Thursday 19 June 2014

Polly Peachum and the Black Hole of Calcutta; Mrs Isabella Vincent-Mills and Captain John Mills, St Pancras Old Churchyard

In Old St Pancras churchyard Captain John Mill’s broken headstone stands carefully propped up against another monument, quite possibly at some distance from where he was originally buried. No doubt the words “survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta” chiselled into his memorial stone are what stopped it being thrown away when the churchyard was tidied up. The top half of the headstone, which was almost certainly dedicated to his wife Isabella, is nowhere to be seen. Her name would have meant nothing when unwanted stones and memorials were being cleared away and she is either stacked against a wall somewhere or being used as infill on the railway embankments that cut through the churchyard towards Kings Cross station.

Isabella Burchell was born in Surrey in 1735. A story, probably put about by Jonathan Tyers himself, says that as a young girl she worked as a milkmaid at Denbies, the Tyer’s estate. Her first audience were the lactating cows she milked but Tyers heard her singing and recognised her talent immediately. With only the most perfunctory formal training he put her, at the age of 16, on the stage at Vauxhall Gardens to sing ‘Young Colin was the bonniest Swain.’ She worked at Vauxhall for nine years and became a popular attraction. In 1755 she married the oboist Richard Vincent at St Paul’s Covent Garden. They had three daughters, Elizabeth who was born in 1757, Sophia who was baptized on 20 February and buried on 3 March 1760 and Penelope Luisa, baptised in May and buried in September 1763.  In 1760 Garrick coaxed her from Tyers and Vauxhall to the Drury Lane Theatre to play the part of Polly Peachum in ‘The Beggers Opera.’ During the rest of her career she tried to branch out into acting, not always successfully. On a production of ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for Garrick in 1763 she played Helena. The prompter wrote in his diary “Upon the whole, never was anything so murder’d in the speaking. Mr W Palmer and Mrs Vincent were beyond description bad…” Perhaps grief for her most recently dead baby affected her performance. In August 1766 her first husband died and in October the following year she married again at the Chapel Royal in the Savoy, quitting the stage to be the wife of Captain John Mills of the East India Company. She spent several years in India with Captain Mill’s – a “Letter from Bengal” published by a correspondent to several newspapers in July 1773 places her there at a charitable performance of ‘Macbeth’ in December 1772; “Mrs Mills, formerly Mrs Vincent who charmed the London audiences with her harmonious powers  and the opinion of all who heard her formerly, retains the same enchanting voice which distinguished her so much at Vauxhall and Drury-Lane theatre.” We are not sure when the Mills returned to England but Isabella died on 9 June 1802 aged 67 at the family home in Hampstead Road.

Captain Mills is remembered for being incarcerated in the Black Hole of Calcutta, a controversial incident of 1756 where troops of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, allegedly placed 146 British and Anglo-Indian prisoners overnight in conditions so cramped that 123 of them died. John Zephaniah Holwell, later Governor of Bengal, was included amongst the prisoners. According to John Lang in his book on Clive “In the morning, it was thought that Mr. Holwell's influence might still have some effect in getting the guard to open the door. But Mr. Holwell, though alive, was now unconscious. He was carried towards a window, so that the air there, being less foul, might revive him. But each man near the window refused to give up his place, for that meant possibly giving up also his life. Only one, Captain Mills, was brave enough, unselfish enough, to give way to Mr. Howell.” Captain Mills later wrote his own account of the incident.

Captain Mills died on 29 July 1811. His obituary in the Scots Magazine:

“This gentleman who we believe was the only survivor of the persons who were immured in what was called the Black Hole at Calcutta an event that will ever be recorded in the annals of our Asiatic history died a few days ago at his house in Camden Town He had reached the 89th year of his age and though his body necessarily experienced the confluences of such an advanced period of life he retained his mental powers in admirable preservation till a very short time before his departure  Notwithstanding the dreadful trial which his constitution suffered on the memorable occasion alluded to and exposure to various climates his corporeal powers were not more impaired than is usual at the period of his exit He possessed an excellent understanding and was a shrewd observer of mankind prudent honourable intelligent and good natured He married the celebrated Mrs Vincent the finger who was complimented by the churlish satirist Churchill who speaking of her in his Rosciad says

