The remains of the late Mrs. Bland whose death we announced in our last issue, were deposited in the New Hammersmith Cemetery Ground, on Wednesday last. Great repent was shown in the neighbourhood of the deceased's late residence. This was the first burial in the new cemetery, which is not yet consecrated, so that a special licence had to be obtained for the burial. The coffin bore the following inscription Hannah, wife of Robert Bland, died October, 1869, aged 56 years.
West London Observer - Saturday 06 November 1869
On a quiet summer Sunday morning, 27th August 1899, gravedigger Alfred Beaven was doing his rounds of the Hammersmith cemetery perimeter. The first duty of Alfred’s working day was to carry out a circuit of the boundary to pick up the rubbish and refuse that uncouth local residents had thrown over the railings during the previous evening and night, especially on the Margravine Road side of the cemetery. At about 9.30, in amongst the shrubs and bushes that bordered the Margravine Road wall, he found the remains of what he at first assumed to be a dead animal before realising, with a shock, that it was the decomposed body of a small child. He had done the same rounds the previous day and was certain that the body had not been there then. Someone must have thrown it over the wall into the bushes. The police were summoned and P.C. James Brown, constable 352T, was despatched to investigate. Due to the advanced state of decomposition he wrapped the tiny corpse in brown paper and put it into a cardboard box to carry it to the nearby Fulham Mortuary. Someone sent for the divisional police surgeon Dr. Edward Pattison, who interrupted his Sunday lunch to come and examine the body. He carefully lifted the brown paper package from the box and slowly unwrapped it. Inside he found little more than a skeleton with a few vestiges of decayed flesh adhering to the bones. He told Fulham Coroner’s Court two days later that judging by the size of the skeleton he thought he was dealing with a two month old baby and the advanced stage of decomposition led him to believe that death must have occurred four or five months previously. He could determine the cause of death nor even the sex of the child. According to the West London Observer (01.09.1899) the Coroner, Mr H. R. Oswald “reviewing the evidence, said that the child, probably illegitimate, had been kept after death, concealed until an opportunity offered itself of getting rid of its body by throwing it over the cemetery wall. It was, he added, impossible that the police could keep unremitting watch upon every street in the huge city, and such a thing might be done without great difficulty.” The jury returned an open verdict.
During hundreds of hours trawling through old newspaper reports on cemeteries I had never before come across a story of a dead baby being found in the cemetery grounds. It was even more surprising then when I came across a further two incidents of staff finding dead babies in the same cemetery. In 1906 a gardener at the cemetery, Charles Beaven, came across the dead body of a newly born female wrapped up in a brown paper parcel tied up with a boot lace. (Beaven? An unusual surname, but hang on a moment, wasn’t it a Beaven that discovered the first body, seven years earlier? Alfred Beaven. And wasn’t that body also wrapped up in brown paper? I feel a conspiracy theory coming on.) Charles told the coroner, Mr Luxmoore Drew, that the previous Saturday morning he had been cleaning up the rubbish and refuse thrown over the railings on the Margravine Road side of the cemetery. He said that cats and chickens were frequently thrown over the railings and that he had buried two dead cats that morning. He had found the brown paper parcel later on, behind a bush about 30 yards from the main entrance, and when he cut the boot lace holding it together, had discovered the corpse of a naked little girl. The police had been called and the body taken to the Fulham Mortuary where it had been examined, according to the West London Observer, by “Dr. B. W. Lewis, Divisional surgeon of police residing at The Hermitage, Fulham Palace Road,” who “said when he saw the child it had been dead about 36 hours. He made an autopsy, and ascribed death to asphyxia. The jury returned an open verdict.” The third body was found in 1919; Police-Constable Lawrence, 1718, told the Coroner, Douglas Cowhorn, that he had been called by the cemetery superintendent to the West Lodge of the cemetery where he had been handed a green attaché case which had been purportedly found by a gravedigger (not a Beaven) earlier that day on at the base of a shrub, hidden by a slab of concrete. The case was badly weathered but PC Lawrence took it the Lillie Road police station before he opened it. Inside he found the skeleton of a fully grown child wrapped in a red petticoat. Dr Falkner, divisional police surgeon had examined the skeleton and told the coroner that he had concluded that the deceased “had been dead some long time and it was impossible to say the cause of death.” Once again the jury returned an open verdict.
