Friday, 30 December 2016

Severed; A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found - Frances Larson (Granta books, £9.99)

I have always thought of myself as more than averagely morbid, as you might expect from the author of a cemetery blog, but Frances Larson’s ‘Severed’ made me think that I’m not, perhaps, as morbid as I had fondly imagined myself to be. For one thing I had never given much thought to the cultural significance of severed heads. And secondly, unlike 30 million American adults, I have never watched, or even felt the inclination to watch, an on-line video of an Isis execution. Larson reveals that a survey conducted 5 months after the execution by beheading of US engineer Nick Berg in May 2004 found that 24% of all American adult internet users had watched on-line videos of his death, posted by his executioners, in May and June that year. “The Berg beheading footage remained the most popular internet search in the United States for a week,” Larson tells us, and “the second most popular throughout the month of May, runner up only to ‘American Idol’”. Until I googled ‘beheading’, looking for some tasteful 18th century etching or engravings of an execution to illustrate this post with, I had not realised how popular Isis executions were on the web. I was shocked to see hundreds of images of orange jump suited victims kneeling before their scimitar wielding executioners, or artfully posed, post decapitation, with severed head resting in the small of the back of the now headless torso. Seeing still images was bad enough, I am far too squeamish to want to witness the suffering and death of a fellow human being.

Oxford based anthropologist Frances Larson has written other books on the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum and of pioneering medic Henry Wellcome.  ‘Severed’ , her third book, is an excellently written account of the various causes of heads getting sliced off at the neck covering, as you would expect, executions and dissections, but also containing fascinating chapters on shrunken heads, trophy heads, framed heads and potent heads. Her prologue is an account of the peripatetic fate of Oliver Cromwell’s dead head but her most interesting chapter is on the lively late colonial trade in shrunken heads many of which turn out to be fakes produced by indigenous craftsman to supply the lucrative trade in trophy heads generated by western travellers, colonisers and tourists. “Of the ten shrunken heads on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, two are sloth heads, two are howler monkey heads, and of the six remaining human heads, three are ‘fakes’, made for sale,” Larson says, which “tell of the nameless dead, the impoverished and outcast who, after their deaths, became the victims of an international trade in exotic collectibles that had little to do with the indigenous beliefs of the inhabitants of the Amazon jungle.”

Larson also deals with the taking of trophy heads in war, discussing in detail documented examples during the second world war of American’s taking Japanese skulls as souvenirs or using them as decorations on their jeeps or other vehicles including the famous Life Magazine picture of the week from May 1944 showing Natalie Nickerson, a Phoenix war worker, in the act of writing to her boyfriend serving in the far east, thanking him for the present of a Japanese soldier’s skull which she contemplates as she writes. The photo caused no outcry in the States but was greeted with horror in Japan. Trophy skulls were not taken by US soldiers in the European campaign. These examples, along with the Isis videos, shatter any illusions we have of moral progress over the last few hundred years. Beheadings and guillotining are not relics of a past that we have left behind us, scratch the surface of the average modern suburban American or European and a member of the mob that eagerly turned out at Tyburn on execution day is easy to see. Larson’s book is highly recommended.   

Life magazines picture of the week in May 1944 caused outrage in Japan 

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Spying in the free world; Moura Budberg (1892-1974) Chiswick New Cemetery

Moura's grave in Chiswick New Cemetery

In her final years Moura Budberg lived in a ‘large rambling flat’ in the Cromwell Road according to Michael Blakemore, who visited her at the request of Sir Laurence Olivier,  ‘attended by a female servant, also Russian…and equally cranky… Moura had on a long dress, by no means new, but appropriate to a countess, and her grey hair, its colour improved by the application of some silvery liquid was swept on top of her head. A tiny metallic trickle ran down the side of her face.’ According to other sources she was swollen and arthritic, kept a half bottle of vodka in her handbag, passed her time making small bets on horse races at Ladbrokes or watching Pinky and Perky on television and, as she was perpetually short of money, shoplifting (for which she was arrested at least once). The former beauty still craved company and in his memoirs Alan Ross recalls that her ‘entertaining, helped along by various Russian acolytes, was now much reduced but invitations were peremptory. Any excuses… were brushed aside as if of no account. “Just come in for a little moment,” she would wheedle in her husky voice, which remained distinctive and seductive long after all other physical charms had fled and she had become heavily square in shape.’ Another acquaintance, William Shier, tells us that two or three years before she died she was beginning to sort ‘through piles of material from cardboard boxes that littered the living and dining rooms of her house in Cromwell Road after she had given in to the pleas of her friends to write her memoirs.’  The much requested memoir was never written, ‘the work seemed sometimes to bore and exhaust her and she would telephone urging me to come over for tea and vodka.’ In 1974 Moura moved to Italy to live in the sun, with her son, but died a few months later. Her body was shipped back to England and after a funeral ceremony at the Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile at Emperors Gate (just off the Cromwell Road, close to Moura’s old flat) she was buried at the uninspiring Chiswick New Cemetery in a small patch of other Orthodox burials.  

The 'heavily square' Moura in old age at her Cromwell Road flat
The unwritten memoirs would have been fascinating, though not necessarily completely accurate; Moura was a great embellisher and an outright liar if it suited her. She lived an extraordinary life (she always said that her life was more interesting than she was) but was not, as the New York Times had it in her obituary, at ‘the center of London's literary and social life for nearly four decades’ she certainly knew a lot of famous or celebrated people.   As her headstone testifies she was born Marie Zakrevskaia in 1892, her father, Ignaty Platonovitch Zakrevsky, was a well heeled upper‐class Russian senator who owned land in the Ukraine. He encouraged his clever daughter to learn English, Italian, German and French, and at 18 married her off to an Estonian Count, Johann von Benckendorff.  A couple of years later her husband was killed in on his estate in Estonia, shot by one of his own peasants, a sign of the times. Moura was not heartbroken; she had been working in the Russian embassy in Berlin where she had met the dashing Englishman who became the love of her life; R H Bruce Lockhart.  The handsome Lockhart was a diplomat, sportsman, and author but less publicly was also deeply involved in espionage. He was in Eastern Europe keeping a close eye on the progress of the Russian Revolution. When Moura’s husband died he followed her to Moscow. The pair were both arrested and Lockhart was accused of spying and plotting to assassinate Lenin and incarcerated in the Lubyanka.  Incredibly Moura managed to engineer both her own and Lockhart’s release, possibly by allowing a senior Cheka official and later chief of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, to seduce and recruit her as a Bolshevik agent.

