Thursday, 31 May 2018

Jazz monkey see, jazz monkey do; Thomas Murphy (1892-1932), Charlton Cemetery

Before the funeral of Mr. T. Murphy, owner of Charlton Stadium, yesterday the cortege circled the racing track, followed by two of Mr. Murphy's favourite dogs.
Coventry Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 15 March 1932

Thomas Murphy’s  two favourite greyhounds, accustomed as they were to careening around the dog track at full pelt in pursuit of an electrically powered simulation of a hare, must have been disconcerted by the stately pace of the funeral circuit around Charlton Stadium. Murphy’s totem animals, relaxed with eyes closed and head resting on forepaws as though curled up and asleep in front of the fire, also ended up on his flamboyant memorial in Charlton Cemetery, a mile or so away from the dog track. 
Thomas Murphy was born on 5th June 1892 in Paisley. His father, also called Thomas, was born in 1866 in Glamorgan and his mother, Emily (née North) was born in 1871 in Leicester.  Thomas senior was a travelling showman and Thomas junior the third born of his ten children. The nomadic lifestyle led by the family is reflected in the birthplaces of their children; in the 1901 census the family is listed as living in a caravan in Maesteg Market Place, Glamorgan. 14 year old Charles, the eldest, had been born in Chepstow, 11 year old Hannah in Dumfries, 9 year old Thomas, as we know, in Paisley, Victoria, who was 4, in Perth, Sarah, 3, in Bridgend and 5 month old William in Aberdare. A decade later the 45 year old Thomas senior had finally giving up travelling and settled down to a more sedentary career as a fishmonger in Prince Street, Newport. He had acquired four more sons John, born in Abergavenny, Timothy born in Merthyr Tydfil and Alfred and Edward both born in Newport. It’s not perhaps surprising that Thomas senior gave up the roving showman’s life, dragging his brood around with him in the days before motorised transport would have been difficult enough but there were other dangers as a report in the Portobello Advertiser in September 1896 makes clear. In the Portobello Police Court, three men, “John McIntosh, mason, 12 Buchanan Street, Leith ; George Sutherland, tailor, Albert Street, Edinburgh; and Michael Murphy, mason, Gordon Street, Leith, were charged with having, the previous day and in Livingston Place Park, attacked and assaulted Thomas Murphy, a showman, temporary resident in Livingstone Place.” It transpired that this was not the first brush in Thomas senior had had with McIntosh and Sutherland who had been in the habit of ‘annoying’ him in Leith as he went about his business and demanding money. The two were intimidating enough for the showman to have to hire two policeman to protect the shows.  When he moved on to Portobello (admittedly only 3 miles away) they followed and assaulted him. The magistrate fined McIntosh, whom he considered to be the ring leader, 20 shillings with the option of ten days imprisonment if he couldn’t find the money, and the two other men 15 shillings with the option of seven days incarceration. It was perhaps this type of incident that finally drove Thomas senior out of Scotland, where three of his children had been born, and back to the land of his fathers, Wales.

By 1911 Thomas senior living in Prince Street Newport and employed as a fishmonger. 19 year old Thomas junior was no longer living at home; he had married Louisa Katherine Nail from Wolverhampton the previous year at Bristol Registry Office and the 1911 census shows him as a visitor at the home of Albert Wiltshire and family, a wagon painter of 3 Damas Lane, Swindon. He lists his occupation as travelling showman and declares that Louisa is ‘assisting in the business’. We catch sight of Thomas again in July 1916 when the Western Mail, calling him a ‘youthful Newport entertainer’, describes an action for damages he brought against Messrs Brothers for breach of warranty of a tent. Thomas is described as having ‘been in business since he was eight years of age’. He had hired a large marquee in which to entertain soldiers in Swindon but the king pole had broken leading to the show being suspended and the loss, he claimed of £109 in profit over a period of nine days. Messrs Brothers claimed the tent had not been properly taken care of and defended the claim. The case was adjourned and no follow up was reported so we don’t know if Thomas won his damages. In 1920 his first wife Louisa died. Three years later Thomas took up with Jennie Josling Shilson from Southwark, a fortune teller who worked in fairs and at the seaside. In 1924 when she gave birth to Thomas’ only child, a son they named Thomas Edward Walter Murphy, the couple were living together as man and wife, although they never in fact married.
In the summer of 1924 Thomas was running competition stalls at Dreamland in Margate when he met a young man desperate to find work called Edward Johnson. The 23 year Johnson was from a middle class family who had fallen on hard times; his father was a commercial shipping agent whose thriving business had been all but destroyed by the First World War. The family, who were originally from Dulwich, found themselves slipping down the social scale, moving to Southend before eventually settling in East Ham. Johnson’s father remained ambitious for his son and found him work as a solicitor’s clerk in the city but the impulsive youngster fell in love with a chorus girl on a family holiday in Brighton and married her against his father's wishes.  He left his job in the city and followed his wife to a summer season in Margate where the only work he could find was selling electric heaters on commission. Thomas rescued him from the hopeless prospect of flogging electric fires to holiday makers and installed him on one of his competition stalls. Other stall holders didn’t immediately take to the well spoken, well groomed young man and subjected him to endless goading and ridicule. When one seasoned veteran of the fairs didn’t like one of Johnson’s quick witted response to one of his taunts he walked over to his stall and hit him in the mouth, completely unaware that he was dealing with an East End amateur boxing champion. The thrashing Johnson meted out won him grudging respect from his colleagues. When Thomas found out that his employee had been a solicitors clerk as well as being a handy man to have around during a spot of bother, he promoted him to the job of being his personal assistant, though without reducing his hours on the competition stall or possibly even giving him any extra money.

