Sunday, 31 July 2016

Modern funeral music: The London Requiem by Benjamin Till (Hind Style Records 2012)

‘I was struck by the simplicity of so many gravestones and how they are dominated by clichés. Then I thought about the difficulty of expressing all the love and emotion those inscriptions try to summarise. The epitaphs are the ultimate tweet – just a few words to sum up the feeling of an entire life.’
Benjamin Till

Composer Benjamin Till is the current John Cage Memorial Random Composer Award holder, which sounds impressive until you realise that the award is exactly what it says it is, randomly awarded, by chance, once a year with the only qualifying criteria being that the lucky winner drawn out of the hat “must be a real person...  If the winner is found to be sufficiently inhuman, a second winner will be selected.” Prestigious as the random John Cage Memorial Award undoubtedly is, Till is probably better known for “Our Gay Wedding: the musical” a programme for Channel 4 in which he turned his marriage, (on March 29 2014, the first day gay marriage become legal in the UK) to long term partner Nathan Taylor, into a musical featuring a duet from the two groom’s mums, a ballad version of ‘A Little Respect’ by Andy Bell from Erasure, a singing Jon Snow, and narration from Stephen Fry. The ceremony was held and filmed in the neglected Alexandria Palace Theatre. The Guardian’s Review said “as a musical, Our Gay Wedding wasn't perfect, but as a wedding it was better than perfect. It was fabulous.” The programme was nominated for a BAFTA and a Rose D’Or and won a Prix Italia and a Grierson award for most Entertaining Documentary.

Sealed with a kiss - Benjamin and Nathan on the hill at Ally Pally 
As well as weddings Till has funeral’s on his CV. The London Requiem was premiered on the 29thh September 2012 at the derelict chapel in Abney Park Cemetery, North London. Like “Our Gay Wedding” the London Requiem features a number of unexpected celebrity appearances including Matt Lucas, Tanita Tikaram, Maddy Prior (of Steeleye Span), Sir Arnold Wesker (with whom Till has previously collaborated several times) and Barbara Windsor. The latter in particular was thrilled to take part as she explained to the BBC; "When you get to my age, I'm 74 and I've experienced a hell of a lot, you don't get many firsts.  Well, I've sung in a requiem. Even the word is daft for Barbara Windsor to be saying.” Added to the Latin of the traditional requiem mass are sung epitaphs culled from a trawl of 20,000 headstones across London’s cemeteries. Till himself remarked how dominated by cliché epitaphs are but his musical settings breathe new emotional life into oft repeated sentiments. The recording features a choir, multiple solo singers (some professional, some not), the Balanescu Quartet, and a number of other musicians playing the modern classical piece. Introit begins with the sound of traffic and Big Ben tolling midnight to establish the requiem's London credentials, soon joined by the choir of the Rebel Chorus and swelling strings raising the question “for what is death?” I am not really sure what I expected from a modern classical piece from the holder of a John Cage award; I think I was half prepared for discords, dissonance and disharmony but the Requiem is a long way from being a cacophony. I love every single track on the CD and find the music incredibly moving, so much so that the first time I listened to it I found tears welling up in my eyes a couple of times. Other parts send the odd shiver or two down my spine. It is almost impossible to pick favourites in such a well integrated composition but if I had to pick something to play on Desert Island Discs I think I would be torn between Pie Jesu and In Paradisum.

The derleict chapel at Abney Park Cemetery
The London Requiem is available on itunes and excerpts from the premiere at Abney Park can be watched on YouTube. But if you like your music delivered physically rather than virtually the CD is no longer available on Amazon and you will have to send a cheque for £14.00 to Mr Till himself as he seems to be now the sole supplier. Who knows how many, or how few, CD's he has left stored in the spare bedroom; if you don’t buy now you may miss your chance forever to own a copy of this sublime piece of music.        