A younger, more seductive, Moura photographed with two of her lovers, HG Wells and Maxim Gorky
Once released from prison Lockhart returned to the UK and the 20 year old Moura, whom he had no doubt tried to recruit to be a British agent, went to work for the writer Maxim Gorky as his secretary, probably at the instigation of Yagoda and the Cheka.  It was probably also with the urging of the Cheka that she became Gorky’s mistress. She lived with the writer first in the USSR and then in semi exile in Italy until 1932 when he returned to the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of Stalin (who probably had him assassinated 1936). Whilst with Gorky Moura had also started an affair with HG Wells when he visited the USSR in 1920 and the affair continued when she moved to London in 1933. She later told Wells that she had started sleeping with him at the request of the Cheka.
In London Moura managed, courtesy of Wells, to insinuate herself into the heart of the literary and political establishments. Graham Greene dubbed her Moura Bedbug in honour of her free and easy attitude to sexual morality.  She worked as a translator and a production adviser on the stage and screen, was Alexander Korda’s PA, and mixed freely in society but always under the scrutiny of MI5 who were convinced that she was a Russian spy. Many believed that she was a double agent passing information between NKVD and MI6; she was a friend of Guy Burgess. Long before he was outed as a Soviet mole by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 she was telling people that Anthony Blunt was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. When one of her friends, Klop Ustinov (spy and father of Peter Ustinov) said “I only know about him that he looks after the King’s pictures”, Moura retorted “Such things only happen in England”.
The inscription on Moura's grave

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

"Franz Kafka was my lover"; Dora Diamant (1898-1952) United Synagogue Cemetery, Marlow Road, East Ham

In the bed directly opposite me a woman lies dying. An older woman. She’s whimpering incessantly, trying to say something.  The nurses are trying to understand what she says. Earlier on she cried. She lay quite still and the tears flowed from her closed eyes down her face. A beautiful woman, fairly plump, cheeks a little pink, maybe she has a fever. What does she think? Does she know she is dying? She seems to be conscious. Then she certainly knows it. It is simply not something one cannot overlook. I was not as far gone a few weeks ago, but still I knew exactly how things looked....She is an Englishwoman so at least she is dying in her homeland. .......(Later, when the nurses had moved screens around the dying woman’s bed) I think it is the end over there. It is difficult to think about anything else. Now and then one hears laughter from the other end of the ward. On the whole most are quiet, not depressed, although they too think of nothing else it seems.
Dora Diamant, Plaistow Hospital April 1951

At 53 Dora Diamant was hardly old but she knew she was dying. She had been diagnosed with chronic nephritis, a condition which eventually causes kidney failure and for which there was no known cure. The disease could have killed her at any time; the only suggestion her doctors had to prolong her life was bed rest and a strict diet with restricted salt and protein. Even then they couldn’t tell her if she had years, months or just weeks to live. She was almost frantic with worry about her seventeen year old daughter, a beautiful but unworldly child who had spent most of her sheltered childhood in hospitals and boarding schools and was so shy that she could barely bring herself to speak to strangers. How would she cope with life without her mother to look after her?  Her other preoccupation were her memories of her first lover, Franz Kafka. Death would erase them unless she committed them to paper.  On March 4 1951 in black ink , she wrote across the front cover of a bright red Silvine school exercise book ‘To be given to Max Brod’. On the inside cover she wrote her address ‘Ward Pasteur 1, Plaistow Hospital, E15’ (Dora lived in Finchley and so can be excused not knowing Plaistow Hospital was in E13 not E15).  In the blank pages of the exercise book she took herself back to the summer of 1923 and the seaside town of Graal-Müritz on the Baltic coast, the place where as a 25 year old volunteer at the Berlin Jewish People’s holiday camp for refugee children, she had met and fallen in love with Kafka. 

A young Dora Diamant, a photo taken in Berlin in the late 1920's
Dora Diamant was born on 04 March 1898 in Pabianice near Lodz in central Poland. When she was 14 her mother died and her father Herschel remarried and moved the family to Bedzin in Silesia, near the German Border, a town where he thrived as a manufacturer of garters and suspenders. Although he was a successful, factory owning business man, Herschel was a pious Hassid, a follower of the Rebbe of Ger, R. Isaac Meir and his successors. Herschel was a learned man, he spoke Polish and German as well as Yiddish and Hebrew and his house was full of books in all four languages. Unlike their sons, who received only religious instruction, the daughters of Hassidim were often allowed a secular education (considered fit only to be wasted on girls) and so it was with Dora. When the teenage Dora became rebellious and refused to marry, Herschel sent her away to Krakow to study to be a kindergarten teacher.  But even Krakow was too provincial for her and without her father’s permission she ran away to Berlin. Hershel recited Kaddish, the ritual prayer of mourning, for his daughter and henceforth treated her as though she were dead.

In 1923 Dora volunteered to work for a Jewish charity which ran a holiday home for refugee children at Graal-Müritz in Mecklenburg on the Baltic coast. One of the other volunteers invited the almost unknown writer Franz Kafka, who was staying at the resort with his sister and her two children, to a Sabbath dinner at the camp. Dora had already glimpsed Kafka two days earlier, though at the time she was not aware of who he was. She had seen a family on the beach, the handsome father, as she assumed he was, sitting with his wife on covered beach chairs, indulgently watching the two children playing in the sand. On the night Kafka came to dinner Dora was in the kitchen cleaning and gutting fish, stripping off their scales and removing their heads as well as their bloody entrails. She recognised immediately the man from the beach when he stopped to talk to her; “such tender hands and such bloody work they do,” were Kafka’s idea of small talk. Dora soon learnt that the moody young writer (he remained eternally young, even at the age of 40 which was how old he was when Dora met him) was not in fact married and was staying in Graal-Müritz for three weeks with his sister. Kafka returned to the camp everyday mainly it seems to see Dora and very quickly passion blossomed between them in this unlikely setting. Dora later remembered the highlights “Franz helping peel potatoes in the kitchen. The night on the pier. On the bench in the Müritz woods.” Astonishingly in those three weeks (given his chronic indecisiveness particularly in relation to women) Franz came to a decision to leave his father’s house in Prague and move in with Dora in Berlin. Perhaps Kafka’s new found determination was given spurs by the knowledge that his tuberculosis was worsening and that he might not have long to live.