Johnson had been at his post for over a month before he realised that his employer was illiterate which is why he desperately needed someone he could trust to deal with his business correspondence. In August 1926 another of Thomas’ employees, 28 year old clerk Harry Richardson was sentenced to 6 months hard labour in the West London Police Court for stealing two cheques with a total value of £10 10 shillings, from his employer. Taking advantage of his illiteracy Richardson made the cheques out to himself and got Thomas to sign them knowing he wouldn’t be able to read the name. Richardson turned out to have a string of previous convictions and lately “had been drinking to excess and had been going about with a young woman”, said the West London Observer of 06 August 1926. Thomas and Johnson had becoame inseparable; ironically just a week later  the pair were up in the same police court themselves, charged with gaming at Southend where they had been operating a disc game. This was a gambling game where players “threw pennies to a table on each of the eight sections of which were 1136 brass discs. If the coin touched a batten in the middle of the disc an electric light was illuminated, showing the rate of odds payable, which varied from two to twelve to one.” Counsel for the defence urged the court to acquit on the grounds that this was a game of skill, not of chance (West London Observer - 13 August 1926). In an article in the Sunday Mirror in March 1939 Johnson described his working life with Thomas, joining him on his trips to Prague where he bought prizes for the Margate competition stalls, working on the winter tours, being given ten minutes instruction and then being told to drive a truck when the regular driver failed to turn up to work, and being involved in a fatal accident in Reading when he and his wife had been trapped in a trailer when a truck overturned on an icy road, killing the drivers mate. He tells the newspaper how Thomas “became a fruit machine king in London….It will interest the penny punters in this kind of game to know that at Gracechurch Street, our principal saloon, the lowest takings on any day were £135, the highest just under £200. And there were plenty more saloons.” Watching Murphy raking in the cash without been given an opportunity to share proved to much for the usually loyal Johnson and he left Murphy’s employment shortly afterwards to set up on his own.     
As well as fair ground competition stalls and slot machines we know that Thomas ran at least one animal business, the Monkey Jazz band from his business premises at 158 Latimer Road, just behind the station. We know this because there was a media frenzy when burglars inadvertently let the 13 strong monkey Jazz band escape and run riot around west London for a couple of days in November 1926. This didn’t put Thomas off from trying to turn a profit from animals. His most ambitious project opened in July 1930, the Charlton Stadium. Initially at least the stadium was not licensed and there was local opposition, particularly to Sunday race meetings. In September the Lancashire Evening Post reported that “protests against Sunday dog-racing were made a meeting held at Greenwich, last night, which had been organised by the Council of Christian Churches.” Thomas had offered half the proceeds from the Sunday meeting to the Miller General Hospital in Greenwich but they refused to accept the controversially raised money. The protests presumably did nothing to damage the profits from the track. Although he couldn’t read or write Thomas must have felt that he was making a striking success of his life but any complacency he felt was soon shattered when he fell seriously ill with the cancer that killed him at the age of only 39 in 1932.
Probate records show that Thomas was worth over £26,000 at the time of his death, not bad for someone who was still living in a caravan on the dog track. Inevitably perhaps, given that Thomas never married his long term partner, there were arguments about the inheritance. In March 1933 the Sheffield Independent reported an action taken by one of Thomas’s younger brothers, William, who accused Jennie Shilson of cheating him out of £1000 his brother had gifted him. William, described by his own counsel as a ‘man of little education’ told the Court of the King’s Bench Division how he had worked for his older brother since he was 12 but received no wages until 1930 when he was married and his brother agreed to pay him £3 10s 6d a week. According to William on 21st December 1931, at a meeting of the Charlton Stadium Board, held in the caravan parked in the grounds that Thomas and Jennie lived in, Thomas, who by this point was aware that he was dying of cancer, told his brother that he would take care of him and would give him £1000 out of the seasons profits from the dog track. He also said that he would give Timothy, another of the Murphy brothers who worked at the stadium, £1000 and £2000 to Jennie. A few days later Jennie appeared with a cheque made out to William which she got him to endorse on the reverse, saying that she would pay it into the bank for him. After getting Timothy to endorse his cheque, Jennie went off and nothing further was ever heard of the money. Called to the witness box Jennie Shilson, who had inherited the business from Thomas as well as a third of his residual estate, told the court that the gifted cheques were an income tax scam and never meant to be gifts for the two brothers. She said that William was well aware of this and was taking advantage of Thomas’ death to try and get his hands on some of his brother’s money. She was able to show that the money from the cheques had been repaid to the company but this didn’t result in the verdict going in her favour. Counsel for the plaintiff made sure William was asked a lot of questions about his brother’s relationship with Jennie, making it clear to the jury that she lived with Thomas without having recourse to the sacrament of matrimony. The jury found in William’s favour and Jennie was forced to pay him the £1000.     

