Wednesday, 26 July 2017

"Horrible Desecration of the Dead at St Pancras" 1866

St Pancras Gardens on Pancras Road once formed part of two separate burial grounds – one for the parishioners of St Pancras itself and the other as an extension to the churchyard of St Gile’s-in-the fields (which is a couple of miles away on the other side of Covent Garden).  The site was not popular with residents of St Giles, one of them complained to the Churchwarden “I object to the burying-ground that is offered to this parish, for this reason, Mr Churchwarden, that I am sure that no man in his senses would go so far to be buried: In the next place, Mr Church-warden, I am told (for I know nothing but what I am told) that it is so improper a place for a burying-ground, that before a man can lay his head down in the ground, Mr Church-warden, he will certainly be drowned with water.' (The Times, March 8th 1780). Despite the objectors and the boggy ground 26,676 interments took place in the two burial grounds between 1827 and 1847. By 1850 a local resident was complaining to the Times of chronic overcrowding in the grave yard “more than 25 corpses have been deposited every week for the last 20 years in an already overcrowded space; and at this very time they are burying in it at nearly twice that rate….teeth, bones, fragments of coffin wood are seen lying in quantities around these pits.”

By 1854 the burial grounds had been closed and a decade later they were being eyed up by the Midland Railway Company as a possible site for a goods shed or to cut through for a planned mainline route into St Pancras station. By 1866 the plans had become a reality and work started on removing headstones and monuments and exhuming the countless corpses so that construction of railway arches and the laying of track could commence. In June the Morning Post reported that a ‘gentleman’ had attended Clerkenwell Magistrates to complain on behalf of the inhabitants of St Pancras Road of the stench arising from the work of exhumation:  

[It] appears that within the past few days excavations have been going on at the east corner the St. Giles's Cemetery, which, it is stated, is the pauper portion of the burial-ground, for the formation of the Midland Railway, and that several coffins and a large quantity of bones have been exposed to public view. In some cases the coffins were perfectly sound, and on one of them being taken out it was broken, and it was stated that the body of a female was almost perfect and sound when it was first buried. In many cases decayed bones and skulls have been thrown up and about the ground, and in other instances they have been placed in a large box, but not buried. As there was doubt that this was a desecration of the dead, and such an act ought not to be tolerated, it was considered by the inhabitants of district that the matter should be made public. The stench was such that it was likely to be injurious to health. The applicant was referred to the sanitary department of St. Pancras

View of the railway works in Old St Pancras churchyard
The story of the ‘horrible desecration of the dead’ at St Pancras made the pages of other newspapers during the following weeks. A journalist from the Maidstone Chronicle visited the works and reported to his readers “I saw many graves broken up, and their human contents—dead men's shanks, and yellow chapless skulls—packed higgledy-piggledy into a large wooden box. As one coffin was stove in by the blow the navvy's spade a, fair bright tress of hair was seen, and pronounced by the foreman of the gang to have belonged to a good-looking person, while another observed that the teeth scattered about would be a helpful ornament to many a living head. This ghastly merriment, speculation, and moralising may no doubt quite the delver’s own, but it forms a hideous marginal comment on the text of the burial service, whether as it stands now or according to the proposed alteration of my Lord Ebury; for such resurrection is not contemplated in either.”

The architect in charge of the exhumation works was Arthur Blomfield of Covent Garden. One of the architecture students working in his office was a certain Thomas Hardy, a young man from Dorset who later abandoned architecture for literature. Young Thomas Hardy was given the job of supervising the exhumations and the removal of gravestones from that part of the burial ground earmarked for the mainline into St Pancras. Person or persons unknown arranged some of the removed headstones into an interesting self supporting pattern surrounding an ash tree which stood close to the church. That person was unlikely to be Hardy himself but nevertheless the tree and its surrounding gravestones have been known as the Hardy Tree ever since. The experience almost certainly did influence the composition of one of Hardy’s poems, ‘The Levelled Churchyard”, written in 1882:

O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!

We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!’

Hardy later recalled watching a coffin being exhumed with his mentor Arthur Blomfield. As it was lifted out of the grave the rotten casket broke apart letting a skeleton and two skulls tumble out into the mud. Years later when he ran across Arthur Blomfield again by chance "among the latter's first words were: 'Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St. Pancras?'"

The Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard, a relic of the 1866 exhumations by the Midland Railway Company

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Very Ingenious Mechanick - John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) St Mary's Paddington Green

The ‘very ingenious mechanick’ John Joseph Merlin adored all unconventional forms of transport, no matter how hazardous; his most celebrated mishap is related in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1825;

One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skates … Supplied with a pair of these and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs. Corneily's masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square; when, not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely.

Not much is known of Merlin’s early life; he was born or baptised on 17 September 1735 at Huy in the Walloon province of Liege in Belgium, the third child of Maximilien Joseph Merlin and Marie-Anne Levasseur. By the age of 19 young Merlin was working as a mechanic in Paris and by the age of 25 he was in London as part of the entourage of the Spanish Ambassador, the Conde de Fuentes. He soon left the service of the count and after a short stint working for a goldsmith in Covent Garden he took a position at James Cox’s newly founded Museum in Spring Gardens, becoming the principal mechanic. Cox was a jeweller and goldsmith who specialised in the production of exquisite clockwork automata and mechanical clocks; Merlin worked with him on what became his most famous creation, the silver swan automata, now in the Bowes Museum in County Durham. Mark Twain saw it at the Paris exhibition in 1867 and described it in Innocents Abroad; ‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...' 

In 1773 he parted company with Cox and set up on his own as maker of mathematical and musical instruments. He continued to apply his mind to the invention of novelties and developed ingenious hybrid musical instruments such as an adaptation for a harpsichord which allowed to played as a piano and a combination of the square piano and the organ called the claviorganum.  In an advertisement dated 1779 he boasted of “the various instruments and pieces of mechanism, which he has constructed, such as his great collection of Patent Piano Forte, double Bass harpsichords, and portable instruments called Celestinetts, and his new Violins, Tenor and Bass, and improves violins, tenor, and bass, tho’ ever so bad, makes them equal to the best Cremonea.” We know that Merlin’s novel instruments found a commercial market because by the late 1770’s he took a former employee to court for making and selling combined harpsichord piano’s without his permission. He also found himself in court for having reneged on a deal with a builder to construct a large new house on the corner of Duchess Street and Portland Place. The house was to be built to Merlin’s own design with large show rooms to display his inventions; it was the first hint that he was harbouring ambitions to open his own museum.

John Joseph Merlin - a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough
Merlin’s Museum of Musical Instruments and Mechanical Inventions opened for the delight and education of the nobility, gentry and public in Princes Street, Hanover Square in April 1783. For the twenty years Merlin was the proprietor he filled with it with mechanical marvels designed to please the novelty hungry London public. Morning admission, between 11 and 3 cost 2s 6d and evening admission (from 7 until 9, and including tea or coffee) was 3 shillings  For this modest fee patrons could admire perpetual motion clocks that required no winding up, watch The Grand Turk or Stone eater consuming artificial stones, marvel at the rotating table which enabled a hostess to fill up to twelve cups of tea without leaving her place or the device to enable blind persons to play cards, be horrified at the Steel Tarantula, view two antique busts by means of which ‘ any person may converse with another without being heard by the company’, see mobile bird cages, listen to musical boxes, try out his patented chair to relieve the pain of gout, and view his automata. These included, according to Charles Babbage who saw them as a young man, 'two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high' one of which “used an eye-glass occasionally and bowed frequently as if recognizing her acquaintances' and the other ‘an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak.' Merlin was often at hand in person to show off his exhibits and explain how they worked.

