Monday, 31 May 2021

'Say what a Wife should be and She was that'; The Great Churchyard, Bury St. Edmunds

Committed taphophile that I am, when I visited Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk the sight I was most keen to see was John Baret’s famous cadaver tomb in St Mary’s church.  Baret was a wealthy merchant who died in 1467; his monument was already in the church waiting for him at his funeral as it had been completed 4 years earlier to his own detailed specification. The design is unusual with the shrouded and emaciated cadaver taking centre stage on top of the tomb; most English cadaver tombs show the skeleton or cadaver beneath an effigy of the deceased as he was in life. Alas Covid 19 restrictions meant St Mary’s was closed except for Sunday services even though across the great churchyard the former St James, now the Cathedral, was open and allowing visitors. The churchyard took the edge off my disappointment; it is large, it is old (founded as a burial site in the early 12th century) and it still contains 1200 memorials many of them from the late 18th and early 19th century. The part containing most of the headstones has been allowed to revert back to nature and it was hard to see them in the waist high cow parsley that now covers them. I missed many of the best ones (I really should do my research before I visit) but the ones I did see were impressive. And it was a beautiful day, after a month of almost daily rain and temperatures that struggled to get into the low teens the sun came out in a perfect blue sky and the thermometer hit 20C, spring at last.  

Turning into the churchyard (of Bury Cathedral), which is a beautiful place, you may see the shapeless ruin of the charnel-chapel, a good view of the north side of St. Mary's with the Notyngham porch, and a fine old house of 1730, once the "Clopton Asylum," now devoted to Church uses. In this churchyard it was that on New Year's Day of 1722 Arundel Coke, barrister, invited his brother-in-law Edward Crispe to take a stroll after supper; and had a man waiting with a bill-hook, who fell upon Crispe and hacked him and left him for dead.

Coke went back to his house and said that Crispe would be in shortly, and spoke more truly than he thought, for soon afterwards Crispe did crawl in covered with blood. He was mended up, and Coke and his accomplice Woodburne were tried under the Coventry Act for slitting Crispe's nose. Coke's defence was that he did not intend to slit Crispe's nose, but to kill him; and was insistent to know whether the nose could be said to be slit within the meaning of the statute, when the edge of it was not cut through. Lord Chief Justice Sir Peter King was of opinion that it was duly slit, and Coke was hanged.

M.R. James - Suffolk and Norfolk - A Perambulation of the Two Counties (1930)

The attempted murder of barrister Edward Crispe is the most famous incident that took place in the churchyard. Crispe lived in the churchyard with his wife; his assailants were Arundell Coke his brother-in-law and fellow barrister and a hired assassin; a local thug called John Woodburn. The Whitehall Evening Post of January 18 1722 described the accusation against Coke;

Mr Crispe has charged him with enticing him out of his House, where he and his Wife had been at Supper, into the Church Yard, hard by, on pretence of visiting one Mrs Monk, against whose House Mr. Coke forced him up the Wall and held him while he was knock'd down by a Man, who came up upon a whistle given by Mr. Coke, who bid him strike, which he did with a Hedge bill, or Hook, such as they crop Trees with. One Woodburn a Labourer, a Man of an infamous Character for a common Thief, was suspected to be the Person that committed this barbarous butcherly Act.

Crispe’s injuries were horrific; they were described at Coke’s trial by Sturgeon the surgeon, who had attended him on the night of the attack;

Mr. Sturgeon the Surgeon deposed, that being sent for, came to Mr. Crispe at Coke's, about 11, found him wretchedly cut in seven Places; first from the Right ear thro' the cheek to the Upper lip, just under the nose whereby his Teeth were laid bare, the Jaw-bone damaged, and his Cheek hanging down to his shoulder.  Another on the double Chin, a very deep wound, from the extremity of one Jaw-bone to another. It will be tedious to describe the other wounds, only that of the nose because it was the Gift of the indictment. It was not downwards, nor quite overward; for the ridge of the Nose was not touch'd. Only on the Right side of the Nose, where the Nostril begins to stand out, it was cut through, so one might see into the Nostril ; but neither Bone nor Gristle was cut or dannified.  The Wounds not healed were all opened and shown to the Court and Jury.

Coke and Woodburn were prosecuted under the Coventry Act against malicious maiming with intent to mutilate. Their defence, ingenious but fatally flawed, was that they were not guilty because their intention had been to murder Crispe rather than mutilate him. They were found guilty and were the only two men ever to be executed under the act.