Kafka in his 20's - 15 years before he met Dora
By September 1923 Kafka was in Berlin living in a small flat with Dora and working on the stories that he would soon publish as “The Hunger Artist”. It was a short lived idyll as Kafka grew increasingly sick over the winter of 1923/24. By the spring of 1924 he was forced to return home to Prague leaving Dora, temporarily, behind in Berlin. She joined him in Prague in April and accompanied him to Dr Hoffman’s sanatorium at Kierling near Vienna. Only an open topped car could be found for the journey and soon after they set off driving rain set in. Dora devotedly stood over Kafka for almost the entire 330 kilometre trip holding an umbrella to try and keep him dry. She remained in Kierling, visiting him every day until he died on the 3rd of June. She wasn’t with him at his death, Kafka’s friend Robert Klopstock having sent her away on an errand so that she didn’t have to witness the writer’s final agonies. TB had made Kafka’s throat so painful and swollen that he could not swallow. Ironically, given that he was working on correcting the proofs of “The Hunger Artist”, he probably died of starvation.

Kafka famously left explicit instructions that all his unpublished manuscripts were to be destroyed after his death – he was confident that the few copies of his books that had been sold would find oblivion unaided – and even more famously his best friend and executor, Max Brod, after some agonised deliberation, not only ignored the instruction to burn Kafka’s papers but went on to publish many of them including all three of his novels. Dora was well aware of Kafka’s wishes – she had helped him burn manuscripts while he was alive and had promised him that she would do the same to the cache of notebooks and correspondence he left with her. Like Brod she couldn’t bring herself to obliterate Kafka’s last traces but unlike him she did not feel these should be shared with the rest of the world. Brod knew she had many of Kafka’s final manuscripts but she lied to him and told him that she had done what the writer had requested and destroyed them. Brod believed her. For ten years the Kafka notebooks went with Dora wherever she went. In 1933 they were with her when the Gestapo raided her apartment; the notebooks were confiscated and never seen again.

After Kafka’s death Dora’s life was swept into the maelstrom that was mittel European politics in the 20’s and 30’s. Back in Berlin, whilst working in the Yiddish theatre, she became a committed Zionist and found herself drawn into radical politics. In 1932 she married the editor of Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the communist party’s daily newspaper, Lutz Lask and two years gave birth to their daughter Franziska Marianne (not only did Dora name her daughter after Kafka, she brought her up to refer to him as her ‘other father’). As Nazi control over Germany grew Lask fled to the Soviet Union where Dora joined him in 1936. A year later Lask was arrested during the Stalinist purges and sent to exile in Siberia. Dora lived with her mother in law in Yalta until the summer of 1939 when she fled to England as a refugee, arriving shortly before Germany invaded Poland in September. During the war she was detained for over a year as an enemy alien in the Port Erin Detention Camp on the Isle of Man. When she was released in 1942 she and Marianne returned to London where they lived in a cramped flat in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead NW6 apart from a short spell in Glenloch Road, Belsize Park when a bomb damaged Broadhurst Gardens. After the war she dedicated herself to fighting the losing battle of preserving Eastern European Yiddish culture alive in Whitechapel and was a founder member of the group, The Friends of Yiddish with the poet Abraham Stencl.

Plaistow Hospital where Dora died in 1952
Dora died of kidney failure in Plaistow Hospital in August 1952. She was buried in the East Ham Jewish Cemetery in Marlow Road on August 18, an unseasonably wet and cold day according to Marthe Robert, Kafka’s French translator, who was one of the few people who attended the ceremony. “Dreadful storms threatened England that day,” she later recalled, “black silhouettes sank in puddles up to their ankles under icy cloud bursts. One could only move forward by pulling hard on each leg to tear the feet away from the mud. The rain had only faces to batter in this treeless and naked field, nothing but faces already dripping wet, nothing but this face, next to me, streaked with black from the dripping head-covering made of newspaper, handed out at the cemetery door to serve as a hat. No writers or journalists attended her funeral. The news had not reached them; only those with whom Dora had worked, played and sang were now crying openly under the rain in the big East End Jewish Cemetery.” Jewish custom dictates that no memorial can be placed over a grave for at least a year; in Dora’s case it took 47, her headstone was only erected in 1999 by a group of family descendents living in Israel none of whom had known Dora personally. The inscription on her gravestone, “who knows Dora knows what love means”, is a quotation from a letter written by Kafka’s friend Robert Klopstock after the writers death, in which he described the devotion shown by Dora to the dying writer. After her mother’s death, and despite the best effort of Dora’s friends (who included George and Marianne Steiner) Marianne became increasingly withdrawn and strange, eventually developing full blown schizophrenia. In the worst crises of her illness, paranoid and distrustful of everyone, she shunned other people including her mother’s friends who tried to help her. She died alone in 1982, her badly decomposed body found by the police in her flat after neighbours complained of the smell.  

For more details of Dora's life see Kathi Diamant "Kafka's Last Love."

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Remembering the dead at St Brides, Fleet Street

Samuel Langby remembered in the church wall at St Bride's, Fleet Street. Perhaps the stone mason was pissed when he carved this; not only did he give Samuel an extra L in his first name, he also couldn't remember whether he 'decefed' in September or December.  

I don’t recall ever having seen this before – a grave inscription carved into the exterior wall of the church rather than on a headstone. There are just two at St Brides, one dated 1686, the other 1702, both inscribed shortly after Sir Christopher Wren’s church was completed in 1672. Perhaps the church authorities discouraged others from following the example set by the relatives of Samuell Langby after Nicholas Halgan buried his wife Margery here in 1702 and chose to remember his daughter Margaret, buried five years previously, as well as his spouse. Paying a mason to chisel a short inscription into the church wall would have been much cheaper than paying for a headstone and I’m sure the practice would have caught on if churches had allowed it.  Both inscriptions date from around the start of the graveyard memorial boom. Before the 17th century monuments and memorials for the dead were reserved only for the rich and powerful but in the late 1600’s marking burial place with something more durable than a simple wooden cross caught on amongst the middle classes. Carved and inscribed gravestones became a common sight in church yards for the first time. 