Thomas Murphy in the probate register


The Latimer Road escapade of Thomas Murphy's Jazz band monkeys

The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey.     
Mark Twain
There is a genre of art dedicated to depicting monkeys behaving like humans; its name, from the French for ‘monkey trick’, is singerie. Thomas Murphy’s monkey Jazz band could be seen as a sort of performance art, living singerie. Or as a way to make a quick buck by cashing on the perennial human fascination with watching simians aping humankind. One chilly late November night the 13 monkeys of Murphy’s primate Jazz band were gifted the opportunity of temporary freedom and indulged in one of London’s most legendary escapades. The full story is retold here in the words of contemporary newspaper accounts as this really did turn out to be a true media circus.    

Simian Jazz Band Let Loose! When thieves broke into a yard at the premises of Mr T. Murphy, amusement caterer, Latimer Road, Notting Hill, London, they made for a large hut which looked like a hen roost, stealthily forced the door open, and let out the occupants. And these turned out to be not chickens, but 13 fully-grown monkeys—members of a jazz band. Franco, the conductor, was last seen clambering about the roof of Paddington Railway Station. When the monkeys escaped they made for the platform of Latimer Road Station. There they frightened several old ladies and were chased by the railway staff. Franco jumped through the open door of a waiting train, and was carried to Paddington. Before the ticket collector could make any attempt to capture him Franco was scampering about the station. Meanwhile Notting Hill Gate has been startled and amused by the antics of three monkey saxophone players. Although the greater part of the troupe was captured, the three remained at liberty over the weekend. They made their base under the platform of the station, from which they made excursions on errands of mischief. One of the porters usually keeps his food in a fire bucket in a waiting room, and when he went to fetch it he found the food gone and a monkey sitting sleeping contentedly. In a second the monkey awoke, left the bucket and re-joined his companions, who were pelting children in the yard below with pieces of wood. Another monkey has been rehearsing the part of Santa Claus, and insists on going down chimneys. When he left his home he was brown, but when he came back of his own accord yesterday morning, he was jet black. A woman in a house in the district was taking tea when she saw monkey sitting on the dresser. She dropped the tray and fainted, and the monkey disappeared up the chimney. Another woman who has lived with her window open for ten years has now nailed it up. "If we do not catch Franco" said Mr Murphy, yesterday, “the troupe simply will not play any tunes on their weird band.” Those who have come back are little the worse for their adventures except that they are a bit wild. But their escape has brought in bills from all over he neighbourhood. “I had to pay 8s for broken crockery and 4s for a pound of chocolates, and several other items."

Dundee Courier - Tuesday 23 November 1926

THE MONKEYS! HALF LONDON LAUGHING AT CIRCUS DESERTERS' PRANKS. FOUR DEFY CAPTURE. LONDON, Monday.—All Notting Hill is chuckling at the pranks of a troupe of 13 monkeys which escaped from circus proprietor's yard the other day. Nine of them have since lost their liberty. To-day, four remained at large. Three of the four have dug themselves in firmly beneath the platform at Latimer-road (Metropolitan) Station and are failing all attempts to capture them. The whereabouts of the fourth and biggest monkey is a complete mystery. He has completely disappeared. On Saturday afternoon, he boarded passing train and was whisked off. He was last seen at Paddington. Before they gained their undesired liberty, the monkeys were members of a jazz band, and Franco the missing monkey, was the leader of the troupe. The monkeys which have installed themselves under the station platform have plenty of food at their command. They have made frequent raids on a stable and greengrocer's yard beneath their lair, and have consumed bananas and horse fodder to their heart's content. One, this morning, was observed sitting on a horse's back, and a volley of banana skins and nutshells was loosed upon a party of would-be captors. Another monkey, with a livelier sense of the appropriate, clutched at a hammer and brandished it with threatening intent. Of the captured monkeys, one lost his liberty in a confectioner's shop, where he had lived a paradisiacal half-hour gorging mintballs and chocolates. Another confronted a dutiful housewife she was earning tea to her husband. She dropped the tray great fright and the monkey devoured the meal. Yet another of the animals appeared to have spent its liberty exploring the possibilities of a chimney. Evidently it liked not such freedom, for it was crestfallen and blackened with soot when it submissively gave itself up.