As we walked through the churchyard in the evening, we found ourselves in the company of a hooded figure who swore and screamed, not at us apparently, but at some voice only audible to himself. With no boundary walls or fences the churchyard has long been a place of resort for the citizens of Bury with no better place to go. A concerned citizen wrote to the Bury and Norwich Post in August 1882;

THE CHURCHYARD at BURY ST. EDMUND'S. Sir,— lt is rather a painful contrast to pass from the interior of either of the beautifully restored Churches of St. Mary or St. James, where the wants of the living worshippers are so well cared for, into the adjacent Churchyard, where the neglected forefathers of the town sleep. The Churchyard seems a mere play- ground for children, and the graves and tomb- stones are a lounging- place, if not worse, for idle men and women. Various remedies suggest themselves; the several plots of the Churchyard could, at no great cost, be enclosed with iron railings; or a proper recreation ground could be provided for the youth of Bury. It would surely be better to apply to the Bishop for permission to make the Churchyard into a public garden for the use of the town, than to see it as it is sadly and shamefully desecrated, whilst pretending still to be hallowed ground. In common, I doubt not, with many others, it would be a pleasure to be allowed to help forward a project which would conduce to the com fort of the living and the honour of the dead, and I venture to press the subject in your columns, because I can sign myself, Your obedient servant, A NATIVE OF BURY ST. EDMUND'S. 11th August, 1882

There were further complaints in the newspaper and in 1886 a leader commented that attempts to deal with the behaviour of the ‘idle men and women’ of the town who used the churchyard had been given up by the council a few years previously because the problems were ‘insurmountable’. “Since then,” the journal said “the evil has certainly grown less obnoxious; perhaps we might say it has not increased. To this end one or two things have contributed, notably the opposition offered to the licensing of the Six Bells, and the action of the Church in transforming that property to its present laudable use. But the snake is only scotched: it is not killed, and that, for the honour of Bury, is what is required. There are those in the town, doubtless, who would favour a scheme of inclosure, and to that it may be necessary to resort. So much opposition would be aroused by this, however, that it is just as well to see if there is not some less heroic method. We believe there is, and have no hesitation in mentioning it. Make it a matter of police, and the abuse can be stopped in a fortnight. Let the magistrates show by two or three sharp convictions that they are determined to keep the churchyard free from the characters who resort to it, and the evil will sink to very small proportions.”

The great churchyard is noted for the quality of its epitaphs, most of which are sadly now illegible, wind, rain and frost having taken their toll on the headstones. A memorial tablet on the external wall of St Mary’s reads:

to the Memory of
Mr. Thos.  Dorling
and Mary his wife
He died Febry. 4th. 1754.
She died May 8th. 1740.
Say what a Wife should be
and She was that.

The churchyard contains the remains of a 13th century charnel house (once used to store the bones of the disinterred dead, moved to make space for fresh burials) which is now covered in memorial tablets. The most famous belongs to a young girl killed by lightning;

Here lies interred the body of
Young Maiden of this Town
Born of Roman Catholic Parents
And Virtuously brought up
Who being in the act of Prayer
Repeating Her Vespers
Was instantaneously killed by a flash
Of lightning August the 16th 1786
Aged 9 Years

And one for a printer who died in 1818;

Here lies the remains of L. Gedge, Printer.
Like a worn-out character, he has returned to the Founder,
Hoping that he will be re-cast in a better and
more perfect mould.

A military epitaph; 

The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of Tuesday 25 December 1821 reveals this possibly apocryphal epitaph from the great churchyard;  

The following Epitaph appears on a stone in the church-yard Bury St. Edmund's:— Here lies Jane Kitchen, who when her glass was spent She kick’t up her heels, and away she went.

I’m sceptical because on Saturday 19 January 1861 a correspondent to The Suffolk Chronicle or Weekly General Advertiser & County Express attributed a very similar epitaph to one Joan Butcher:  

To the Editor of the Suffolk Chronicle, Mr. Editor, —You had some peculiar epitaphs in a recent number. I send herewith some equally peculiar:— Formerly in the Churchyard at Bury St. Edmund's. Here lies Joan Butcher, who, when her breath was spent, Kicked up her heels and away she went.

By 1883 Jane Kitchen or Joan Butcher had become Deborah Dent, and her epitaph was being reported in various newspapers including the St. Andrews Gazette and Fifeshire News on 17 February: A churchyard near Bury St Edmunds has the following couplet : Here lie, the body of Deborah Dent, She kicked up her heel. and away she went.

