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 fiancĂ©e 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.

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