Hull Daily Mail - Monday 22 November 1926

JAZZ BAND MONKEYS. ADVENTURES OF FRANCO, BIMBO, SNOOKUMS, & SANDY. SHOCK FOR MOTORIST. Notting Hill was still monkey hunting this morning. The quarry by name are  Franco, Bimbo, Snookums, and Sandy, four of the 13 jazz band monkeys who escaped last week, and who have resisted every strategic move devised for their recapture.  Quite a mystery attaches to the whereabouts of Franco, the big leader of the troupe, who has covered up his tracks with the success of a master criminal. The last report received indicated that he was "somewhere in Paddington," though later there was a false rumour that he had wandered so far afield as Brixton. The three monkeys who have consolidated a little stronghold of their own under Latimer-road Station are continuing enjoy the time of their lives. When rations run short they sally forth on thieving expeditions. This morning one successful marauder was observed strolling back to his companions with a stolen loaf of bread tucked under his arm. Early this morning two of the animals almost frightened the life out of a man who came for his car in the yard garage. As he opened the door two black shapes flashed past him, and then when he got inside the garage he found the car occupied by one of the monkeys. He tried to catch the animal, but it defeated his efforts.

Nottingham Evening Post - Tuesday 23 November 1926
ANOTHER JAZZ BAND MONKEY CAPTURED. SAID TO HAVE DONE MUCH DAMAGE AT RUGBY. ‘Monkey captured here this morning after doing considerable damage for which I shall expect you to pay. Am sending him passenger to Euston.' It was a much harassed and rueful Mr. Murphy, the owner of the escaped troupe of jazz band monkeys, who received this telegram from Rugby this morning. He is at this moment probably speculating upon the identity of the monkey bandsman and the extent of its depredations. Mr. Murphy doubtless cherishes the hope that is the mischievous Franco, who has at last been run to earth. Franco was the treasured conductor of his troupe of minor bandsmen and quite considerable cash value was placed upon him. Franco it was who availed himself of a passing underground train to mask his escape, and when last seen he was exploring the possibilities of Paddington. It is possible that his wanderings took him from there to Euston and that a further train introduced him to Rugby. On the other hand, it is possible that Bimbo will prove to be the Rugby miscreant for after his co-conspirator Snookums was caught last night at Latimer road it was discovered that Bimbo had beat a retreat and that Sandy remained in lone retreat under the platform boarding. On arrival at the London station the Rugby monkey, which is at any rate not the leader of the band, was placed in the parcels office to be called for.

Lancashire Evening Post - Wednesday 24 November 1926

MONKEY JAZZ BAND. More Pranks of Sandy in a Wood Yard. Indignant at the premature assumption of his death, Sandy, one of the monkey jazz band players which escaped from a yard at Latimer-road, London recently, on Saturday demonstrated that the report was “exaggerated” by sitting on a pile of logs in a wood yard near his temporary home and hurling lumps of wood at the custodian of the yard, Mr F. Bullen. Mr. Murphy, the animal's owner, it will he remembered, stated a few days ago that he feared that Sandy had succumbed to the cold. When Mr. Bullen went into the yard with an assistant, he was met with a fusillade of small wood from a corner where Sandy was sitting. One of his shots hit Mr. Bullen, and an attempt to capture him was made. Sandy, however, executed a masterly retreat, covering his retirement with a few well-directed shots and made good his escape. Franko, the leader of the band, is still “reported missing."

Gloucester Citizen - Saturday 27 November 1926

THE TWO MISSING MONKEYS. It is feared that the two monkeys of the 13 who escaped at Notting Hill last week-end still remaining at large have died of exposure. Franko, the leader of the monkey jazz band, for whom a reward was offered, was last seen on Sunday at the railway station where he had taken refuge boarding a train bound for Paddington (presumably with an eye to the Cornish Express and the softer climate of the English Riviera). His companion, Sandy, remained in hiding under the platform at the station. Yesterday Sandy was not seen.