Burial records for the great churchyard list none of the three heel kickers as having been buried there.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

"By flaming tortures tried" ; Elizabeth Pickett (1758-1781) St Mary's, Stoke Newington

The most remarkable tomb in the church yard is that of the late Alderman Pickett's family. It was erected by the alderman in memory of his father and mother: it commemorates also the melancholy and untimely fate of his daughter Elizabeth, who died Dec 11 1781 “in consequence of her clothes taking fire the preceding evening”. The inscription adds “Reader if ever you should witness such an afflicting scene, recollect that the only method to extinguish the flame is to stifle it by an immediate covering.” Alderman Pickett, who is known to the public as the projector and promoter of the plan for widening the streets to the west of Temple bar, was buried in the family vault at Stoke Newington Dec 24th 1796.

Daniel Lysons “The Environs of London” (second edition, 1811)

Although I have written before about St Mary’s in Stoke Newington I did not come across the story of the death of Elizabeth Pickett (or Piggot as she is recorded in the burial register) until I read about it in Jean Sprackland’s excellent “These Silent Mansions”. When I found myself in Hackney a couple of weeks ago because of work I could not resist paying a quick visit to the churchyard to search out the grave (which for once I found without too much difficulty). The Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 17 December 1781 gives a full account of Elizabeth’s horrific death;

On Monday night, a Miss Pickett, daughter of Mr. Pickett, Ludgate-hill, was standing by the fire, a spark flew unobserved upon her apron, which almost in an instant set it in a blaze, and communicated to her gown, handkerchief, and cap, with the most alarming rapidity. Unhappily there was no person in the room at the time but Mr. Pickett, who, for a few moments, was bereft of all sense and motion, in this situation the unfortunate young lady flew to him for relief, and at length roused from a situation no words can describe, he struggled (at the imminent hazard of his life) to stifle the flames, and save his child; the fire was extinguished with much difficulty , although several people, who were in the house, alarmed at the noise, had come to their assistance. The unfortunate young lady was immediately carried to her bed, where she remained for twelve hours in the most excruciating torture, and then expired.

Elizabeth’s father was Alderman William Pickett, a successful goldsmith who became Lord Mayor of London in 1789. As Daniel Lyson’s noted in 1811 the Alderman was best remembered for his scheme to improve communication between Westminster and the City by removing Temple Bar and widening the Strand. He died in 1796 and joined Elizabeth in the vault beneath the chest tomb. An encomium in the Monthly Magazine for December 1796 states that the tomb was erected by the Alderman “on the melancholy death of his daughter Elizabeth and also in memory of five other children viz Thomas, Thomas, Anne, Edward and George who died in their infancy.” The Magazine says that on the North side on the tomb is the epitaph for Elizabeth;

So unaffected, so compos’d a mind
So firm, yet soft, so strong, yet so refin’d
Heav’n, as pure gold, by flaming tortures tried:
The angel bore them, but the mortal died

Elizabeth's surname is recorded as Piggot in the St Mary's burial register

After losing five children in infancy and watched his 23-year-old daughter burn alive perhaps Alderman Pickett’s death was hastened by the final straw of the news of his remaining son’s death earlier in 1796. An inscription on the tomb reads:  Lieutenant William PICKETT, in the Honb East India Company’s Service was slain by Pirates on board the TRITON in the Bay of Bengal on 29th June 1796, aged 36 years. The date of death is not correct as newspapers were reporting on the capture of the Triton by pirates and the death of several of her crew as early as the 4th June. Lieutenant Pickett was an army man and may have been returning to India after a period of sick leave in England. Most accounts say the attack on the Triton took place on the 10th February.  The Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal of Tuesday 26 July 1796 describes how the Triton fell into the hands of French privateers;

CAPTURE or the TRITON. We have been favoured with a Gazette from the island of Mauritius in which is stated at length the particualrs respecting the capture of the Triton , from the declaration of the captain of the Modeste, French privateer, upon oath, before the Assembly at the Isle of France.  

“The Captain of the Modeste, of 18 guns, cruising near the Braces in January and February last, had taken several prizes laden with rice, &c among which were three pilot schooners, one of which they armed, and -cruized in company until the beginning of February, when the Triton coming from Madras, was supposed to be an American ship, conducting to Calcutta by one of the pilots.

The Modeste supposing her to one of the large country ships, hoisted American colours, and the schooner English; under this deception they stood towards the Triton, with a determination to board her from the schooner, with 17 or 18 picked men from the Modeste; she ran along-side,' lashed her bowsprit to the Triton's fore-chains, and boarded with all her men, without meeting the least refinance; the Triton not perceiving that they were French until they were actually on deck.

Capt. Burnyeate, instead of ordering all hands upon deck, commanded them to take to their guns below. At this instant the Frenchmen cut away all the port ropes, and a skirmish immediately commenced upon deck. We shall not wound the feelings of our readers repeating the unfortunate confluences that attended it.