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Making a Fortune in French Fancy Goods: Otto Adolph Victor Alexander Berens (1757-1860) West Norwood Cemetery

According to census returns and on his naturalisation papers Otto Alexander Berens was a native of Russia. Other sources say he was from Prussia. Burial records give his age as 63 in the undisputed year of his death, 1860, which would mean he was born in 1797. In the 1851 census he claimed to be 49, shaving almost five years off his real age but we know he liked younger women and in early middle age he was probably reluctant to own up that he was in his fifties and ageing rapidly. We don’t know when Otto came to England but by 1827 Otto was already a respectable merchant. We know this from newspaper reports  in November of that year which recount how he was robbed by James Campbell and George Lewis, two “well dressed young men” according to the Morning Advertiser who almost succeeded is cheating him out of £171 15s 9d worth of stock. The newspaper reports that for some reason Otto told the court at the Guildhall that he was a Frenchman (neither a Prussian nor a Russian?) who ran a French Fancy warehouse in St Paul’s Churchyard. James Campbell had approached him in the shop and presented him with the card of a respectable and well known warehouse and claimed to be a travelling buyer who wished to buy stock for the company for cash. He then chose goods to the value of just under £172 (an absolute fortune at the time, more than enough to buy a house) and asked for them to be packed up by the next day. The following day he returned and asked for the goods to be taken to the Swan-with-two-necks, a public house in Lad Lane, where he would pay for them.  At the public house they waited for Campbell’s partner to appear with the money but instead a letter was delivered by the two penny post to Campbell. He showed the letter to Otto – the missive from Campbell’s partner begged him to come to Tom’s Coffee House in Cornhill at 7pm prompt where the cash was to be delivered.   Campbell apologised to Otto for the inconvenience and set off immediately for Cornhill. Otto went back to his warehouse in St Paul’s Churchyard leaving his large box of valuable goods with a clerk in the public house. Needless to say when he returned at 8.00pm to collect his cash there was no sign of Campbell and his box French Fancies had disappeared. The clerk told Otto that almost as soon as he had left Campbell had returned to the pub and claimed the box. Luckily for Otto the case had been so heavy a coachman had refused to carry it and the clerk had been asked to assist by procuring a porter with a waggon and drays. The clerk had heard Campbell give the address in Lambeth the box was to be delivered to, to the porter. Otto made his way there, collecting two police officers from the Surrey New Road on the way. Campbell and his accomplice were caught red handed in he act of unpacking the box in their lodgings. Alderman Smith, who was hearing the case, told Otto that he “might think himself a most fortunate man ever to have seen his goods again.” It was indeed, the Morning Advertiser pointed out, a very narrow escape.

Otto went into business with another German (if he was indeed Prussian, not Russian, nor French), Ludwig Blumberg and the firm of Berens, Blumberg and Company moved into impressive premises at 2-6 Cannon Street in the early 1850’s. Just before they moved premises Berens and Blumberg were the victims of another robbery, this time by an employee, 30 year James Pope, yet another “respectable-looking young man” according the newspaper reports. James had been helping himself to stock, quite possibly for some time, and disposing of it to Adolph Hirshfield, a dealer in clocks and jewellery in Bishopsgate.   Otto was suspicious of Pope and when some clocks went missing he sent one of his clerks around to Bishiopsgate to check Hirshfield’s shop. When the clerk reported back that the clocks were there Pope and Hirshfield were arrested and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.  The newspaper reports concentrate on the stolen clocks but the trial records show that Pope had not confined his thieving to timepieces. Samuel Wood, one of Otto’s managers, told the court how he had accompanied Pope to his home in Shrubland Road, Dalston, where there was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of stolen goods;   a clock, two groups of alabaster figures, shades, and stands, a bronze group, three or four pair of glass vases, five glass candlesticks, a china box, a cigar ash tray, one pair of lava vases, three paste pots, and two pair of glass toilet bottles. Many other items had already been disposed of but the repentant Pope made out a full list of everything he had stolen from his employers in the 18 months he had been with them.  At the trial Pope pleaded guilty and Hirshfield was acquitted of receiving stolen goods as there was no evidence that he had any idea that the 11 clocks he had bought from Pope were  not his own property.