Nature through her is by reflexion shewn
Whilst Gay once more knows Polly for his own

Mr Mills had been in the civil service of the East India Company who with their usual liberality finding that his situation was not calculated to give comfort to his advanced age upon the application of hi friends two or three years ago allowed him an annuity which he had the agreeable surprise of finding had been granted tu him without previously knowing that any application had been made for it The humanity of this gentleman in relinquishing his situation next the window in the fatal dungeon above mentioned to Mr Holwell though with the probable danger of immediate death it recorded by Mr Orme in his account of our military operations in India.”

Friday 13 June 2014

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (3); John Williams (1784-1811) buried at the crossroads at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road

This photograph looks from the railway bridge on Cannon Street Road to the cross roads where John Williams was buried with the Crown and Dolphin still standing on the corner and the tower of St Georges’-in-the-East showing above the roof tops.

On the 21st December, just a couple of days after the murder of the Williamson’s and Bridget Harrington at the Kings Arms Tavern, an Irish or possibly Scottish seaman by the name of John Williams (or perhaps John Murphy) was arrested at the Pear Tree Inn after information was received from an anonymous source. He had been seen drinking at the Kings Arms on the night of the murder and there were other circumstantial details too which linked him to the crimes. He was remanded at Cold Bath Fields Prison to appear before the Shadwell magistrates to answer questions on his possible involvement in the murders. On the day of the hearing the magistrates sat waiting in their packed court room when a messenger appeared from the prison – Williams had committed suicide, hanging himself in his cell. The magistrates went ahead and heard the testimony of the other witnesses in what now appeared to be an open and shut case. Their verdict, hotly disputed to this day, was that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.    

To appease public opinion and In lieu of a public execution the Home Secretary Sir Richard Ryder, accepting the conclusions of the Shadwell Magistrates that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, ordered that his body be publically paraded around the streets at the scenes of his crimes. Once the local residents were satisfied that the monster was indeed dead he was to be interred at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. The crossroads chosen were at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, close by the Crown and Dolphin public house.

On New Years Eve 1811 accompanied by the Thames Police and the Bow Street Mounted Patrol as well as local constables and watchman John Williams’ body was arranged on an open cart along with the maul, a chisel and a crowbar that he had used in committing his crimes and driven slowly through the streets of Wapping and Shadwell, stopping outside the Marr’s shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the Kings Arms Tavern. 10,000 spectators lined the route and the normally unruly east end crowd was unusually subdued. When the procession reached the crossroads the grave had already been dug. The driver of the cart whipped Williams’ body three times in an unscripted act of revenge and then it was removed from the cart and placed on its knees in the open grave. A stake was placed at the point of his back judged to be above the heart and then driven through it with a mallet before the earth was piled over the corpse.

In 1902 gas mains were being laid in Cannon Street North and Cable Street. The labourers digging the trenches uncovered a skeleton with a wooden stake driven through the ribcage. The labourers adjourned to the Crown and Dolphin while their bosses debated what to do. They may well have adjourned carrying John Williams’ skull which was undoubtedly exchanged for a few pints when the landlord took an interest in it. Certainly by the time the authorities arrived to take Williams’ remains away the skeleton was headless and once the mains had been laid, the road repaved and official interest in the site had waned a skull purportedly belonging to John Williams’ went on prominent display in the saloon bar.            