“ln what he calls his unrivalled mechanical chariot he was to be seen for many years past very frequently riding about Hyde Park and various parts of the town particularly on Sundays In the front of this carriage something resembling a dial was placed By a mechanical communication from the left wheel to this dial c which which he called way wise he was informed by the hand and figures thereupon how far he had travelled His general course unless on particular business was about eight miles in and out In this carriage he never had the trouble to open the doors or windows and even the horse was whipped if necessary by his pulling a string to which a whip was attached by a spring From this curious carriage and his portrait we have presented our readers with an exact engraving To have this carriage painted with various emblematical figures of Merlin the ancient British Magician it cost Mr Merlin last summer the sum of eighty guineas.” Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters London 1803
The mechanic was also something of an exhibitionist. He made regular appearances at Ranelagh Gardens and at the Masquerades held at the Pantheon gliding through the crowds on his roller skates, dressed as the Goddess of Fortune with his own wheel, or posing as an electrotherapeutic physician, shocking the dancers as he moved among them. In March 1778 ‘Mr. Merlin, the Mechanic,’ appeared at the Pantheon ‘as a Gouty Gentleman, in a Chair of his own Construction, which, by a Transverse Direction of two Winches, he wheeled about himself with great Facility to any Part of the Room.’ In May be was back; according to the Norfolk Chronicle “Merlin the mechanic also worked a boat around the room and occasionally freighted his vessel with a Harlequin, a Columbine, a witch, a wizard or one of those charm bearing fair ladies whose looks serve to bewitch the beholder be he ever so grave, cold or phlegmatic. The chair which Merlin appeared in at the last masquerade was also filled by one of his disciples who moves in circles through the company.” After an appearance as a Vestal in 1789 he appeared the following year as ‘a Cupid, in his chariot, which moved by some ingenious mechanism round the rooms, pointed his arrows at several ladies, who seemed to be willing votaries to his power.’

Merlin was generally thought to have been a life long bachelor but Margaret Debenham in a recent study has shown that this is untrue. In her research into the dispute between Merlin and the builder of the house on the corner of Duchesse Street and Portland Place she discovered that ‘in the early summer of 1777 they [Merlin and the builder Nicholl] had taken a ride out into the countryside together and chatted about Merlin's forthcoming marriage. According to Nicholl, Merlin had been doubtful that the marriage would take place in time for him to move into the new house that winter. Merlin, on the contrary, protested in his own testimony that he had wanted the house completed as soon as possible in readiness for him and his intended wife.’ Debenham also uncovered marriage records which show that the mechanic married Anne Goulding on 17 September 1783 at St Saviours in Southwark and that the couple had two children, Ann and Joseph.  Merlin was left a widower with two relatively young children when Ann died in 1793 and was buried at Christchurch in Southwark.

Merlin’s own health began to decline in the late 1790’s. He was last seen in public in January 1803 in Hyde Park in a carriage without horses.  On the 8th February he placed a notice in the newspapers lamenting that ill health had kept him from the museum for three weeks and apologising that during this time one of his people had had the temerity to exhibit his ‘unparalleled Magical Moving Pictures’ and being ‘unacquainted with the management of that grand machine…exhibited it in so slovenly and improper a manner that has nearly obscured the intrinsic merit of the magical illusion.’ He promised to attend himself in person to remedy the situation. On 24 February another notice informed the public that after ten years of ill health he intended to retire to the continent and was therefore compelled to sell his collection. He professed himself ‘highly grateful to a nation which has so long protected and encouraged him.’ The retirement to the continent had been left too late; he died on 04 May and was buried at St Mary’s Church, Paddington Green. His final instruction? According to Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters ‘he had his favourite horse thirty years and to prevent any ill usage of this animal after his death he ordered him to be shot which was done accordingly.’ 

Excerpt from the burial register at St Mary's Paddington Green showing Merlin's burial on May 8th

Monday, 17 July 2017

How the Dead Live - Will Self (Penguin £9.99)

“It was a phone directory. North London Book of the Dead, ran the title; and then underneath: A-Z. The cover was the usual yellow flimsy card and there was also the usual vaguely arty line drawing – in this case of Kensal Green Cemetery. I started to leaf through the pages.”

The North London Book of the Dead, a short story in the 1991 collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity was Will Self’s first foray into imagining the world of the London dead.  The narrator loses his mother to cancer, has her cremated at Golders Green, suffers a profound depression but only when he starts to come to terms with his grief finds himself encountering her again firstly in vivid dreams, then in brief sightings on the street which always turn out to be cases of mistaken identity. Until one bleak, drizzly, Tuesday afternoon  ‘walking down Crouch Hill towards Crouch End’ he spots, on the other side of the road his mother ‘wearing a sort of bluish, tweedish long jacket and black slacks and carrying a Barnes & Noble book bag, as well as a large handbag and a carrier bag from Waitrose. She had a CND badge in her lapel and was observing the world with a familiar "there will be tears before bedtime" sort of expression.’ His dead mother invites him to tea to her new flat in Rosemont Avenue and half suspecting he has lost his mind, he goes to visit her two days later.  During that visit his mother explains what death is like:

“Well, it’s like this,” began Mother. “When you die you go and live in another part of London. And that’s it.”

