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.    

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