Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Sundown in the snow, Kensal Green Cemetery (December 2022)


These are the rest of my photographs from my visit to Kensal Green on the 15th December, all taken just before sundown.

This is Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia’s poem ‘Cementerio en la nieve’ (Cemetery in the snow) from his book Nostalgia de la Muerte (1934). My translation (all errors mine, please feel to correct in the comments section)) is below:

A nada puede compararse un cementerio en la nieve.
¿Qué nombre dar a la blancura sobre lo blanco?
El cielo ha dejado caer insensibles piedras de nieve
sobre las tumbas,
y ya no queda sino la nieve sobre la nieve
como la mano sobre sí misma eternamente posada.
Los pájaros prefieren atravesar el cielo,
herir los invisibles corredores del aire
para dejar sola la nieve,
que es como dejarla intacta,
que es como dejarla nieve.
Porque no basta decir que un cementerio en la nieve
es como un sueño sin sueños
ni como unos ojos en blanco.
Si algo tiene de un cuerpo insensible y dormido,
de la caída de un silencio sobre otro
y de la blanca persistencia del olvido,
¡a nada puede compararse un cementerio en la nieve!
Porque la nieve es sobre todo silenciosa,
más silenciosa aún sobre las losas exangües:
labios que ya no pueden decir una palabra.

Nothing can compare to a cemetery in the snow. What name to give to whiteness on white? The sky has let fall unfeeling drifts of snow upon the tombs and now nothing is left but snow upon the snow like a hand left resting on itself for all eternity.

The birds prefer to cross the sky, striking the invisible corridors of air, to leave just the snow, which is like leaving it intact, which is like leaving it snow

Because it is not enough to say that a cemetery in the snow is like sleep without dreams, nor like sightless eyes.

If something has a sleeping insensible body, from the fall of one silence upon another, and from the white persistence of oblivion, then nothing can be compared to a cemetery in the snow!

Because above all snow is silence, made even more silent on bloodless slabs: lips that can no longer say a single word.

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Kensal Green in the snow (December 2022)

The tomb of Alexander Nesbitt Shaw ('late of the Bombay Civil Service")

I took all these photos at Kensal Green Cemetery on the afternoon of the 15th December. The snow that had fallen a few days before was still on the ground and the temperature was still hovering around zero despite it being a sunny afternoon. The light was spectacular, a clear, cloudless afternoon with the sun already low in the sky by the time I arrived at 2.30. Despite it being ten days before Christmas there were still leaves on some of the trees and the colours of sky, snow and the last gasp of autumn were just beautiful.

I also took a lot of twilight pictures but I’ll post them later in the week.

Previous previous pre-Christmas visits to Kensal Green can be seen here (2018) and here (2019) and here (St Mary's Catholic Cemetery 2021)

View along Central Avenue towards the Anglican Chapel

Memorial to Major General Sir William Casement, Indian army officer

The Tomb of William Mulready, artist and Royal Academician 

The tomb of the circus equestrian Andrew Ducrow

A multitude of Angels (playing with your heart?)

The grave of George Ryall formerly of Lahore, India

Damn, I can't for the life of me remember whose grave this is...

Friday, 13 January 2023

The death of the Hardy tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard


Over Christmas the Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard finally succumbed to blight and collapsed. No one was there to witness the trees last moment though reddit user Srinjoy Dey, who was the first to photograph the toppled ash on Boxing Day, says that he heard a loud bang just as he was going into the churchyard. The trunk had been snapped off at the point where it emerges from the encircling headstones.  I was last in the churchyard on 12th December when I was taking photos in the snow, including a few of the tree. On my first day back at work after the holidays I stopped off on the way into the office to see the damage for myself. I expected the fallen tree to have already been removed by Camden Council and to find myself contemplating its absence but it was still there, resting where it had collapsed, like a felled giant. As a concession to health and safety the council had surrounded it with a security fence, forcing me to risk losing my phone to take photos as I had to poke it between the wires to get a clear view. The fence also stopped me from acquiring a twig or a piece of bark as a souvenir, as I had planned. I have always been fond of the tree, and I’ve written about it several times, including a debunking of the myth that it had anything to do with Thomas Hardy. Looking at its mortal remains I felt slightly guilty, as if, in the days before they died, I had challenged the accuracy of the tall tales told by an elderly relative.

It was an anonymous commenter on one of my posts that tipped me off to the tree’s demise a couple of days after it had happened. By then the event had been reported on the BBC website and in the Camden New Journal, the Standard, the Guardian and in various other newspapers nationally and internationally, including the New York Times. Most of that initial coverage reiterated the story that it was Thomas Hardy himself that had arranged the headstones around the tree but by the time The Guardian followed up its initial coverage with an editorial published on 29 December entitled The Guardian view on the death of the Hardy Tree; a legend uprooted, the connection with Hardy was being called into question;  

The toppling of a tree, without injury, in a city churchyard would not normally make news headlines, but the mighty ash outside London’s Old St Pancras church was one of the capital’s most venerated natural landmarks and a destination of literary pilgrimage. Encircled with gravestones that it seemed to be absorbing into its root system, the Hardy Tree acquired its name, and its celebrity, from a story that the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, then a young architect’s apprentice in a rapidly growing London, was personally responsible for stacking its trunk with stones cleared to make way for the expansion of the Midland railway line in the mid-1860s.