Lancashire Evening Post - Friday 26 November 1926

A BORN LEADER. At the Agricultural Hall I saw Rugby Bimbo, one of the monkeys who escaped on the Underground, and had such a high old time at Rugby before he was caught. He was formerly in a cage on his own, but being somewhat down-hearted, he was provided with a very young monkey as companion, and is greatly cheered by his little playmate, whom he alternately admonishes and pets. Franko, the leader of the Monkey Jazz Band, is still at large, though a reward of £5O is offered for him. The monkeys are all out of hand in his absence, l am told. "Whatever he does they will do, and without him they are sulky and obstinate. Monkeys are like men—some lead some follow, Franko was born to lead."

Birmingham Daily Gazette - Friday 21 January 1927

Winner of the 2014 Serco Prize for Illustration; Monkey Band At Large In Notting Hill 1927 by Gill Bradley

Monday, 21 May 2018

Saints, Sinners & Photographers; St Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green

I have taken photos in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green on previous occasions with no bother from anybody. I was crouching on a patch of gravel trying to get a shot of a headless but otherwise well muscled St Michael flourishing a broken sword to vanquish a dragon so diminutive that it could have been crushed by one of his saintly sandaled feet. One of the grounds staff (they no longer go by the evocative job title of gravedigger) stalked up behind me and demanded to know if I was taking photographs. With a camera in my hand it was hard to do anything but admit I was.

“Have you spoken to Janice?” he asked. I had no idea who he was talking about. “Janice. In the office….you have to speak to Janice, in the office, if you want to take photos.” I climbed to my feet as he beckoned me to follow him.

The office was a modernish brick annexe next to the Chapel. We both stood quietly and politely at the wooden counter watching a woman, Janice no doubt, look through some papers at her desk. When she finally glanced up, her colleague nodded at me and quickly explained “he was taking photos but he hasn’t spoken to you.” Message delivered he disappeared without waiting for a response. With great reluctance Janice put down her papers and leisurely made her way over to the counter.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I was told to speak to you if I wanted to take photos of the cemetery.”
“Ahhh. You want to take photos of the cemetery,” she eyed me distrustfully for a moment and added “and why would you be wanting to take photos of the cemetery?”
“Err. Because…because I’m interested in cemeteries?” I said, sounding unconvincing even to myself.
“Because you are interested in cemeteries is it? OK,” she regarded me doubtfully. “And what will you be doing with these photos? You won’t be putting them on Facebook will you?”
“Yes, Facebook. You’ve heard of Facebook? Or Instagram? Letting other people see them. Because that’s not allowed. Our customers don’t like it. They don’t want to see the cemetery on Facebook.”
“I don’t have a Facebook account,” I lied, “I won’t be posting anything about the cemetery on Facebook.”
“Posting? You won’t be posting anything? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure…” I’m nearly sixty but I felt myself blushing.
“OK,” she said dubiously, “in that case you are allowed to take pictures. We get some funny people coming here to take pictures,” she leaned over the counter confidentially, “very funny people. Devil worshippers. They come here to take pictures. And some men bring women with them and get them to take their clothes off to pose on the graves or climbing up the trees.”
“I haven’t brought any women with me,” I gushed with the relief of being able to be truthful, “and I can definitely promise that I will be remaining fully clothed for the whole time that I am here.”
She looked disdainfully at me for moment. “You’re not funny you know,” she said before dismissing me from her presence with a waft of her hand and turning away to walk back to her desk.

St Mary’s catholic cemetery opened in 1858 on surplus ground purchased from the General Cemetery Company next door at Kensal Green. It is one of only two catholic cemeteries in London (the other is St Patrick’s in Leyton, opened 10 years later in 1868). Like St Patrick’s it has seen better days and is generally looking a little rundown and  tatty but it resolutely remains a working cemetery. Both cemeteries are filled almost to capacity (over 165,000 people are buried at St Mary’s in 29 acres, that is 1.375 corpses for every square meter of ground) and additional burial space has been created by piling a six foot layer of earth on top of old common graves. The resident population of St Patrick’s, being heavily dominated by the Irish and Polish contingents of the catholic faithful, has only one, modern(ish – 1960’s) mausoleum but St Mary’s, with its west London  bias towards the Mediterranean and Latin,  has 23, some of them quite spectacular. I’ll deal with the mausoleums of St Mary’s in a separate post. St Patrick’s is short on celebrity burials but St Mary’s is packed with worthies and luminaries of every stripe from Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte, philologist nephew of Napoleon, to Sax Rohmer the creator of  Dr Fu Manchu, to England’s most popular ever drag artist Danny La Rue and Mary Seacole, the Jamaican born nurse who opened the British Hotel in Balaclava during the Crimean War. 