“Whaddya mean, that’s it?” I could already see all sorts of difficulties with this radical new view of death, even if I was sitting inside an example of it. “Whaddya mean, that’s it? Who decides which part of London? How is that no one’s heard of this before? How come people don’t notice all the dead people clogging up the transport system? What about paying bills? What about this phone book? You can’t tell me this lists all the people who have ever died in North London, it isn’t think enough.  And what about the dead estate agents, who do they work for? A Supreme Estate Agent?  And why Crouch End? You hate Crouch End.”

“It could have been worse. Some dead people live in Wanstead.”

The author in his native south London habitat
Almost ten years later, Self marked the millennium with the publication of How the Dead Live, (the title filched, quite openly, from a Derek Raymond thriller) the 15 pages of The North London Book of the Dead, had swollen monstrously into a 416 page opus narrated by the equally engorged character of mother, one Lily Bloom, an American born Londoner who dies in the opening pages but never shuts up, manically ranting until the exhausted Self ran out of printer ink or paper or his typewriter fell to pieces because if death won’t shut you up, little else will. After Lily dies in the London Ear Hospital she unexpectedly finds herself naked on Gower Street being accosted by an Aborigine spirit guide called Phar Lap Jones and then driven by a dead Greek Cypriot taxi driver to a new home in Dulston in North London  (if she had been slightly more respectable in life she would have probably found herself in Dulburb in South London).  Whilst her living daughters are left in the hospital to deal with the formalities of death certificates, burial arrangements and probate Lily finds herself joined in a squalid flat by the fossilised remains of a pregnancy she never knew she had, a pop obsessed lithopedion, (she is lucky, other woman who have suffered still births or miscarriages are united with their long lost foetuses which float around their heads still attached by the umbilical chord), three brainless blubbery beings formed from  the fat she has gained and lost over her life time and, eventually, by the ghost of her 9 year old son, who takes his time getting to Dulston because he has to find his way there from the States and once he is there sets about making his mother suffer for causing the accident which killed him in the early 60’s. In Dulston Lily finds an undemanding  job in a public relations company where no one minds that she is dead, attends night classes on being dead in the community centre,  and takes to haunting her still living daughters,  Natasha, a drug addled loser, and the haute bourgeoisie Charlotte.       
The critics were not kind to How The Dead Live when it appeared. Tom Shone in piece in the New York Times called Something to Offend Everyone said ‘we get wave after wave of viscous imagery (''congealed reality . . . blubbery blancmange of an evidence''). Throw this book at a wall and it will stick.’  In the Observer Adam Mars Jones was even more cutting; ‘It may seem a perverse criticism of a book like How the Dead Live to say that it lacks vitality. But a book about fish doesn't have scales and a book about death needs a pulse as much as any other, perhaps more than most.’  I like Will Self, I don’t mind his many faults because, like Byron’s cup formed from a human cranium, one can “behold the only skull from which, unlike a living head, whatever flows is never dull.” I like Self’s crazed and very un-English ambition, his scribomania, his pretensions, the learning paraded for our admiration, the endless streams of jokes, puns and tortured sentences, his unwillingness to shut up. I find his vision of dead London horribly plausible and very funny. 

Friday, 14 July 2017

Dean Swift and the Star Gazing Cobbler - John Partridge (1644-1715), St Mary's churchyard, Mortlake

In 1707 Jonathan Swift played a celebrated practical joke on the successful astrologer John Partridge, publishing a fake almanac which predicted the fortune teller’s death of fever at 11pm on the 29th March 1708. The Dean of St Patrick’s went on to publish a famous account of the astrologer’s death (even though Partridge remained rather inconveniently alive) and later proof’s that, despite his public protests to the contrary, the astrologer was really dead. 

Here, five feet deep, lies on his back
A cobbler, starmonger, and quack,
Who to the stars in pure good will
Does to his best look upward still:
Weep, all you customers that use
His pills, his almanacks, or shoes.
And you that did your fortunes seek,
Step to his grave but once a week.