…Hardy himself wrote of overseeing the exhumations. He was charged with turning up at unexpected times to ensure that the clerk of works was doing a respectful job and not simply dumping the bones, as had happened in previous cemetery clearances.

What is missing is any evidence that Hardy had any direct involvement in the arrangement of the stones. Moreover, photographs of the churchyard, unearthed by an assiduous amateur historian, suggest that the current ash grew between 1926 and 1960, only later becoming known as the Hardy Tree. That it had no greater verifiable connection with the Victorian author than, say, Sherwood Forest’s Major Oak had with Robin Hood, or Berkshire’s Ankerwycke Yew had with the signing of the Magna Carta, hardly matters. By mere dint of their longevity, trees collect myths and become lightning rods for the historical imagination.

There was a link to the work of the ‘assiduous amateur historian’, who I was pleasantly surprised to find out, was me. I wasn’t named but being tagged and linked by a broadsheet are enough kudos for me. Guardian readers are a literate bunch; the last contribution to the comments section before it was closed is a poem called Ashes to Ashes by Lepidus77;  

An assiduous amateur historian
questions the provenance
of the Hardy Ash, that crashed
in Old St. Pancras churchyard
late in twenty twenty-two.

Ashes are the opportunists
of the arboreal world,
good for a few hundred years
with luck, becoming
lightning rods for the historical imagination.

Legend has it Hardy helped
stack the stones to
stay the mighty ash
where the Shelleys had tiptoed
permissively, and later
Mary Wollstonecraft would lie.

We need that tree to have
predated Hardy, ideally
witnessing the sunlit
Shelley trysts, providing
shade for Mary’s long lying in.

A post-war chancer ash, toppling
after sixty odd years,
barely mocks our own
three score plus stint. We need
the ash to bookend us,
implying that life going on.

At least one commenter, who calls himself Alabasterhand, took umbrage with the Guardian questioning the authenticity of the connection between the tree and Thomas Hardy; “There is something positively malignant in the way that this newspaper seems grimly determined to sweep away what it seemingly regards as dangerous myths like the age of the Hardy tree.... If the Editorial team on The Guardian feels it has nothing better to do than to crush and stamp out charming, harmless consolatory legends then I would suggest it is high time they pack it in altogether.” Several other commenters pointed out that you can hardly complain about someone doubting the truth of something you call a ‘charming harmless consolatory legend’ as legends are, by definition, not true.

Another commenter, stpman, had additional interesting details to add about the history of the tree; “About 20 years ago I suspected that the tree was rather less than 100 years old and did some research at the Camden Local Studies Library in Theobald's Road, Holborn... In the late 1970s the graveyard needed repair work to the paths, railings and stonework. The gravestones were again tidied - and placed rather more neatly around the tree that had grown alongside from about the 1920s. I was told by the library staff that a St. Pancras church cleric began referring to it as "The Hardy Tree" at that time, and this is probably how the myth was born.”  Alabasterhand was quick to jump in again; “Hardy's activity at Old St Pancras is most certainly not a "myth" but a well documented fact, working under the supervision of the architect Arthur Bloomfield. I can moreover confirm that the circle of overlapping gravestones was attributed to Hardy to my clear memory in the mid 1960's. Why would anyone make up such a story? More importantly, why are people so keen to rush in to call the story into question? What horrible, joyless times we live in.”  Quite why anyone would take a correction to the factual record so hard is a mystery to me.

The Guardian finished its editorial with the following reflection;

The demise of an old tree is always sad. But perhaps the real story of the Hardy ash is that it wasn’t special; it didn’t witness the canoodlings of the Shelleys, fall in a freak storm or die in a scary, imported pandemic. The entanglement of root and stone reveals a history of nature and humanity competing and coexisting in a swiftly changing industrial landscape. In death, it has grown into its own urban myth.

The Hardy Tree when it was still hale and hearty

Friday, 16 December 2022

Old St Pancras churchyard in the snow

The Soane Mausoleum

"Kings Cross, dense with angels and histories, there are cities beneath your pavements, cities behind your skies. Let me see!”                                                                                        Aidan Andrew Dun

When I stepped outside on Sunday evening the freezing air was full of large snowflakes gently sinking to the ground in the windless air. I had been sceptical when I had seen it earlier on the news but the weatherman had been proved right: snow was general all over London. It was falling softly upon the East End and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous streets of Westminster. It was falling too upon every part of lonely Old St Pancras churchyard where so many of the illustrious dead lie buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the railings, on the barren thorns. I felt light headed watching the snow swirl in the darkness at the back of the house, hearing it fall faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

By next morning the snow had brought the central line to a complete standstill anywhere east of Liverpool Street and I was obliged to trek to a mainline station to get into London. On the way to the office I took a detour to Old St Pancras churchyard to get some photos of the snow before it disappeared. In these days of global warming snow in London is an evanescent phenomenon; here one day, transformed to filthy slush the next and gone altogether within 48 hours. I would have preferred to have gone to Brompton or Kensal Green but I didn’t have the time and so I made do with St Pancras Gardens, a ten-minute walk from the office. The snow had stopped falling during the night but the sky was leaden and the light terrible.  I’m not enthralled with the photos I took, in fact I was so dissatisfied I processed them all in black and white because I thought they looked better in monochrome. After much debate I’ve decided to post the original colour versions. 

