Sunday, 11 April 2021

The End of the Road; A journey around Britain in search of the dead - Jack Cooke (Mudlark, £14.99)

 

Perhaps I don’t spend enough time on the internet but I had never heard the story of how Thomas Hardy’s heart was eaten by a cat until I read this book. It is one of those stories that you deeply want to be true whilst simultaneously strongly suspecting that it isn’t. According to Robert Gittings in ‘The Older Hardy’ it was Sir Sydney Cockerell, the forceful Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Hardy’s literary executor who had decided that the novelist merited the honour of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Hardy himself had always made it clear, including in his will, that he wished to be buried in Stinsford Churchyard, in the parish where he was born. His family, torn between the high honour of the proposed interment in Poet’s Corner and the writers stated desire to be buried with his ancestors, did not know what to do. The dilemma was resolved by the vicar of Stinsford who said as the writer had his heart set on being buried in the churchyard that is what they should do, bury his heart in Stinsford and send the rest of him to Woking, to be cremated before being buried in Westminster Abbey.  The local doctor was summoned and asked to remove Hardy’s heart which, he agreed to do, operating on Hardy’s corpse in his bedroom. The precious organ was wrapped in a tea towel and stored in a biscuit tin until it could be picked up the next morning by the funeral director. When the undertaker arrived next day, he discovered that one of Mrs Hardy’s cats had managed to get into the biscuit tin and had eaten most of the writer’s heart for breakfast. The undertaker did not bat an eyelid, he wrung the cat’s neck and stuffed it into the polished elm box he had brought with him along with the remains of the heart. The cat was buried, with great ceremony, in lieu of Hardy’s heart in Stinsford churchyard whilst the rest of Hardy’s body was conveyed to Woking for cremation. I once knew someone who tried to kill a cat with his bare hands. His neighbour had asked him to get rid of an unwanted feline which he decided to dispatch using the same method he used on the rabbits he bred for the table, picking them up by the rear legs and clubbing them across the back of the neck. Thirty years after the event he still bore the long scar the cat had left on his forearm when he picked it up and it curled back on itself and raked a seven-inch gouge in his skin. Cats are not easy to kill with your bare hands. Biscuit tins are probably hard to open with paws. And wouldn’t Mrs Hardy have created a stink if someone had killed one of her cats? This story surely cannot be true?     

Jack Cooke’s book is the latest of a short run of taphophile travelogues that have gone to press in the last 12 months.  This is his second book, his first was a guide to climbing trees, and he spent a month driving around Britain in a second-hand hearse to provide him with the raw material to turn into his latest offering. I am not sure what the point of the hearse was (they certainly aren’t built for long distance travel); despite ostensibly being an apt choice of vehicle for a tour of the graveyards of mainland UK it seemed like a poor joke and led me to expect a more facetious book than this actually is. The 33-year-old author opens his travelogue with a chance trip to a local churchyard which you will not be surprised to learn, led him to start musing on mortality and reminded him of how ‘divorced’ he is from death; “I inhabited a high-turnover world, a place of constant change that continued without pause or reflection. I ignored the dead because they interrupted life”, he says. This leads him to the well-worn conclusion that “most of us live in denial of death. We practise unconscious alchemy, loath to accept our own mortality and searching for ways to prolong life in an age of modern medicine. Those already dead and buried are to be skirted around, side-stepped, wherever possible put to the back of our minds.”  His response to this modern culture of death denying is to pay a couple of grand for the second-hand hearse in Bristol and to spend a month getting closer to extinction on a taphophile tour. He starts off in his home county of Suffolk and then meanders down to London. He arrives too late to get into Highgate Cemetery (he would have needed to have booked a tour anyway) and waits until nightfall to scale a wall on Swains Lane and visit George Wombwell’s tomb. If it had not been for his relative youth and that previous book on climbing trees, I might have been sceptical of this account of clambering over high cemetery walls and finding his way in the dark, through the overgrown and labyrinthine burial ground, to his target tomb. His inability to plan in advance and carry out basic research are revealed the next day when he tries to visit the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see the skeleton of Charles Byrne and finds out that it has been closed for refurbishment for at least two years and then goes on to University College to see Jeremy Bentham only to be told by a security guard that the embalmed philosopher is on a tour of the USA.  


Cooke’s style is workmanlike but very readable. He follows Jean Sprackland to Cornwall and Morwenstow, the parish of the 19th century poet, the Reverend Robert Hawker. Cooke describes his “famously eccentric habits. He dressed more like a pirate than a parson, his clergyman’s dog collar matched with a purple velvet coat and knee-high sea boots. He was also said to have been very fond of animals, and was accompanied on his daily rounds of the parish by a pet pig…” Sprackland says “We cannot know… whether or not Hawker tricked the locals by disguising himself as a mermaid, sitting on the rocks singing and combing his hair; or whether he excommunicated a cat, or hanged a mouse for breaking the Sabbath. Myth grows on myth. Tangible and still standing, however, is the driftwood hut he built on the cliff above Sharpnose Point, where he would go to write poetry, smoke opium and watch the sea.”  The month-long journey from Suffolk to Orkney and Hoy is related at a narrative pace at odds with his leisurely progress in the hearse. He seems determined to cram in as many stories as he can; I was familiar with some of them but many were completely new to me. After that initial visit to the local churchyard most thoughts of mortality seem banished, an exception being when he struggles to find the grave of his grandmother and thinks of how much, when she was alive, he “took her for granted, her continued presence and her links to the past.” Perhaps a young man of 33 with a wife and two young children and still making his way in the world, is asking too much of himself to imagine he can turn his thoughts away from life long enough to confront and conquer the denial of death. His high turnover book is too crammed with incident and detail to avoid the ‘constant change that continues almost without pause or reflection’ that he laments so keenly in his opening chapter. Having said that he is good company and  I am glad I accompanied him on his journey.   

All photographs are by Jack Cooke


Monday, 29 March 2021

The Man Who Was Pisanus Fraxi; the secret life of Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834-1900) Kensal Green Cemetery

Henry Spencer Ashbee died on 29 July 1900 at the age of 67 at his home Fowlers, in Hawkhurst, Kent. His unmarried cousin Louisa Maud Ashbee was with him when he died, his wife and children were not. His death certificate states the cause of death as being ‘myocarditis and cirrhosis of the liver’.  He had had left explicit instructions on what was to happen to his mortal remains after his death; “I desire to be cremated in as inexpensive manner as possible. I do not wish any mourning worn for me or other demonstration made nor do I desire that any monument whatsoever be erected to my memory.” In accordance with the first part of his instructions he was cremated at Woking on 01 August. “Carefully, however, as he seems to have considered everything, here he made an omission,” wrote his friend Ralph Thomas later that year, “for he did not provide that the ashes should not be kept; probably he did not know that it was necessary.” The day following the cremation the still warm ashes were taken to west London and placed in his parent’s tomb in Kensal Green; almost definitely not the last resting place that he had in mind.  For years Ashbee had kept the details of his double life a secret but his obituary in the Times, published on the day of his modest obsequies, wasted no time tearing back the veil; he was, it said “a well-known City merchant who achieved a considerable reputation as a book collector and bibliographer. His most important, though perhaps least known, compilation was an exhaustive account of curious and out-of-the-way books, entitled "Index Librorum" &c., and was privately printed in three volumes between 1877 and 1880 under the pseudonym of ‘Pisanus Fraxi.’”  ‘Curious and out of the way books’ is a euphemism for pornography; Ashbee was an obsessive reader, collector and cataloguer of Victorian erotica.