Otto had a tangled private life. In 1828 he had made a young woman called Fanny Esser pregnant. She had a son by Otto in January 1829 who was baptised John Samuel Berens at St Mary Magdalen, Old Fish Street  on 24 January (though this was recorded in the parish records of St Gregory by St Paul’s, a church which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but which continued a sort of virtual existence as a parish operating out of St Mary Magdalen until that church was also gutted in a fire, which spread from a neighbouring warehouse and destroyed its roof in 1886). There is no evidence that Otto and Fanny were ever married even though Otto gave her name as Fanny Berens to the parish clerk when Samuel was baptised. How long he remained with Fanny is not known but it was not long because in 1832 Otto married 19 year old Charlotte Busby, the daughter of a farmer from Bicester in Oxfordshire. The marriage took place at St Mary Magdalen, Old Fish Street, and was recorded in the parish records of St Gregory by St Paul’s by the same clerk who had recorded the baptism of his son. It was also quite possibly the same vicar who performed both ceremonies, no doubt with raised eyebrows. Perhaps Otto felt uncomfortable living in the same area with his new wife as his mistress and young son.  In the 1841 census the Berens’ were recorded as living in the Paragon at Ramsgate.   The couple had one son, Alexander Augustus Berens who was born on 1st Nov 1843, was baptised at St Marks Kennington and probably never knew he had a younger brother.   In the late 1840’s the family moved to their final home, Raleigh House on Brixton Hill. In 1855 Charlotte’s father died in the Oxfordshire County lunatic asylum. Charlotte may have had her own mental health issues and perhaps took to drink; she died of cirrhosis of the liver in January 1857 at the age of 44.

In his excellent book “The Art of Memory: Sculpture in the Cemeteries of London”, Richard Barnes says that Otto “commissioned and completed his own memorial two years before his own death”, but it seems unlikely that a man given to lying about his age was thinking about or preparing for his own imminent death. He may well have always intended to join her there, eventually, but the spectacular mausoleum in West Norwood Cemetery was surely created for Charlotte?  There is other evidence that the 61 year old merchant was fully focussed on living following Charlotte’s death. In September the following year he married again, a woman half his age, the 30 year old Louisa Cooke at St Matthews, Brixton. It was not destined to be a long marriage; barely 18 months later Otto was dead, on the 15th April 1862, “after six weeks acute suffering from spinal disease” according to the Morning Post.  The final resting place he created for himself and Charlotte is spectacular; the architect was Edward Middleton Barry, the son Charles Barry (who designed Parliament), and the sculptor who created the marble columns, angels and figures of the four evangelists which stand at each corner was Thomas Earp. The pair had previously worked together to create the Eleanor Cross which stands on the Strand in front of Charing Cross Station.  Historic England’s Official Listing describes the mausoleum:

I'm not sure whose coffin we are looking at here, it could be Otto's or it could be Charlotte's
Chest tomb on tall plinth above a vault. c1858 by E.M. Barry; sculptures by Thomas Earp. Pink granite plinth, marble superstructure and Portland stone sculpture. Medieval Italian style. Rectangular stone base on which the battered pink marble plinth with a top frieze of Minton tiles carrying the letter B for Berens and a bear, in punning reference to his name; doorway on western elevation now bricked up but originally with bronze doors manufactured by Potter who also made surrounding cast iron railings, now gone. Free-standing, paired barley sugar columns surround the chest and support a foliated cornice; above each pair, a sculptured kneeling angel holding a shield. At the angles the cornice rises up to form pointed arch aedicules for figures of the 4 evangelists. Between the columns, panels carved in deep relief showing scenes from the life of Christ; eastern panel an open-work cross within a roundel. A further frieze of Minton tiles, including a Latin inscription, under the eaves cornice with antefixae. Hipped marble roof. All in a state of considerable decay. Berens was a linen draper of St. Paul's Churchyard who made a fortune in the "fancy trade; the tomb was said to have cost £1,500 and was illustrated in the Builder of November 1858.

Minton tiles

Friday, 15 July 2016

Grave Wax, Corpse Liquor and Kissing Dead Queens – the boundless curiosity of the Gentlemen of the 17th Century

John Aubrey in his prime.
I have recently finished reading (with immense enjoyment I should add) Ruth Scurr’s ‘John Aubrey; My Own Life.’ It is a fascinating book, an invented journal constructed of equal parts of erudition and artistry mainly from Aubrey’s own words, culled from his printed books and manuscripts but subtly edited and so cleverly done that it is difficult to see where Aubrey ends and Scurr begins. Like many others of his age and place he was fascinated by mortality and what happens to the body after death. The men (and women) of the 17th century were not squeamish about death or the dead. In Scurr’s book Aubrey’s journal entry for November 1666 conflates accounts of the celebrated dead from Brief Lives, Monumenta Britannica and other works. Firstly, Robert Braybrook, Bishop of London, who was interred in Old St Paul’s Cathedral following his death in 1404: 