Unsurprisingly St Mary’s has more than its fair share of significant religious figures buried in the cemetery. In 1850 Pope Pius IX issued the Papal Bull known as Universalis Ecclesiae which re-established the catholic hierarchy in England and Wales after its 300 year abolition following the reformation. The first two Archbishops of Westminster in the newly re-established church, Cardinal Wiseman (1850-1865) and Cardinal Manning (1875-1892), were both buried at St Mary’s but then exhumed in 1907 and reinterred in the more eminent surroundings of the newly completed Westminster Cathedral. The cemetery also lost the body of Margaret Sinclair, a Scottish Poor Clair nun from the convent in North Kensington, declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI on 06 February 1978. Despite pressure from her devotees for her canonisation the requisite couple of verified miracles have never materialised. She spent just a couple of years buried in St Mary’s before she was dug up and shipped to Mount Vernon Cemetery in Edinburgh where she was reburied ‘during a storm of wind and rain’ according to the Aberdeen Press on 23 December 1927. Catholics find it hard to leave their saints alone – Margaret was dug up again in 2003 and removed to the Parish church of St Patrick in Edinburgh. At least her remains remain together; in previous centuries they may well have been broken up and the relics shared around a number of churches and other religious sites hoping to drum up more custom from the faithful.

Because St Mary’s is consecrated ground I was surprised to see newspaper stories about the funeral s of suicide victims in the cemetery. The Gloucester Citizen of 12 November 1932 related the mysterious tale of “Fraulein Ernestine Koestler, the 23-year old Viennese girl who shot herself in the boat train at Victoria Station on Tuesday.” When she was buried at St Mary’s “resting on the coffin was a solitary wreath of a hundred red rosebuds without any inscription, and a brass crucifix. Immediately behind the hearse was a car, the sole occupants being Mr. Ernest R. Treatwell, of Sheldon-avenue, Highgate, who was a prominent witness the inquest, and a young man friend.” Another story in the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 19 December 1934 was about the funeral of ‘mystery bachelor’ (according to the headline) 26 year old John Beresford of Hanover Square who had also committed suicide. At the inquest into his death the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind – perhaps it was this that allowed him to be buried in St Mary’s? According to the newspaper less than a dozen people were in attendance at the funeral service at the Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street. The funeral had been arranged by a firm of solicitors after Beresford had written in his suicide note that ‘no doubt someone will come forward with an offer to bury me…’ There were four wreaths at the altar rail but only one of them had a card “From Mr and Mrs Sykes and Bagshot.” The newspaper explained that “Bagshot was the parrot about whose welfare the dead man left a letter addressed to the manager of the flats…… Only six People were present at the graveside when the interment took place at St Mary's Cemetery, Kensal Green. The burial was carried out in accordance with the dead man's last wishes, that it should be done with simplicity in a quiet place.” Bagshot was too distressed to comment, apparently.

On Monday 26 April 1915 there were extraordinary scenes at the cemetery when 7 year Maggie Nally was buried. Maggie had been sexually assaulted and murdered in the ladies toilet at Aldersgate Underground Station (since renamed Barbican) on Easter Sunday. The funeral cortege set off from the family home in Amberley Road, Paddington, said the Daily Record and “in the thousands of people who had collected women preponderated, but there was also a large number of children of all ages. The crowds stood ten deep on either side of the road, and in many cases bad waited for more than an hour in the hot sun. Amberley Road every window was filled with people, who watched the carrying of the little coffin from the door to the hearse. The bearers were four members of the Army Service Corps, dressed in their khaki uniforms. There were many people even on 'the roofs of the houses and that of the factory opposite the child's home. Two mounted policemen and a dozen officers on foot kept passage free for the procession. Many women brought small bunches flowers to the house in the last half-hour before the funeral started. It was noticeable, too, that a number of the women among the crowd wore some sign of mourning, even if it were only a black veil. The departure from the house w as delayed for some time as the large number wreaths, many of which only arrived when the funeral was ready to leave. They completely covered the hearse and the tops of the two mourning coaches.” This was in the middle of the First World war but serving soldiers forgot about their own horrors to write and telegraph their sympathies to the family. Private John Coates of the Northumberland Fusiliers, wounded in Belgium and recuperating in the Royal Infirmary Manchester sent a pencil sketch of the girl and a letter to her parents “ Dear Mr. and Mrs. Nally, I hope you not think bad in taking the liberty of sending you sketch of your child, but I have done it with the best of motives.” And “Corporal Cvril Howland, of the Army Service Corps, enclosed in a letter from Somewhere in France a postal order to buy a wreath, and card with the words: From the front. With deep and sincere sympathy, from Corporal E, C. Rowland. A.S.C. British Expeditionary Force. For a little angel' In a letter he asked that this card might placed on Maggie’s grave.” And then there was the  telegram that “came from a number of bluejackets on warship somewhere off the west coast of Ireland, expressing the deepest sympathy, but the name of the ship had been deleted the Censor. At the graveside, where Mrs. Nally was almost in a state of collapse. Canon Windham appealed to the man who had committed the crime confess. said Let him one manly deed and give himself to justice.” Canon Windham was wasting his breath of course, the murderer never confessed and the police never caught him.  