Margery and Margaret, the Halgan ladies immortalised. The capital M&B to the side of the inscription are probably graffiti.

St Brides, Fleet Street

Monday, 21 November 2016

How to Rise in Society, the Housemaid's Tale; Stephen Lancaster Lucena (1805-1876) and Anne Maria Lucena (1834-1908), Lavender Hill Cemetery, Enfield

This is not a well known memorial, perhaps because it is off the beaten track in the otherwise uninteresting late Victorian cemetery at Lavender Hill in Enfield. It is not listed and I had never heard of it until I came across it in Richard Barnes excellent book on sculpture in London cemeteries ‘The Art of Memory’ (with some striking photographs of it by Stiffleaf). Incredibly Hugh Meller fails to mention the memorial at all in his 200 word dismissal of Lavender Hill in ‘London Cemeteries’ despite mentioning 3 other, markedly inferior, tombs including Henrich Faulenbach’s which is barely 50 yards away. Its situation in the cemetery is so prominent that it is almost impossible not to see it; the only possible explanation for Meller’s omission is that at the time of his visit it must have been completely overgrown by holly and ivy. The memorial shows Stephen Lancaster Lucena’s second family in a sentimental grouping with the two children Stephen and Annie Elizabeth being read to by their mother Anne Marie, quite probably from the bible or some other religious book as the little girl is clearly praying. Even the dog seems attentive to the word of God. The domestic group was originally watched over by a pair of guardian angels but only one is now in situ, the other, toppled from its base, now lies headless and wingless behind the monument, the head is completely missing but the broken wings are tucked into a niche on the main memorial for want of any better place to put them.  The piety of the sculptured group conceals a series of late Victorian and early Edwardian scandals; both of the children were conceived outside of wedlock, their mother a household servant in their father’s house and in later life the praying little girl, Annie Elizabeth, went through a spectacularly messy divorce from an army major which resulted in the murder of her mother and the suicide of her ex husband.

Stephen Lancaster Lucena was born in London in 1805. His father, João Carlos Lucena, was a Portuguese born marrano, a new Christian, born into a family that may have continued being secretly Jewish since the 16th century.  If so their religion did not survive the family move from Portugal in 1761 to the then British colonies in North America, initially at Rhode Island where his father was granted a patent for the production of Castile soap.  The family eventually settled in Savanah where he married Joanna Lavien, the daughter of a prominent Jewish West India merchant. Joanna’s father left her extensive estates in South Carolina and Georgia in his will but these were confiscated when John Charles, as he was now known, remained loyal to the British crown in the American revolution. By the 1790’s John Charles was in London where he became the Portuguese Consul. In 1791 he married again, in Hampstead, to Mary Ann Lancaster (he had become a practising Anglican whilst in America) with whom he had four children.  He died in 1813 was buried at St Pancras Old Church.  He died a wealthy man, leaving an estate worth over £100,000.

Stephen Lancaster Lucena became a solicitor and in 1829, at the age of 24 married Susan Kite at Shifnal in Shropshire. They set up home in Enfield and had three children, William, Clara and Charles. Something was clearly not right in the marriage and by 1841 they were separated; Stephen was living alone in Enfield and Susan was a resident of Marine Parade in Dover with the three children. There was at least one temporary breach in what otherwise became a lifelong separation between the couple; in the 1851 census Stephen and Susan are declared as living under the same roof, back in Enfield, but interestingly none of the children are declared. They were probably in Shropshire with their grandparents as that is where they show up in the census of 1861. By that time the 56 year old Stephen was living at Rose Cottage in Enfield with just the company of a cook, the 64 year old Hannah Benn from Cranford near Uxbridge and a housemaid, Hannah’s unmarried 27 year old daughter Anne Maria. Hannah must have turned a blind eye to the romance that blossomed between the aging solicitor and her daughter, despite the age gap of 30 years and the fact that her employer was still very much married to his estranged wife. In 1865 Anne Maria gave birth to a son who was registered by both parents as Stephen Lancaster Lucena Benn and baptised at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square, just off the Marylebone Road, on 25 October. On the 1871 census Stephen was living at 42 Windmill Hill, Enfield, with the 5 year old Stephen declared as his son and Anne Maria as his housekeeper! The census does not mention the baby Anne Maria had given birth to the previous year, Annie Elizabeth Lucena born on 10 September 1870 and baptised at St Pancras Old Church on 7 June 1871.  Susan, the estranged wife was living as a lodger with a family called Boud in Penge according to the census but by October that year she was dead. Stephen seemingly did not rush to grasp the opportunity to regularise Anne Maria’s ambiguous position as housekeeper and mother to his two youngest children; the couple eventually did marry but not until 1874.  Two years later Stephen himself was dead and Anne Maria commissioned the splendid memorial at Enfield showing his loving family being watched over by guardian angels in hr husband’s absence. We don’t know how much the memorial cost but it would have taken a sizeable chunk from Stephen’s estate which Anne Maria swore was worth less than £4000 when she registered probate. Two years later she was forced to re-swear the vale of the estate at less than £8000 but even then she was almost certainly considerably under declaring her dead husband’s assets.

