary arrangements” for the disposal of his own remains, 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary, a long standing advocate of life extension in general and Alcor in particular, eschewed the cryopreservation facility and instead “went for the more show-stopping option of having his cremated ashes shot into space from a cannon”. Amongst the disappointed cryonics community this decision was criticised as a capitulation to “deathist” ideology.

O’Connell’s tour of transhumanism takes in computer scientists researching Artificial Intelligence, philosophers, gerontologists, grinders (individuals with cybernetic devices implanted beneath their skin, often by themselves, without anaesthetic) and roboticists with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (who are still a very long way from creating a Terminator). Many of the characters he meets are colourful, English celebrity gerontologist Aubrey de Grey for one. De Grey is renowned for his theory of Longevity Escape Velocity “the notion that the pace of technological advancement in the area of life extension would eventually increase to the point that, for every year that passes, average human life expectancy increases by more than a year, at which point the theory goes, we put a comfortable distance between ourselves and our own mortality. Over the past century or so, life expectancy had been increasing at the rate of about two years per decade, but the optimistic expectation within the life extension movement was that we would soon reach a point where the ratio flipped – thereby, as de Grey put it, ‘effectively eliminating the relationship between how old you are and how likely you are to die in the next year.’” The exuberantly bearded scientist seems to be embarked on a personal life extension project of a distinctly old fashioned stamp; pickling or preservation in alcohol. O’Connell meets him “one August morning at a cavernous bar near Union Square in San Francisco…It was shortly after breakfast, and Aubrey was blowing the froth off what may or may not have been the first pint of the day.” The scientist’s partiality to anything brewed up from hops, malt and barley is notorious.
Roen Horn poses in front of the Immortality Bus

The book builds to a climax with a long final chapter on a road trip on the Immortality Bus taken in 2016 with the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan whose avowed aim, rather than election to office, was the hope “that my Immortality Bus will become an important symbol in the growing longevity movement around the world. It will be my way of challenging the public’s apathetic stance on whether dying is good or not.” The impossibly good looking Istvan was born in California in the early seventies to Hungarian immigrant parents. He became a champion swimmer and water polo player, graduated in Philosophy and religion from Columbia University and then took off on an around the world yacht trip which he filmed for the National Geographic channel. When he finally returned to the States he made a fortune in real estate which he used to fund the writing and publication of a turgid and interminable science fiction epic called ‘The Transhumanist Wager’. He is now embarked on the quixotic quest to save humanity from death. Instead of Rosinante Istvan had the Immortality Bus, a big brown antiquated Wanderlodge that with the addition of a wreath on the roof was supposed to uncannily resemble a coffin but which many onlookers likened to a turd on wheels. Istvan’s Sancho Panza is Roen Horn, a classic Californian geek, founder of the Eternal Life Fan Club, who describes himself as a philosopher and lecturer “on the importance of trying to live forever.”      

O’Connell joins Istvan and Horn driving the hazardously dilapidated Wanderlodge around the desert towns of Arizona and New Mexico, seemingly always in imminent danger of breaking down and being stranded half a days hike from the nearest water in temperatures of 45C. With nothing better to do than listen to an ancient cassette of Tom Petty’s first album and talk about immortality the three men develop an unlikely friendship. “I had begun to feel some affinity with these two men…” says O’Connell “we were confreres in futility.” Istvan plays straight man to Horn who somehow manages to make total lack of self awareness and irredeemable gaucheness deeply charming. “I just want to have fun forever,” says Roen “guiding a forkful of dry salad leaves towards his pale face. “The twenty years I get from eating the way I do could be the difference between my dying and my getting to longevity escape velocity. I’m holding off on pleasure now so that I can have more pleasure later. I’m actually a total hedonist.” “You don’t seem even slightly like a hedonist to me,” says O’Connell “You don’t drink, you don’t take drugs. You barely eat. To be honest, you seem like a medieval monk.”