On 24 August 1896 John Aitkin, the victim of the ‘Marylebone Coffee House Tragedy’ was buried in front of a large crowd at St Mary’s despite the unseasonably wet weather. John owned and managed a coffee shop at 71 Marylebone Lane, Oxford Street. In his sober hours, the Illustrated Police News revealed, his main hobby was the breeding and keeping of fancy rabbits. His sober hours were few and far between though as Aitkin had been ‘addicted to drink’ since catching sunstroke in India whilst in the army. On the 19th August the police had been called to the coffee shop where they found Aitkin bleeding profusely from a wound in the neck. When asked what had happened he told the police that “I annoyed my wife. It is not her fault. I did it myself with a knife." He died half an hour later and the police arrested his 71 year old wife Emma on suspicion of murder. The post-mortem revealed that Aitkin’s carotid artery had been neatly severed in two and a distraught Emma confessed to the police that during an argument with her inebriated husband she had picked up a knife and flung it at him from across the room, never expecting to hurt him, let alone sever his neck from 16 feet away. She had a better aim that she imagined though clearly her husband forgave her as he tried to take the blame onto himself.    

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Tombstones of Old Leyton: St Mary the Virgin churchyard, Leyton

THOUGH the Churchyard is by no means a large one, it is yet much larger than it was, having been added to from time to time. It is doubtless this necessity for enlargement that has robbed it of any really old tomb stones, all that remain being comparatively modern, and not of any remarkable interest…..The earliest date seems to be 1705.
John Kennedy ‘A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex’ 1894

Although considerable efforts have gone into cleaning it up over the last few years St Mary’s still has one of the untidiest churchyards I’ve seen in London. Until relatively recently the place was overgrown with shrubs, brambles and ivy to the point of being almost impenetrable in places. Drug addicts used the undergrowth as a screen from prying eyes and thorns and spines on the brambles were much less of a hazard than broken glass and discarded needles to anyone braving the scrub to try and find a grave. The rampant flora also toppled graves and pulled down memorials, often aided and abetted by local gangs of youths with nothing better to do. But the Friends of St Mary’s churchyard and the Leyton History Society cleaned the burial ground up, clearing out much of the undergrowth and hopefully stacking the parts of toppled memorials together as though one day someone might go to the bother of reconstructing them. Although the mounds of carefully sorted rubble do give the unfortunate impression of a bomb site the churchyard is now a relatively pleasant place to spend time in, a secluded oasis in the centre of Leyton. So pleasant in fact that the street drinkers have now abandoned their former refuge in the park and now congregate with their cans of cheap yet potent Polish lager at the back of the church.
John Kennedy, the author of ‘A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex’ was the vicar of St Catherine’s in Leytonstone, opened in 1893 on Hainault Road.  His own church had no burial ground and his dismissive account of St Mary’s churchyard may be coloured by the tinge of envy. As London churchyards go it is relatively large and there are currently two listed monuments, the Tench and Moyer memorials; at the time Kennedy was writing Sir John Soane’s memorial for Samuel Bosanquet hadn’t succumbed to hooliganism and Sir Thomas Bladen’s sarcophagus was still standing on the path behind the alms houses….. ‘not of any remarkable interest’ indeed! Even his earliest dated tombstone is wrong – set in the outside wall of the church is what must have once been a freestanding headstone embellished with a skull belonging to 70 year old Mr Gilbert Kennedy (not a relation of the vicar of St Catherine’s as far as we know)) who had died on February the 20th 1693.

On Saturday 27 May 1905 the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser carried an intriguing article on another lost monument:
THE STRANGE MONUMENT. The Strange vault in Leyton Pariah Churchyard has been opened, and many have had the opportunity of going inside to see the twelve coffins there, including that of Sir John Srange, Master of the Rolls, who died in 1754. The woodwork of this coffin has entirely disappeared. The names of the deceased are being engraved on the outside of the tomb. A gentleman in the City, interested in Leyton, has contributed E2O towards the expense.
Sir John Strange who, according to John T. Page in his ‘Epitaphs, curious, notable and historical” (which, as far as I can tell, remains unpublished except as excerpts in newspapers of the early 1900’s) “started his career as a solicitor’s clerk carrying his master’s bag to Westminster - and finished as Master of the Rolls.” Strange’s supposed epitaph is still well known and frequently makes the sort of lists and collections of unusual arcana that find so welcoming a home on the internet (‘Funny Epitaphs From History’ ’10 Most Hilarious Tombstone Epitaphs’ Examples of Funny and Bizarre Epitaphs’ etc). Sir John’s ‘most hilarious’ epitaph is:
“Here lies an honest lawyer, that is Strange.”
The fact that this is still in the top ten of most amusing epitaphs almost 300 years after it was written underlines the generally low standard of graveyard humour. When they bother to mention where he is buried most accounts claim that Sir John is buried in the Rolls Chapel. This is not true, he is most definitely buried in Leyton. Neither the inscription on his grave in the churchyard nor his memorial inside the church (which is written in Latin) bears the famous epitaph, which seems to be an early example of an urban myth.     