Elegy On the Supposed Death of Mr. Partridge, the Almanac Maker– Jonathan Swift

According to his vilifiers John Partridge was born John Hewson at an alehouse in East Sheen after his unmarried mother tarried too long in the taproom on a journey to London. Neither the insinuation of illegitimacy nor the sly hint of dipsomania on the part of his mother were true; John Partridge was born on the 18 January 1644 in East Sheen, the son of a Thames Waterman who was respectable enough to act as a sidesman (a sort of assistant churchwarden) and parish assessor but not rich enough to ensure his precociously intellectual son more than a rudimentary education or able to arrange for him a career more elevated than cobbler.  The young artisan taught himself Latin along with a smattering of Greek and Hebrew and sought instruction in medicine and astrology from local mages like Dr Francis Wright. Again his calumniators concocted baseless stories alleging that he had everything he knew of the zodiacal arts from John Gadbury, (“neglecting his shoes,” they said, “to attend on this fellow’s heels”), the lie meant to undermine him in his later public battles with the Oxfordshire soothsayer.  In his early thirties he left Sheen and moved to Covent Garden where he simultaneously plied his two main two trades, cobbler and astrologer. He published his first almanac from Henrietta Street, Covent Garden in 1678, the Calendarium Judiacum and then swiftly went on to publish a stream of astrological treatises including  Mikropanastrōn, or, An Astrological Vade Mecum;  Ekklēsialogia: an Almanack, Vox lunaris, (‘being a philosophical and Astrological Discourse of two Moons which were seen in London on 11 June 1679’) and Prodromus, ‘an astrological essay’. 
In the 1680’s Partridge was increasingly drawn into politics, joining the Calves Head Club and practicing Whiggery almost to the point of republicanism. On the accession of the pro Catholic James II he prudently removed himself to the Netherlands from where he published An Almanack for the Year of our Redemption (1687) and Annus mirabilis (1688) under the transparent pseudonym John Wildfowl. These attacked James’  government and  declared that ‘a commonwealth's the thing that kingdoms want.’  In 1688 he went a stage further and used pseudo biblical prophecy in Mene Tekel to predict that King James would die that year. In November he returned to England joining the glorious revolution that put William of Orange on the throne.  Under the new protection of the new regime Partridge flourished and his annual almanac ‘Merlinus Liberatus’, became perhaps the most successful and widely read of the yearly flood of similar publications that hit the booksellers in the dying weeks of the old year.  