H.S. Ashbee in his role as pillar of respectability

Ashbee was born on 21 April 1824 at 24 Blackfriars Road, Southwark the only child of Robert Ashbee and his wife Frances Elizabeth Spencer. The family moved to Hounslow when his father became manager of the Curtis and Harvey gunpowder mills. At 14 his father enrolled him into the Kensington Proprietary Grammar School in Kensington Square, possibly to prepare him for a commercial career as he did not go to University. He seems to have left school at 16 and in the 1851 census he is described as an ‘auctioneer and estate agent.’ Shortly afterwards he became an apprentice at Groucock, Copestakes, Moor & Co of 5 Bow Church Yard, manufacturers of lace and sewed muslin.  In his early twenties he began travelling on the continent, to Belgium, France, Portugal and Spain, for business and pleasure. It was probably on these foreign sojourns that he began to collect erotica. On 27 June 1862 he was married, in Hamburg, to Elizabeth Josephine Lavy, the daughter of a German Jewish merchant and his English wife. He was 28, she was 21 and his father-in-law’s wedding present to the couple was to set up a branch of his business in London with his son-in-law at the helm. Charles Lavy & Co premises were at 9 Bow Road and Ashbee soon proved himself to be a conscientious and competent manager of the family business. He initially settled his new family, he and Elizabeth were to have four children, three daughters and one son, in Isleworth but from 1865 they moved into 46 Upper Bedford Place, Bloomsbury, a short walk from the British Museum.   

The memorial Asbee did not want, in Kensal Green Cemetery

Ashbee was an obsessive bibliophile; his twin passions were for the works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and for the generally anonymous productions of the Victorian pornographic industry. While Mrs Ashbee may have occasionally been inconvenienced and irritated by her husband’s numerous dusty editions of the Novelas ejemplares and El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Manch, it is pretty certain that he was careful to keep his collection of more recondite literature a secret. In fact, he rented chambers three quarters of a mile away from the family home, at 4 Gray’s Inn Square, just to keep his erotica private. His chambers also served as a venue to hold weekly dinners where he entertained friends who shared his taste for curious and out of the way books. These friends included, Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), Algernon Charles Swinburne, Frederick Hankey and Richard Burton the explorer (Ashbee worshipped him); all of them had a predilection for the ‘English vice’ of flagellation. Generally speaking, aficionados of pornography are, by habit and inclination, wankers and Ashbee was no exception. Unlike his father, who had kept a mistress in town and fathered at least two children with her, Ashbee seems to have kept the majority of his erotic life in-between the sheets of the marital bed and in his imagination. His obsession found an outlet in the writing of The Index Librorum Prohibitorum: being Notes Bio- Biblio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books self-published in 1877, followed up by the Centuria Librorum Absconditorum in 1879 and the Catena Librorum Tacendorum in 1885. These bibliographies contained detailed résumés of the plot and contents of hundreds of pornographic works, liberally salted with long quotations and, of course, full publishing details of all the editions of the works in question. The 520-page Index was printed in large quarto on heavy toned paper using an array of different typefaces and decorative flerons, with the titles of the works under discussion printed in red, and an elaborate frontispiece. The 250 copies of the book were bound in red pigskin with the title and authors name stamped in gold on the spine.  

When we think of the Victorian middle classes as being upright this is not, perhaps, the image we have in mind 

Ashbee’s domestic life took an unfortunate turn as his children became older and Elizabeth grew tired of his fusty conservatism. He disagreed with his wife’s insistence on ‘excessive education’ for his daughters and her pro-suffragism. He disagreed with his son Charles over art and the modernist tendencies of the pre-Raphaelites. Charles was gay and although it is not clear whether he ever shared this fact with his father their relationship deteriorated once he reached adolescence. In arguments with his children his wife inevitably took their side and Ashbee found himself increasingly estranged from his own family. On the anniversary of his silver wedding, he noted in his diary “one of the most unhappy days I ever spent, let me forget it.” In 1891 Elizabeth moved out of the family home in Bedford square taking her two daughters with her. 18 months later, in January 1893, a formal Deed of Separation was drawn up making it clear that there was to be no reconciliation. Ashbee took his revenge after his death, via his will. The St James Gazette reported that “by his will, of the 28th June last, Mr. Henry Spencer Ashbee, of Fowler’s Park, Hawkhurst, and of 119 and 120, London-wall, F.S.A., great traveller, and a book collector and bibliographer, who died on the 29th July last, aged 66 years, leaving personal estate valued at £62,989 15s. 2d., bequeathed to the executors £312 year to allow to each of his daughters 40s. a week on her application for it, if she shall not be then living with a relation whom he named, and if the executors shall satisfied that such daughter, owing to illness, infirmity, or other circumstances, is unable to earn her own livelihood.” The carefully calculated insult of the 40-shilling allowance (no doubt to be handed over as 20 two bob pieces of silver) would only be paid if his daughters were otherwise completely indigent and were not living with their brother Charles. He left his collection of paintings and drawings to the National Gallery and the V&A and his collections of antiquities and curiosities to the British Museum. His curiosities included his books but he stipulated that the Museum could only keep his Cervantes collection if it also took his erotica; his pornography collection joined, indeed probably swamped, the famous private case in the museum library which swelled to over 4000 items after the bequest.          

Ashbee's bookplate featuring the visual pun of an Ash tree and a bee


I first came Ashbee in Ronald Pearsall’s 1969 classic work on Victorian sexuality “The Worm in the Bud.” Also of interest if you are remotely fascinated by the world of Victorian smut is Ian Gibson’s 2001 biography of Ashbee “The Erotomaniac”. Gibson’s book benefits from access to Ashbee’s diaries which had been kept in the family and not previously made public and from an acquaintance with Gershon Legman an expert on Ashbee that Gibson met in Provenced in the late 1970’s. Legman was convinced that Ashbee wrote “My Secret Life”, an 11-volume sex memoir ostensibly written by a gentleman called ‘Walter’ and published privately in the late 1880’s. Over 4000 pages and using more than a million words Walter describes in painstaking detail the sexual experiences of his entire life from adolescence to senescence involving hundreds of women and apparent total recall. Some believe the work is a genuine memoir, others that it is a work of erotic fiction. The original edition comprised a print run of just 25 copies of each volume; it was published in its entirely as a reprint in 1966 by the Grove Press in the USA but not until 1995 in the UK. Gibson was convinced of Ashbee’s authorship of the book by Legman and the second half of “The Erotomaniac” is spent presenting the heavily circumstantial case. Gibson believes that if Ashbee is the author then the book is a sexual fantasy from start to finish, as you would expect from a man who spent most of his spare time with his nose in a dirty book.   

Thursday, 25 March 2021

All die while I, a poor unprofitable worm, am still spared; "A History of Death in 17th Century England" by Ben Norman (Pen & Sword £12.99)


In 1673 the 49-year-old, ex-parliamentarian soldier, Sir Edward Harley had survived the restoration of the monarchy and was the MP for Radnor in the Cavalier Parliament. Judging by the tone of the “retrospect of his life on entering his fiftieth year” that he composed to mark his imminent half century, he was mildly surprised to find himself still alive; “O Lord! in thy hand is the breath of all mankind, and it is only God who holdeth our soul in life. But in most special manner I ought to praise my God, who preserved me from abortion at Burton-under-the-Hill.” Having made it safely through the dangers of childbirth, he narrowly avoided death during his childhood “from the chin-cough, measles, smallpox twice, and danger of drowning in the moat.” Adulthood proved to be equally as hazardous, “from many perils in the wars, particularly when my horse was shot, when my arm was hurt, when a muskett-bullett, levelled at my heart, was bent flat against my armour.” Then there were the “many dangerous falls on horseback I have had, specially when I was wonderfully preserved, my horse stumbling and falling into a ditch near Orleton, in frosty weather” and in 1647 “I was preserved from the plague, of which my servant died, and at the same time recovered from a dangerous pestilential fever.” There were more diseases to follow, a “long, lingering distemper” in 1649, a “grievous ague” in Devonshire in 1654, the gout and a rupture “by which I was for many years kept humble and from many temptations” which resisted the efforts of physicians and chirurgeons to cure it but which “it pleased God to heal…without any remedy whatsoever, so that I have been perfectly well for several years.” Apart that is from “in January at Westminster I was visited sharply with the griping of the gutts, but when I was under sentence of death it pleased God to cheer and raise me up.” God was so busy looking after Sir Robert that he had little time to take care of his friends “this year is now concluded to me in health, though it hath in every month of it been full of sorrow. Many dear friends taken away. After the death of Sir Robert Moray and my cousin Froysell, it pleased God to put an end to the pilgrimage of my brother Sir Robert Harley, Nov, 1673.” And the roll call of fatalities goes on, his friend Thomas Doughtie, in April Sir Edward Massie, cousin Bartholomew Beal, in August his niece Frances Fitz-James (“of the small-pox”), Thomas Treherne and cousin Reads wife (“both dead in the same day”) and now his sister Palmer “while I, a poor unprofitable worm, am still spared.” Sir Edward was clearly a man with a strong sense of his own mortality, who saw himself as engaged in a constant skirmish to evade the reaper’s scythe but the unprofitable worm battled on for more than another 25 years, dying at the advanced age of 76 on 18 December 1700. 