Thomas De Quincey described John Williams as "a man of middle stature, slenderly built, rather thin but wiry, tolerably muscular, and clear of all superfluous flesh. His hair was of the most extraordinary and vivid color, viz., a bright yellow, something between an orange and a yellow colour." Even the police agreed he had a “pleasing countenance” which was sketched post mortem by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Sir Thomas would no doubt have preferred to sketch Williams alive but the sailor was so impatient to hang himself that the artist had to content himself with the corpse. The incident was recorded by Miss Croft in her “Recollections of Sir Thomas Lawrence P.R.A. During an Intimacy of Nearly Thirty Years”:

“Sir Thomas had an insatiable curiosity as to the countenances of murderers and persons capable of great crimes. He got permission from the home-office to go to Cold Bath Fields Prison to make a drawing of the man Williams, who was the murderer of the Maw family about 1812 or 1813, and also of another family of the name of Williamson, both in the neighbourhood of Ratcliffe High-way. The presumption of his guilt was confirm'd by his destroying himself in Prison the day after he was taken. Sir Thomas brought the drawing to shew me, and laid it before me without a comment. It instantly struck me that it was Williams, for the subject was fresh in every one's mind. I never saw a more beautiful head. The forehead the finest one could see, hair light and curling, the eyes blue and only half closed ; the mouth singularly handsome, tho' somewhat distorted, and the nose perfect. I ask'd what became of the science of physiognomy, when such features could belong to such a monster; for he destroyed not only the father and mother, and I think a maid servant, but an infant a few weeks old in its cradle — and all this for the purpose of rifling the till in a little haberdasher's shop!”

Thursday 12 June 2014

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (2): John and Catherine Willimson and Bridget Harrington (December 1811) St Paul's Churchyard, Shadwell

The murder of the Marrs caused national outrage. A mass killing of this sort, taking place in the victims own home was unusual and terrified everyone. A hundred guinea reward was posed for information leading to the identification of the killer or killers. The only tangible clue the police had to go on was a maul, a heavy shipwrights hammer that had been found at the scene of the crime clotted with blood and human hair and obviously one of the murder weapons. Then on the 19th December the murderer struck again, at the King’s Arms Tavern in New Gravel Lane (now Glamis Road). A night watchman had been passing the public house in the small hours when he found a half naked man trying to climb down a rope of knotted sheets from the top storey of the building watched by a crowd of curious on-lookers . The man, a lodger in the pub by the name of John Turner, started yelling that there was murder being committed inside.

The crowd quickly broke open the door of the cellar and inside the bodies of the landlord, John Williamson, 56, his wife Elizabeth,60 and a barmaid Bridget Harrington were all discovered with their heads battered in and their throats cut, in the same manner as the Marrs. The Williamson’s 14 year old granddaughter survived – she slept through the attack and the murderer or murderers probably did not realise she was in the house. The horrified crowd armed themselves and thoroughly searched the premises looking for the murderer. The corpses of the victims were gingerly taken to their beds to await the undertaker and a hue and cry was raised to find the perpetrators. Fire bells were, London Bridge sealed off to stop anyway fleeing south of the river and the Bow Street runners summoned to start the man hunt.

The funeral of the Williamson’s and Bridget Harrington took place on Christmas Eve at St Paul’s, Shadwell. Any trace of their headstone has long gone though the record of the burial is still there in the parish register with a neat note from the clerk under their names “the 3 last were murdered.”

The entry from St Paul's burial register for the Williamson's and Bridget Harrington

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (1); The Marr family, St George in the east churchyard, James Gowen, the Baptist Burial Ground, Goodman Fields

A contemporary print of the Marr funeral cortege making its way to St George in the east.

Parish clerks rarely record anything but the bare essentials of name, age and address when making entries in the burial register. Whoever completed the register for James Gowen at the Baptist burial ground at Goodman’s Fields felt outraged enough to  break with professional tradition and note something of the general circumstances which led to the sudden death of the apprentice: “Dec 11 Master James Gowen, Aged 14 years, barbarously murdered on ye 8th December 1811 in ye house of Mr Timothy Marr, Mercer, Ratcliff Highway, when Mr Marr, Mrs Marr and an infant Boy of 14 weeks old were all four, most savagely Massacred.”   