Anne Maria as depicted on the memorial
Anne Maria must have been a lively character. In 1879 the 21 year old Henry Hill Banyard paid for a marriage license to allow him to marry the 45 year old (and very wealthy) widow. The marriage never took place. Anne Maria consoled herself with property speculation; in November 1882 she bought the freehold of two plots on Kensington Road looking towards Kensington Palace.  In 1883-4 Holland and Hannen builders constructed an ornate mansion, Chenesiton House, with library, billiard room, morning and drawing rooms and a six stall stable, to the design of architect J.J. Stevenson (now the 5 star Milestone Hotel). In 1891, the year her 21 year old daughter Annie Elizabeth married the 24 year old soldier Henry George Coates Phillips, Anne Maria was living in some style at her luxurious new home with a staff of 7 live in servants including a butler. These were giddy heights to have reached for the girl from Cranford who had started life as a housemaid until she had the luck to be seduced by a solicitor more than twice her age. If she felt any hubris it was her son in law, Major Phillips, who was to prove her nemesis.  Her daughter’s marriage was not a happy one.  The young Welsh Guard had been made a Captain the year before the wedding and was often away from home on duty, serving in Malta and then in South Africa where he was present at the relief of Ladysmith in 1900. Whilst in South Africa, when not fighting he whiled away the time by conducting liaisons with local married women, eventually getting himself named as co-respondent in a divorce case at Witwatersrand Court where it was proved that he had paid the lady in question sums varying between £5 and £10 to entice her into “committing misconduct” with him to the eternal chagrin of her husband. These stories made their way back to England and the Major would have received a frosty reception from his wife when he finally made it home from the battle grounds of Natal.

Chenesiton House in Kensington Court, Anne Maria's palatial mansion

Annie Elizabeth and Major Phillips divorced in 1906; the case was widely reported in the newspapers.  According to the Dundee Evening News of 26 July 1906 “there was an aristocratic case in the London Divorce Court yesterday. The Court was crowded, and there was an impressive array of counsel. Barristers wandered in, too, from the duller courts to join in the throng of the curious. The petitioner, Mrs Phillips, said to be of independent means and living at Kensington, asked for a divorce from her husband, Major Henry George Coates Phillips, because of his alleged misconduct and cruelty.” The paper admiringly described Annie Elizabeth as “a tall, dark, handsome woman, with finely cut features, wearing a large black hat and costume, and a white fancy blouse with a bunch of roses.” In her divorce suit Annie Elizabeth alleged that her husband had been unfaithful with two women (apparently his South African infidelity was not mentioned) and in his counter suit the Major claimed that his wife had misbehaved herself with a Mr Eric Gordon. The first business of the court was to deal with the withdrawals of the allegations of adultery by both parties; instead the case revolved around two incidents which showed the Major’s cruel and unusual behaviour. The first incident took place in December 1904; the Major had knocked his wife down when they returned to their house from a ball leaving her with a bloodied head. As a result of this and other incidents she had taken out an injunction against him and he was ordered to keep half a mile away from her. The other incident took place in August 1905 when Annie Elizabeth had been staying with a friend, Daisy Ouchterlony, in Hampshire. The Major had broken into the house in the early hours of the morning, cut the communication cables so that the servants could not be summoned for help, and then made his way to the bedroom where his wife was sleeping. He woke her up and threatened her with a revolver, forcing her to sign a letter withdrawing the divorce petition. The Judge granted Annie Elizabeth a decree nisi but divorce was not to be the end of her troubles with her husband.

On 31 December 1906 the Major was bound over to be of good behaviour for 12 months at the Hampshire assizes in Winchester after being found guilty of attempting to commit suicide the previous day by suffocating himself with coal gas. He had broken into Annie Elizabeth’s house at Velmead in Church Crookham and tried to kill himself there. Exactly a year later the marital problems of Anne Maria’s daughter and the Major came to tragic climax on New Years Eve 1907. Annie Elizabeth and her mother were both at home at Velmead celebrating with Annie’s good friend Daisy Ouchterlony. The Tamworth Herald of Saturday 11 January 1908 described what happened next:
“A little before o'clock midnight she [Daisy Ouchterlony] and Mrs. Phillips went out to the steps of the front door see what the weather was like. Just as they were standing there, Mrs. Phillips's dog ran down the steps barking at something in the darkness. [Daisy] thereupon went to the bottom of the steps to see what the dog was barking at, leaving Mrs. Phillips standing at the top of the steps. In a second or so someone knocked [her] down. She became dazed with the fall, and when she came to herself she found she was lying on the ground at the foot the steps. At that moment she heard several shots in the hall. She got up and rushed into the house, and the first thing she saw was Mrs. Phillips running past the door leading into the kitchen. Then she saw Mrs. Lucena, Mrs. Phillips's mother, on the floor, and also Major Phillips and Mr. Smith, Mrs. Phillips's solicitor. Mr. Smith was calling to some one to bring a rope, so she rushed to the stables for assistance. Then she went back to the house, there were several people in the hall then. Mrs. Lucena was sitting in chair, and her face was being bathed. The Major was roped, and several people were watching him.”

At the inquest into her ex husband’s death Annie Elizabeth described hearing her friend ‘scramble’ in the darkness when she went to see what was causing the dog to bark. She had an electric torch and in its faltering beam she saw the Major emerge out of the darkness and spring up the stairs where he “caught hold her arm, dragging her into the hall. Holding a revolver to her head, he said, ‘This is your last chance, Liz.’ She said, ‘Do let me live; don't kill me.’ Just then the butler came in. The Major pointed the revolver at him and ‘You come a step nearer and I will shoot you dead.’” Annie Elizabeth tried to wrestle the gun from him but the retired soldier was too strong. Anne Maria then came into the hall from the library to see what all the commotion was about. Seeing his mother in law the Major let go of his wife and grabbed hold of her. “You have been the cause of all this,” he told Anne Maria, dragging her towards the drawing room. The terrified 74 year old pleaded for her life but the Major raised his revolver to her cheek and fired at point blank range.  He then shot another member of the party in the groin and tried to shoot his wife as she went over to their terrified 13 year old daughter Bertha Corysande, who had caught her dress on the banisters as she tried to flee the carnage. As she wrestled with the trapped dress Annie Elizabeth heard another shot and looked up to see her husband sink to the ground. He had shot himself in the head. Taking no chances members of the household staff tied him with rope from the stables. He wasn’t unbound until a doctor had certified him dead. Giving evidence at the inquest the doctor told the court that the Major had expanding bullets in his gun and that he was sure that he had died almost instantaneously. It took Anne Maria four days to die, no doubt in considerable agony. “The jury, after a deliberation lasting 55 minutes, found that Major Phillips committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver, and they further considered that he was morbidly insane through his long brooding over the divorce proceedings and his long separation from his wife and child.”