The French Captain speaks highly of Lieut. Pickett, who defended himself to the very last moment with great gallantry, in one the pantries on the quarter deck, when he was at length killed by a ball from a pistol. As soon as the pirates had complete possession of the deck, the people below, supposing the French to more in number than they were, surrendered themselves prisoners and were secured in irons to the number of one hundred and-fifty. The privateer lost one killed, and one was slightly wounded.”

The Modeste sailed for Mauritius with her prize in something of a hurry as they had not realised, until it was too late, that they had boarded an English man of war.  Fearing a pursuit by the navy and the inevitable hanging that would follow being captured they took another English ship the following day, the Harriet, ransomed her (in other words made the Captain hand over all valuables on board) and transferred the 150 British prisoners on board. When Charles Pippon the fourth mate of the Triton finally arrived in London in July, he immediately reported to India House to give his account of the affair. The newspapers reported that “to the determined bravery, and gallant, though unsuccessful resistance of Lieutenant Pickett he gives the most warm and decided eulogium – this spirited officer had killed one of the pirates, and wounded another, when a ball from a pistol put an end to his existence.”  

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Hung, drawn and quartered; the cruel fate of Colonel Francis Towneley (1709-1746) St. Pancras churchyard

I came across this bucolic view of Old St Pancras church, with the old west tower and lead cupola, in the London Picture Archive. Dated June 7th 1756 the watercolour shows a periwigged gentleman in a blue frockcoat, pink breeches and felt round hat and a woman with voluminous yellow shirts and matching wide brimmed bonnet who fans herself as they take in the rustic view of the church from the South West, enclosed by a low wall and surrounded by trees, with the hills of Hornsey and Haringey in the distance. Even at this early date most of the headstones in the churchyard incline several degrees from the vertical and many look almost at the point of toppling over. Only one epitaph is visible, the unlikely sounding ‘Here lies the mangled remains of Francis Townley’. The artist, Henry Townley, had an eventful day out; an annotation at the side of the picture says “On returning across the fields to Holborn I was stopped by footpads but escaped by wounding one when the other ran off.” Henry was clearly not a man to be trifled with. At the bottom of the picture, he explains that “this sketch of St. Pancras church done by me on return to England upon seeing my poor Brothers Grave who was disgracefully murdered for taking arm in support of his exiled Prince at Culloden.” The mangled remains Colonel Francis Towneley were buried at St Pancras on 31 July 1746 the day after he had been hung, drawn and quartered along with 8 other Jacobite rebels at Kennington. As his bowels had been drawn and burnt whilst he was still alive and his head was removed to a spike on Temple Bar there would have been relatively little of him to inter in the churchyard. I wondered if this is why the parish burial register notes that his relatives were only charged a ½ fee for the vault to be opened; a discount applied by a considerate sexton because the deceased’s mortal remains were incomplete? Further examination of the register brought further examples of half fees to light, so perhaps not.       


Francis Towneley was born in 1709 at Towneley Hall in Burnley, the fifth son of staunch Catholics Charles and Ursula Towneley, His uncle Richard had joined the Jacobite army at Preston in 1715 and had been taken prisoner when the town surrendered. When he was put on trial a local jury acquitted him, revolted by the news of Colonel Oxburgh’s brutal execution at Tyburn. At the age of 18 Francis went to France and accepted a commission in the French army.  According to Walter Thornberry he served the king of France “for fifteen years, being at the siege of Philipsburg, and close to the Duke of Berwick when that general's head was shot off.” He returned to England in 1740 and joined the rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, accepting a commission as a Colonel in the Manchester Regiment. Francis was foul mouthed, “his fashion of hard swearing called forth an impromptu rebuke from one of the townsmen” according to Albert Nicolson in the DNB. He was also a dandy; at the retreat from Derby he rode a bay horse, had a white cockade in his hat and wore a plaid sash. When the Jacobite army fled to Scotland Towneley and the 114 men of the Manchester Regiment remained at Carlisle with 200 Scottish troops to somehow impede the progress of the Duke of Cumberland and the Redcoat army. Colonel John Hamilton was left in charge and surrendered the garrison almost as soon as the town came under siege. 