I clambered up an embankment to get a photo of the Soane mausoleum sitting inside its circular railed compound. The mausoleum was designed and built in 1815 by the architect Sir John Soane for his wife Eliza. The couple had met through Eliza’s uncle and ward George Wyatt the builder who had worked with Soane on the rebuilding of Newgate Prison. On the 10th January 1784 Soane took her to the theatre and a few weeks later, on the 7th February she took tea with Soane and a group of friends. Soane began to accompany her regularly to plays and concerts and, on the 21st August 1784, less than 8 months after that first visit to the theatre, they were married at Christ Church in Southwark. It was a happy marriage until they began to have children. They had four sons, two of them died in infancy, the other two survived into adult, both causing their parents endless grief.  John, the eldest, was lazy and suffered from infirmity. He was sent to Margate in 1811 to improve his health where he met a woman called Maria Preston. John badgered his father into agreeing to a marriage which he had deep reservations about; the £2000 dowry promised by Maria’s parents failed to materialise and the couple became financially dependent on Soane. Not to be outdone the 20-year-old George wrote to his mother a few weeks later to break the news that he had married behind his parent’s back, making no bones about his reasons, he had done it, he said, “to spite you and father.”  Sir John tried to keep his wayward offspring in check by tightly controlling their finances but George threatened to go on stage for a living and disgrace his father if he did not settle £350 a year on him. When the blackmail did not work George took, unsuccessfully, and was imprisoned for debt and fraud. Possibly behind her husband’s back Eliza Soane settled the debt and repaid the embezzled money to get her son out of prison. In September 1815 an article was published in the magazine Champion called ‘The Present Low State of the Arts in England and more particularly of Architecture’. Sir John was the target of an acrimonious attack in the article which, although it had been published anonymously, soon became clear had actually been written by George. His distraught mother wrote on the 13th October 'those are George's doing. He has given me my death blow. I shall never be able to hold up my head again'. She died, quite possibly of heartbreak, on 22 November 1815 and was buried on 1 December. Soane wrote in his diary that he had endured 'the burial of all that is dear to me in this world, and all I wished to live for!' He designed this elaborate mausoleum for his wife and was buried alongside her when he died in 1837.

In Lights Out for the Territory Iain Sinclair describes 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.” The tree has become one of the great myths of London with its backstory of how the young novelist personally supervised the clearing of the churchyard and the stacking of the headstones around the Ash tree. 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 most people assume that the gravestones had been arranged around the tree in the first place. A photo of “St. Pancras churchyard and it’s disturbed gravestones” published in ‘Wonderful London’ a 1926 book edited by St. John Adcock and published in 1926 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.

Mary Woolstonecraft and William Godwin were married at St Pancras Old Church on 29 March 1797. Mary gave birth to their daughter (the future Mary Shelley) on 30 August 1797 but died of septicaemia 11 days later on 10 September. William was married again in 1801, to Mary Jane Clairmont. When he died in 1836 he choose to be buried with his first wife. Mary Jane joined them in 1841 and all three are commemorated on different faces of what was originally Mary’s memorial. All very modern for the 18th century but Godwin's was a radical household. The post mortem menage a trois were later forcibly split up after passing just 10 years of their eternal rest together when William and Mary were disinterred in 1851 and reburied on the south coast by their grandson Percy. He wanted to grant his mother's wish that she be buried with her parents but didn't want to bury her in grimy Kings Cross. Instead he removed William and Mary's remains (but leaving Mary Jane Clairmont where she was) to a new Shelley tomb at the church of St Peters in Bournemouth.

The Burdett-Coutts memorial sundial

The adjoining burial grounds of St Pancras and St Giles were closed in 1854. In 1866 a portion of the grounds were sold to the Midland Railway Company to allow the building of a new main line into London and the construction of the new terminus of St Pancras.  A scandal ensued during the insensitive exhumation of thousands of bodies and the removal of hundreds of tombs and headstones. In 1874 the railway company approached the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles again to see if they were willing to sell the reminder of the burial ground. This time the public outcry was so strong that the vestries declined to sell and instead proposed laying out a public garden. One of those who took a fervent interest in the future of the disused burial grounds was the philanthropist Baroness Burdett Coutts who felt that as they were “no longer used for their original purpose, they have lost the protection of the living, without securing the sanctity that should protect the dead.” In a letter she later wrote to the vestry of St Pancras she goes into some detail about her motivation for involving herself in the preservation of London’s old burial grounds, explaining that “the feelings and reflections which even an unnamed tombstone is calculated to excite …. would be lost if the graves of the dead were obliterated from the land, for a number of stones huddled together, possibly as carefully as circumstances permitted, cannot convey the same feelings as does a grave, even to the least reflective mind. The mere fact of closing over and stamping out of remembrance the dead renders them lifeless indeed and denies to their memory those tender and salutary lessons so often given in the quiet of ' God's acres.'” The Baroness was determined that the garden should be a memorial to the dead interred there and that it should preserve the principal tombstones and key features of the burial ground. She funded works to conserve headstones and to landscape the gardens but her most lasting contribution to the project was the enormous sundial dedicated to the memory of the illustrious dead placed at the heart of the garden.