The Hammersmith cemetery, now generally known as the Margravine Cemetery, opened in 1869 and in November the recently deceased Mrs Bland was the first to find a new home beneath the newly laid turf. Mrs Bland was lucky; if she had died at any time in the previous 15 years she would have found herself buried in a neighbouring parish as the prevaricating Hammersmith Vestry couldn’t make up its mind where to site the new cemetery the Metropolitan Burial Act of 1852 required it to open. The 1852 act prohibited the church and local authorities from continuing to use the old overcrowded burial grounds and churchyards of London and obliged them to open new cemeteries in more salubrious surroundings. The slow moving Hammersmith Burial Grounds Committee considered many sites for the vestry’s new cemetery, including Hampton, Tooting and Leatherhead but finally settled on ten acres of land in Fulham Fields, which it bought for £600 in September 1866. Two chapels and a mortuary were built on the landscaped grounds (at a total cost of £15,104) and in November 1869 Mrs Bland was the first of 83,197 recorded burials in the cemetery. It closed for new business in 1951 and, despite vigorous opposition from local people, was converted into a garden of rest by the council. Most of the headstones and other memorials were either removed or buried and much of the cemetery laid to grass. The memorials lining the main path and other significant examples were left in situ and there are some interesting and unusual late 19th and early 20th century tombs including the throne of local undertaker James Frederick Fletcher, the bolstered and pillowed bed of Sextus Gisbert Van Os, and the bronze angel of George Boast.
The cemetery was dogged with allegations of incompetence and mismanagement throughout its working life. In the 1880’s there were several accusations that bodies had been buried in the wrong grave. The Cornish telegraph reported, in October 1880 on a “singular scene” which had occurred at the funeral of George Spong. “When the mourners left their coach, and proceeded walk towards the grave,” it said, “they were told there had been some mistake as to the grave, but notwithstanding this they proceeded, and the coffin was then deposited the wrong grave, and the clergyman officiating had stop the midst of his reading, as the coffin would not down. The wooden supports of the earth were knocked away, and the coffin was then lowered with great difficulty. Next day it was taken up again and placed in the proper grave.” In 1882 an applicant at Hammersmith Magistrates Court complained to the sitting magistrate about the conduct of the Burial Board. The applicant told the magistrate that he owned a private grave at the cemetery and that without his consent the gravestone had been thrown aside “in a careless manner” and the grave had been opened and a person who just happened to have the same name was buried there by the cemetery authorities. According to the Evening Standard of 21 August 1882 the applicant had written to the cemetery authorities to complain, asking them to remove his erroneously interred namesake and to compensate him for damage to the headstone. The cemetery manager had written back to express his regret for the error but had not offered compensation for the damaged memorial or, more seriously, taken any action to remove the errant corpse. The magistrate was sympathetic but didn’t feel he had legal powers to redress the situation. He suggested the applicant consult a solicitor.
In 1898 Mr Marshall, “a well-known resident of the trading community” according to the South Wales Echo, lost his son Bertie in a drowning accident. When making the funeral arrangements he selected and paid for a grave next to the well known local figure of Alice Upton, “a well-known visitor of the sick and poor.” On the day of the funeral there was such a press of family, friends and other mourners present at the graveside that Mr Marshall did not note exactly where the grave was. Going back to the cemetery on the following evening to see the wreaths he was furious to discover that the grave was yards away from the plot he had purchased and that several other graves “intervened between that of Sister Alice and Bertie.” When Mr Marshall complained to Mr Cockburn the clerk to the Burial Board he was blandly told that there was nothing that could be done without the permission of the Home Secretary as only he had the power to order exhumations once a body had been buried. Once the Home Secretary’s authority was received, Mr Cockburn said, he would ensure that the re-interment was carried out at once. On the rare occasion when the cemetery authorities managed to bury someone in the right grave, the manner in which they were buried often left something to be desired. In 1892 a correspondent who signed himself simply as Indignant wrote to the Editor of the West London Observer “will you kindly allow me a small space in your valuable paper to give vent to my indignation as regards the method of burial at the Hammersmith Cemetery.” Indignant described how he had attended the funeral of an esteemed friend who had serviced in the East, in Canada and in the Crimea as a Grenadier Guard. When the coffin was lowered into the grave it quickly became clear that the excavation was too small. The gravediggers were called who knocked away the struts holding back the earth but even this did not create enough clearance for the coffin to be successfully lowered. Finally one of the gravediggers stood upon the coffin and jumped heavily on it several times to force it into the grave. “I have heard that this has been done several times before this,” Indignant wrote before hoping that “the proper authorities will thoroughly sift this matter and prevent the same occurring in future.” 40 years later the complaints were still coming in. In 1931, EA Williams of 115 Fielding Road W4 was writing to the West London Observer again asking if “the Hammersmith Cemetery staff [had] lost all respect for the dead?” The correspondent had attended a funeral “never have I been forced to witness such irreverent conducting of any sacred service” he said. “About four minutes sufficed for the clergyman to hurl through one or two prayers and we were then rushed to the grave, where beautiful flowers were absolutely torn off the coffin and thrown on to the ground. Before the bearers could lower the coffin into position, much less mourners gather at the graveside, the clergyman was half-way through his “running commentary” and, not having heard half a dozen words the mourners were left alone, wondering whether those whom God hath called any longer command the respect of those who still have life!”