A curious old print of 1746, full of vulgar triumph, reproduces a "Temple Bar, the City Golgotha," representing the Bar with three heads on the top of it, spiked on long iron rods. The devil looks down in ribald triumph from above, and waves a rebel banner, on which, besides three coffins and a crown, is the motto, "A crown or a grave." - Walter Thornbury  

Towneley and the other Jacobites went on trial in London on 13 July 1746. Inevitably they were all convicted and the officers condemned to death for high treason. The execution took place on 30 July at Kennington in front of a crowd of thousands. This account appeared in the Derby Mercury on 01 August:      

At the Gallows they were not attended by any Minister, either of the Protestant or Catholick Religion. All the Assistance they had in their last Moments was from Mr. Morgan, who read to them Prayers and other pious Meditations, out of a Book of Devotion to which they all seemed very attentive, and behaved with a great deal of Seriousness. When they had finished their Devotions every one of them took some written Papers out of the Book which Morgan had in his Hand, and threw them amongst the Mob, The Contents of the Papers were, that they died in a just Cause; that they did not repent of what they had done, and doubted not but their Deaths would be revenged; with several other treasonable Expressions. They were then tied up to the Gallows, and in about five Minutes the Executioner cut down the Body of Mr. Townley, and laid it on a Stage for the Purpose. The Body being stripped, and laid at Length, having some Signs of Life in it, the Executioner struck it several Blows on the Breast, then cut off his Head, took out his Bowels, and flung them into the Fire near the Gallows. The next he cut down was Counsellor Morgan, which he laid on the Stage, and served in the fame manner; and so, of the rest, till he had finished the whole Execution. Dawson was the last; and when the Executioner had thrown his Bowels and Heart into the Fire, the Spectators gave three loud Huzzas, and at the same time crying out, God bless King GEORGE, and all the Royal Family.

A satirical print showing the heads of Towneley and Fletcher engaged in conversation on Temple Bar

According to Thornberry in front of the huzzaing crowd of Hanoverian loyalists a “monster — a fighting-man of the day, named Buckhorse — is said to have actually eaten a piece of Towneley's flesh, to show his loyalty”. The fiancée of one of the other men executed, James Dawson, was reputedly so traumatised by seeing her lover executed that as he was disembowelled, she cried out "My dear, I follow thee — I follow thee! Lord God, receive our souls, I pray Thee!" and died on the spot. Low farce followed high tragedy that day at Kennington – the hangman and his assistant had so many heads to juggle with that the crowd lost track of which belonged to who and began to lay bets on which was Colonel Towneley’s. Apart from the Colonel the decapitated bodies were sent for burial at the Foundling Hospital; the heads were covered in pitch and Towneley and Fletcher’s were sent to Temple Bar to be impaled on spikes. The rest were despatched to the north to be displayed in Manchester and Carlisle. On August 15th Horace Walpole, wrote to a friend telling him about an excursion into the city where he had "passed under the new heads on Temple Bar, where people make a trade of letting spy-glasses at a halfpenny a look."  On 20 January 1766 a man was arrested by the watch according to the Gentleman’s Magazine; “between three and four in the morning a person was observed discharging musket balls from a steel cross bow at the two remaining heads upon Tempie Bar.  Upon searching him above fifty musket balls were found in his pock wrapt up in a paper with this motto Eripuit ille vitam.” Thornbury says “on being questioned by the puzzled magistrate, he affected a disorder in his senses, and craftily declared that the patriotic reason for his eccentric conduct was his strong attachment to the present Government, and that he thought it not sufficient that a traitor should merely suffer death; that this provoked his indignation, and it had been his constant practice for three nights past to amuse himself in the same manner.”

"Orator H-y laying the Independent Rump Ghosts" a satirical print of a solicitor refusing to take the oath of loyalty to King George and an arse explaining the consequences of "see what you shall all come to". Towneley is one of the ghosts in the background, dressed in a winding sheet and reunited with his head.

The headless trunk of the gallant Colonel Towneley, a Lancashire gentleman of long descent, who commanded the Manchester regiment the Pretender’s service, was buried in old St. Pancras churchyard. The Colonel’s head was, I have heard, until very lately, preserved in a glass case in the drawing-room of London mansion, the property of a lineal descendant of the ill-fated Jacobite gentleman who was slaughtered at Kennington. I think that this interesting relic has since received reverent interment.

Illustrated London News - Saturday 25 October 1879

The two heads remained upon Temple Bar until the early 1770’s when first one and then, a few days later, the other were worked off their spikes by a particularly brisk wind and dropped to the ground. The Towneley family obtained possession of one of the heads, the one presumably that they judged to belong to Francis. Katharine Grant, a lineal descendent, wrote in the Guardian in January 2014 (and in many other places and at many other times) about the fate of the ancestral head; 

Pitch being an efficient preservative, and making allowances for weather and birds, Frank was in pretty good nick. Such good nick that in due course he was taken back to the patriarchal home, Towneley Hall, Burnley, and stuck behind the panelling in the family chapel, where he remained until central heating precipitated relocation. Resettled in a basket, and loosely shrouded by a napkin, he moved to the sideboard in the dining room to be passed round with the port. Perhaps he proved unpopular with guests, for he didn't last on the sideboard. In the end he was popped into a hatbox and returned to London, to Drummonds Bank in Trafalgar Square. It wasn't until after the second world war that he travelled north again, still in his hatbox. By that time, Towneley Hall had been sold to the Burnley Corporation, so my great-grandmother received him at Dyneley, the agent's house, to which the family had removed, and from there he was buried in St Peter's church along with other relations.