Roen weighs up the pro and cons of sexbots and real girls
In another exchange with O’Connell Horn asks him “You know one really cool thing about being alive in the future?”
“What’s that?”
“You know, like AI robots that are built for having sex with.”
“Oh sure,” I said,  ”I’ve heard of sexbots. ……"
“It’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”
“The problem I have with sexbots,” I said, “is why wouldn’t you just have sex with an actual person?”
“Are you kidding me? A real girl would cheat on you, sleep around. You could get an STD. You could even die.” When O’Connell asks him if he is being alarmist the response is
“No way, man. It happens literally all the time. See a personal sexbot would never cheat on you, and it would be just like a real girl.” When pushed he also admits to “have so far abstained from sex. I have never had a girlfriend.”
O’Connell tells Zoltan and Roen that he thinks of the bus as the Entropy Bus “a great mobile metaphor for the inevitable decline of all things” and quotes from St Peter in the King James Bible “the elements shall melt with fervent heat. The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
“Entropy sucks,” said Roen
“It is what it is,” said Zoltan, “It absolutely is what it is.”
The road trip on the Wanderlodge may be the longest chapter in O’Conell’s book but I could happily have spent a lot more time in the company of Zoltan and Roen.

Friday, 20 July 2018

The Wisdom of Solomon and the man who was buried while Limehouse burned

“At St Anne’s, a rather remarkable drawing reveals that Hawksmoor toyed with the idea of placing a pair of pyramids atop the church’s east end. A lone pyramid standing in the churchyard is often said to have been one of those intended for this purpose.”                                                                     
Owen Hopkins ‘From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor.’

“From the padlocked gates of another Hawksmoor masterpiece, St Anne’s. Here, it’s not just, as has been the case for many years, that the doors of the church are closed; I mean the grounds, benches, gravel walks, stacked gravestones, are forbidden to us. No sanctuary. Every point of access secured. You can press your face against the bars, like James Mason in Haggerston Park, or John Rokesmith in Our Mutual Friend, when he came up against this same ‘great iron gate’ and saw himself as ‘a spirit that was once a man’. The white pyramid depicted by Hablot Browne in his engraving of the churchyard is beyond our reach. The author of sensationalist ‘yellow peril’ fictions, Sax Rohmer, had a particular interest in this pyramid. It was known to his evil genius, Fu Manchu, with his fiendish plots and intimacy with London’s riverine quarters, its extensive subterranea. A panel in the pyramid gave entry to a network of underground tunnels.”
Iain Sinclair ‘The Olympics scam.’

Iain Sinclair’s 40 year obsession with the Limehouse pyramid started with ‘Lud Heat’ in 1975 and continued right up his most recent book, ‘The Last London’ in 2017. All his writings between  are littered with references to the pyramid in the churchyard of St Anne’s including ‘Light’s Out For the Territory’, ‘Liquid City’ (which includes  an excellent Marc Atkins photo of it) and ‘Ghost Milk’.  In ‘Lud Heat’ he sets out the theory that 8 churches built by Nicolas Hawksmoor along with a number of obelisks and pyramids (St Anne’s foremost amongst them) dotted around east London form a sacred geometry of power lines in the shape of an ancient Egyptian Hieroglyph; “Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of fear; ... erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud and dust".  This ‘enclosure’ covers the ancient city and its Roman temples dedicated to Mithras, its plague pits and cemeteries, its prisons and places of execution and the scenes of its most notorious crimes, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel murders, the Jack the Ripper killings, of 1888. Peter Ackroyd later exploited Sinclair’s outré theory to much greater commercial effect in ‘Hawksmoor’ and Sinclair never seems to have got over the shock of seeing Peter Ackroyd and Melvyn Bragg resplendent in pinstripe suits, posing in front of the Limehouse pyramid on the South Bank Show and discussing Ackroyd’s stratospheric sales figures and his critical and popular acclaim (he was more forgiving though of his friend Alan Moore’s use of the Hawksmoor black legend in ‘From Hell’).  The St Anne’s pyramid features on at least two cover designs for ‘Lud Heat’.  
Despite all the portentous omphalos symbolism invested in the pyramid I had always assumed that it was merely a standard monument, a hyper inflated grave marker, and that it would carry an inscription recording whose memorial it was.  Not untypically of churchyard and cemetery pyramids it even has a coat of arms complete with what looks like a unicorn; high social status goes hand in hand with being buried inside or beneath pyramids, from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the landed gentry of the 18th century and the haut bourgeoisie of Victorian England .  But the only inscription, engraved above the armorial crest, are the mysterious words ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’. Some accounts claim these were once also carved in Hebrew characters further down the pyramid and many see all this as evidence that it is somehow linked to the Masons.  The pyramid is built of Portland Stone and in pristine condition would have been almost white, like St Anne’s itself, but it is now weathered and covered in a velvety layer of dark green moss. Whatever the pyramid is, it is not a memorial. It doesn’t seem likely to be a secret masonic symbol either.  Most commentators think the pyramid was part of Hawksmoor’s original design for St Anne’s and was perhaps intended to top the tower.  It isn’t really big enough to cap the tower but possibly it was meant to be set up on some other part of the building. Hawksmoor certainly liked to idiosyncratically incorporate eclectic classical elements into his buildings, the portico based on the Temple of Dionysus at Baalbeck and the stepped tower of St George’s in Bloomsbury and the six copies of a Roman sacrificial altar that top the tower of St George’s in the East are examples. And he liked pyramids – he designed and built one at Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle in 1728, the year after work was finished at St Anne’s. It does seem likely then that the pyramid was made for Hawksmoor for use as an architectural feature but that he then had second thoughts and with no where better to put it, it ended up in the churchyard.          
The pyramid as photographed by Marc Atkins for 'Liquid City'.  