Old St Paul's in flames during the Great Fire of London
At a meeting of the royal society, Mr Oldenburg, Lord Henry Howard and others reported on their visits to the ruins of St Paul’s to see the preserved body of Bishop Braybrook, the Bishop of London, who died in 1404. The Bishop’s body, like many others, has been disturbed by the Great Conflagration: when the roof of St Paul’s fell in, the lead coffins below fell through the floor and broke open. Workmen clearing the rubble have put the bodies in the Convocation House and are charging people twopence a person to view them. I will go myself….

I saw Bishop Braybrook's body. It was like a preserved fish: uncorrupted except for the ears and pudenda, or genitals. It was dry and stiff and would stand on end. It was never embalmed. His belly and stomach were untouched, except for a hole on one side made by the falling debris. I could put my hand in the hole and could see his dried lungs.

Bishop Braybrook's tomb
Remember that part about the uncorrupted pudenda – we will return to the fate of the Bishop’s penis shortly. Dead Braybrook became a 5 minute wonder, for a while everyone wanted to see him, Samuel Pepys amongst them. His diary entry for 12 November 1666 gives an account of his visit:

This afternoon going towards Westminster, Creed and I did stop, the Duke of York being just going away from seeing of it, at Paul’s, and in the Convocation House Yard did there see the body of Robert Braybrooke, Bishop of London, that died 1404: He fell down in his tomb out of the great church into St. Fayth’s this late fire, and is here seen his skeleton with the flesh on; but all tough and dry like a spongy dry leather, or touchwood all upon his bones. His head turned aside. A great man in his time, and Lord Chancellor; and his skeletons now exposed to be handled and derided by some, though admired for its duration by others. Many flocking to see it.

Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, mistress of King Charles II (who was the father of no less than 5 of her children) and ‘curse of the nation’ according to John Evelyn, also paid her tuppence to see the body of the desiccated prelate. The wanton bribed the guardians of the corpse to leave her alone with it for a few minutes and shortly afterwards it was discovered that the late Bishop’s shrivelled penis was missing. A witness was later quoted as saying that “although some ladies of late have got Bishopricks for others, I have not heard of any but this that got one for herself.”
Braybrook’s remains may have been dehydrated and inoffensive but according to Scurr’s Aubrey this was not true of the William Herbert, the 1st Earl of Pembroke, “a mad fighting fellow” according to Brief Lives, who was buried beneath an elaborate monument in Old St Pauls when he died in 1570:

I spoke to some of the labourers clearing the rubbish in St Faith’s Church, which was ruined by the collapse of St Paul’s. They tell me when they took up the leaden coffin of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whose sumptuous monument was among those tumbled in to the church, the stink was so great that they took a week to scour themselves of it.

The Earl of Pembroke's tomb in Old St Pauls
It takes 400 volatile organic compounds to create the archetypal reek of a rotting human cadaver. The 1st Earl of Pembroke had been dead and buried for just under a hundred years when the seal of his lead coffin was broken in the great fire of London. He would have been sealed into that airtight coffin quite quickly following his death but the lack of oxygen would not stop the process of composition. Enzymes within his cells would have ruptured the cell membrane and allowed the contents to seep out. Anaerobic bacteria already present within his body and no longer held in check by his immune system would run rampant, gorging on the damaged cells and engaging in uncontrolled binary fission. The digestion of a corpse by its own enzymes and microbiological flora creates foetid gases that bloat the body.  The evocatively named chemicals cadaverine and putrescine are the main ingredients responsible for the stench of death but there are a whole host of other reeking compounds that add their own distinctive flavour to the mix. Skatole and indole for example, two chemicals which between them give excrement its characteristic scent.  Then there is Hydrogen Sulphide, a key ingredient in the smell of rotten eggs and flatulence,  methanethiol, which has a starring role in the stench of rotting cabbage, and dimethyl disulfide and trisulfide, a pair of compounds whose odour is most commonly described as putrid garlic.  Interestingly in very small quantities the aroma of many of these chemicals is not unpleasant Skatole, for example, that key component of the odour of ordure, is used, in an artificially produced form, in perfumes and as a flavouring for ice cream and the taste of garlic in garlic flavoured crisps is more likely to be the result of a light sprinkling of dimethyl disulphide than of any extract of Allium sativum. After being concentrated for a hundred years in an airtight lead coffin it isn’t surprising that it took a week to scrub off the stink of the Earl’s corpse.
Sir Thomas Browne composing Urne Buriall - from an engraving by Gwen Reverat