'I will survive' Sir Edward Harley full of vim and vigor in the prime of his life


Sir Edward Harley makes for an inspired opening to Ben Norman’s book on death in the 17th century, drawing together several of his themes; war, disease, mourning and the ever-present awareness of the impermanence of life and the imminence of death. That Sir Edward lived to what was then a ripe old age is beside the point; everyone in a society where the average life expectancy was a mere 38 years, where 13% of children died before they were a year old and only 20% of the population made it into their forties was on a more intimate footing with death than the authors lucky readers. Thomas Hobbes famously referred to life during wartime as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”; the century was a time of almost continual violent conflict but more people died from disease than from musket, canon, pike or sword. The first three chapters are dedicated to the Natural, Soldierly and Criminal Deaths; it is the first that seems particularly resonant now, the 17th century battles with pandemics seem much more apposite than their struggles over parliament and king, the plague seems more relevant to us than their politics. No one had to decree lockdowns 400 years ago, if anyone became ill with the sudden onset of fever, headache, and chills, and the unwelcome appearance of a painful bubo or two, their relatives, friends and neighbours immediately disappeared into their houses and bolted their front doors. When Lady Grace Mildmay contemplated the dead body of her husband her words would have brought a nod of assent from her contemporaries; “let me behold my corpse which lieth folden in searclothes, leaded and coffined here before me yet unburied and consider; he was as I am, and as he is, I shall be. His candle is put out, his fire is quenched and he hath made his bed in the dark.”   


The author makes excellent use of his sources throughout the book though on occasion he has a tendency to quote at length and then unnecessarily paraphrase the quotation, as though he entertains doubts about his readers ability to understand 17th century English. His chapters on the deathbed and on ‘corpses, coffins and carriages’ are the most entertainingly morbid. He reminds us of the day Pepys hears about his Uncle Roberts death whilst he is still in bed “so I rose sorry in some respect, glad in my expectations in another respect” and after buying a pair of boots in St Martins takes himself straight off to Brampton eager to hear what is in his uncle’s will. He arrives at the family home to find “my uncle’s corps in a coffin standing upon joynt-stools in the chimney in the hall; but it begun to smell, and so I caused it to be set forth in the yard all night.” Or the case of Jane Thompson;

Getting a body into a coffin could be easier said than done in this period, especially if disease had left it in a bad way. Oliver Heywood remarked on the coffining of the drunkard Jane Thompson with unconcealed disgust in 1664. The stench alone was said to be intolerable. Frankincense was burned in the room where the corpse rested to alleviate the stink, doing very little, and the awful fumes had soon affected every room in the house. The women who were tending to Jane’s body feared that it would burst as they made the necessary preparations for her committal.  The coffin, a ‘huge great’ thing, was quickly brought in but her corpse was so enlarged from liver disease that the lid of the coffin would not close properly, forcing those present to bind it shut with cords.


My one disappointment with this book was that I had hoped, perhaps unreasonably, that the author might be able to shed some light on the growth in popularity of headstones during the 1600’s but this is all we get;

It was in the latter years of this century that headstones first began to be erected in English churchyards in significant numbers, in part due to the burgeoning desire from humbler men and women to be remembered in stone as their aristocratic counterparts were in churches. Designs remained mostly basic and devoid of eccentricity, echoing the status of the individual buried in the grave below.

Headstones are now such an accepted part of funerary culture that it is hard to imagine a time then most graves were not marked; there doesn’t seem to any satisfactory explanation for their sudden appearance in churchyards in the late 1600’s and why they started to appear all over the country at around the same time. If I set this one cavil aside this is an excellent and useful introduction to the subject. Ben Norman is a first-time author and I suspect a relatively young one. I cannot imagine that he received much editorial assistance from his very prolific and busy publisher but he seems to have managed pretty well on his own; his book is well structured, fluently written and highly readable.     

Thursday, 18 March 2021

'Hanged by a Harlot'; Frantisek Kotzwara (1740-1791), St Lukes, Old Street, EC1


In the 1790’s the parish clerk at St Lukes in Old Street neatly recorded baptisms and burials every month in one conscientiously kept register. He was more thorough than most, recording the date of birth not just the date of the christening and the occupation of the father as well as the names of both parents; far more information than you would normally expect in a parish register. For the burials he did not record the age of the deceased as was common practice elsewhere but simply noted that they were ‘a child’, ‘a woman’, ‘a man’ or, occasionally, ‘a lad’ or ‘a youth’. Very unusually though he did note a cause of death. In September 1791 there were 42 burials and parishioners generally seem to have died, as they did in most other months, of some sort of infectious disease. Twelve of them succumbed to consumption, nine, mainly children, died of convulsions, four of smallpox, three of fever and two of dropsy. Three children died because of their teeth and one is recorded as ‘peralitic’ (paralytic perhaps?). There is one ‘sudden death’ noted and one ‘decline’ but only three parishioners died because of their age. One entry leaps out though; on 6 September one Francis Kutzwara, ‘a man’, was buried and his cause of death recorded as ‘Hanged by a Harlot’.



František Kočvara was born in Prague in 1730, or maybe 1740, or perhaps 1750; no one seems to be completely sure. Biographical details are sketchy to say the least; everyone agrees that he was a musician and a composer and that he died by hanging but every other quoted fact about his life seems open to dispute. The first edition of the Oxford DNB (volume 31 1892) says that “he seems to have led a vagabond life in Germany and Holland previous to 1784, when he was attracted to England by the Handel commemoration in Westminster Abbey, in which he took part as a member of the band.” Other sources say he came to England in 1775, and that he may have lived in Bath in the early 1780’s. All sources say he was in Ireland in the late 1780’s and first published his most celebrated work, a sonata for piano, violin and violoncello entitled ‘The Battle of Prague’, in Dublin in 1788.  The DNB says that in Spring 1792 he was travelling on the continent and François-Joseph Fétis “then a boy of eight years old,” and later a well-known Belgian musicologist, “describes a visit which Kotzwara paid to his father at Mons. After Kotzwara had heard Fétis play a sonata of Mozart, he invited him to play at sight on the harpsichord his ‘Battle of Prague.’ Fétis's father accompanied him on the violin, and Kotzwara himself on the 'cello.”  Fétis’ recollection must be faulty as we know that Kotzwara had been buried in the churchyard at St Luke’s for at least 6 months by this time. The DNB also says that “he was very versatile, and played a great number of instruments with fluency if not distinction” and gives the following account of his death which is wrong in almost every particular; “he was, however, as dissipated as he was clever, and on 2 Feb. 1793 he was discovered hanging in a house of ill-fame in Vine Street, Covent Garden. He had been making experiments in hanging in the company of some half-drunken women, and his death was the result of an accident; the parties implicated were arrested, but were ultimately acquitted.” The DNB lists its sources as the Imperial Dictionary of Biography, Reissmann's Musikalisches Conversations-Lexikon, Champlin's Cyclopaedia of Music, Grove’s Dictionary of and Brown's Dictionary of Musicians then goes on to say that “the five last-mentioned authorities all give the date of Kotzwara's death wrongly as 1791”(!)  Official records show that Kotzwara died on 2nd September; an inquest was held the following day by Coroner Thomas Prickard. The 18 men of the jury decided that one Susannah Hill, a single woman of the Parish of St Martin-in-the-fields “not having the Fear of God before her Eyes but being moved and seduced by the Inquisition of the Devil,”  had, with “a Certain piece of small Cord which she…then and there had hold in both her Hands about the neck of him the said Francis Kotzwara and into a certain Iron Staple in the Door Post in the Lodging Room or Apartment of her…being in Vine street…did put fix tie and faster and that she with the cord aforesaid…wilfully and of her malice forethought did hang suffocate and strangle…the said Francis Kotzwara [who] then and there died.”