There has been a church on the site of St Mary’s since at least 1200 when it was granted along with the rest of the manorial holdings to Stratford Abbey. For many years it was a poor Essex parish with the vicarage worth a mere 40 shillings a year in 1254, rising to £7 12s in 1535 and just £30 in 1604. The value of the living then didn’t rise at all for the best part of 60 years, making it difficult for the parish to recruit a clergyman. By 1669 the parishioners had to raid their own pockets to find £69 a year to add to the £30 living to secure the services of the parish’s most famous incumbent, the antiquary  John Strype, who died at the age of 94 in Hackney in 1724 but being brought back to Leyton to be buried.  In the 18th century Leyton’s combination of bucolic charm and proximity to London made it a favoured location for country seats amongst the merchants and bankers of the city; the population of the village and the relative wealth of its clergyman exponentially expanded as a result. By the 1760’s the existing churchyard was too small to comfortably accommodate the increased number of burials produced by a burgeoning population. 

The vestry minutes of 1762 record an approach to Colonel Gansell to see whether he would be willing to sell the freehold of “a piece of the garden ground belonging to the Workhouse, not less than 80 feet in length, & the whole width for the enlargement of the Churchyard,” to which Colonel Gansell’s response was, yes. (This may well have been the same piece of ground, adjacent to the churchyard on which Colonel Gansell’s father, in 1718, “on the occasion of enlarging his garden… dug up two acres of ground, and found under the whole very large and strong foundations : in one place all of stone with considerable arches, and an arched doorway (about ten feet high and six feet wide) ornamented with mouldings, with steps down to it: in many of the foundations there were great quantities of Roman tiles and bricks.” Gansell senior on ordering a pond to be dug also discovered “some old timber morticed together like a floor was discovered, with several Roman coins, Consular and Imperial, and some silver Saxon coins.” Some time previously, John Kennedy tells us, “a large urn of coarse red earth had been found” in the churchyard itself.). Over the next fifty years the vestry acquired further parcels of land including a row of cottages and the gardens of the alms houses, which were incorporated into the churchyard. There were no further opportunities for enlarging the churchyard but the local population continued to grow exponentially as the former village was gradually absorbed by the monstrously swelling capital. The vestry made the best use it could of every square inch of ground but the churchyard inevitably soon became filled to capacity. By 1896 the Borough council passed a closure order prohibiting ‘forthwith and entirely’ any further burials within the parish church and the churchyard.

In February 1928 the Reverend James Glass and Stewart Wilkins, the sexton of St Mary’s, were summonsed by Leyton Borough Council for carrying out an illegal burial in the churchyard. The case was unusual enough to attract national attention when the startled vicar found himself in the dock at Stratford Police Court accused under the Burial Act 1855 of permitting a burial in unauthorised ground. The court was told that it had come to the notice of the council that burials were going on at the churchyard and in July the previous year they had written to the vicar who had replied with a promise that it would not happen again. On September 30 a Corporation superintendent had carried an impromptu inspection and “saw in the churchyard an open grave, and part of coffin exposed. He saw a pick or fork sticking into it, the lid was off, and the contents were covered with mould” (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 23 February 1928). The grave had been dug to accommodate a Mr Frank Fox, late of High Road Leyton, who was originally from Sheffield but had relative already buried in the churchyard. His widow had begged the sexton to find a place for her husband and the ever helpful Mr Wilkins had done just that. The Reverend Glass’s lawyer claimed that the vicar had been away for the three days during which the burial had been arranged and had only arrived home when the funeral was about to take place. He said the vicar had not accepted any fee for carrying out the burial service. When the sexton was called to the witness box he admitted to having received £10 1 shilling from Mrs Fox of which 1 guinea was paid to the vicar for his burial fee and the rest paid out to the gravediggers or on other disbursements. The Police Magistrate fined the vicar and the sexton £5 each and 10 guineas costs. As neither of them committed any further offences against the Burial Act 1855 Frank Fox became the last person to be interred in the churchyard.