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

A Hebrew Family Romance; Sir Edward Sassoon, Bart. M.P. (1856-1912) Liberal Jewish Cemetery, Pound Lane, Willesden

Serious Motoring Accident at Cannes. Jan. 20. Sir Edward Sassoon met with a serious accident this morning. Whilst he was motoring to the golf links the car encountered a restive horse, and though the chauffeur took a sharp turn to the left in the hope of avoiding the animal, there was a collision of great violence. The car, after striking the horse, ran into tree, and, rebounding, fell over a six-foot embankment. Sir Edward received a terrible shaking, and his face was badly cut. The horse had to be destroyed.

Daily News (London) - Saturday 21 January 1911

When the 55-year-old MP for Hythe Sir Edward Sassoon died quietly at his Park Lane house on Friday 24 May 1912 the newspapers were quick to point out that he had never really recovered fully from his motoring accident on the French Riviera the year before. Sir Edward’s wife, Aline Caroline de Rothschild, had died in 1909 at her parent’s house in Paris and so their two children inherited the considerable family fortune; the newspapers reported that “he leaves a son, Philip, and daughter, Sybil, who made her first appearance in society this season. It is thought that these will now be two of the most wealthy young people in England.”

Sir Edward’s body was cremated privately at Golders Green in the early morning of Sunday 26 May. The ashes, still warm from the furnace, were taken to Victoria Station where a specially chartered train was scheduled to depart at 1.30 for Brighton carrying the mourners as well as Sir Edward’s mortal remains. A closed hearse and several carriages met the train at Central Station and the funeral procession then made its way down Queens Road to the sea front, past the pier and along Marine Parade to number One Eastern Terrace where the large house built by Sir Edward’s father still stands. The funeral cortege made its way a hundred yards up Paston Place where at the corner of with St George’s Road, at the back of what was then the rear garden of Eastern Terrace stood the family mausoleum, built in 1892 by Sir Edward’s father, Sir Albert Sassoon. The funeral arrangements had been kept secret so there were not many people around when the cortege first arrived at the mausoleum, though a sizeable crowd of curiosity seekers soon gathered. Inside the mausoleum Rabbi SJ Rocco conducted what the Sussex Daily News called “an impressive service” in Hebrew assisted, in English, by Rabbi Jacobs of the Jewish Synagogue in Brighton, Rabbi Conque of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, Rabbi Levinson and a Mr Lubetzki of Brighton. Sir Edward’s ashes were laid at the side of his father’s embalmed body and covered with white arum lilies by Mr Biggs, the mausoleum caretaker. At 4.30 the mourners all returned to London on the chartered train to take part in a 6.30 memorial service held at the Sassoon house at 25 Park Lane.   

The Sassoon Memorial up for sale in 1956 (www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk)



Sir Edward Sassoon, Bart, MP, died at his residence in London yesterday, aged 55. He had represented' the Hythe Division in the Conservative interest since 1899. At the last election Sir Edward was returned without opposition. The Sassoons are a Hebrew family of very great antiquity. They claim to be descended from Shephatiah V., son of David. There are numerous references to the Sasoons in Hebrew mediaeval literature, the name, indeed, is to be in found in the Talmud. For generations they were a well-known family in Bagdad, famous for their wealth and their integrity. Some years ago, one David Sassoon received notice that a plot was foot to sack his house and murder its inmates. He contrived to escape, and fled with his wife and children by the Persian Gulf to Bombay. There he founded the house of Sassoon, the only important firm not in the hands of Parsees. About 1863, after the death of David Sassoon his son, the late Sir Albert. then known as Abdallah, came to England in company with his half brothers Reuben and Arthur. Sir Edward Sassoon, born in 1856, was a son of Sir Albert, succeeding to the title in 1895. He was educated at London University. In 1887 he married Aline, daughter of Baron Gustave de Rothschild. She died in February, 1909. It was at a by-election in the early part 1899 that Sir Edward was first returned to the House of Commons as the member for the Borough of Hythe, defeating Sir Israel Hart by a substantial majority, and at the general election in the following year, he was re-elected without opposition. He enjoyed Parliamentary life, and was earnest in the pursuit of his duties. He was an enthusiast in the cause of Imperial cables, which he frequently advocated in Parliament. He was an honorary major in the Duke of Cambridge's Hussar Yeomanry. Sir Edward resided for two years in China, and gave much study to Oriental problems. He was also an authority finance and bimetallism. He emphasised his connection with the East by the ownership of two residences in India, Garden Beach, Poona, and Sans Souci, at Bombay. He also had a magnificent residence in Park Lane, London, and at Trent Park, Sandgate. He is succeeded in the Baronetcy by Mr Philip Albert David Sassoon, who was born in 1888. His only daughter is Sybil Rachel, who was born in 1894.