On Good Friday (29 March) 1850 Hawksmoor’s masterpiece was completely gutted by fire (and to add insult to injury many newspaper accounts of the blaze credited Sir Christopher Wren with being the architect). At 7am that morning a man called William Rumbold, whose job was to light the stoves and see to the heating of the church, let himself into the building as usual and got on with lighting the furnaces in readiness for the holiday services. At half past eight he noticed a strong smell of burning and when he went outside into the churchyard he saw smoke billowing from the roof. He immediately ran to the house of the beadle George Coningham which was only a hundred yards or so away in Church Lane. The two men ran back to the church, Coningham pausing only briefly to ask someone to call the fire brigade, where they climbed to the belfry and rather recklessly opened a door from the organ loft into the roof space. They were immediately beaten back by flames and smoke. With no other means of raising the alarm both men grabbed bell ropes and began to toll the church bells to attract attention. The Reverend George Roberts soon arrived on the scene along with the residents of the immediate neighbourhood and with no fire engine and no water the vicar and a party of gentlemen decided the only thing to do was to try and save as much of the church furniture and parish records as they could.  The party managed to save all the registers and had just removed the large central chandelier outside when the burning  roof collapsed into the nave and stopped any further efforts at salvage. It was only at this point that Fire Chief Braidwood and his officers finally appeared, probably to stand open mouthed for a few moments as they watched the conflagration completely destroy the church. Chief Braidwood sagely announced that there was no hope of saving the church interior and set his men to plying their hoses over what was left standing of the building. At 9.15 the four clocks in the church tower stopped moving and the flag pole at the top of the steeple fell into the burning nave. The fire raged on for a further two hours watched by a growing crowd of curious EastEnders. According to the Illustrated London News:

Nothing could be more complete than the destruction of the interior fittings of the church. The oak pews and gallery were entirely consumed; the organ stood for some time, until the pipes were gradually melted by the intense heat. The altar windows, of painted glass, representing the Sermon on the Mount, was soon destroyed; as were all the monuments and hatchments upon the walls, except tablet to the memory of a lady named Blyth: this memorial, to the left of the altar, was but slightly injured. When the body of the Church took fire, the flames speedily communicated through the organ loft with the belfry the woodwork in which having been consumed, the bells, one of which is of very large size, fell through, and was only prevented from reaching the ground by a very strong stone arch beneath the bell-tower….The galleries are destroyed, scarcely a mark of their former existence being discernible; and, notwithstanding the remains of the roof, galleries, and pews are all contained within the four walls, the mass of rubbish scarcely rises couple of feet above the floor of the Church. The two beams forming the support of the pulpit are almost the only pieces of timber left in an erect position, and these are charred by the fire that a touch would crumble them. The six magnificent pillars supporting the roof—three on each side—are reduced to shapeless masses of calcined stone. In several places, the iron girders forming the roof have broken through the brick arches on which the floor of the Church rests, and penetrated the vaults. 
The Illustrated London News April 6 1850

