Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Preserving God's Acre - the Burdett Coutts Memorial Sundial, St Pancras Gardens

The Burdett Coutts Memorial sundial with St Pancras Hospital (the old workhouse) in the background

The Baroness Burdett Coutts and the St. Pancras-gardens. — The special committee for the laying-out of the old St. Pancras and St. Giles-in-the- fields burying grounds as gardens have reported to the vestry that the Baroness Burdett Coutts had evinced her great interest by erecting a marble monument to preserve the head stone originally standing over the grave of John Walker, author of ‘Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary’; also that they had approved of a very handsome design for a memorial sundial to be erected by her ladyship to the memory of the illustrious dead lying in the grounds, at a cost probably exceeding £3,000. The committee reported further that the sum of £1,000, presented by the baroness, had been expended in the erection of a green- house, in accordance with the suggestion of her ladyship. The report was approved on the motion of Mr Westacott, chairman of the committee.
Morning Post - Friday 21 December 1877

In 1866 when the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles sold portions of their burial ground to the Midland Railway Company it caused a huge controversy (see ‘Horrible Desecration of the Dead at St Pancras’). Eight years, in 1874, the controversy flared up again when the Railway Company approached the St Pancras vestry and enquired if they were willing to sell the reminder of the cemetery. The resulting public outcry was so great that the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles decided not to proceed with the sale but instead to turn the land into a public garden. They even voted on spending £1000 of the vestry’s own money to lay out the grounds. But when it was decided that to properly enclose the proposed garden some residential property adjoining the burial grounds consisting of 4 houses and 5 cottages belonging to the St Giles vestry needed to be included in the plans the vicar of St Giles withdrew the vestry’s permission; he felt that the property was worth at least £5000 but the committee was only proposing to pay a £1500 in compensation.  When the matter ended up in the courts the Midland Railway Company spotted a chance to get its bid for the burial ground back onto the negotiating table and also started proceedings questioning the legality of the decision taken to open a public garden. The Railway Company used its political influence to get the Government to propose a Midland Bill, granting the company use of the land. At a fraught meeting of the ratepayers of the two vestries, supporters and detractors of the bill argued ferociously about what should happen to the remainder of the burial ground. Many resident ratepayers were in favour of selling to the railway company because the grounds would no longer be their financial responsibility. Others, many with family members buried in the churchyard, demanded that the desecration of the dead at the hands of the railway company stop. The Government finally settled the question by convening a public enquiry chaired by Philip Holland, Medical Inspector of Burials at the Home Office. After duly hearing the evidence Holland determined in favour of the public garden. 

One of those who took a fervent interest in the future of the disused burial grounds was the philanthropist Baroness Burdett Coutts who felt that as they were “no longer used for their original purpose, they have lost the protection of the living, without securing the sanctity that should protect the dead.” In a letter she later wrote to the vestry of St Pancras she goes into some detail about her motivation for involving herself in the preservation of London’s old burial grounds, explaining that “the feelings and reflections which even an unnamed tombstone is calculated to excite …. would be lost if the graves of the dead were obliterated from the land, for a number of stones huddled together, possibly as carefully as circumstances permitted, cannot convey the same feelings as does a grave, even to the least reflective mind. The mere fact of closing over and stamping out of remembrance the dead renders them lifeless indeed and denies to their memory those tender and salutary lessons so often given in the quiet of ' God's acres.'” The Baroness was determined that the garden should be a memorial to the dead interred there and that it should preserve the principal tombstones and key features of the burial ground. She funded works to conserve headstones and to landscape the gardens but her most lasting contribution to the project was the enormous sundial dedicated to the memory of the illustrious dead placed at the heart of the garden.

St Pancras Gardens were opened to the public by Sir James McFarel-Hogg, chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works on the 28th June 1877, at a ceremony during which Baroness Burdett Coutts laid the foundation stone of the planned memorial sundial. It wasn’t until two years later, on the 8th November 1879, that the Morning Post were able to report, at length on the elaborate unveiling ceremony for the sundial itself, held the previous day: “Yesterday afternoon, in the presence of an immense concourse of persons, consisting of the local authorities and the inhabitants of the surrounding district, a very interesting ceremony took place at what is known as the St. Pancras-gardens, formerly the burial grounds of Old St. Pancras and St. Giles's-in- the- Fields, situated in the St. Pancras-road. The occasion was the presentation to the vicar, churchwardens and vestry of St. Pancras of what is termed a memorial sundial, an exceedingly chaste and beautiful, as well as novel -structure, standing upwards of 30 feet in height, and erected at the expense of the Baroness Burdett Coutts at a cost of upwards of two thousand pounds.” The Baroness and her party of ten arrived at the entrance to the gardens at 3.10 to be met by the vicar of St Pancras, the reverend Canon Spence, Sir Thomas Chambers the recorder of London, and the churchwardens, vestry members and board members of St Pancras.  The two parties made their way to the front of the memorial enclosure where the Baroness produced a key to the gates and ‘ventured to offer a few observations’ before handing them over. She offered sincere congratulations to all present for having rescued “the ancient resting for the dead…from the dilapidation and the desecration which at one time threatened it.” She said that the churchyard of St Pancras deserved particular consideration “for it contained the remains of some of the most eminent men of the age in which they lived, and if it were only for the fact that it contained the bones of that great man, Flaxman, who had done so much to impress upon the human mind all that was beautiful, it would have been worth preserving. That burial spot was an evidence at once of the history of religious toleration in this country, as exhibited in the fact that not only Christians of every creed and of every faith, but even those who did not profess themselves to be within the pale of Christianity, could be laid to rest side by side in their mother earth.” As the English like nothing better than to be told how tolerant they are this last remark was greeted with cries of “hear, hear.” This only encourage the Baroness to further remarks which I won’t go into except to say that she did tell her audience that she thought the memorial, which she was seeing for the first time, was “exceedingly beautiful.” To loud applause from her restive audience she finally handed over the keys to the enclosure to the Rev. Canon Spence who immediately tried their patience by launching into a eulogy of his own. He told the Baroness that he wished she had had an opportunity to see “the happy children and the anxious mothers lining the paths of that God's Acre enjoying the fresh air of the previous evening.” He told the Baroness how indebted the poor of the parish were to the vestry for the chance to enjoy a green space and to the Baroness for taking an interest in their welfare (more cries of ‘hear, hear’ but probably not from the parish poor). The Baroness and principal company then inspected the memorial, the architect George Highton being on hand to point out the key features. Inspection over the Rev. Canon Spence offered up a prayer and the outdoor part of the ceremony was concluded with the children of local schools singing ‘God Save the Queen’. The ‘immense concourse’ of local (poor) persons were then dismissed while the quality adjourned to the vestry hall for a banquet.