Aubrey was not the only 17th century figure fascinated by the process of putrefaction. As well as Ruth Scurr I have also been reading Hugh Aldersley-William on Sir Thomas Browne. He reminds us that the author of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk is credited with the first mention of grave wax or Adipocere. This is a waxy organic substance produced by the chemical process of saponification, the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fatty acids in the corpse, which instead of rotting away, produces a wax like cast of body parts, even entire corpses in some circumstances. Browne’s mention comes in the middle of a passage of in which he notes that despite the commonly held view that we all end up as food for worms, the earthworm is not easy to find in a churchyard at any depth below a foot; it goes without saying of course that all burials take place much deeper than this:

Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents; In carnall sepulture, corruptions seem peculiar unto parts, and some speak of snakes out of the spinall marrow. But while we suppose common wormes in graves, 'tis not easie to finde any there; few in Church-yards above a foot deep, fewer or none in Churches, though in fresh decayed bodies. Teeth, bones, and hair, give the most lasting defiance to corruption. In an Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap; whereof part remaineth with us.

The tomb of John Colet, Dean of Westminster in Old St Paul's
Scurr rewrites a celebrated passage of Aubery which describes the indignities practiced by a pair of his acquaintances, Ralph Greatrex and Mr Wyld, on the corpse of John Colet, Dean of Westminster and friend of Erasmus, who had died of the ‘sweating sickness’ in 1519 (see below for the original of this passage, comparison of the two gives you a better idea of her method of composition than any description[1]);

A little before the Great Conflagration, somebody made a hole in the lead coffin of Dean Colet, which lay above the ground beneath his statue. I remember my friend Mr Wylde and Ralph Greatrex, the mathematical instrument maker, decided to probe the Dean's body through the hole with a piece of iron curtain rod that happened to be near by. They found the body lay in liquor, like boiled brawn. The liquor was clear and insipid: they both tasted it. Mr Wylde said it had something of the taste of iron, but that might have been on account of the iron rod. This was a strange and rare way of conserving a corpse. Perhaps it was a pickle, as for beef. There was no ill smell. 

They had no fear of microbiological contagion in the 17th century. Infectious disease was thought to be the result of miasma; if something didn’t smell bad they were surprisingly willing to stick it in their mouths, no matter where it came from. The medical professions saw no need to arbitrarily restrict examinations of patients to the senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell and would often take a swig of their patients urine or lick their sweat in their efforts to arrive at a diagnosis. It would have seemed natural enough to have a little taster of corpse pickle if the chance arose; how disappointing it must have been to find that it tasted ‘insipid’. The stalwart men of the 17th century were less squeamish than their descendants, that much is clear. We shall finish with Samuel Pepys’ famous account of how he spent his 36th birthday, the day he “did first kiss a queen.” Living queen’s being notoriously choosy about whom they snog Samuel had to gain his initial experience of regal labial osculation with a dead one, Queen Catherine of Valois.   The wife of Henry V and mistress of Owen Tudor had died in 1437, 232 years before Samuel, in front of his wife, fondled the upper parts of her body and gave her a playful peck on the mouth:  
Catherine of Valois' funeral effigy -
but you wouldn't be kissing a queen
Up: and to the Office, where all the morning, and then home, and put a mouthfull of victuals in my mouth; and by a hackney-coach followed my wife and the girls, who are gone by eleven o’clock, thinking to have seen a new play at the Duke of York’s house. But I do find them staying at my tailor’s, the play not being to-day, and therefore I now took them to Westminster Abbey, and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone, there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday; and here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen. But here this man, who seems to understand well, tells me that the saying is not true that says she was never buried, for she was buried; only, when Henry the Seventh built his chapel, it was taken up and laid in this wooden coffin; but I did there see that, in it, the body was buried in a leaden one, which remains under the body to this day.