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Saturday 25 May 1912

The mausoleum in the 1960's (www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk)

The Sassoon Memorial is now a grade II listed building. The Historic England website says that it was built in “1892. Stucco. Tent roof of copper. Square in plan with wing to south. single storey over basement. In imitation of Nash's Mughal-inspired design of the Royal Pavilion.” The copper dome was originally covered in gold leaf. Sir Edward’s son and heir, Philip decided that a mausoleum at the bottom of a garden was not an appropriate place for his ancestors to lie, especially as he wanted to sell the house. In 1933 the bodies of his father and grandfather were reburied in Willesden and the mausoleum sold off. It served time as a decorators storeroom, a furniture depository and, during World war II, an air raid shelter. In 1949 it was sold again and became a pub, The Bombay Bar. The story was reported widely in the newspapers, including in the New York Times which ran it became the headline ‘Baronet’s Tomb to be Saloon’.



A square, glass-domed mausoleum in St. George's Place, Brighton, once the burial place of Sir Albert Sassoon, one of the founders of the Sassoon family fortunes, is to become a public-house. The mausoleum, where the body of Sir Albert lay for 37 years, has served in its time as a decorator's storehouse and an air raid shelter. It has been bought by a local brewery, who plan to use it as an extension to a public-house next door. The public-house has only a beer licence and to obtain a wine and spirit licence another public-house nearby will be closed. It is estimated that the conversion will be a long job. The building has no windows, but light enters from the glass dome. The district in which the mausoleum is situated is surrounded by hotels and boarding houses. The tomb was built by Sir Albert Sassoon at a cost of £B,OOO. He died in 1896 and his body lay in the mausoleum until removed in 1933 and re-interred in London.

Belfast Telegraph - Saturday 27 August 1949

In 1956 the mausoleum was acquired by the Hanbury Arms which stands next door and was reopened as a ballroom. It was renovated in 2006 and became a private members club for a short time before entering its current incarnation as the Proud Cabaret, Brighton’s premier drag club compered by the incomparable Ms Dolly Rocket. The venue, according to its present owners “is truly astonishing. Our Drag Queen cabaret show is accompanied with world-class musicians and award-winning acrobats, fire breathers and burlesque beauties. Be prepared to be amazed.” If a night on the tiles seems likely to stretch beyond your usual bedtime then do not despair, “we're not just a Cabaret restaurant,” say Proud, “sashay down to Proud Cabaret Brighton for our fabulous Drag Extravaganza Bottomless Brunch. With raucous entertainment and bottomless booze, this is all singing, all dancing, brunching experience.” Not your usual mausoleum visit then?  

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Que horas são, meu coração? The unusual journey of Dom Pedro's heart


When we say, in English, I left my heart in… (San Francisco or wherever), it is merely a figure of speech indicating our fondness for a particular place. When Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, left his heart in the Portuguese city of Porto, he left it literally, in a jar of formaldehyde. Last summer we arrived in Porto on the 21st of August, the day Dom Pedro’s coração was removed from a mausoleum in the church of Lapa, where it had laid more or less undisturbed for the last 187 years, and was sent by military jet to Brasília to take part in Brazil’s bicentennial celebrations. I knew nothing about this until we were in the hotel in the evening watching SIC Notícias. My ignorance cost me the rare opportunity of seeing the heart of a king, as Dom Pedro’s had been, very briefly, put on public display in the church before being sent on its 8000 kilometre journey to South America. It is unusual, to say the least, for a disembodied heart to form the focal point of independence celebrations and to be received, after travelling in the passenger seat of a Brazilian air force jet, with all the pomp and ceremony that would have been accorded a living head of state including a cannon salute, a guard of honour and full military honours. After arriving in Brasília Dom Pedro’s heart was allowed a much-needed night of rest at the Palácio Itamaraty before taking a Rolls Royce next morning to an official reception with Jair Bolsonaro in the Presidential Palace.  In the skies above Brasília six military jets drew a vapour trail heart to welcome the heart. Whether all this was strictly necessary given Brazil’s many economic and military problems especially as the rest of Dom Pedro’s body has been in Brazil for the last 50 years, largely forgotten in the crypt of the Monument to Independence in São Paulo.