A few days later Annie Elizabeth had to go over the traumatic events again at the inquest into her mother’s death. She told the court that the Major had previously “attempted to murder her mother. They were all living in London at the time at South Kensington. Early one morning—about 3 o'clock—her mother came into her room with him. Her face was blackened, and she stated that he had tried to kill her. She said that he had gone into her room and hit her over the head when she was asleep with a sand bag. He afterwards fell down by the side of the bed (her mother told her), and said, ‘I do not know what is wrong, and why I have done this.’ A specialist was consulted about this time, and he…. said the major was subject to homicidal mania. Major Phillips hated her mother. Her mother gave him £5,000 to go into Lloyd's, and she never had a penny back. She guaranteed him another £5,000. Mr. Gardiner: ‘Therefore she was his benefactress and not his enemy?’ Yes. The witness, continuing, said he was always saying he wished her mother dead before went to South Africa and after.” The verdict of the jury was that the Major had feloniously and with malice aforethought murdered Anne Maria. The funeral took place a few days later in Enfield, the vault was reopened and Anne Maria joined her husband and son (Stephen junior had died in 1900 at the age of 34). Annie Elizabeth never married and died in 1959 in Essex, at the age of 88.  

Sunday, 13 November 2016

By touch ethereal in a moment slain - William Bacon (1753-1787) St Mary-at-Lambeth

The weather record of the Gentleman’s Magazine states that the evening of 12 July 1787 was dark and cloudy with thunder. Unlike the abundance of turf destroying summer chafers that month (“rooks should have great merit with the farmer, as they prevent these pernicious insects becoming numerous”), a rain storm on the 10th which “beat down wheat in many places”, the bloom of lime trees hanging in fine fragment tassels noted on the 19th, the fineness of the cherries and wood strawberries and the first flights of young partridges, the storm of the 12th merits not a single footnote to the weather watcher who compiled July’s statistics, despite being ferocious enough for lightning to have killed at least two people in London.
A well known memorial in the porch of St Mary-at-Lambeth (now the Garden Museum) commemorates William Bacon of the Salt Office:

To the memory of
William Bacon
of the Salt Office London, Gent
Who was killed by thunder and lightning
at his window July 12 1787
Aged 34 years
By touch ethereal in a moment slain
He felt the power of death but not the pain
Swift as the lightning glanced his spirit flew
And bade the rough tempestuous world adieu
Short was his passage to that peaceful shore
Where storms annoy and dangers threat no more

The Archbiships Palace at Lambeth (by J.M.W Turner) quite possibly showing the very dwelling in which William Bacon met his unfortunate fate
There are many Bacons in the Parish of St Mary’s and when the 20 year old William Bacon married Miss Cooper of Norfolk in February 1773 the ceremony probably took place in the church. We know very little about the life of William Bacon but we know a great deal about his death. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported it in detail:

He was killed at his house near the Archbishop's palace Lambeth, at about a quarter before six in the evening by a flash of lightning. At the beginning of the storm he was drinking tea with his wife; the back windows of the one pair of stairs to the South having been open all day he went up for the purpose of shutting them and in the action of lifting up his right arm received the stroke, which tore his coat eight inches in length and four in breadth, whence it entered his right side nearly opposite his heart went through his body and out of the left hip and down his left leg to his buckle, which melted and tore the upper leather of his shoe from the sole. His dog being at that foot was also struck dead after which the lightning penetrated the wainscot and floor of the one pair of stairs and made its way into the front parlour North where it tore the wainscot in a singular manner and went off with an explosion louder than any piece of ordnance. Another account says that he owed his death to a gun being laid across the window placed there to prevent thieves from breaking into the house which on this occasion operated as a conductor for the lightning for at the instant that he was shutting the window he received the electrical fire from the barrel of the gun which he accidentally touched and was immediately struck dead. The violence of the stroke was such that it tore out his intestines and made his body a most shocking spectacle.
Gentleman's Magazine 1787

The Norfolk Chronicle provided some additional, lurid details about the ghastly incident on Saturday 21 July:

The unfortunate Mr. Bacon, who was killed by lightning Lambeth last, owes his death to a gun being laid across the window, placed there to prevent thieves from breaking into the house which on this occasion operated as a conductor for the lightning; for at the instant that he was shutting the window he received the electrical fire from the barrel of the gun, which he accidentally touched, and was immediately struck dead. The violence of the stroke was such that it tore out his intestines, and made his body a most shocking spectacle; he was first discovered by a little girl in the house, who was so terrified as to be unable to explain the cause of her alarm to Mrs. Bacon, who went into the room herself and, in consequence of seeing this dreadful sight, has been at times in fits ever since, and great doubts are entertained whether she will ever recover.

Ball lightning possibly looking for a new bonnet to consume

As well as reporting on the death of William Bacon the Chelmsford Chronicle of Friday 20 July reported on another London household which had its own close call with a wayward electrical discharge:

During the progress of the storm, it was observed, that the lightning struck the earth frequently, and the clouds then made a prodigious discharge. The storm of thunder and lightning which proved so fatal to Mr. Bacon, of Lambeth, on Thursday last, damaged also the houses of Mr. Wood, watchmaker, and Mrs. Ash of Windmill-street, Tottenham Court Road, in a remarkable manner. At Mr. Wood's house the lightning melted the bell wire, and burned the wainscot near it in every room, entirely consumed a new bonnet of Mrs. Wood's just brought home, and lying on the table in the parlour, threw down the plates, one of which it scorched, from the shelves in the kitchen below, tore the plaster from the wall, killed a sparrow that was hopping about in the garden behind the house, and went off through the bell-hole near the door with an explosion like a gun. Although Mr. and Mrs. Wood were surrounded with fire, neither they nor their servants received material injury during this tremendous scene.