Often cited as a portrait of Kotzwara this is from the cover of an American edition of 'The Battle of Prague' and almost certainly not a likeness

One of the many rumours which surrounds this case is that the official court papers were destroyed to hush up the scandal caused by Kotzwara’s death. I found the Coroner’s papers with little difficulty and as for keeping the matter quiet, it was widely reported, in some detail, in the newspapers. This account of the trial of Susannah Hill appeared under the headline ‘A Singular Occurrence’ in the Hampshire Chronicle of Monday 12 September 1791;

A CASE of a most extraordinary nature was examined into at the public office in Bow-street on Friday night last.— it shews that, whatever may be asserted of the depravity of human passions, yet the most extravagant propensities may be. believed.

Susannah Hill was examined on suspicion of strangling Mr. Kotzwara, No. 35, Berwick-street; Soho. Being interrogated by MrAddington she gave the following account of herself. She was born at Frome, in Somersetshire and that about ten years ago, she came to London to get into service, and lived in various families. About three years ago, a young man, whose name is Fentum, persuaded her to leave her place, and live with him as his wife, which she did, in King-street, Drury-lane, and bore him three children. He then deserted her; and eight months ago, she took lodgings at No. 5 Vlne-street, Chandois-street, and walked the streets- for the purpose of obtaining a livelihood, like many other unfortunate women.

On Friday last, while she was fitting in the parlour-window, both of which apartments she rented, the deceased, whom to her knowledge she never saw before, passed the Window and came in, as the street door was open. He sat down, and asked if she would have anything to drink and she chose to have porter; but, as he said he preferred brandy and water, they had of that two sixpennyworths.

Mrs. Hill had been eating some beef for dinner, and the table was still covered with plates, knives, &c. Mr. Kotzwara was guilty at this time of some indecencies, rather in his own person than that of the prisoner; and, finding he could not accomplish what he desired, he expressed a wish that Mrs. Hill would castrate him; but she declined it. He then pulled open the bottom of his shirt, and shewed her many red scars on is breast and belly; which he said were the marks of cuts which women had made at different times by his desire.

Mr. Kotzwara requested Mrs. Hill to go out and purchase some beef and ham, for which he gave her two shillings; some porter, for which he gave her one shilling and a rope, for which he gave her a fourth shilling; adding; that he would have dinner with her and then she should hang him. Mrs. Hill accordingly purchased those articles but he complained that the rope was too small, and made her buy another. They went into the back parlour together; and, as there was not a more convenient place, he fastened the two cords, formed as one, in the bolt-catch of the door, which is not more than four feet and a half from the ground. He put the rope about his neck, and gave the woman a guinea upon condition that she would pull tightly and let him hang about five minutes, as he said that would satisfy his passion, arid women had often, done it to him. In less than five minutes she cut him down, and, as he appeared motionless, she washed his face with porter; then called for assistance; two surgeons were brought, but all their efforts were fruitless, for Mr. Kotzwara was dead.

Mr. Tapp, the deputy high Constable, and other witnesses, confirmed as much as it was possible for them to know of the woman's evidence, and particularly as to the height of the place on which he was hanged, and as to the scars on his breast, which appeared to have been done a long time ago. A young man said that the fruit woman who sits at Johnson's court, Charing-cross, told him that the deceased had been there, among the number of prostitutes who reside in that celebrated place, and had offered any of them two guineas to cut off his ears, but none of them would oblige him. One of them, however, ran a penknife through his ear, and, by his desire, many of them tied his legs together, and, rolled him in the kennel in the court. Mr. Addington, who entered  into this examination with an earnestness and minuteness that does him honour, was particular in enquiring if any one could, prove that a third person was in the room the time Mr. Kotzwara was hung up; but nothing of that kind appeared in evidence, and the magistrates observed, that, although it was a very lamentable and shocking case, yet, it was not proved that the woman had assistance, it was evident she alone could not hang the man against his will, and consequently she must be innocent. The unfortunate man was a German, and was a musician,' and very eminent in his profession. He came from Ireland about a year since, being engaged by Sir John Gallini for the Haymarket Opera-house, where he played the tenor the whole of the last season. The coroner and jury, after viewing the body, adjourned to a neighbouring public-house, and debated on their verdict till one o'clock in the morning, when they returned with a verdict— Guilty of murder, but not intentionally.

St Luke's, Old Street, with unusual steeple designed by Hawksmoor. 

The details of Kotzwara’s botched attempt at erotic auto-asphyxiation have never been entirely forgotten but they reached a wider public in 1984 when an article entitled The sticky end of Frantisek Koczwara, composer of “The Battle of Prague” by William B. Ober appeared in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Ober had followed up a reference in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians entry on Kotzwara to an anonymous written pamphlet published for the author by J. Dawson of Red Lion Street in 1791, Modern Propensities; or, an Essay on the Art of Strangling &c illustrated with several Anecdotes, with Memoirs of Susannah Hill and a summary of her trial… The 48-page booklet consists of an essay on the aphrodisiac effects of strangulation, the supposed memoirs of Susannah Hill (the tone of which can be judged from the opening line ‘Love has made so many wretches, that young people cannot be too frequently warned of its dangers.’) and an account of her trial which follows, word for word at times, the account given in the newspapers. A frontispiece shows a well-fed and curly haired Kotzwara sitting on the floor of Susannah’s apartment holding a bottle and a rather delicate glass with a satisfied smile on his face. Susannah, showing ample cleavage, busies herself adjusting the cord wrapped around his neck and attached to the door handle. The essay on the art of strangulation credits the discovery of the erotic effects of asphyxiation to the Ordinary of Newgate who was always present at executions to minister to the spiritual needs of the condemned. Seeking to save their souls “he often prevailed upon those under his Spiritual care to appropriate to charitable uses such residues of ill gotten property as remained with them at the approach of dissolution” but “as from the great and instructive experience of his office, he had frequent causes to doubt the veracity of his flock, he never failed to look sharp at their breeches pockets, even to and after the last convulsive struggle of life.” It was whilst examining the breech pockets of hanged men that he discovered that four fifths of them “were scarcely suspended between heaven or earth. or in other words launched into eternity, than they evinced certain emotions and commotions, which agreeing with the lines in our title page proved that all that liveth must die to live again.” Having observed the “invariable effect of strangulation” upon his charges, the ‘half emasculated’ Ordinary felt compelled to try it out for himself and confirmed that throttling inevitably produced “titulation in the generative organs”, the blood, impeded in its regular route, rushing to “animate and invigorate the machinery of procreation”.