“Squire Ketch in Horrors”, a pro-Jacobite satirical print of 1750. Executioner John Thrift is confronted by his Jacobite victims, including Lovat (front), Kilmarnock and Balmerino (immediately behind Lovat) and Towneley and Fletcher, their heads on spikes at the rear

Sunday, 25 April 2021

The Myth of the Hardy Tree; Old St. Pancras Churchyard

I cycle past St Pancras churchyard every working day of my life, yet it was only when I spotted a windswept group of prelates and parishioners one day that I paused to go inside. The Bishop of London was presiding over an event outside the small Norman church. It was as I wandered round the back of the building that I came across the Hardy Ash.

In the 1860s, the writer Thomas Hardy had been apprenticed to an architect, Arthur Blomfield, in Covent Garden. The building of the nearby Midland Railway had disrupted many of the graves in the churchyard and Hardy was tasked with making an inventory and reburying them. He stacked the headstones round a convenient ash tree. Then he seems to have moved on before the job was finished.

What remains is the scene he left, save for the extraordinary development of the tree, which has wrapped itself around the headstones as if to prevent anyone ever attempting to move them again. Each is numbered with a Roman numeral, and I like to think Hardy may have carved the numbers himself.

The Hardy Ash represents a wondrously direct and organic connection with history, but it is also the most beautiful artefact.

Jon Snow ‘The Great Trees of London’ 2010

The Hardy Tree has become one of the great myths of London; how the young novelist supervised the clearing of the churchyard and the stacking of the headstones around an Ash tree. Jon Snow even imagines him personally chiselling roman numerals into the sides of the stones. The information board by the tree is a little more circumspect, saying that “the headstones around this Ash tree (Fraxinus Excelsior) would have been placed here around” the time Hardy was supposedly overseeing the exhumations in the churchyard. There is no evidence that Hardy had anything to do with the tree named after him but even so I had, like most people, assumed that the gravestones had been arranged around the tree in the first place. It was with something of a jolt therefore that I came across a photograph of “St. Pancras churchyard and it’s disturbed gravestones” in ‘Wonderful London’ a book edited by St. John Adcock and published in 1926. The caption to the photo mentions the Midland railway Company obtaining an Act in 1863 allowing them to build a viaduct over the churchyard and says “the rockery made of tombstones is a result of the headstones being removed and ‘dumped’”. The photograph shows the familiar circular arrangement of headstones but with one significant difference; there is no tree! In 1926 the Hardy tree did not exist. The tree, presumably self-seeded, has grown since the late 1920’s and is less than one hundred years old.

The St. Pancras headstones photographed in 1926 for 'Wonderful London' 

Hardy himself wrote quite a detailed account of his involvement with the exhumations at Old St. Pancras published in the biography supposed penned by his wife Emily; ‘The Early Years of Thomas Hardy’. The account makes it clear that Hardy was not responsible for overseeing the exhumations, that was the duty of a Clerk of Works. Hardy was instructed to drop by in the evenings to keep an eye on the Clerk of Works and make sure that all was proceeding an in appropriately seemly manner and report back to Blomfield if it was not. The passage is worth quoting in full;

Mr. Blomfield (afterwards Sir Arthur) being the son of a late Bishop of London, was considered a right and proper man for supervising the removal of human bodies in cases where railways had obtained a faculty for making cuttings through the city churchyards, so that it should be done decently and in order. A case occurred in which this function on the Bishop’s behalf was considered to be duly carried out. But afterwards Mr. Blomfield came to Hardy and informed him with a look of concern that he had just returned from visiting the site on which all the removed bodies were said by the company to be reinterred; but there appeared to be nothing deposited, the surface of the ground lying quite level as before. Also that there were rumours of mysterious full bags of something that rattled, and cartage to bone-mills. He much feared that he had not exercised a sufficiently sharp supervision, and that the railway company had got over him somehow. ‘I believe these people are all ground up!’ said Blomfield grimly.