[1]After the Conflagration (his Monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which was closed like the coffin of a Pye and was full of a Liquour which conserved the body. Mr. Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and t'was of an insipid tast, something of an Ironish tast. The Coffin was of Lead, and layd in the Wall about 2 foot 1/2 above the surface of the Floore. This was a strange rare way of conserving a Corps: perhaps it was a Pickle, as for Beefe, whose Saltiness in so many years the Lead might sweeten and render insipid. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like boyled Brawne.”

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Dead Keep Calling Me: 30 Years of Suicide in Brompton Cemetery 1888 -1908

If the spate of horrific deaths of gravediggers buried alive, the occasional freak fatal accident such as impalement on grave railings and the odd person who just keeled over and died for no apparent reason (“Mrs Susan Georgina Ashley Risque, aged 54, of Barons Court Road, West Kensington, dropped dead as she was placing some flowers on her husband's grave in Brompton Cemetery.” Western Daily Press Tuesday 12 March 1929) wasn’t enough; Brompton was also a hot spot for cemetery suicides during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Melancholy Death of a Lady
In September 1888 the Illustrated Police News reported, under the perennially popular 19th century headline ‘Melancholy Death of a Lady’ (stick it in any newspaper archive search engine and be astonished at how many different stories it brings up), the suicide of 39 year old spinster Sarah Granville. Dr Diplock, the West London Coroner, held the inquest at Kensington Workhouse and heard how Ms Granville had died three hours after being admitted to the Kensington Infirmary on Thursday 13th September. She had been brought in “quite unconscious, and dying fast. The deceased was taken to the ward; the stomach pump was used, and extracted some liquid, which smelt strongly of opium. Efforts to recover consciousness were fruitless.” She expired at 4.30pm. She had been found around noon by PC Matcham about 400 yards from the West entrance of the cemetery lying on the path a few feet from her parent’s grave. The PC recovered three empty bottles of laudanum, one from beneath a tree and two from the grave of Ms Granville’s parents, which he later discovered had been bought from three different chemists under the pretext of being needed to cure a toothache. Ms Granville took 2500 drops of laudanum, enough to kill five people. The Inquest heard from the deceased’s brother-in-law who told the court that she had lost her mother five years before and her father fifteen years before that. She was a lady “possessed of considerable means” he told Dr Diplock before confirming that that no member of the family had previously committed suicide or been admitted to a lunatic asylum. Mary Wilson, a servant at the house where Ms Granville lodged confirmed that the deceased “did not follow any employment,” and said that “during the last few days she had seemed very melancholy,” and “was also very restless during the nights. To her knowledge, she never suffered from toothache.” The Coroner summed up by saying that all the symptoms showed insanity in some form, and the jury, following his advice, returned a verdict of Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity.

The Painter and the Parlourmaid
A shocking and senseless case in August 1892 featured not only a suicide but a murder. On Friday 27th August two sisters, both in domestic service and in their early twenties, Alice and Emily Franklin and two of their friends arrived at the cemetery at 7.00pm intending to visit their aunt’s grave. The cemetery was closed but they persuaded the gatekeeper to allow them in, saying that they wouldn’t be long. As the four girls made their way to the grave they passed a man lying on the grass with a bag by his side. He followed them at a distance, waiting around a corner when they laid some flowers at the grave of the aunt. The four girls passed him again, standing on the path with his bag at his feet, as they made their way back to the gate. One of them wondered what he was doing and another remarked that he was probably going to do some work. The man then walked up behind them and produced a pistol, firing three or possibly four shots. The girls ran to the gate where Alice Franklin collapsed, apparently unaware that she had been shot in the back. A doctor was sent for but Alice was dead before he arrived. The police combed the cemetery for the gunman, who was later identified as James Boursell, a 26 year old housepainter of Vesper Road, Shepherds Bush and found him dead with self inflicted gunshot wounds in the chest. No motive for the murder or the suicide was identified.