Most on-line accounts of the case claim that Kotzwara tried to get Susannah Hill to castrate him by offering her a shilling. In the version of the trial given in Modern Propensities the text says that after drinking brandy and water in her sitting room “they went into a back room, where several acts of the grossest indecency passed, in particular he pressed her to cut off the means of generation and expressly wished for it to be cut in two.” The newspaper version of this scene is slightly more explicit saying that Kotzwara “was guilty at this time of some indecencies, rather in his own person than that of the prisoner; and, finding he could not accomplish what he desired, he expressed a wish that Mrs. Hill would castrate him.” Presumably Kotzwara was masturbating and was unable to either achieve an erection or to reach a climax. If this is correct his suggestion that Susannah castrates him seems more likely to be a joking expression of frustration than a perverse sexual request. In most modern retellings Kotzwara is also having intercourse with Susannah when he dies and she only realises he is dead when they finish copulating!  In the contemporary accounts Kotzwara offers her a guinea to pull the cord tight for him and leave him hanging for five minutes, an offer too good to refuse as there seems to have been no suggestion of her having to have sex with him.  In 1970 music critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote an article on Kotzwara for the New York Times, discussing his remarkable death and concluding;  

The “unfortunate—if not lamented” Koczwara lived on through his “Battle of Prague,” a work that for some 50 years far exceeded the Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes in popularity. But none of the sweet young ladies who strummed the battle piece, with expression, knew anything about the life and death of Franz Koczwara, which, under the circumstances, was just as well.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

More dead babies, a suicidal Frenchman, the one eyed widower and the scandal of pauper funerals; City of London Cemetery, Aldersbrook, E12


I first came across newspaper accounts of dead babies being dumped in cemeteries a couple of years ago.  That was at Margravine Cemetery in Hammersmith and I assumed that these were incidents specific to the location and not a general phenomenon. But I’ve since come across similar stories in West Ham, Highgate and now at the City of London Cemetery in Ilford. The children are generally newly born and they are usually found in either wooden boxes or tied up in brown paper parcels. On 7th January 1905 the Essex Guardian reported on the inquest “concerning the death of a newly-born child, which was found on Saturday afternoon near the fence of Ilford Cemetery —the City of London cemetery near Ilford and Manor Park.” Frank Hudson of 7 Sheringham Avenue in Manor Park had been walking past the cemetery at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the direction of Wanstead Park when he “got on same railings to look at a funeral in the City of London Cemetery, and there saw a brown paper parcel lying on the ground. He was curious to know what it contained, but as he had his little girl with him, he could not get over the fence, and a young fellow passing got over and got it. Then they found it contained the body of a child. A man and woman were passing so he asked them to send along a policeman if they saw one. After waiting about a quarter of an hour, he decided to go to the police station. When he returned for the parcel he found part of the paper had been burnt.” As Mr Hudson had not noticed that the paper had been burnt before he left the parcel to go fetch the police the foreman of the jury was much perplexed and insisted on the jury examining the paper in which the body of the baby had been found. He asked Mr Hudson to clarify; “When you went to the station you left the body and it must have been burnt whilst you were away?” Mr Hudson agreed. The Coroner asked him if he had been smoking? “No,” he replied “I did not feel much like smoking then.” When no further light could be shed on the mystery of the burnt paper PC. Harman and Dr Battersby Jobson, the Divisional Surgeon were called to give evidence. Dr Jobson “deposed that he examined the child. It was the body of what appeared to be a healthy female child and had evidently been dead about twenty-four hours. He made a post mortem and found the organs healthy. There was evidence that the child had been born alive, but that it died from exposure and neglect.” The Superintendent of the Cemetery was called next and said “this was the second similar case in eighteen years.  The Coroner however said he had another similar case the next day.”



I was unable to trace the other case mentioned by the cemetery superintendent but I did find another story in Reynold’s Newspaper on 4th June 1865 in which the people who had left a dead baby at the cemetery were actually caught and for once we get some insight into the circumstances which led to the abandonment of the corpse. The dramatic headline was ‘Suspected Child Murder’ but it seems no one was ever arrested or charged with the crime;

An inquest was recently held at the Rabbits Inn, Ilford, before C. C. Lewis, Esq., coroner, touching the death of George Punchard, whose body was found in a coffin, thrown into the City of London Cemetery. The inquest had been adjourned in order that a postmortem examination might be made of the body, and for the production of certain parties who had been accomplices in the affair. The facts of the case are briefly as follows: —On the evening of the 16th of May, about dusk, two men and two women, with a horse and cart, were seen loitering about in a suspicious manner near the railings of the cemetery. Next morning a coffin was found containing the body of the deceased about twelve yards from the palisades. The officers of the ground set a watch, and removed the coffin. The next day (Wednesday 17), two men, answering the description of the two men that had been seen on the previous evening, were again seen loitering about, and on being questioned, and their answers not being satisfactory, they were summoned to appear before the coroner. These men were Robert Hollis, a basket maker, residing at 33, Old-Street, St. Luke's, the reputed father of the child by an illicit intercourse with a married woman, named Rosina Punchard, who had been living apart from her husband, and residing at 9, Free Ellen-court, Redcross street, in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. The other man was Samuel Barker, residing at Finsbury, the owner of a horse and cart, whom the parties had engaged to carry the body away. On the first day of the inquest, both these men positively swore they knew nothing of the affair, and had not been near the cemetery on Tuesday. At the adjourned inquest, the evidence showed that the child had died of convulsions through inanition. The two men, Hollis and Barker, admitted having taken the coffin on Tuesday, and thrown it over the railings of the cemetery, but said they intended to have it buried the next day. The woman Punchard seems to have behaved in a most heartless way to the child. The jury, after a short deliberation, returned a verdict that the deceased died in convulsions from inanition, but whether those convulsions were brought on by natural causes, or whether the inanition was brought on by neglect or natural weakness, there was no evidence to show. The coroner said the men Hollis and Barker, ought to be indicted for perjury, but he could not undertake the trouble of prosecuting them. There was great want of a public prosecutor. He suggested, however, that the City of London Cemetery Company should take the case in hand.

Rosina Punchard, the mother of the child George, was just 26 years old. She had married William Punchard, an American from Missouri, at St Alphage’s on London Wall when she just 19. George was her fifth child and was her second to die on the day it was born. 



On 25 July 1896 the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser reported to its readers on an attempted suicide in the cemetery on the 29th May by a 35 year old French national. He had spent two months in West Ham hospital recovering from shooting himself in the head but then found himself in court accused of what was then still the crime of attempted suicide. A surgeon from the hospital tried to persuade the magistrate to send the poor man back to the hospital but instead he was remanded in custody at Holloway prison. His stay was mercifully brief – he was back in front of the magistrates the following Saturday and the newspaper gave a fuller account of the affair on the 1st of August;     

THE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE IN THE CEMETERY. PRISONER BEFORE THE MAGISTRATE. The strange tragedy which occurred at the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park on May 29, when in the early morning a Frenchman, whose identity was unknown, was found lying against the wall inside the grounds, dangerously wounded, with a revolver beside him, was reviewed on Saturday at Stratford Police Court. The victim, who gave the name of Joseph Febert, aged 35, was charged with attempting suicide. —ln the interval of almost two months, the unhappy young man had been an inmate of West Ham Hospital. —It may be remembered that close to the accused’s body was found a little heap of torn and partly burned papers, which suggested that efforts were made to destroy identification before the revolver was used. —James Smith, labourer, said that at five o'clock on the morning of May 29, as he was passing the cemetery, he heard a groan, and looking through the railings saw the prisoner sitting down by one of the graves. He was smothered with blood by his side was a revolver. Witness got a constable, and when they got inside the cemetery prisoner was leant against the wall insensible. —Constable Short, 677 K, who was called by Smith, said the revolver had six chambers. Three chambers were loaded and two had been recently discharged, the sixth being empty. A lot of ashes, evidently of burnt paper, were lying about. Witness conveyed prisoner to West Ham hospital and he was detained there till the morning of July 21, when he was apprehended on a warrant. —Dr. Woolright, house surgeon. said prisoner regained consciousness about an hour after admission. He had a bullet wound in his right temple and the bullet is still embedded in the head. He is now all right except for a slight paralysis of his legs. His friends in Algiers had sent money to pay his passage home, and in the case of his discharge, the hospital authorities would see that he was sent back safely. —Prisoner still seemed far from strong, and in reply to the bench Inspector Cawley said some papers were found on prisoner, in one of which was a statement that he had been robbed of 5,000 francs by a woman. There was an address in France, and a letter sent to that had been returned by the British Consul, and a second letter had not been replied to. —After consulting with his colleagues. Colonel Howard (chairman) addressed the prisoner in French, telling him he would be discharged. Prisoner then rose from the seat with which he had been accommodated, and exclaimed in French "I thank the English courts and doctors, and the whole of the English in general, for the kind treatment I have received."