Soon there was to occur a similar proceeding on a much larger scale by another company; the carrying of a cutting by the Midland Railway through Old St. Pancras Churchyard, which would necessitate the removal of many hundreds of coffins, and bones in huge quantities. In this business Mr. Blomfield was to represent the Bishop as before. The architect said that now there should be no mistake about his thoroughly carrying out the superintendence. Accordingly, he set a clerk-of-works in the churchyard, who was never to leave during working hours; and as the removals were effected by night, and the clerk-of-works might be lax or late, he deputed Hardy to go on evenings at uncertain hours, to see that the clerk-of-works was performing his duties; while Hardy’s chief himself was to drop in at unexpected moments during the week, presumably to see that neither his assistant nor the clerk-of-works was a defaulter.

The plan succeeded excellently, and throughout the late autumn and early winter (of probably the year 1865 or thereabouts) Hardy attended at the churchyard — each evening between five and six, as well as sometimes at other hours. There after nightfall, within a high hoarding that could not be overlooked, and by the light of flare-lamps, the exhumation went on continuously of the coffins that had been uncovered during the day, new coffins being provided for those that came apart in lifting, and for loose skeletons; and those that held together being carried to the new ground on a board merely; Hardy supervising these mournful processions when present, with what thoughts may be imagined, and Blomfield sometimes meeting him there. In one coffin that fell apart was a skeleton and two skulls. He used to tell that when, after some fifteen years of separation, he met Arthur Blomfield again and their friendship was fully renewed, among the latter’s first words were: “Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St. Pancras?”

The Hardy Tree (1960) by Frederick Wilfred

Despite my best efforts I was unable to find any other photographs of the gravestones without the tree or even the gravestones with an immature Ash growing between them. Perhaps this isn’t surprising; Ash trees can grow surprisingly quickly and a sapling can turn into a mature tree in as little as five years. The London photographer Frederick Wilfred took a photograph around 1960 of two little girls clambering along the top of the gravestones, one of them holding onto the already full grown tree that had sprouted up in the middle. John Gay took a similar picture, this time of a boy perched on top of the gravestones and leaning for support on a noticeably larger tree in the early 1970’s.  The tree grew at some point between the late 1920’s and the early 1960’s but I could not find any evidence to exactly pinpoint when. Nor could I find anything before the 1990’s to link the tree directly with Thomas Hardy.  The 1975 ‘Harrap’s Guide to Famous London Graves’ by Conrad Bailey features a rather good photo of the tree by Philip Sayer but the text on St. Pancras does not mention Hardy at all; “with the building of the railway from St. Pancras station, part of the burial ground was ploughed up and the headstones placed in the churchyard” is all it says. In 1978 in A Guide to London Churches’ Mervyn Blatch says “when the Midland railway encroached upon the churchyard, Thomas Hardy, the author, worked as an architect's apprentice in supervising the reburial of other remains in a pit and it may have been this experience which gave him his preoccupation with churchyards in his novels.... Many of the old headstones are arranged radially round a tree.” Although there was a comment about Dickens between the two sentences their proximity to each other is the earliest tenuous linking (entirely unintended) of Hardy and the tree. In ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ Iain Sinclair tells us that he was working on a long London poem provisionally entitled RedEye and gives an extract from the abandoned work (‘May 16, 1973: at St Pancras Old Church. Drawn against the repetitive boredom of the pavements to investigate the building – its slight eminence….’) which goes onto to mention Hardy and his supervision of the exhumations and “his ever-recurrent interest in churchyards”.  Later he describes the photographer Marc Atkin’s fascination with the Hardy tree “with its cluster of surrounding headstones – like a school of grey fins circling the massive trunk, feeding on the secretions of the dead.” This was in 1997 which is as close as I can get at this stage to the naming of the Hardy tree – sometime between 1978 and 1997.

Photograph by Philip Sayer

My guess would be that the arrangement of the headstones was not carried out in the 1860’s when the railway works were carried out. It seems more likely that it dates from around 1877 when the old burial ground was converted into a public garden. The work would have involved clearing all the headstones from the St Giles burial ground and perhaps that was when someone came up with the radial arrangement. In 1896 Mrs Basil Holmes in ‘The London Burial Grounds’ mentions that “there are many high stacks of tombstones in the garden, and a ‘trophy’ and a ‘dome’ of headstones, numbering 496, which were taken from the part acquired by the railway.” The dome seems a good description of the Hardy tree’s headstones (without the tree).

In August 2019 Camden Council announced that “the Hardy Tree has been infected with a parasitic fungus. As a precaution, we have installed a temporary fence around it, but cut back the hedge to allow people to continue to view the tree.” The temporary fence is still there nearly two years and there are fears that the tree is infected with Perenniporia fraxinea, a pathogen that can kill its host. The tree was coming showing signs of coming into leaf when I was there a couple of weeks ago but its days may be numbered. 