The Illustrated London News mentions one other singular detail which is missing from all the other accounts of the fire that I have read. It mentions, merely in passing, that “while the fire was raging on Friday, a funeral took place in the churchyard.” What an extraordinary picture this presents! An illustration in the paper shows the building ablaze, the roof collapsed, every window broken, the tower engulfed in flames and thick black smoke billowing up into the March sky. Tiny firemen with ineffective hoses fight futilely to contain the inferno and in the churchyard there is barely a vacant inch of turf as crowds of curious onlookers prop themselves up against headstones or lean over chest tombs as they watch the unfolding mayhem. In the midst of all this someone actually conducted a burial service? Asked people to move out of the way while pall bearers who must have struggled to tear their eyes away from the conflagration somehow manoeuvred a coffin to a freshly dug grave? If there were any relatives didn’t they object to the timing of the service? It seems scarcely credible but it is true.

Page 132 of the Burial Register for St Anne's Limehouse showing the Good Friday burial of Evan Smith 

The burial register shows one burial taking place on 29 March 1850. The ceremony was not conducted by the Reverend George Roberts (who had carried out the previous two burials on 24 March) presumably because he was otherwise engaged saving the parish records and the chandelier. The officiating clergyman was Thomas Stevens (“Hey, George old man, did you by any chance manage to save the burial register?” “I certainly did Thomas old fruit, I’m sure its here somewhere.” “Excellent, chuck it here can you, if I don’t bury that old sailor from Gravesend I’m going to have to refund his daughter the ten shillings and I spent it last night at the Prospect of Whitby.”) The deceased was the 65 year old Evan Robert Ferguson Smith who intriguingly had died at Gardner’s Terrace Hotel in Gravesend. I presume he died whilst staying as a guest at James Gardner’s establishment rather than keeling over in the saloon bar as a result of one too many rum and waters and acute cirrhosis. He was probably buried in Limehouse rather than over the other side of the river in Gravesend because he had relative there. The Terrace Hotel still stands today at 46 The Terrace, DA12, though you can no longer drink yourself insensible there or pay to crash out in one of its rooms as it is a private residence nowadays rather than a pub. The ghost of Evan Smith is still sometimes seen loitering in the old tap room trying to cadge a bottle of pale ale.                       

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Death by water; Antonio Pedro da Gama Lobo Salema de Souza e Vasconcellos (1963-1989), Putney Vale Cemetery

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                  A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                           Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you
T.S. Eliot - The Wasteland

“25 years ago I had a couple of hook-ups with a guy. We met in Heaven and went back to my place first and then the following week we met at his place in Meard Street in Soho. He made me dinner. We had a fun time together. At his place he kept playing and dancing around to Express Yourself from Madonna's Like A Prayer album while he cooked me pasta. "I love this record", he said putting it on again. "You're not kidding!" He was almost obsessed with it. He made me laugh. He was a Portuguese banker and had more than one bottle of champagne in his fridge. Fancy, I thought! I was impressed. He was well-read too. A nice guy. Had a nice smile. His name was Antonio.”