Dom Pedro and his muttonchops in Brazil

Dom Pedro had a short but eventful life. His father Dom João VI, acted as regent for his mentally unstable grandmother, ‘mad’ Queen Maria I and his mother was Doña Carlota Joaquina, the daughter of the King of Spain. At the time of their marriage his father was 18, his mother just 10; she tried to bite off his ear on their wedding night. It was a deeply unhappy union; Doña Carlota never reconciled herself to life with her husband or in Portugal, refusing to be sexually faithful (Dom Pedro’s own paternity is not a matter of certainty) and going as far as plotting to overthrow him with a group of disgruntled Portuguese nobles. As the second son of the miserable marriage, Dom Pedro only became heir to the Portuguese throne when his older brother died of smallpox at the age of 6.  As a 9-year-old he was forced to flee to Brazil, along with the rest of the dysfunctional royal family, when the Napoleonic army invaded Portugal. The only liberal in a family of absolutist monarchs, he grew up at loggerheads with his father and hating his mother, who he referred to as ‘a cadela’, the bitch. When his father was forced back to Portugal by the Liberal revolution of 1820, Dom Pedro took advantage of his position of Regent in Brazil in 1822 by impetuously declaring the liberation of the colony from Portuguese rule in an impromptu speech made to his followers from the saddle of a bay mare whilst out riding. He became King of Portugal in 1826 but after just two months abdicated in favour of his daughter, who became Maria II and was known popularly as a Boa Mãe, the good mother of her country . In 1831 he was forced to finally return to Portugal to fight in a civil war against his younger brother Miguel, who had usurped the crown from Maria. He married twice, had numerous extra marital affairs and 14 known children by 5 different women. He died of tuberculosis in the Palácio de Queluz in Lisbon in September 1834 at the age of 35.

As he lay dying in Portugal Dom Pedro dictated a 14-page letter of exhortation to the people of Brazil. This letter, dated at 4am on the 23rd September 1823, the day before he died, gave his instructions on what was to happen to his corpse:  

Brasileiros! Eu deixo meu coração à heroica Cidade do Porto, teatro da minha verdadeira glória, e o resto do meu despojo mortal à Cidade de Lisboa, lugar de minha nascença. (Brazilians! I leave my heart to the heroic city of Porto, the theatre of my true glory, and the rest of my mortal remains to the city of Lisbon, the place of my birth.)

When his doctors removed the heart they must have been astounded at its size; it is hugely engorged and its weight is often said to be 20lbs. Now this surely can’t be right? Even a large human heart rarely exceeds one pound in weight – in fact any male heart weighing more than a pound is considered to be suffering from cardiomegalya, abnormal enlargement of the cardiac muscle. 20lbs would be about right for a giraffe heart. A human heart that size wouldn’t fit into the chest cavity unless you removed everything else that is supposed to be in there! Don Pedro’s heart may be big but it cannot weight 20lbs. It took eleven years for Dom Pedro’s heart to reach its final resting place; political instability in Portugal led to endless delays about where it should it buried and so it remained at Queluz under armed guard until a final decision was made. On 4th February 1836 the heart was sent via the battleship Jorge IV to Porto with a 70 strong guard of honour, a journey which lasted 3 days. The heart is kept in a glass jar of formaldehyde, the jar is inside a silver urn, which is held in a gold reliquary and the whole ensemble stored in a mahogany coffin. The coffin is kept behind a copper plaque inside a mausoleum which requires five different keys to open it. Stealing Dom Pedro’s heart is almost mission impossible.  

Dom Pedro I on his deathbed in Queluz, by José Joaquim Rodrigues Primavera, 1834.

His body, left to the city of Lisbon, was interred alongside his royal ancestors in the Pantheon of the House of Braganza in the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. The body remained there until 1972 when the military junta in Brazil requested that it be repatriated to Brazil in time for the 150-year anniversary of independence. It was the dying days of the Estado Novo, Salazar had died in 1970, and the country was embroiled in a set of disastrous wars in almost all of its colonial possessions. Virtually friendless on the international stage, Brazil’s military dictatorship was one of Portugal’s few allies. So when they asked for the corpse of a dead king Portugal was happy to agree and to throw in a couple of dead Princesses as well, to keep Dom Pedro from getting lonely in his new home in the specially built crypt of the Monument to Independence in São Paulo.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

As I wend my way to heaven I'll be full of Cherry Pie; David Jersey (1687-1755), St. Mary Magdalene, East Ham

Here lieth the body of
David Jersey
Victualler of the Parish of
Wanstead who departed this
life 1 May 1755 Aged 68 years.
Also 4 Daughters of above
who all died young
Likewise here lieth beneath the body
of Ann Jersey, wife of the above 

29 nine year old David Jersey of East Ham married Anne Garrin of Barking at St Stephens, Coleman Street in the City of London on 6 July 1721. David Jersey, victualler, was the landlord of the George and Dragon in Wanstead, a coaching Inn originally built in 1716 and serving as a staging post between the daily coach from Aldgate and the Essex coaches. Apart from what is recorded on his epitaph and in the marriage register at St Stephens we know very little about him. As sell as the four daughters who died young he also had a son William, who was baptised at St Mary Magdalene's in East Ham on 7 March 1730 and was buried there on 17 June of the same year. His daughters were called Esther, there were two Ann's, the first dying in 1723 and her sister and namesake being born the following year and then dying at the age of 7 in  1731, and a Mary.  