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

'His death was occasioned by puncturing his finger, while sewing up a dead body'; William Bingham (1793-1821) St Giles burial ground,


Here [St. Giles burial ground] also were interred the remains of William Bingham, surgeon to the Fever Hospital, Pancras-road, who departed this life May 3lst, 1821, aged 28 years. 'His death was occasioned by the puncturing his finger while sewing up a dead body.'

Frederick Miller: “Saint Pancras, past and present: being historical, traditional and general notes of the parish, including biographical notices of inhabitants associated with its topographical and general history” (London 1874)

William Bingham is one of those individuals who are only remembered for the ludicrous way in which they died. In this case it was a trifling injury, a needle prick, sustained whilst engaged in the gruesome, and ostensibly futile, activity of suturing a cadaver. His grave had almost certainly gone missing by the time Frederick Miller wrote ‘St. Pancras Past & Present’ but luckily Frederick Teague Cansick had made a note of his epitaph and published it in full in 1872 in ‘The Monumental Inscriptions of Middlesex with Biographical Notices and Description of Armorial Bearings Vol. II’. All subsequent written sources citing the epitaph omit the eulogistic lines of verse to focus on the bathos of the manner of his demise. Cansick’s transcription also rather mysteriously bears a first line saying ‘Here lies a kind parent’; as far as we know William Bingham was neither married nor had any children.

Bingham's epitaph from Cansick's 'Monumental Inscriptions...'

We don’t know much about William Bingham the surgeon. His parents were William Bingham and his wife Jane (nee Appleby) and he was born on 23 March 1793 and baptised on 08 April at St James in Westminster. He had two younger brothers, John and James, and when he was 11 his father died. His mother remarried 18 months later on 10 April 1806 to Timothy Hewlett, a wharfinger at Botolph’s wharf on the Thames. She was 41, he was 52. It was Timothy’s second marriage, his first had lasted for 14 years but remained childless when his wife died 1799. Timothy’s will, dated 06 August 1809, left his wife the interest of £1000 invested in the 5 per cents. If she died, the interest was to go to her eldest son William. But it was William who died first; his mother died on 29 September 1829 and was buried in the St. Giles burial ground on 06 October. Timothy died just a few days later and was buried on 17 October at All Hallows in Tottenham with his first wife. Two years later there was a case heard in the High Court of Chancery about William’s will; Timothy and Jane’s heirs were squabbling about money he had left in trust for his mother with the Hewlett’s arguing that when Jane died Timothy would have been her heir (for the 10 days or so he was still living) and on his death they became the rightful heirs to William’s money. Jane’s nephews argued that they were her heirs, not Timothy. As William had only left the interest on his money to his mother the Master of the Roll’s ruled that he intended his next of kin to inherit on his mother’s death. As Timothy was not ‘kin’ in the sense of being a blood relative he ruled that Jane’s nephews were the rightful heirs. 

The Small Pox Hospital at Kings Cross/St Pancras

The Fever Hospital at St Pancras, also known as the Small Pox hospital, was founded by Dr Robert Poole in 1740 and was originally had just 14 beds and was based in Windmill Street in Fitzrovia. The hospital moved to larger premises initially in Clerkenwell and then, in 1793 to a new purpose-built hospital in Battle Bridge, where the Great Northern Hotel currently stands in Kings Cross. This is where William Bingham would have worked, caring for the seriously ill infected and administering vaccinations which were, in 1821, just as controversial as they are in 202. This is from the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of Friday 13 July 1821;

Vaccination. —During the last month the casual Small-pox was not very severe within the parishes of London and Bills of Mortality; the first week the month began with the loss of patients; five died in the second week, and seven in each of the following two weeks, making together 29 deaths, to which may now be added two who died in the Hospital at St. Pancras; but 414 were vaccinated there during that month. It is to be noticed, that the chicken-pox has been very prevalent, and has, from many similar appearances, been often mistaken for the second small-pox, after vaccination, called the varioloid disease; many of its characters have led persons anxious for the safety of their children to conceive it to be that disease, without the least foundation; and this has led them, their first alarm, to unjustly condemn and mistrust Vaccination, and to give hasty encouragement to practitioners, who avail themselves of their distress, by immediately inoculating with variolous matter, by which they spread the contagion, and give the pestilence to the patient and to the neighbourhood, instead of proceeding with the easy and short cure of the Chicken-pox, which almost every nurse has sufficient skill to cure by her general experience.

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.