“We talked about meeting for a third time. He had people staying that weekend though. How about in Comptons? His birthday was coming up and that Saturday night his mate was throwing him a party on a boat on the river. He said that I couldn't come as there were already too many people coming but we should meet the following day on the Sunday. Late though because it was going to be a late one on the boat. OK, Comptons it was. See you then. Look forward to it.”
Antonio de Vasconcellos never made it to his third date with Jonathan Green back in August 1989. Jonathan went to Heaven “feeling a bit miffed I couldn't go to what looked to be a wild party on the river.” In the club, at 2.30 in the morning, he started to hear rumours that there had been some sort of disaster on the river, that a boat had gone down and that bodies were being pulled out of the Thames. He decided to go home “but to my shame it was only after I had got on the N19 night bus on the way home it suddenly dawned on me, "Fuck! Antonio! Antonio was on the river tonight!" I got off the bus at New Oxford Street and dashed back to Meard Street. The lights were on on the second floor and I rang the buzzer but no one answered the door. I rang again. I pressed the buzzer for a full minute. No one was there….”

Antonio Vasconcellos with his friend Magda Allani during their years at Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Sunday 13th August 1989 was Antonio de Vasconcellos’ 26th birthday and he celebrated it by throwing a river boat party the following Saturday, the 19th, for 130 friends on the Marchioness an unassuming 85 foot long pleasure steamer built in 1923. The Marchioness  had been one of the little boats of Dunkirk in 1940, sailing to pick up British and French soldiers trapped on the French coast by the advancing German army but by the late eighties the steamer spent its days plying the Thames between Westminster and Greenwich piers showing tourists London’s landmarks from the river and its nights as a party venue. Antonio’s evening had started off with an intimate dinner for 8 people, including his older brother Domingos, at his flat in Meard Street where they were later joined by 20 other close friends for cake and champagne before the whole group set off for Westminster pier where they joined another 100 guests on board the Marchioness. Although Antonio was a merchant banker by profession most of his guests had nothing to do with finance. Many of them were from the fashion world; models, photographers, make up artists and agents.  Antonio’s best friend and party organiser was Jonathan Phang a former male model who had opened a model agency with Antonio’s financial backing. Most of the guests were in their early twenties.
The party was in full swing at about quarter to two in the morning (some accounts claim revellers were dancing to the Hues Corporation 1974 hit ‘Rock the boat’) and the Marchioness was close to Cannon Street Bridge when some of the guests noticed that a 250 foot long, 180 ton dredger, the Bowbelle, was bearing down rapidly on them, looking like it might ram the party vessel. The collision, when it came, was not head on and might not have sunk the Marchioness if the Bowbelle’s anchor, sitting high on the prow almost at the gunwale, hadn’t caught the top of the pleasure steamer’s superstructure and then pushed it under the bow of the dredger. Experts later estimated that it took less than 30 seconds for the Marchioness to sink. Party goers on the upper deck were thrown into the water; the ones on the lower deck went to the bottom of the Thames in the sinking ship. 51 people died. 24 bodies were recovered from the sunken hull of the Marchioness, the rest were picked out of the Thames in the days following the disaster. Antonio’s was the last body recovered, 11 days later on 1st September. His older brother Domingos died but his younger brother, Diogo, survived, helping save the life of a fellow passenger. The bodies recovered from the river were taken to Wapping Police station which served as a temporary mortuary. All the survivors had been rescued by the crew and passengers on the Marchioness’ sister ship, the Hurlingham, and by river police; the crew of the Bowbelle did not pull a single body out of the water. Instead they sailed on and berthed upriver because the ship’s Captain, Douglas Henderson, as he later explained to a public enquiry, decided to concentrate on the safety of his own vessel and thought that "the best course of action was to get clear of the area." He admitted to the public enquiry that he had drunk six pints of beer the afternoon of the collision and then taken a three hour nap to sleep it off. He also admitted having lied to the police about the number of crew on watch. He told the police there were two but in reality there was only one. According to a report in the Guardian he agreed that “the ship's helmsman wore thick glasses and a hearing aid, but …. denied that this meant he could not see dangers or hear warnings clearly.” The Captain of the Marchioness was not able to answer questions at the public enquiry as he had drowned in the accident. The conclusion of the public enquiry was that both captains were to blame as neither had posted adequate look outs. Captain Henderson was prosecuted, twice, for his failings on the night of 20th August but was acquitted both times.
The salvaged Marchioness after the collision