The sundial was designed by the architect George Highton of Elm Park, Brixton and built by Messrs H. Daniel & Co. of Highgate. Cast iron railings enclose. According to Building News of 07 November 1877 “the superstructure, which is in the Early Decorated style, consists mainly of Portland stone with four marble tablets, and clustered granite columns at the angles. The tablets are surmounted with reliefs representing St. Pancras and St. Giles, also Night and Morning, by Signer Fucigna. On the tablet under the dial are inscribed the Beatitudes…. The terraces, which are constructed to form flower-beds, are mainly of red Mansfield stone, worked at the quarries. The panels of the two upper terrace tiers contain flowers — with butterflies as the emblem of immortality — in mosaics; the top one has panels in relief, representing the four seasons, by Messrs. Wills, of Euston-road. The bottom tier panels are also in mosaics. The whole of the mosaics have been executed by Messrs. Simpson and Sons, of St. Martin’s-lane. The whole is in-closed by kerb and iron railing and gates; the latter by the St. Pancras Iron Works Company.” Standing at the corners of the enclosure are Portland stone statues, two dogs and two lions. The four faces of the central shaft contain panels listing the names of the illustrious dead who were interred in the two old burial grounds. There are some omissions; William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, quite possibly the two most famous people buried here do not rate a mention, almost certainly because they were radicals and freethinkers. The panel of the south west side, facing the entrance to the gardens, contains a lengthy verse dedication which starts:
Here in Christ’s acre where this dial stands,
With pious care and borne by reverent hands,
Lone wanderers garnered in from east and west
Among the home-loved lie in solemn rest;
Severed in life by lineage, race, faith, clime
They bide alike the last soft stroke of time

The sundial is in the gable above this panel with an inscription which reads TEMPUS EDAX RERUM; time devours all things. The other panels list the eminent dead whose graves had been disturbed by the railway company, 86 names in total including Sir John Soane, Baroness Burdett Coutts’ favourite sculptor John Flaxman, Pasquale Paoli the liberator of Corsica, Sidly Effendi the Turkish Ambassador, the crossdressing swordsman the Chevalier D’Eon, John Walker author of the Pronouncing Dictionary, and Tiberius Cavallo the Italian natural philosopher.      

Contemporary illustration of the memorial from the 'Building News' of 7 November 1877

Controversies over the routing of train lines through cemeteries did not end in the era of Victorian railway expansion. The issue has flared up again in the 21st century because of the Channel Tunnel rail link, Crossrail, HS1 and HS2. Both HS projects as well as the Channel Tunnel rail link have affected the disused burial grounds lying just to the north of King Cross, St Pancras and Euston stations. In 2002 the Channel Tunnel rail link cut through land containing, according to English Heritage, around 4000 graves from the Old St Pancras burial ground, the bodies were to be reinterred in a mass grave in the new St Pancras cemetery in Finchley.  Archaeologists were given a relatively short period of time to examine the graves and remove what humans remains were left and protested vociferously when they were unceremoniously kicked off site when they overran their allotted time. They accused the rail company of coming in with bulldozers to dig up old graves. Amongst the archaeologists finds were the Archbishop of Narbonne’s false teeth. This indignity had nothing to do with the 2012 Archbishops Council petition to parliament against the HS2 bill to include a cause allowing for the dignified removal of human remains from cemeteries lying on the route of the new line. In London St James’ Gardens, the site of the former disused burial ground of St James in Piccadilly, lie directly on the new route and was scheduled to be cleared. The old burial ground lies in St Pancras Parish and the latest incumbent, the Reverend Anne Stevens, who feels she still has a duty to care for the souls of the 35,000 people she believes are buried there, led a protest against the proposals in November 2015. All to no avail, the old burial ground was cleared by the railway company in the months that followed.

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