The marriage record of David Jersey and Ann Garrin at St Stephens, Coleman Street

One intriguing remnant of his life still remains in Wanstead. The coaching inn was demolished 
in 1903 and a new pub built on the site (now a Weatherspoons) and the name shortened to the George. Nothing remains of the old Inn except an old inscribed stone dated 1752 which was rescued and set into the wall of the new building. The stone is a memorial to a cherry pie that cost half a guinea (10s6d) on the 17 July “that day we had good cheer/ I hope to so do maney a Year.” The lettering on the stone has been touched up over the years and as a result the name Jersey has gradually lost the final e and the issue has grown to increasingly resemble the r standing next to it. To the uninitiated the surname now looks more like Jerry or Terry than Jersey. An illustration from 1906 in 'The Old Inns of England' by Charles Harper confirms that the name was once clearly legible as D. Jersey. Local legend has it that the stone commemorates a cherry pie stolen by a local workman who was fined half a guinea for his crime. As the minimum sentence for stealing a pie in 1752 was hanging or lifetime transportation to Van Diemen’s Land the story seems unlikely to be true. Another theory is that it may commemorate a monster pie festival similar to the Tollesbury Gooseberry Pie festival – Wanstead was famous for its cherry orchards in the eighteenth century.  But no one really knows why David Jersey wanted to immortalise a very expensive Cherry Pie.  

The memorial stone as it is now

The memorial stone from 'The Old Inns of England Vol II' by Charles G. Harper (1906)

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

'All The Living And The Dead' Hayley Campbell, Raven Books (£18.99)

Rather mortifyingly, this book made me cry in public. I was reading a chapter called ‘Tough mother’ about the author’s visit to meet Clare Beesley, the head bereavement midwife at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. The harrowing subject of still births proved too much for my rickety emotional defences to cope with and even though I was on packed rush hour tube in Mile End Station my eyes filled with tears. At least I managed to avoid audibly sobbing. I cried all the way to Liverpool Street, where I wept on the escalators when I changed trains to the Metropolitan line, and I carried on quietly snivelling until I reached Kings Cross. I’m in my 60’s so no one paid any attention but it was still an uncomfortable experience and one that has never happened to me before. It is the cumulative details and the pure, unalloyed heartbreak that got to me; I can’t reduce the experience to a quote from the book but this passage gives you some idea;

Clare shows me the cupboard of knitted hats and baby clothes – mostly white, different sizes from handmade tiny ones to full-term. The knitted caps serve a cosmetic purpose here rather than one of warmth, ‘’’: as a baby passes through the birth canal the planes of its skull overlap so it can fit, but if there is excess fluid in the baby’s body – as a result of its death – the planes of the skull can dig into the brain, deforming the head. Clare says she puts the little cap over it and no one can tell the difference. Next to the bonnets are brass-hinged wooden jewellery boxes, or so I think, until she stands on her tip toes to reach one, opens it and it’s empty but for a white lace doily. ‘These are the coffins for the very little ones’, she says, holding it up so I can see inside. I had no idea that a bereavement ward existed, let alone coffins for babies as big as my car keys.

I had started the book with some reservations and Hayley Campbell had quite a bit of work to do to overcome these. I have an issue with book endorsements on newly published hardbacks; no one has had a chance to read and review the book so these endorsements inevitably come from the authors friends or acquaintances. Hayley Campbell has some big hitting friends; on the front cover we get Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger no less; not many authors would be able to garner accolades from literary heavyweights like these. On the back cover we get, amongst others, Nigella Lawson, Caitlin Doughty, Tuppence Middleton, and Charlie Gilmore. In her opening pages Hayley tells us that her father is Eddie Campbell, the comic book artist who illustrated Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell’. Neil Gaiman is an old friend of the family and Hayley wrote her first book about him.  Audrey Niffenegger is her step mother! So, when Niffenegger says the book is “essential, compassionate, honest”, it can’t be taken as an impartial opinion. 

Hayley Campbell in Brompton Cemetery, photo by Chieska Fortune Smith/Daily Telegraph

Rather annoyingly Niffenegger turns out not to be wrong.  Campbell’s book is very good and her own discomfort with the subject matter makes this a very different prospect from anything by Caitlin Doughty or Mary Roach’s breezy ‘Stiff’. There are times in the book when the subject of death threatens to overwhelm the author and a dead baby sends her perilously close to being traumatised. Campbell persists in her journey because, she says, “I think there is urgent, life-changing knowledge to be gained from becoming familiar with death, and from not letting your limits be guided by a fear of unknown things: the knowledge that you can stand to be near it, so that when the time comes you will not let someone you love die alone.” In each of her 12 chapters we meet a death professional, “those who work around death every day” and who are asked to show us “what they do and how they do it – to explore not only the mechanics of an industry, but how it forms a foundation for what it is they do. The Western death industry is predicated on the idea that we cannot, or need not, be there. But if the reason we’re outsourcing this burden is because it’s too much for us, how do they deal with it? They are human too. There is no them and us. It’s just us.” Campbell meets with funeral directors, grave diggers, embalmers, executioners, pathology technologists, death mask sculptors and others. Her book is often funny, sometimes very moving and always fascinating. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Tales from the crypt; St Mary the Virgin, Wanstead