In March 1888 the West London Observer described a bit of local colour under the heading ‘A Costermonger's Funeral’.
The funeral took place on Monday afternoon at Hammersmith Cemetery Miles Thomas Magee, aged 25, a costermonger of Henrietta Place, who was found dead by Police-constable Cuff in the front garden of 8, Mall Road, the 4th inst., and whose decease proved at the inquest to due to rupture of the heart. A large crowd lined the Broadway for some time, waiting for the funeral procession to pass, and so great was the number of persons accompanying the cortege, which came along King Street that several constables were placed on duty to control the traffic. The coffin, which was of polished elm, with brass handles, was covered with a pall and some beautiful wreaths of white flowers, and was carried on the shoulders of four men, who were relieved at intervals along the route by numbers of willing helpers. Ten couples walked behind the coffin, and after them came six well-filled vehicles, one, a barrow drawn by a donkey. About a dozen constables were stationed at the cemetery, where some hundreds of persons had assembled before the arrival of the procession. A disgraceful scene ensued after the mourners had entered the small cemetery chapel. In their anxiety to gain admittance a regular struggle took place amongst a number of men and lads, and when Mr. Bird, the superintendent, and a police-constable found it necessary to close the doors endeavoured to force them open. One personage, who was particularly prominent in attempting to open the door, remonstrated with by several females made use of bad language, then went away from the chapel door. The crowd behaved in an orderly manner at the graveside. The funeral service was read by the Rev. F. B. Grant, chaplain of the cemetery.
In 2016 the cemetery’s unique reception house was given grade II listed status. The octagonal building was originally constructed in 1869 to house coffins prior to burial. In a poor neighbourhood where residents threw dead cats, chickens and babies over the cemetery walls, the bereaved often did not have sufficient money to immediately bury their dead. This led to situations where the dead were sometimes unhygienically stored at home until the next pay day (or even longer if families were particularly strapped for cash). Edwin Chadwick in his 1843 report on public sanitation quoted a Whitechapel undertaker; “I have known them to be kept three weeks: we every week see them kept until the bodies are nearly putrid … and the poor people, women and children, are living and sleeping in the same room at the same time.” As many families in the area already lived in cramped and overcrowded conditions they barely had sufficient space for the living. The reception house allowed storage of the dead in coffins until the time of the funeral. The stone mortuary slabs on which the coffins rested are still there inside and the building is the last remaining example in London.
On the crisp sunny morning of my last visit to the cemetery a handful of ring necked parakeets were making a huge racket in the trees, intriguing the visitors and frightening the pigeons. For once I managed to get a picture. Not a great one, but better than my usual efforts. Let’s finish with Adele B. Campbell’s letter to the Inverness Courier, published 03 July 1891, about the cemetery’s cat:
Sir, —I am a frequent visitor at Hammersmith Cemetery, and having noticed a black cat there constantly, I asked the manager for any information he could give. He tells me this cat has been an inhabitant of the cemetery for about four years. It followed the body of its mistress to this last resting place, and has remained ever since, resisting all attempts to remove it. The manager has very kindly had shelter provided for its protection from rain and cold, in a corner by the church door. Here it may be seen, when not walking amongst the graves—walking in a slow, grave manner, as if conscious that quicker motion would be unsuitable. Its answer to notice is a faint mew, suppressed almost to whisper. It is of singular appearance, being of brown shade of black over the body, with head of deep black. Upon the face is something of mournful wistfulness. Poor puss! Perhaps this look is caused by shadow of remembrance of bygone time when it had a good mistress and rightful place by a cheerful kitchen fire. One wonders does any sense of the sadness of the surroundings reach its understanding. With this strangely faithful cat rubbing against one's dress, one almost fancies it may have a dim instinct of sympathy with one's bereavement.—l am, sir, yours etc.., Adele B. Campbell.