The Chelmsford Chronicle also reveals that William Bacon was not the only fatality on the 12th of July:

Mr. Lazenby of Clement's-Inn Passage, tallow chandler, who was standing at his own door on Thursday last, during the thunder and lightning, was in an instant struck and fell into strong convulsions and although every assistance and means of relief was tried, he continued in a state of lunacy, attended with severe strong convulsion fits till yesterday morning, when he expired in all the dreadful agonies of madness.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Dead Man Walking, the Great Explorer's Last Journey; David Livingstone (1813-1873) Westminster Abbey

Livingstone's original gravestone in Westminster Abbey

Livingstone's last epic journey began in early May 1873 at Chief Chitambo's village at Ilala southeast of Lake Bangweulu in Zambia. He endured a trek of over 1400 miles on foot to the Tanzanian coast, arriving at Zanzibar on the 16th February 1874 and from there travelled onto England in relative comfort, his ship docking in London in early April. It had been a journey fraught with danger and difficulties, his African companions were often ill and only walked with difficulty. Within a few days of setting out two of the women died. There were more deaths to come. When the expedition crossed the Luapala river a lion appeared and seized one of the donkeys, dragging it off into the bush never to be seen again. A few days later one of the bearers carelessly picked up a gun after he had been smoking and accidentally discharged it, shooting another bearer in the leg. Later, the exhausted party approached the village of Chawendi where the chief's son was drunk and fired an arrow at them, setting off a pitched battle between Livingstone's men and the villagers which saw casualties on both sides and the village put to the torch. They passed lake Tanganyika and met up with a friendly Arab trading party who gave them news of a relief expedition looking for Livingstone, commanded by Lt Verney Lovett Cameron RN. The two parties finally met on the 20th October. Cameron wanted to carry on into the interior but Livingstone's party was determined to carry on to the coast. Cameron detailed two of his men, Dr Dillon and Lt Murphy to accompany  Livingstone and the two parties went their separate ways. On the 18th November Dr Dillon, ill and unable to deal with the rigours of the journey, shot himself. He was buried and the party moved on and eventually managed to reach the African coast close to Zanzibar.

A sick Livingstone being carried on a litter shortly before his death. After he died and his body had been dried and smoked after the removal of several pounds of internal organs, he would have been a considerably lighter burden for his men.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this incredible journey was that Livingstone was dead at the time he made it, having passed away on the 1st May 1873, several days before the epic trek began. He had been ill for some time and when his expedition reached Ilala Livingstone had famously died whilst praying. The men responsible for Livingstone's last journey were Abdullah Susi and James Chuma. A young Susi had joined Livingstone's 1863 Zambezi expedition as a woodcutter and then accompanied his master to Bombay where he had been enrolled at school. As an 11 year old Chuma, along with many others from his village, had been captured by Portuguese slave traders and manacled for the journey to the coast to be sold. Luckily the convoy met Livingstone who negotiated with the Portuguese for the release of the slaves. Chuma became one of Livingstone's men, and like Susi was sent to Bombay to be educated. After the explorer's death the two men resolved to take Livingstone's body back to his people after his death. They constructed an open topped hut and removed the heart and internal organs from the corpse and buried them three feet beneath the floor of the hut. They then covered Livingstone's corpse in salt and left it to dry for two weeks in the sun before wrapping it in tar coated canvas and layers of bark. It was then carried during the journey detailed above and surrendered to the British authorities in Zanzibar. Susi and Chuma were paid off by the authorities and dismissed and Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone's rather angelic looking personal servant, chosen to accompany the missionary's corpse back to England.  Wainwright's  good looks and demure manner belied a histrionic streak in his nature and a fondness for alcohol and women that would eventually embarrass his sponsors in England. 

Jacob Wainwright with Livingstone's coffin on board ship, dreaming of his master perhaps, or of booze and loose women? 
Livingstone's body was received in state when it arrived at Southampton in April 1874, the reception included an artillery suite. A special train then transported his revered remains to London where they were received by representatives of the Royal Geographical Society. May God forgive them but the geographers clearly entertained some doubts about whether Susi and Chuma's home made mummy really was Livingstone. A committee was convened and an autopsy carried out by Sir William Fergusson in the presence of several senior members of the society and Livingstone's father-in-law. Opening the coffin they found Livingstone reduced to a four foot long parcel packed in sawdust and wrapped in a horse blanket. The legs had been removed and tucked inside the torso. The body was identified as Livingstone’s on the basis of an old and distinctive fracture visible in the bones of the arms; Livingstone had broken his upper arm when attacked by a lion and had been treated in London by Sir William. The relieved committee allowed the body to lie in state for two days in their Savile Row offices. The £500 bill for the funeral in Westminster Abbey was picked up by the Government though the simple memorial stone was paid for by a well wisher. At the funeral Jacob Wainwright laid a palm leaf on the coffin and had, it was rumoured, to be prevented from throwing himself into the open grave. He consoled himself after the ceremony with good, strong English ale. 


Abdullah Susi and James Chuma did not accompany Livingstone's corpse back to England but did follow on shortly afterwards. They stayed with the Reverend Horace Waller, who was editing Livingstone's 'Last Journals', at the Rectory in Leytonstone where Waller was the vicar. The photo below was taken at Newstead Abbey and shows Tom and Agnes Livingstone, son and daughter of the explorer, Susi on the left and Chuma on the right and Waller seated on the ground.  

The fact that Livingstone was able to make this journey dead raises serious questions about the role of his African companions during the journeys he made when he was alive. The image of the intrepid white explorer striking out into the heart of the dark continent at the head of a column of black bearers and servants is certainly completely inaccurate. The Africans on these expeditions protected their employees, looked after them during their frequent bouts of sickness, negotiated with local tribes, scouted out routes, arranged supplies and generally kept the nominal head of the expedition alive and well. A dead explorer was probably a lot less work for them to travel with than a living one and probably only marginally less useful. For anyone interested Donald Simpson's book “Dark Companions” is a fascinating introduction to the subject. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Legend of Long Bill Jenkins - William Daniel Jenkins (1767-1798), Nunhead Cemetery

William Jenkins' burial in the bank as recorded in the burial register of St Mary Lothbury.