Antonio Pedro da Gama Lobo Salema de Souza e Vasconcellos was the son of João António Melo Trigoso De Sousa e Vasconcelos and his wife Maria (familiarly known as Boneca, doll, presumably for her diminutive stature and striking good looks), who had married in 1960 in what was then known as Lourenço Marques in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique and is now the capital Maputo. The Portuguese love to collect surnames, even the humblest person will have at least two, but a family which advertises its genealogy by hanging on to as many of its illustrious forebear’s surnames as it can usually has aristocratic pretensions, (even if they don’t actually have a title). João Vasconcellos brought his family to England, probably at some point in the late sixties or early seventies, and educated his three sons at Brompton Oratory and the best universities. He died in 1981 and is buried in the plot adjacent to his sons at Putney Vale Cemetery. His rather plain headstone features just his name, dates of birth and death and the carved outline of an artist’s palette and brushes.

Antonio studied Economics at Trinity Hall Cambridge and went on to become a merchant banker firstly at Warburgs and then at Mercury Asset Management. In September 1988 he moved to take charge of Torras Hostensch London Ltd, working directly for the controversial Spanish lawyer and financier Francisco Javier de la Rosa. When the activities of Torras Hostensch were later scrutinised by the Courts, Lord Justice Mance remarked that Antonio “was paid the astonishing annual salary of £900,000.” His Cambridge friend Magda Allani, who survived the disaster, later said that at the time Antonio’s promotion had seemed to his friends the natural result of his brilliance, “but there was nothing normal about it. Any normal office handling resources of the magnitude of those at Torras’s disposal would have had a team of financial analysts. Instead, Torras Hostench London had just Antonio, his colleague Walid Moukarzel, secretary Elsa Garcia and a chauffeur. It didn’t feel right.” Javier de la Rosa has persuaded the Kuwaiti Investment Office to funnel $5 billion of investment through the London offices of Torras Hostensch with barely any oversight or scrutiny. How much Antonio was involved in the embezzlement of millions of dollars in Kuwaiti money no one will ever now know for sure but the lawsuit filed in London in 1993 by the US law firm of Baker & McKenzie on behalf of the KIO seems to indicate that along with Walid Moukarzel, Elsa Garcia and the chauffeur, he was probably an unwitting dupe. The £900,000 salary was perhaps to discourage him from using his keen intellect to look to closely into the deals he was asked to sign off. According to the New York Times the 1993 suit contended “that through the use of various shell companies, fictitious loans, fraud and embezzlement, the former Torras management conspired to steal at least $500 million between May 1988 and May 1992.” Lord Justice Mance agreed. Magda described Antonio as seeming ‘troubled’ in the days before his death, unsurprising given the scale of the fraud going on in the office he was nominally in charge of.       
Antonio’s job and his astonishing salary inevitably led to him, and his fashion conscious guests, being labelled as yuppies and beautiful young things by the media. In Margaret Thatcher’s deeply divided Britain there were few terms as corrosive as ‘yuppie’ and public support for the victims of the Marchioness disaster was in distinctly short supply. Homophobia also played a part as many of the victims were gay. Some blamed the lack of public sympathy on compassion fatigue because in the 2 year period between March 1987 and April 1989 a staggering 765 people had died in 6 large scale incidents in the UK; March 1987 the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise (193 dead)  November 1987 the Kings Cross fire (31 fatalities), July 1988 the Piper Alpha oil rig fire (167 deaths), December 1988 the Lockerbie bombing (243 dead) and the Clapham Junction rail disaster (35 dead), and in April 1989 the Hillsborough disaster (96 dead). A common reaction to the disasters was the setting up of a fund to help the victims and their families. In their first year the fund set up for the victims of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster collected £3.4 million and the Hillsborough disaster relief fund collected £3.5 million. In quite shocking comparison the Thames River Boat Disaster Fund set up for the victims of the Marchioness collected, in its first 12 months, a mere £55,000. Antonio Vasconcellos may have been by most people’s standards well off, as were some of his guests, but many others were not and public opprobrium and financial hardship must have been bitter pills to swallow after the traumatic events of the night of 19th August 1989.