Fred's dead; what more to be said
On the pleasant afternoon of Monday the 16th May 1898 Mr Grisbrook Waller, a 27 year old thespian, whose lodgings at 24 Coleherne Road, SW10, were just around the corner from the cemetery, took himself to Brompton for a quiet stroll in the sunshine amongst the gravestones.  He was appearing in the farce ‘The Showman’s Daughter’ at the Vaudeville Theatre where he played, “in a delightfully breezy vein” according to a newspaper critic, the part of Dick Seymour, an impecunious medical student, who was in love with a baronet’s daughter, (played by the ‘dainty’ Miss Adelaide Aylmer). As he mentally rehearsed his lines in preparation for the evening’s performance he noticed a middle aged gentleman walking amongst the graves. A short while later he heard a pistol shot and racing to where the sound came from found the same gent slumped to the ground, breathing heavily, semi conscious and bleeding from a bullet wound in the head.  Grisbrook ran to get the police and a doctor and the would be suicide was taken to St George’s Infirmary in the Fulham Road where he died later that evening of a fractured skull.  In his pocket was found a letter addressed to the Coroner:

16 South Hill Park
Dear Mr Coroner

For your information, my name is Frederick James Blake, aged 55 years. Profession, solicitor; admitted E. T. 1864. I have taken out 35 certificates in London and various parts of the country. At present lodging at Hampstead.  Widower.  Grave No. 146454, Brompton Cemetery (where my wife is buried). Have no wife, no children, no home, no means, nothing to do, and can see nothing but miserable and dirty and poverty stricken existence in the future. I hate poverty and dirt. I've very few relatives or friends, and do not wish to be a trouble to anybody, so there, I have gone. I've done what good l could in my time, and see no chance of doing so any further. Nobody wants my services. I have seen all the most beautiful parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Isles, Isle of Man, France, Belgium, and some of Australia and New Zealand, and, I am too tired to do it again, even if I had the means. To live for oneself is too trying and tiring for me, and so I have retired, Sorry to give you so much trouble, Nasty business, but there! I wish I had the job. There would be something to do, and it is nothing to do that kills me. My only brother, W. E. Blake, surveyor, of Rosebery avenue, can give you any information you desire.
Yours truly,     F.J. Blake

As Frederick lay dying in the Fulham Road, across town in Clerkenwell his brother Walter, surveyor to the New River Company of Rosebery Avenue would have been arriving home after a day in the office. The handwriting on the envelope his wife Clara handed him would have been very familiar and he would not have been surprised to see the letter postmarked earlier that day as the post office routinely made same day deliveries at the time. The contents of the letter would have astonished him though, the news it contained was shocking. The completely inappropriate, jocular tone it was conveyed it may have made it seem like a practical joke in extremely poor taste. Poor Walter probably didn’t know whether to believe his brother or not:

Pickwick Bicycle Club
I have got a berth at last, and my future address will be No. 146,454 grave, Brompton Cemetery. Fred's dead; what more to be said. His sins won't weight him as heavy as lead. Life without occupation or society is not worth living, and since I had the influenza and was run up I have felt fit for nothing, and as I feel I should only have a few more miserable years to exist I have taken a short cut. Sorry to cause yourself and Clara any pain, and no one else will care a rap about my existence, and it will save a lot of worry and trouble. I am sorry to cause so much trouble, and I've left what little I have to yourself and Clara, and Mr W. H S-, of Fenchurch buildings, is my executor. You had better look after the things at South Hill Park. Give the officials any information they may require; and with sincere love to Clara and yourself, believe me in death your loving brother,

PS I have written to Cooksey (an undertaker), with an order for a coffin, and gone to Brompton to save expense of funeral.