The only place I visited at this years Open House event was the crypt of St Mary’s in Wanstead. Our guide for the short tour was Sian Paterson who was knowledgeable and funny and made sure that we didn’t brain ourselves on the pipe for the water mains that cuts across the entrance tunnel as we descended. The foundation stone of St Mary’s was laid in 1787; the crypt must have been completed before work started on the main body of the church. It runs the entire length of the building, about 25 metres, with an additional 10 metre entrance tunnel leading from the churchyard. Inside there are, I think, 15 vaults running either side of the main passage, the odd number being presumably being because the vault housing members of the Child family (including the Earl’s Tylney) must be considerably larger than standard. A vault originally cost £105 for a parishioner and £125 if you were from outside the parish boundaries. That would have been quite a hefty sum in the early 1800’s but each vault has space for several coffins and I would imagine the lease is in perpetuity so in theory the occupants can rest undisturbed until the last trump. The crypt is constructed in red brick with stone imposts on the pillars on which often sit candle stubs left over from the times when families still came to visit or left by the bricklayers when they bricked up the vaults. Vault walls have ventilation holes large enough to view the coffins inside and Sian showed us how to shine the torch from your mobile through one hole while you viewed the interior through another.  

A portion of the bricked-up entrance to one vault has been knocked down at some unknown point in the past and the coffins disturbed. It was originally thought that this had happened in the 1950’s and that the perpetrators were intending to steal the lead linings of the coffins. You can clearly see that the lead has been cut and peeled back, some seems to have been removed but some large pieces are still in place, peeled back as though to allow access to the inner coffin. A visitor to a previous Open House in the crypt told Sian that he had been in the church choir in the 1950’s and it was a rite of passage for new choirboys to be taken down to the vaults and dropped over the broken wall to stand next to the coffin! He also told that her that the vault had been broken into long before then. Some locals like to think that perhaps body snatchers had been at work; the date on the vault is MDCCLXXXVIII (1788) which is the right timeframe for resurrectionists (and shows that the vaults were being used while the church was still being built) but why would the vault have been left open? The robbery must have taken place at a later date. If the robbers were after lead why did they leave so much of it? Maybe they were looking for jewellery left on the corpse? Who knows – maybe someone other than a petrified choirboy needs to get inside the vault and check. 

There are several vicars buried in the vaults and at least a couple of Lord Mayors. Sian introduced us to Sir William Curtis, affectionately known as ‘Billy Biscuits’ and who is described in the History of Parliament as "a portly and bottlenosed bon vivant". Sir William was born in Wapping in 1752, the son of a sea biscuit manufacturer. In time the family business extended to ship owning and their vessels carried convicts to Australia and engaged in whaling in the South Seas. Sir William owned a large house called Cullands Grove near Southgate and was famous for the lavish banquets he hosted there, George IV sometimes attended them. In time he became an MP, served as Lord Mayor of London and was created 1st Baronet of Cullands Grove in 1802 by George III. He died in Ramsgate in 1829; on the day his body was removed from his residence Cliff House, the large funeral set out through a town in which the shops “were closed ; minute guns were fired from the yacht till the return of the Procession; and although the weather was wet and stormy, every one appeared eager to pay this last tribute of affection and respect to departed excellence” according to the London Evening Standard of 27 January. “The party accompanied the funeral to the second Milestone beyond the town of Ramsgate. The body will remain the first night at Sittingbourne, the second at Dartford, and will pass through London on Wednesday on its way to Wanstead” the newspaper added.

SIR WILLIAM CURTIS's WILL The will of the deceased worthy Baronet having been duly proved, and administration granted, in the distribution of extensive property, real and personal, we find the following items:—

Item. I bequeath my physic to the dogs; remainder in fee to the physicians who attended me, in recompense for their singular sagacity, in discovering that "my last disease was mortal." The gally-pots I leave to Lady Sefton, who is admirer of porcelain; and as Lord Deerhurst is a patron of boxes he is welcome to those that held pills and boluses.

Item. To Mr. Michael Angelo Taylor, I leave my handsome footman, who is a capital plate cleaner, as he used regularly to swab the dishes on board my yacht. He has no objection to any work he may be put to; and is remarkably light in his ascents and descents the back stairs. He will have only look to his livery—and he will be answerable for his breeches and stockings.

Item. To Mr. Brougham, my courage, being a JUDGE in that matter.

Item. To the Duchess of Saint Albans, my charity; with the injunction that she shall not spend more than fifteen shillings in advertising every five given, in consequence of its impulse.

Item. To Rowland Stephenson, my activity, a reward for his honesty, in not stopping, when his partners did.

Item. To the Commissioners of Customs for Ireland, for the signal service which they did to merchantmen, in permitting my pleasure yacht to have the first entrance into new docks Dublin, whereby she became free in her moorings, with divers other advantages, too numerous mention, I bequeath one penny per man, to purchase salt to their potatoes. 

The entrance to the Childs/Tylney vault - the heart of the 2nd Earl Tylney, John Child,still sits outside the vault in the glass bottle it was shipped in from Florence.