Four days earlier, shortly before midnight on Saturday the 7th December 1811 Timothy Marr, a draper of 29 Ratcliffe Highway (a “public thoroughfare in the most chaotic quarter of eastern, or nautical, London,” according to Thomas de Quincey) sent his serving girl Margaret Jewell out to buy him some oysters and to pay a bakers bill whilst he and his apprentice James Gowen were shutting up the shop. Margaret’s errands were a waste of time – she couldn’t find any oysters for sale at that time of night and the bakers too were closed. When she returned back to the drapers the door of the shop was closed and the shutters down. She heard the Marr’s three month old baby crying as she rapped on the door but the noise suddenly stopped, leaving an ominously silent house Margaret thought, a minute or two later. No one answered Margaret’s increasingly frantic knocking. A passing drunk began to harass her and she had to quieten down until the parish night watch passed by at 1am. Even he couldn’t rouse the Marrs, even though his shouting and banging on the door woke all the neighbours, including John Murray a pawnbroker who lived and worked next door. He went to the back of his property and climbed over the wall into the Marr’s back yard. From here he was able to get into the shop where he almost tripped over the body of James Gowan who was lying on the floor with his head smashed to a bloody pulp and his throat gashed open. By the trembling light of his candle the shocked Murray could also see the body of Celia Marr, her skull similarly shattered and still leaking blood into a large pool on the floorboards. Murray ran to the front door and pulled it open yelling "Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is here!" The small crowd of neighbours and passers by, led by the night watchman poured into the shop where they soon located the battered body of Timothy Marr. Someone yelled "What about the baby?" and the crowd pushed into the Marr’s bedroom where the baby still lay in its crib, its throat cut so deeply that the head was almost severed and the left hand side of the head crushed with a blunt instrument.

On 10 December a coroner’s inquest was held on the first four victims of what came to be known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. As soon as the inquest was over James Gowen’s family took away his body and held his funeral next day at the dissenter’s burial ground in Goodman Fields. The Marr’s funeral was delayed for a further four days until Sunday the 15th December. Whilst James Gowen was interred quickly and quietly the Marr’s funeral became a major public event. From early Sunday morning spectators began to line the route between the Marr’s and St George in the east where a single grave had been dug in the churchyard to receive the three bodies. The Sunday morning service at the church was particularly well attended that day, with many more people cramming themselves in than the 1200 the church was built to accommodate. Once morning worship was over the vast majority of the congregation refused to budge from their pews, as they were now ringside seats for the afternoon funeral service. The church was so packed in fact that the funeral cortege experienced some difficulty getting in. There were two coffins, the first contained Timothy Marr, the second Mrs Marr and the baby, both were draped in velvet palls and were carried on foot by 6 pall bearers from the Ratcliffe Highway to the church. Behind the coffin walked the mourners in strict order of precedence, Mr Marr’s parents first as principal mourners, Mrs Marr’s mother and then her four sisters, Mr Marr’s brother and then other relatives of lesser degree and finally friends who would have included the traumatised Margaret Jewell. The service was read by the Reverend Farringdon and the crowded congregation behaved with utmost decorum according to the newspapers “though they could not refrain from the utterance of strong language in the universal prayer of vengeance of Heaven upon the heads of the unknown murderers.”

A large headstone was placed over the grave with the following inscription:   

Sacred to the memory of Mr Timothy Marr, aged twenty-four years,
also Mrs Celia Marr his wife, aged twenty-four years,
and their son Timothy Marr, aged three months,
all of whom were most inhumanely murdered in their dwelling house,
No. 29 Ratcliffe Highway, Dec.8, 1811

Stop, mortal, stop as you pass by,
And view the grave wherein doth lie
A Father, Mother and a Son,
Whose earthly course was shortly run.
For lo, all in one fateful hour,
O'er came were they with ruthless power;
And murdered in a cruel state -
Yea, far too horrid to relate!
They spared not one to tell the tale:
One for the other could not wail
The other's fate in anguish sighed:
Loving they lived, together died.
Reflect, O Reader, o'er their fate,
And turn from sin before too late;
Life is uncertain in this world.
Oft in a moment we are hurled
To endless bliss or endless pain;
So let not sin within you reign