Two years later it was homeless, one eyed widower William Cuttle (clearly a man, as Albert King would say, who had been born under a bad sign, and "if he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all") who tried to kill himself at his wife’s grave side with a home made ‘death draught’. Like the rest of William’s efforts to improve his lot, it ended in failure;   

QUEER DEATH DRAUGHT. William Cuttle, who has only one eye and no home, has had no luck since his wife died, two-and a-half years ago. For a long time he could get no work, and when he did get a job he used to have fits of despondency. On June 24 he had a particularly acute attack of depression, and decided to commit suicide. Wherefore he mixed in a pint bottle a death draught, consisting of 9d, worth of precipitate powder and half a quartern of whiskey. Having quaffed this fearsome concoction, he deposited the bottle on his wife's grave in Ilford cemetery, and then made his way to Romford-road Police station. To Constable Carter, who was on duty, he told the story of his desperate act, and was at once taken to Dr. Stocker, who administered emetics with the happiest results. On Monday the one-eyed widower was charged at West Ham with attempting to commit suicide. Having expressed his sorrow and promised never to do it again, he was discharged. (Bridgnorth Journal and South Shropshire Advertiser. - Saturday 16 July 1898)



In November 1895 a widely reported case was heard at Whitechapel County Court by His Honour Judge Francis Henry Bacon, who had a reputation as a bit of a wag and whose court was consequently regularly packed by journalists hoping for an amusing story. A Mrs Bush who had been recently bereaved and had commissioned a photographer to take a picture of her husband’s grave found herself the victim of courtroom innuendo and featured in newspapers the length and breadth of the country, this is from the Stonehaven Journal of the 28th November;  

A TEMPTING BAIT There was an amusing case beard before Judge Bacon, at Whitechapel County Court, London, when Mrs Bush, comely widow, claimed the return of 12s 6d paid by her to a photographer named Martin for taking photograph of her late husband's grave. Plaintiff said she made arrangements to be photographed at her husband’s grave at Ilford Cemetery. She agreed to meet defendant there, and he never came. She waited until the cemetery closed, and was not photographed at all. Defendant—She never told me Ilford Cemetery, she told me the Manor Park. I took my camera there, and waited for her for hours. (Laughter.) Judge Bacon —You must have made the mistake. She would know where her husband’s grave was. You will have to return the money. I suppose she wanted to be photographed weeping at her husband’s grave. (Laughter.) That would have been a tempting bait for another man. (Roars of Laughter.) Defendant—That was the arrangement. I should have made splendid picture of it. (Laughter.) The Judge— You will have to give this woman back her money and pay costs. It was your mistake.



Complaints about the manner in which funerals were conducted at the City of London Cemetery almost always related to pauper funerals, the poor interred at the cost of the parish. In many poorer areas the parishes had significant purchasing power because of the number of pauper funerals they paid for and the Guardians, ever on the watch for opportunities to keep the poor rates as low as possible, drove hard bargains with the cemetery companies and the undertakers to get the cheapest deals possible. As a result, funerals were often careless and hurried and the poor were buried in the least desirable areas of the cemetery in common graves with several unrelated individuals sharing the same space. All the professionals who had a hand in pauper burials received smaller fees and consequently were generally less diligent in their duties than they would usually be as this story from February 1886, published in the Luton Reporter shows:

THE BURIAL SCANDAL AT ILFORD. At the weekly meeting of the City of London Union on Tuesday, under the presidency of Mr. Alfred Lyon, Chairman, the Clerk (Mr F.W. Crane) read a letter from the superintendent of the City of London Cemetery at Ilford, in reply to a communication from the board relative to the burial a poor person named Robert Heath. The writer forwarded an explanation from the Rev. J. Hayes the officiating chaplain at the cemetery, to the effect that the funeral cortege arrived there at 12.30pm, and he told the driver that he was "too late” but he would perform the ceremony at two o'clock. The men then drove down the cemetery, and had the body laid in its grave, after which he drove away, taking the poor widow, who was the only mourner, with him. In the afternoon the chaplain "duly read the service over the body," and the rev. gentleman added that he would gladly repeat the whole ceremony at the grave should the poor widow desire it (Voices: "Oh!”). —lt was asked in the course of the subsequent discussion whether the burial service would be repeated in the presence of the widow. —Mr. Beedell, C.C., said that it had already been done.

Clergymen who were reluctant to put off their luncheon for a poor funeral and undertakers who were too busy to hang around for lunching chaplains and dropped coffins into graves without benefit of clergy were the tip of the iceberg. Complaints from the Whitechapel Union made the Guardians send a couple of clergymen, one C of E and the other RC to get a balanced view, to find out what pauper funerals were like at the City of London cemetery. Their report did not make comfortable reading as reported in the Chelmsford Chronicle in August 1898;

ILFORD CEMETERY SCANDAL HOW PAUPERS ARE BURIED. SHOCKING SCENES AT THE GRAVESIDE. For same time discontent has prevailed among the poorer classes in Whitechapel Union at the way in which some of the funerals have been conducted at the City of London Cemetery, Ilford. At last, the Guardians deputed two of their number, the Rev. W. H. Davies and Father Murphy, to visit and see for themselves. These gentlemen have presented their report. It stated that they visited the cemetery and found that fourteen funerals were taking place from various Unions. With the exception of three the bodies were not taken out of the hearses into the church, the only Unions that provided bearers for this purpose being the City of London and the Holborn Unions. Consequently, it was only over these three bodies that the first portion of the funeral service was read. The mourners and friends of the others lingered outside the church, preferring evidently to be outside with their dead than inside without them. The doors of the chapel were closed during the service, though there was more than sufficient room in the chapel for all the mourners assembled. Alter the service was over, the bodies were placed in the hearse and all were taken to the place of burial. The graves were side by side, and trouble arose over identifying the dead. The clerk called over the names of the dead, and if their friends happened to be near enough, they heard who was being buried. In cases, mourners followed the wrong bodies. There was an utter absence of solemnity at the graveside and there was an unfitness of things in general. The committee recommended that in future all bodies be taken into the chapel, that the board provides bearers in sufficient numbers for this to be done, that better name plates be placed on the coffins and that representations be made to the cemetery authorities that the service be read over the whole of the bodies at the same time…The Rev. W. H. Davies said the scene at the graveside was most indecorous and painful. It seemed that the men handled the bodies much in the same manner as they would handle bales of cotton on board ship.


Thursday, 4 March 2021

"One of the two natives of Botany Bay is dead, his companion pines much..."; Yemmerrawannie Kebbarah (1775-1794) St John the Baptist, Eltham

Lisbon 27 July: They write from Rio de Janeiro that on the 6th of February there arrived in that port the English ship named the Atlantic. Captain Bowen who had made a most happy voyage from the port of Jackson in New South Wales had made his passage through the Pacific Sea, skirted Cape Horn and afterwards arrived at Rio de Janeiro, all in less than 58 days. Travelling in the said ship was Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of that remote possession that is already showing great promise of becoming a grand colony. This celebrated official (well known, for having served in the Portuguese Navy) amongst the many animal curiosities and collections of the products of nature also brought two native men of the new country, well proportioned and of a similar colour to the blacks although with less curly hair. They are of a docile disposition, always willing to oblige when asked to show their dances and their other peculiar customs, and have a great facility for the pronunciation of Portuguese. The said ship will continue its voyage on 3rd of March.