On Thursday 19 May an inquest on Frederick’s death was held at St George’s Infirmary, presided over by the West London Coroner, Mr Luxmoore Drew. The principal witnesses were Grisbrook Waller and Frederick’s brother Walter. Limelight being his natural habitat the actor no doubt gave a flamboyant and dramatic account of the events of Monday afternoon and left the witness box feeling his performance had been a triumph deserving of at least a standing ovation. He was upstaged completely however by the grief stricken Walter Blake who had clearly still not recovered from the shock of the events earlier that week. He told the court that his brother had been a solicitor, ‘on the rolls’ as he put it, for 35 years, initially practicing in their home town of Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire where he had been clerk to the magistrates and the Mayor before moving to London and setting up a business in Croydon. He had been happily married but had not been blessed with any children. Seven years previously, Walter told the court, Frederick’s wife had died and something seemed to have snapped inside the staid solicitor. He sold his practice and started restlessly travelling, first around the UK, then on the continent and finally to Australia and New Zealand. Nothing seemed to ease the emptiness he felt inside and he frequently complained that he wished he was dead. “He was not strange or peculiar,” Walter told the Coroner, “merely despondent.” He reluctantly admitted when questioned that his brother was not strictly sober. A few months earlier he had been knocked down on Cornhill by a cab and shortly afterwards had caught the influenza and since then had never appeared the same. On the previous Sunday, the day before he killed himself, Frederick had called on his brother at home. He was in low spirits and complained about his head but gave no indication of what he was planning. He went home after spending the day with Walter and wrote the two suicide notes, posting the one to his brother next morning on his way to the cemetery and placing the other one carefully in the inside pocket of his jacket. Walter told the court that his brother had no financial worries and that his life was insured for £500. He identified the suicide weapon as a revolver belonging to his brother. The five chambered revolver still had four bullets left in it. The gun had been in Frederick’s possession for many years Walter told the court, since he had been the magistrate’s clerk in Gloucestershire in fact. He had acquired it as a keepsake; a young fellow Frederick had known well had got himself into serious trouble and seeing no other way out had committed suicide by shooting himself, in the head, with the revolver. Every eye in the court momentarily fixed itself on the double killing hand gun lying on the clerks table. 

His Dead Wife’s Call
Brompton Cemetery was scene of a tragic occurrence the other night. It seems that a man, apparently about 35 years of age, was seen to lie down on one of the graves, and, without warning, to take a revolver from his pocket and shoot himself in the right temple. The body was later identified as that of Alfred Dredge, who lived formerly at Kensal-rise. The grave upon which he shot himself dead was that of his wife, whom he had buried last August, and the tragedy rendered the more sad by the fact that he was to have been married again in a few days.

Diss Express - Friday 17 April 1908

As if killing himself a few days before his wedding wasn’t startling enough further remarkable details of 34 year old Albert James Dredge’s story emerged at the inquest into the suicide. Dredge was a pensioned off Boer War veteran who worked for the fledgling London Film Industry at the Charles Urban Trading Company, in Wardour Street. He had served in the Welsh Regiment, eventually becoming Sargeant, and was mentioned in dispatches and then decorated for an act of gallantry on the battlefield; he carried his wounded colonel from the frontline under heavy fire. His wife had died the previous August but he quickly became engaged to a Miss Rebecca Payne of Hanwell. William Mitchington, the cemetery gatekeeper told the inquest that he had seen Dredge standing by a grave at 7pm the previous Wednesday. He approached him, wanting to ask him to leave as it was time to close up, but thinking that he was praying at the graveside decided to hang back for a minute or two until he had finished. Dredge then sat down on a gravestone, took off his hat and placed it carefully on the floor beside him, withdrew a revolver from his pocket and shot himself in the right temple. When the police later searched the body they found a letter addressed to his fiancée in his coat pocket, containing words of very cold comfort for a woman due to be married three days hence.

It was not to be, for after leaving you on Sunday, and arriving home all right, I saw Hettie (his dead wife) as plain as I saw your dear self, and she called me to go to her, and today, darling, I am going to answer her call. Just as happiness is in store for me, I get a message from the dead calling me to her, and I am bound to go, answering her call. We belong to one another. I shall be looking out for you in the next world. . . .

The letter Dredge wrote to his friend Jack was even eerier:

My Dear Old Chum. Perhaps by the time you will receive this I shall be no more, as I have had a call from Hettie and must go to her. I saw her, Jack, on Sunday night. I felt as if something was going to happen, and when I retired for the night saw her as plainly as I see you, and her words were, “Come out to me” and they have haunted me ever since. Well, old Jack, I walked about all day yesterday, and today too, to shake the feeling off but it is no good. The words still ring my ears, and my legs took me to the cemetery, and there I have been all day, feeling relieved knowing that I should go to her, answering her call.

For once the standard jury verdict in these circumstances, suicide during temporary insanity, seems entirely appropriate.