By April 1708 the 64 year old John Partridge, who now resided at the sign of the Blue Ball in Salisbury Court, Blackfriars, became one of that select band of people who discover they are dead by reading about it in the newspaper. Unlike other people who find themselves in this situation however he had been given 4 months notice of his imminent demise; the advance warning coming from one Isaac Bickerstaff Esquire, a mysterious personage who had, in late 1707, published ‘Predictions for the Year 1708; Written to prevent the people of England from being further imposed upon by the vulgar Almanack makers.’  As was usual even with genteel almanac makers   Bickerstaff’s opus predicted the death of several eminent personages including the Cardinal de Noailles and ‘upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging Feaver’ John Partridge.  Being a hugely successful vulgar almanac maker Partridge could hardly object, on principle, to a colleague so precisely predicting his death, even if it could be considered rather bad manners to do so. Whatever his public protestations of belief in the systems of astrology, years of failed prediction must surely have secretly undermined Partridge’s faith in the accuracy of horoscopes; he would not have been overly concerned by Bickerstaff’s confident forecast. The 29th March came and went without Partridge feeling in the slightest indisposed, he went about his normal business, chatting to friends and neighbours, eating his meals, making plans for the following days and never giving a second thought to the prospect of dying. He would must have been astonished therefore when on the 1st April (all fools day we note) someone gave him a copy of a broadsheet publication entitled ‘The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions being an account of the death of Mr Partridge, the almanack-maker, upon the 29th instant’ in which an anonymous author, identified only as someone ‘employed in the revenue’, related in great detail the lugubrious story of Partridge’s last hours on earth. 
A wigless Dean Swift
The revenue man explained that “to satisfie my own Curiosity, I have for some Days past enquired constantly after Partrige, the Almanack-maker, of whom it was foretold in Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions, publish'd about a Month ago, that he should die the 29th Instant about 11 at Night, of a Raging Fever….I saw him accidentally once or twice about 10 Days before he died, and observed he began very much to Droop and Languish, tho' I hear his Friends did not seem to apprehend him in any Danger. About Two or Three Days ago he grew Ill, was confin'd first to his Chamber, and in a few Hours after to his Bed, where Dr. Gase and Mrs. Kirlens were sent for to Visit and to Prescribe to him. Upon this Intelligence I sent thrice every Day one Servant or other to enquire after his Health; and yesterday, about Four in the Afternoon, Word was brought me that he was past Hopes; upon which I prevailed with my self to go and see him, partly out of Commiseration, and, I confess, partly out of Curiosity. He knew me very well, seem'd surprized at my Condescention, and made me Complements upon it as well as he could in the Condition he was. The People about him said he had been for some Hours delirious; But when I saw him he had his Understanding as well as ever I knew, and spoke Strong and Hearty, without any seeming Uneasiness or Constrain.”  Partridge’s tactless interlocutor could not stop himself asking what effect Bickerstaff’s predictions had on the astrologer, to which the response was that they were more or less what was killing him.  After half an hour in the dying man’s company and “being half stifled by the Closeness of the Room” the man from the Revenue made his excuses and retired to a nearby coffee house, leaving a servant at the house to advise him as soon as Partridge expired. A couple of hours later the servant arrived with the news that the astrologer was finally dead at five past 7, to which the revenue man noted “it is clear that Mr. Bickerstaff was mistaken almost Four Hours in his Calculation”.
John Partridge's astrological birth chart
Much to the disappointment of the many readers of Isaac Bickerstaff (who proved so popular that his works were translated and published on the continent) Partridge did not deign to respond to this transparent hoax. If he was not prepared to join the fray on his own account there were others who prepared to join it for him. Thus there appeared a counterblast under Partridge’s name but in actual fact composed by Dr Thomas Yalden, assisted by no less a figure than William Congreve the dramatist; 'Squire Bickerstaff detected; or, the astrological impostor convicted’ in which Bickerstaff was attacked for lambasting Partridge’s reputation, “most inhumanly” burying him alive, and defrauding the country of “those services, that I daily offer to the publick”.  The false Partridge thanked his “better stars, I am alive to confront this false and audacious predictor, and to make him rue the hour he ever affronted a man of science and resentment.” He went into battle for himself only though, poor Cardinal Noailles “may take what measures he pleases with him; as his excellency is a foreigner, and a papist, he has no reason to rely on me for his justification; I shall only assure the world he is alive--but as he was bred to letters, and is master of a pen, let him use it in his own defence.”  He then at great length demolished the pretensions of Isaac Bickerstaff to be as astrologer and a man of learning, and several thousand words later set down his pen thoroughly satisfied with himself.