Notícias históricas de Portugal e Brasil, Volume 1 - Manuel Lopes de Almeida, (Coimbra - 1964)

St John the Baptist in Eltham has a very large, and wildly overgrown, churchyard but the only memorial to attract much interest these days is a plain grey late 18th century headstone which has been removed from the original grave site and now stands propped against the bricks of the churchyard wall. The inscription reads ‘In Memory of Yemmerrawanyea, a Native of New South Wales, who died the 18th of May 1794 In the 19th Year of his Age.’ Yemmerrawannie was a member of the Eora nation who came to be part of the household of Arthur Phillip the first Governor of New South Wales. He was brought to England by Phillip along with an older man Woollarawarre Bennelong in 1793. 

Lieutenant Bradley's water colour of the capture of Bennelong and Colebee

Nothing is known of Yemmerrawannie’s childhood or how he came to be in the service of the Governor. His friend Bennelong had been abducted from his community on the orders of the Governor in November 1789 by Lieutenant William Bradley who later said “'it was by far the most unpleasant service I was ever ordered to execute”, and painted a watercolour showing the moment when a small group of British soldiers wading in the shallow waters of the Parramatta river manhandle Bennelong and another man Colebee, into a waiting skiff where just one man stands with a musket while the rest are at the oars eager to make a getaway. Along the banks a throng of spear wielding Aboriginal warriors menacingly make their way to the waters edge and their canoes to try and rescue their compatriots. Bradley somehow made it out alive from this unpromising scenario and made it back to Sydney Cove with his captives.  Bennelong became a key figure in the fraught relations between the British and the Aboriginal people of the coast and was forgiven even a misunderstanding that led to the accidental spearing of Governor Phillip at a whale feast in 1790. Our first glimpse of Yemmerrawannie comes in the journal of Captain Watkin Tench who in September 1790 describes him as “a slender fine looking youth ... about sixteen years old.” The fine looking youth was missing a front tooth which had been bashed out with a stone during an initiation ceremony during which he had “`suffered severely” according to Tench but still “`boasted the firmness and hardihood, with which he had endured it”. The ceremony had made him eligible to marry and the colonists did their best to match-make by encouraging him to make advances to an Aboriginal girl called Boo-ron who lived with the family of the Rev. Richard Johnson. Tench relates what happened next; “the lad, on being invited, came immediately up to her, and offered many blandishments, which proved that he had assumed the toga virilis. But Abaroo disclaimed his advances, repeating the name of another person, who we knew was her favourite. Imeerawanyee was not easily repulsed, renewing his suit later with such fervour as to cause an evident alteration in the sentiments of the lady.”

Governor Phillip at Sydney Cove

When Governor Phillips returned to England in 1793 he took Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie with him. He seemed to have been nursing the idea of taking Bennelong for some time; in 1791 he had written to Sir Joseph Banks “I think that my old acquaintance Bennillon will accompany me whenever I return to England and from him when he understands English, much information may be obtained for he is very intelligent”. The decision to take Yemmerrawannie may have been more last minute. The three set sail from Sydney Cove on the convict transport HMS Atlantic on 10 December 1792. They reached Rio de Janeiro on 6 March and rested there until 3 March before continuing the voyage. On 3 April, the Atlantic crossed the equator and the usual naval ceremony on crossing the line took place with ‘Neptune’ appearing on deck in homespun regalia and the ribald crew coaxing the startled Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie to touch it. HMS Atlantic reached Falmouth on 21 May and Governor Phillip immediately made his way to London with his two charges.  

Governor Phillip has brought home with him two of the natives of New Holland, a man and a boy. The Atlantic has also on board four kangeroos, lively and healthy, and some other animals peculiar to that country. From the description given of the natives of Jackson’s Bay, they appear to be a race totally incapable of civilization, every attempt to that end having proved ineffectual; and yet they discover an astonishing art and cunning in their mode of fishing, and entrapping the kangeroo and birds, the only animal food to be found there. Specimens of their fishing-tackle, spears, and shields, are likewise brought home in the Atlantic. They are ingeniously contrived, and the natives are said to use them most expertly; but no inducement, and every means have been perseveringly tried, can draw them from a state of nature. Cloathing they consider as an incumbrance, and every European production they treat with the utmost indifference. They are cruel, particularly to their women, whom they beat in a most barbarous manner on every occasion.

Hereford Journal - Wednesday 05 June 1793


Initially the two Australians were moved into board and lodging costing 3 shillings a day with a servant in attendance and a washerwoman to launder their clothes. Governor Phillip also spent £30 on a new wardrobe for them; both were dressed fashionably but identically in one of two coats “(one green and one of pepper-and-salt mixed cloth), a blue and buff striped waistcoat, a pair of slate-coloured ribbed worsted knee breeches, silk stockings to wear with the breeches, two pairs of fine cotton under-waistcoats faced with spotted muslin dimity, a fine double-breasted spotted quilting waistcoat, a pair of drab-coloured striped breeches and a pair of botelles each.” (Jack Brook, 2001). In July they moved with a Mr Waterhouse, of Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, and the services of a `Reading Master' and a `Writing Master' were acquired to school them. In horse-drawn coaches and carriages the pair were taken, just like any modern tourist, to see the marvels of London; the Tower, St Paul’s, boating and bathing in the Serpentine (the latter activity not recommended these days) and on 15 August, resplendent in new gloves and walking canes they were escorted to Sadler’s Wells Theatre where they saw acrobats, a stirring military re-enactment called ‘Honours of War or The Siege of Valenciennes’ whose finale was the storming and surrender of the town to British troops, followed by a tightrope walker and ending with a comic entertainment called ‘Pandora's Box or The Plagues of Mankind’. By September it was clear to even casual observers that something was not right with the two men; they were seen walking near Mount Street looking frail and dispirited, unable to walk ‘without the support of sticks’ and looking ‘scarcely human’. Yemmerrawannie in particular appeared ‘much emaciated’, said the Observer, adding “they seem constantly dejected, and every effort to make them laugh has been for many months ineffectual”. In October they were taken to Parkinson’s Museum on the Blackfriars Road for an educational outing where they were seen by a 19 year old Robert Jameson who noted in his diary that they had “large mouths, thick lips and ill formed legs” and “seemed to affect a kind of cheerfulness that was far from being real”. 

The production of silhouette portraits was much in vogue in the 1790's - this one was made of Yemmerrawannie whilst staying with the Waterhouses. 