On the 24th inst. died, at Edinburgh, in the 31st year of his age, Mr. William Jenkins, one of the Tellers in the Bank. His corpse measured seven feet three inches.
Staffordshire Advertiser - Saturday 07 April 1798

Mr. Jenkins the Bank Clerk, remarkable for his height, died last week of a decline, the age of 31.  He was buried very early on Sunday morning, by permission of the Governors of the Bank, in the ground inside of that Building, which formerly was the burial-ground of St. Christopher's church. The outer coffin measured more than 8 feet length. Upwards of 200 guineas had been offered for his corpse by the surgeons.
Hereford Journal - Wednesday 11 April 1798

William Daniel Jenkins is a legend at the Bank of England. We know very little of his life except that he was tall, worked at the bank, apparently died in Edinburgh and was frightened enough of falling into the hands of the anatomists after his death to ask for special permission to be buried in the Garden Court (formerly the churchyard of St Christopher-le-Stocks) at the bank, where he thought his corpse would rest in relative safety.  Although he was tall for an era when the average male was about 5 foot six, William was no giant. Newspaper stories of him being 7 foot 3 and his coffin being 8 feet long are typical press hyperbole; his true height was probably about 6 foot 7. Comparisons were inevitably made between William and that other elevated individual who was so terrified of falling into the hands of the surgeons that he asked to be buried at sea, Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant. William could never have lit his pipe at the street lamps on the North Bridge in Edinburgh without even standing on tiptoe, as the Irish Giant did, but he must have spent his life equally inconvenienced by low doors and ceilings, small chairs and short beds.  Their difference in stature can be gauged from the price offered for their skeletons by the surgeons, a mere 200 guineas for the bank teller in 1798 whilst John Hunter has paid a £500 bribe to secure the corpse of the Irish Giant in 1783. William’s corpse rested in its lead coffin in Garden Court until the 1930’s when he was unearthed during building works.

William Jenkin's coffin in situ, uncovered during building works at the bank
A GIANT'S COFFIN. It Is suggested by a correspondent of "The Times" that the remarkably large lead coffin found 40 feet below the surface during the recent rebuilding of the Bank of England may that of the giant William Jenkins, who recorded have been 7ft. height. He was clerk in the Bank of England. It was the era when surgeons paid high prices for stolen corpses and the relatives, fearing the attentions the body-snatchers, obtained the directors' permission to bury Jenkins In the disused churchyard of St. Christopher-le-Stock, which then served as the Garden Court of the Bank.
Yorkshire Evening Post - Thursday 10 August 1933

A 1923 Act of Parliament provided that any human remains removed from the former churchyard of St Christopher-le-Stocks should be reburied at Nunhead Cemetery.  The initial plan was to place the outsize lead coffin in the vaults but when it proved to be too large it was removed to the eastern catacombs. The fate that William tried so hard to avoid finally came to pass in the 1970’s when thieves stole the coffin from the abandoned cemetery for its scrap value, and scattered his remains on the floor of the catacombs from where they were presumably cleared up and disposed of, quite where no one knows. Before his removal from Garden Court William’s ghost was said to haunt the Bank of England where he would startle the armed guards at night by rattling their rifles.  Rumour has it that his ghost has also been seen at Nunhead fleeing from the catacombs in the form of a tall (of course) man dressed in black carrying an open ledger; no less a luminary than the chair of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, Ron Woollacott,  tentatively identified the ghost as being that of William Jenkins.   

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Owling in Barking; Captain John Bennett (1670-1716), St Margaret's Churchyard, Barking

Captain John Bennett's tomb in Barking churchyard
‘HERE LYETH INTERR’D YE BODY OF CAP. JOHN BENNETT COMMANDER OF HIS MAJESTY SHIP LENOX & WHO DIED THE 30TH OF JANUARY 1716 AGED 46 YEAR’, says the still legible inscription carved into the black limestone slab that tops the Captain’s impressive chest tomb in Barking Churchyard.  The chest is made from limestone and has suffered from the ravages of acid rain but the acanthus leaf decoration, the family crest and the carving of the Captain’s ultimate command, the Lennox, are weathered but still clearly visible. Inside the church there is an even more impressive memorial to the Captain, its size and quality rivalling any of the memorials for the wealthy landed gentry that line both sides of the nave.  Captain Bennett  was born in Poole, Dorset in 1670, his father, also John, was a Royal Navy captain but not one of any great distinction or wealth.  John Bennett the younger became a captain in 1695 at the age of 25 and sailed to Virginia, Hamburg, Archangel in Russia, Cape Town and the West Indies but seems not to have seen action or otherwise distinguished himself in the service.  Although the family were not by any means poor, Captain Bennett seems to have become an extremely wealthy man during his lifetime, far wealthier than his modest navy career would allow for.  In his will he left £500 for his funeral, tomb and memorial with strict instructions for his executor, London haberdasher Abraham Edlin, to have a vault excavated in the churchyard, a ‘grave with iron railes’ erected over it, and a memorial in the church to be commissioned from Thomas Stayner, a master mason who had recently moved from London to East Ham. £500 was a vast sum in 1716, worth at least £200,000 today.  His will contained unusual clauses requiring secrecy from his legatees;   "I give and bequeath unto the said Abraham Edlin all the furniture in the Room called my Chamber together with the Chest of Drawers and the Iron Chest with all that is therein contained upon this Condition that he do not disclose or make known the Contents thereof or any part thereof to any person and in case he do make the same known contrary to this my desire my will and meaning is that he forfeits this my devise to him and in that case I give the same unto my Cousin Mary Masters."

Michael Wand in his intriguing “Captain Bennett Investigated,” makes a convincing, if circumstantial, case for the source of the Captain’s wealth.  In 1682 a report was produced by Thomas Culliford, a customs official “who named and shamed the merchants of Poole who were not paying duty.” These merchants were clandestinely bringing foreign goods into the country, particularly brandy, without paying import duties, in other words they were professional smugglers. Culliford’s attempts to catch the smugglers either failed or resulted in the capture of low ranking employees. He was unable to arrest the ring leaders despite their identities being common knowledge.  He vented his frustration by naming the leading merchants engaging in ‘owling’ (smuggling wool out of England and luxury goods back in), in print. Wand points out that many of the names in Culliford’s report were linked to the legatees in Captain Bennett’s will; “none of the surnames he recorded in other Dorset ports appeared in Bennett's will, but many of his legatees seem to have been the next generation of the men fingered by Thomas Culliford thirty four years earlier: notably Lewin, Bennett, Stevens, Martin, Lewis, Weston.” The same names crop up in Barking Parish records and it seems that many Dorset owlers moved to Essex.  The county had its own tradition of smuggling and its major advantage over Dorset was its proximity to London.  Captain Bennett’s navy career may well been cover for the far more lucrative business of smuggling.