Sarah Wise's photo of the Marr
gravestone fragment
The memorial was still standing in the churchyard in the early 1970’s when PD James was researching “The Maul and the Pear Tree,” her book on the murders,  despite most headstones having been cleared away and stacked against the churchyard walls. She specifically mentions the fact that it still stood and gives the impression that it was intact and undamaged, as well as providing details of the inscription. Twenty five years later the memorial seemed to have disappeared completely. While germinating her excellent book “The Italian Boy” in the mid 1990’s historian Sarah Wise found a couple of large fragments of headstone with a partial inscription which she immediately recognised as coming from the lost Marr memorial. According to Winston Ramsey the vicar put the remains of newly identified headstone into the church boiler room for safekeeping and that was the last anyone saw of it. Presumably it is still gathering dust in the basement and quite possibly, because St George’s has had at least three changes of clergy in the last 20 years, the new incumbent does not realise that it is even there.

St George in the east, from the churchyard

Thursday 5 June 2014

"The £8 million Grave"; William Blake's lost drawings

Blake's frontispiece design for "The Grave" as engraved by Schiavonetti; the original went for $650,000 at the 2005 Sotheby's auction in New York

"While some affect the sun, and some the shade.
Some flee the city, some the hermitage;
Their aims as various, as the roads they take
In journeying thro' life;--the task be mine,
To paint the gloomy horrors of the tomb;
Th' appointed place of rendezvous, where all
These travellers meet....."
Robert Blair 'The Grave'  (1743)       
Even in 1743 publishers were not convinced that a book length meditation on death, in blank verse, was a commercial proposition. The Scottish clergyman Robert Blair had real trouble finding someone willing to publish his gloomy classic “The Grave,” and if it had not been championed by Isaac Watts it might never have seen the light of day. After being rejected and rewritten “in order to make it more generally liked..[and] to make such a piece go down with a licentious age,” as the author wrote to a friend, it was finally published by Mr Cooper. It was not a instant hit but by 1798 there had been 47 separate editions and, along with Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts”, was considered essential reading for all late eighteenth century men of sensibility. Jonathan Tyers, the owner of Vauxhall Gardens, had copies of both books chained to lecterns at his Temple of Fleeting Life and Inevitable Death at Denbies, his Surrey estate.
In 1795 William Blake had been commissioned by Richard Edwards to illustrate a new multi-volume edition of ‘Night-Thoughts’. The venture was a commercial failure and was abandoned after publication of the first volume in 1797. Therefore no one was probably more surprised, or delighted, than Blake himself when engraver turned publisher Richard H. Cromeck asked him in September 1805 to do 20 illustrations for a proposed edition of “The Grave.” Blake was living in straightened circumstances according to Cromeck, supporting himself and his wife Katherine on just 10 shillings a week. For the 20 illustrations he was offered 20 guineas and the even more lucrative prospect of doing the engravings. But after receiving the drawings Cromeck started to have second thoughts about Blake’s suitability as an engraver and, according to W.B. Yeats version “gave these designs into the hands of Schiavonetti, an excellent engraver, but a follower of the fashionable school of 'blots and blurs', of soft shadows and broken lights, and not of the unfashionable school of 'firm and determinate outline' to which Blake belonged…..the choice of another was a serious money loss to him. The result was a quarrel, which grew to the utmost vehemence when Cromeck added the further wrong of setting Stothard to paint for engraving a picture of The Canterbury Pilgrims, having taken the idea from seeing Blake at work on the same subject with like intentions.” ("Preface to the Works of William Blake."). Blake never forgave him and the affair became, according to GE Bentley ‘one of the best known quarrels in literature,’ Dennis Read went even further; “out of his long list of enemies, William Blake came to hate none more passionately than the engraver-turned-publisher Robert Hartley Cromeck.” Following Schiavonetti's death in 1810 and Cromeck's in 1812 Blake wrote a number of exultant satirical verses about his old enemies including these lines in which the painter Thomas Stothard laments getting drawn into the quarrel (Assassinette is Schiavonetti and Screwmuch Cromeck):