Just a week after their visit to the museum both men were driven down to Eltham in what was then rural Kent to stay at the house of Mr Edward Kent, presumably in the hope that in the fresh air and bucolic atmosphere of SE9 would set them on the road to recovery. Yemmerrawannie was the real cause for concern but both men rallied enough to return to London in early December. It was a mistake and in the cold and noxious atmosphere of London Yemmerrawannie was soon ill again and his concerned guardians called in a Dr Blane to see him. Dr Blane put all the resources of 18th century medicine at his patient’s disposal; the young Australian was purged, poulticed, bled and blistered. He was prescribed daily draughts of aloes, scammony, and extract of colocynth, he was prescribed Dr. Fothergill's Pills and he was given concoctions of bark and ‘decoctions sepcatic’. He was given laxatives, he was leeched, he was given every treatment the good doctor could think short of surgery but still the young man insisted on sinking daily into an even graver condition. Despite his sickness he insisted on accompanying Bennelong on the never-ending educational visits, to the Houses of Parliament, to Covent Garden and to the theatre. At the end of April a post chaise was hired to take them back to Eltham; Yemmerrawannie was now very seriously ill indeed. He died on 18 May 1794 and was buried three days later. The entry in the burial register reads `May 21. Yemmorravonyea Kebarrah, a Native of New South Wales, died May 18 1794, supposed to be aged 19 years, at the house of Mr Edward Kent'.  Jack Brook says “This is the only documentation on which the word `Kebarrah' appears. Bennelong would be the only person to have suggested the addition of the name, one undoubtedly of some significance. Dixon et al (1990:154-5) explain kebarrah as `an Aboriginal male who has been initiated into manhood [or] the ceremony in which such an initiation takes place'”. He was buried in the churchyard and a headstone was purchased for the grave; it cost £6 6 shilling and sixpence. On 31 May the Oxford Journal reported that “one of the two natives of Botany Bay, who came over with Governor Philips is dead. His companion pines much for his loss.” Bennelong returned to Australia in July sailing out with the new Governor, Vice-Admiral John Hunter.  

Yemmerrawannie's entry in the burial register of St Jophn the Baptist, Eltham


Sunday, 28 February 2021

If you see a hearse go by; the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, E12


If you see a hearse go by, you know one day you are going to die
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
They wrap you in a big white sheet, then bury you down six feet deep
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
They put you in a wooden box, and cover you up with mud and rocks
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they go in thin, they come out stout
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
Your skull caves in, your belly bloats out, your brains come trickling down your snout
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!

Anon

After 9 months of staying at home, interacting with anyone outside my household via a laptop screen, wearing a face-mask whenever I was likely to be close enough to another human being for them to breath on me and singing ‘happy birthday’ to myself on the 20 occasions a day I wash my hands, all my efforts were in vain as at Christmas SARS-CoV-2 caught up with me anyway and I finally succumbed to Covid 19. By the 10th February I hadn’t been out of the house for almost six weeks and was desperate to escape for a few hours. It had been snowing for a few days, not particularly heavily but enough to cover the ground with a thin layer.  Because there was a biting north-easterly wind the temperature felt sub-zero but the sun was out and close to the ground and away from the wind chill factor the temperature was above zero and the snow was beginning to thaw. I was keen to get some cemetery photos in the snow but as always I had left it a little too late. Still the bright winter sun was pleasant even if my fingers felt threatened by frostbite. 


It is a 40-minute walk from my front door to the City of London cemetery in Aldersbrook Road. I was just a few streets away from home when I came across a horse drawn hearse being readied for a funeral.  It was pristine white, with gleaming etched glass windows, drawn by a pair of lightly dappled greys with white manes and tails and ostrich plumes on their heads. The carriage driver was busying himself checking everything was in order before the undertakers brought out the coffin. I used to work half a mile from the cemetery in Manor Park and horse drawn funerals were a reasonably common sight but I’ve never seen a white carriage before. If there is a horse drawn funeral in the east end the undertaker is likely to be T Cribb & Sons, carriage masters, whose head office is in Beckton. When I checked their website, it did look like this was one of theirs; “White horse-drawn hearses pulled by either black or grey horses are very rare; they are most popular with the younger generation or those with religious faiths” it said. The firm specialises in restored Victorian carriages – their pride and joy is the only original Shillibeer mourning coach still in use in the UK.  The white coach didn’t look Victorian and it certainly didn’t look restored. It looked suspiciously new in fact. A little investigation soon revealed that white horse-drawn hearses are not rare at all – undertakers all over the country now offer their clients the use of exactly the same model. A few more google searches and I find out that the “coffin carriage is designed and manufactured by DST Exports” whose official factory address is Dakala Road , Near Sheesh Mahal, Opposite Government Fish Ponds, Patiala 147001, Punjab, India. On their website they say that Royal Look White funeral carriages “are especially for our Foreigner clients to give a warm last goodbye to their loved ones. A horse-drawn hearse carriage can be a more traditional tribute to your loved one, adding a real sense of occasion to the funeral. This is White Western look funeral carriage. These carriages are totally handmade and very strong for long life.” Price only on application unfortunately so I don’t know how much they cost. 



The City of London cemetery opened for business in June 1856 but was only consecrated in November 1857 because the Bishop of London was unwilling to conduct the ceremony until all of the 108 wrangling parishes in the City had reached agreement. The following month an anonymous correspondent of the London City Press went to visit the cemetery, publishing his account of the day out in the 2nd January edition of the paper;

We took advantage of one of the sunny December days to steal quietly into the Ilford Cemetery, and look, leisurely around upon the place where the majority of the City people will take their final rest. The slanting, and amber-tinted rays of the sun fell softly on the broad spaces of green turf, and the wrens, and thrushes, and robins, warbled among the branches, with no sound, save that of our own footsteps, to mar their melodies or disturb them in performance their requiems. Contrasted with the clean City pavements, that always seem to be warmed by the rapid and unceasing tread of hurrying feet, these green slopes and broad gravel walks, -untenanted by either the living or the dead, for, save ourselves and the birds, we saw not a single human being there, —contrasted most strangely, and we could not help reverting, in idea, to the future, when hundreds of stone memorials will dot the ground, and in place of the broad, unruffled carpet of turf, the ground will be heaved up into pillows, suggestive of the many who have sunk to rest there, while labour will find its daily task in the melancholy work of gravedigging.



The man from the City of London Press would still be able to find his way around the cemetery, the general plan of the place hasn’t changed much in 163 years. Two crematoriums have been added, one in 1901 and a new, modern, more efficient, and, it has to be said, ugly cremation facility was added in the 1970’s. His estimate of ‘hundreds’ of stone memorials turns out to be a slight understatement and there are now more than 150,000 graves, most of them being some sort of stone marker. Almost all graves contain more than one body and it is estimated that they have around 600,000 occupants. As the cemetery was used extensively in the late 19th by the City parishes for the mass reburials of human remains from emptied crypts, cleared churchyards and demolished churches some authorities estimate that in total almost a million people have been buried here. And that total grows daily, particularly at the moment; it is a relatively busy cemetery at the best of times and it is not unusual to see funerals taking place. I spent a couple of hours there and was surprised to see separate funerals using both the Anglican and non-denominational chapels and both old and new crematoriums. I counted six funerals while I was inside and there was another cortege pulling up at the main gates as I was leaving. Only Covid could account for so many burials and cremations. I have no idea whether I was there on a particularly busy afternoon or whether the cemetery is like this every day as it goes about the business of quietly disposing of the victims of the pandemic in East London.  

Away from the bustle of the city and the daily preoccupation with the getting and spending of money our anonymous correspondent from the London City Press found the in deserted cemetery found himself brooding on mortality. In the empty catacombs he encountered only one occupant, the ironically named Mrs Hasluck whose luck had apparently deserted her that year;   

Walking down to the catacombs, we were startled out of our loneliness by the loud and mysterious reverberation of footsteps, which increased as we progressed, and which we presently discovered to be the result of the semi-circular form of the structure and its embankments, producing one of the most distinct and impressive echoes I ever remember to have heard, and fitting the mind for the strange lesson of life's fleetness which those numerous unoccupied compartments suggests. Who amongst the busy throng, now pushing aside the swinging doors of banking houses, now debating in Corporation or Vestry, now driving hard bargains in the market, and now squaring up the accounts of the past year, will be entombed within those narrow cells before 1858 shall close? There is but one name there yet—it is that of Mrs. Hasluck: it will not be so long. Death knows no rest; Time knows no pause; and the halest and the hopefullest among us, may, at this moment, have at least one foot placed on the threshold of eternity! God, in His mercy, hides the future from us, and every successive minute of our lives is veiled in impenetrable obscurity!

Memento mori are no longer in fashion but, if you see a hearse go by…