The laughter had barely died down when in April 1709 shortly after the publication of Partridge’s latest almanac, the Bickerstaffian riposte was finally published; ‘A vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq; against what is objected to him by Mr. Partridge in his almanack for the present year 1709.’  Bickerstaff’s opening salvo was that “Mr. Partridge hath been lately pleased to treat me after a very rough manner, in that which is called, his almanack for the present year: Such usage is very undecent from one gentleman to another, and does not at all contribute to the discovery of truth, which ought to be the great end in all disputes of the learned. To call a man fool and villain, and impudent fellow, only for differing from him in a point meer speculative, is, in my humble opinion, a very improper style for a person of his education.”  He felt forced to proudly “tell the reader that I have near a hundred honorary letters from several parts of Europe (some as far as Muscovy) in praise of my performance. Besides several others, which, as I have been credibly informed, were open'd in the post-office and never sent me.” He claimed that there had been only two objections made concerning the accuracy of his predictions, the first from a “French man, who was pleased to publish to the world, that the Cardinal de Noailles was still alive, notwithstanding the pretended prophecy of Monsieur Biquerstaffe: But how far a Frenchman, a papist, and an enemy is to be believed in his own case against an English Protestant, who is true to his government, I shall leave to the candid and impartial reader.” The second was from Partridge himself, but Bickerstaffe was determined to “prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive.” He pointed out that the increased sales of Partridge’s almanac that year had been down to “above a thousand gentleman” wanting to know what Partridge said against Bickerstaff  “at every line they read, they would lift up their eyes, and cry out, betwixt rage and laughter, ‘They were sure no man alive ever writ such damn'd stuff as this.’ Neither did I ever hear that opinion disputed.”   If “an uninformed carcase walks still about, and is pleased to call itself Partridge, Mr. Bickerstaff does not think himself any way answerable for that. Neither had the said carcase any right to beat the poor boy who happen'd to pass by it in the street, crying, "A full and true account of Dr. Partridge's death, etc."
St Mary's, Mortlake
No one is sure why Jonathan Swift (for the author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was the true identity behind the pseudonymous astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff - and of the ‘man from the revenue’ for that matter) picked John Partridge, to be the butt of his joke when he was clearly infuriated by the whole tribe of soothsayers, seers, mystics, astrologers and compilers of almanacs. Perhaps it was simply because ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ was the most successful and widely read of the yearly crop of horoscopic publication. Or perhaps it was because Partridge’s mystical mumbo jumbo was so strongly Whig and so obviously served the cause of Republican propaganda; Swift was by this point a tepid Tory after starting life as a lukewarm Whig and he generally eschewed extreme political opinions of any stripe. The hoax he played on Partridge is generally credited with finishing the astrologer’s career and often cited as the final nail in astrology’s coffin. Whilst it is true that Partridge’s almanac did not appear in 1710 this was not because, as is often alleged, the author was too disheartened at being the laughing stock of Europe to continue publication but because he was locked in a dispute over money with the Company of Stationer who were reluctant to give him the £150 fee he was demanding to allow them to print his work. When this dispute was resolved ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ continued to roll off the presses and make as much money as before. Partridge was certainly wealthy when he died; he left over £2000 in his will, an enormous sum for the time. And as for astrology itself, the quackery is alive and well as a cursory search of any tabloid newspaper will tell you and London itself, 300 years later has as many psychics, seers and fortune-tellers per head of population as it did in the early 1700’s.   
The burial of John Partridge recorded in St Mary's parish register
John Partridge really died in London on 24th June 1715 and at his own request was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Mortlake on 30th June. His handsome chest tomb with the black marble top and white marble sides has weathered badly and the Latin inscription, which is no longer legible, said “Johannes Partridge astrologus et medicinæ doctor, natus est apud East-Sheen in comitatu Surrey 8° die Januarii anno 1644, et mortuus est Londini 24° die Junii anno 1715. Medicinam fecit duobus Regibus unique Reginæ Carolo scilicet Secundo, Willielmo Tertio, Reginæque Mariæ. Creatus medicinæ doctor Lugduni Batavorum.” Little or no knowledge of Latin is required to translate the first sentence and the second claims, almost certainly unjustifiably, that he was a doctor of medicine for two kings and one queen, Charles II, William III and Queen Mary and that he was made a doctor of medicine at Leiden in Holland. A more fitting epitaph would have been “Dean Swift granted me what little fame I have” for without the Dean of St Patrick’s joke at his expense Partridge would have long since disappeared into obscurity.    