O that I ne'er had seen that William Blake,
Or could from Death Assassinette wake!
We thought -- Alas, that such a thought could be! --
That Blake would etch for him and draw for me.
For 'twas a kind of bargain Screwmuch made
That Blake's designs should be by us display'd,
Because he makes designs so very cheap.
Then Screwmuch at Blake's soul took a long leap.
'Twas not a mouse. 'Twas Death in a disguise.
And I, alas! live to weep out my eyes.
And Death sits laughing on their monuments
On which he's written `Receivèd the contents.'
But I have writ -- so sorrowful my thought is --
His epitaph; for my tears are aquafortis.
For his 20 guineas Cromeck became the owner of Blake’s extraordinary original watercolours and when he died in 1812 they were inherited by his widow. In 1832 they turned up at auction in Edinburgh, described as “A Volume of Drawings by Blake” and were sold to an anonymous buyer at the knock down price of £1 and 5 shillings. No one knows what happened to the pictures after that until they turned up in 2001 at Caledonia Books in Glasgow, bought as part of a job lot from a house clearance sale. Caledonia Books didn’t realise the red morocco portfolio labelled ‘Designs for Blair’s Grave’ contained original works of art and put them on sale as prints. In spring the shop was visited by Paul Williams and Jeffrey Bates two booksellers from Yorkshire on the look out for stock. The portfolio caught their eye and they bought it for an undisclosed sum believed to be about £1000. They thought they had something potentially valuable on their hands and took the portfolio to a firm of auctioneers who took professional advice. When the portfolio was shown to a pair of Blake scholars the importance of the find became obvious. The initial plan was to auction the portfolio but Tate Britain became involved and offered the two book dealers £4.2 million. The offer was accepted and the Tate was given 5 months to raise the money. Meanwhile the owners of Caledonia Books unable to live with the knowledge that they had sold a fortune for a pittance launched a legal challenge to the sale alleging they had been cheated by Williams and Bates who only had the drawings on approval. They hired a London art dealer Libby Howie to advise them and eventually reached a settlement with the two second hand booksellers in November 2002. Howie, who at the age of 24 became the first female auctioneer at Sotheby’s in 1976, persuaded Williams, Bates and the Caledonia bookshop to renege on their £4.2 million deal with the Tate and instead sell the drawings to her for £4.9 million. The reaction of the Tate isn’t hard to imagine. Howie told the press that she had bought the drawings on behalf of an anonymous art lover "a man who understands the importance of these watercolours to scholars. Their loan to a museum has not been ruled out." This turned out to be a barefaced lie – the buyers were a syndicate, a private investment group, who were only interested in how much money they could make on their speculation.
Howie and her private investors then waited almost two years before applying for an export license for their Blake’s. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art valued the watercolours at £8.8 million and gave British buyers two months to match the price. There was no chance of the Tate finding this sort of money and the export license was granted. There was more outrage when it was revealed that the collection was to broken up and sold as individual lots at Sotheby’s New York. Howie claimed that she had tried to sell the whole collection to the Getty Museum in California, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and several private buyers but no one was interested. Critics were sure that the sale of each drawing individually was simply meant to maximise their price and generate the most profit. The auction was held at Sotheby’s on May 2 2005. Only 50 or so buyers turned up and many of them turned out not to be in the buying mood. The £9 million sale turned into something of a fiasco – the pre-sale high estimate for the 20 lots was $17,481,500 but they sold for $7,102,640 (£4.2 million) with 8 lots bought back and remaining unsold. Once Sotheby’s fees were paid and even with 8 drawings still to sell it was looking likely that Howie and her private investors would barely break even on their deal. Brian Sewell the art critic summed up the whole affair: "Even though the goal of every dealer is profit, there comes a point when one needs to check one’s greed and rather do the right thing. Miss Howie could have very easily come to agreement with the Tate wherein she could have made a profit and the drawings would have remained together as they should have been. But I would not be surprised if she has done herself quite a bit of harm in this deal, if not apparent immediately, than certainly down the road. She has not done well by her investor client she hasn’t made the millions in profit for him he was obviously counting on."

The Grave Personified - sold at the 2005 auction for $800,000