Partridge's weathered tomb in St Mary's churchyard, Mortlake


Saturday, 1 July 2017

Cemetery Club presents 'Stories From The Stones: The Great & the Good of Hampstead Cemetery' 24th June 2017

I was lucky enough to secure tickets for Cemetery Club’s recent sell out tour of Hampstead Cemetery.  Having failed to catch Sheldon and Sam locally at Tower Hamlets I had no choice last Saturday but to make the long haul out on the Jubilee line to Fortune Green Road, West Hampstead to see the eagerly anticipated  new tour ‘Stories from the Stones’.  This is my third cemetery tour; the other two were both of Highgate, one in the early 1990’s and the other a couple of years ago, both undertaken out of necessity rather than desire because the Friends of Highgate Cemetery won’t let you into the western half unless you join a guided tour. I rather resent being shepherded around places I would rather explore under my own steam but I like the Cemetery Club’s blog and I liked Sheldon when I saw him speak a couple of months ago at Greenwich University and so I was happy to park the prejudices of a lifetime and allow myself to become, temporarily, a sheep in his flock.  

Sheldon filling us in on Andrew Fisher, former Australian PM.

According to the brief biographical data on the Cemetery Club website Sam works in the entertainment industry by day but devotes her nights to cemeteries (perhaps they don’t put it quite like that…. free time is perhaps what they call the hours when she is not at work).  She was a guide at Highgate for 12 years (she definitely wasn’t the guide on my last tour there though, unfortunately) and is a blogger and independent researcher whose focus is “quirky characters, Victorian mourning customs and social history, particularly social history pertaining to London’s dark underbelly.” Her guiding and cemetery partner Sheldon is a qualified City of Westminster Guide who drudges in HR by day but “by night his passion is the past, our changing landscape and what went before us.”
The tour started at 1.30 sharp which meant that I missed the first grave as I was five minutes late. Sam and Sheldon took turns showing us noteworthy resting places and interesting memorials and the group trailed after them around the cemetery like ducklings following their mother.  Sheldon was on first but I missed almost everything he said and so have no idea who he was talking about. Sam then took us of down the main path towards the chapel and, after pausing to note the Frankau memorial and the Egyptian themed tomb of James ’Pasha’ Wilson,  introduced us to Frederick Hengler a circus proprietor and riding instructor to the Royal Family (whose father Henry worked for Andrew Ducrow) which lead on to a fascinating digression about the attempts of the British navy to train sea lions for military uses during the Second World War (the link being the sea lions and Hengler being someone who once worked for his son Charles if I understood the story correctly).  Sheldon ushered us on a few yards to admire the tomb of the euphoniously named Archduke Mikhail Mikhailovich, a grandson of Tsar Nicolas 1st of Russia whose attempts to find a wife to please his mother Sheldon managed to turn into a comedy. 10 yards away lies Fred Gaisberg, American born musician and artistic director of HMV in the very earliest days of recorded music.
Sam at the grave of the Short Brothers (with a leprechaun behind her?) 

During the next hour and a half we became acquainted with the last resting places (and these are just the ones I remember) of a plethora of the great and good; Banister Fletcher the architect, Florence Upton creator of the Golliwog (I find myself strangely fascinated by this woman, I may return to her at a later date),  Joseph Lister the pioneer of antiseptic surgery, Kate Greenaway the illustrator, Sebastian de Ferranti electrical engineer on the fledgling London Underground, Dame Gladys Cooper, actress (Rex Harrison’s mother in ‘My Fair Lady’ and later star in three episodes of the legendary ‘Twilight Zone’), the Short brothers, aviation pioneers  (Horace, I think, was the one who was kidnapped and worshipped  by cannibals),  Alan Coren, the TV pundit, Dennis Brain the French horn player, Andrew Fisher, Australian premier, and Arthur Prince ventriloquist. We weren’t able to see some of the graves up close – as in most London cemeteries Hampsteads grave markers stand at crazy angles threatening to topple over or collapse into the vaults beneath them. We were a large group (it really was a sell out tour) and allowing a herd of curious taphophiles to blunder around a closely packed patch of crumbling masonry could only have led to disaster. Instead Sam dispatched Sheldon to pick his way between the headstones and point to the one under discussion. 

The hour and a half went very quickly – Sam and Sheldon are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and entertaining guides and it was a pleasure to accompany them around the cemetery. The finale to the visit was provided by Sheldon whose studious exterior appears to conceal a suppressed exhibitionist waiting for any excuse to burst out. The grave of Marie Lloyd provided the pretext. Sheldon firstly apologised for having to perform acapella and without a costume as he had originally planned to be accompanied by a friend on the banjo and wearing some frothy lace concoction; the friend had begged off and he had had second thoughts about the dress. He then launched into Miss Lloyd’s classic ‘When I take my morning promenade.’ His delivery was, at the beginning, affected by a degree of nervousness; hardly surprising when singing in a cemetery in front of a crowd of strangers who were all probably slightly uncomfortable and not really sure what was going on.

Since Mother Eve in the Garden long ago
Started the fashion, fashion's been a passion
Eve wore a costume we might describe as brief
Still every season brought its change of leaf...

By the end of the first chorus the nerves were rapidly falling away, half way through the second verse there were the first signs of bodily movement that had turned by the middle of the second chorus into the definite shaking of an invisible dress apparently gathered up by the hem to reveal a shapely calf and ankle. By the end of the third chorus he had the audience joining in:

When I take my morning promenade
Quite a fashion card, on the Promenade
Oh! I don't mind nice boys staring hard
If it satisfies their desire...

Now that is a truly impressive achievement.