Friday 30 November 2018

The Ninon Michaelis Memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery

The Michaelis memorial was the first monument that really caught my eye in Kensal Green Cemetery on my first ever visit, and therefore the first one that I ever photographed. The reason for so many firsts is that it is the first substantial monument you reach walking along Centre Avenue from the main gate on Harrow Road. The figure of a grieving woman with the naked and rather sensual shoulders is executed with great skill and is clearly not the work of your average stonemason. I took a couple of photos of the memorial that day but despite passing it countless times since, and often stopping to look at it, I’ve never tried to get a better shot. Nor did I bother trying to find out who the memorial belonged to.

Henry Alfred Pegram at work in his studio
on a bust of Sir Cecil Rhodes
When I was at Golders Green crematorium the other week I left the shelter of the covered arcades and went out into the rain to look again at Henry Alfred Pegram’s striking bronze statue Into the Silent Land.  It is definitely worth getting wet for. Pegram was born in London in 1862 and studied at the West London School of Art. He became a Royal Academician in 1922 and died at his home in Hampstead in 1937. He was a professional sculptor who produced numerous public statues; his work can be found all over the UK and as far afield as Cape Town (statue of Cecil Rhodes) and Shanghai (Sir Robert Hart). As Into the Silent Land clearly shows, he was particularly good with the female form; his nudes are often unashamedly erotic.  The Crematorium was presented with the statue in 1937 by the Royal Society of Arts, presumably at Pegram’s suggestion, to commemorate his cremation that year.

It was only when I was researching Golders Green that I discovered that the Michaelis memorial was also by Pegram.  According to Historic England “the monument was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1901 before being placed on the plot on 10 August 1903. Notes in the ledger of the General Cemetery Company state that 'Maximilian Michaelis paid £320 for the plot; the monument was a figure memorial 12 feet high; and...weighed five to six tons'.” Sir Max Michaelis was a German born, possibly Jewish, financier and diamond magnate with extensive business interests in South Africa. The 34 year old business man married 22 year old Ninon Rydon at St Georges Hanover Square  in October 1886. She died less than 10 years later at the age of 31 of pneumonia and alcoholism whilst her husband was in South Africa. There were no children. Sir Max later remarried and had two daughters and a son with his second wife Lilian Elizabeth, (née Michaels)  who outlived him by almost a  half-a-century.  Sir Max was a dedicated collector and patron of the arts; he purchased the Lane collection in 1914 and left it to the South African nation where it is now known as the Michaelis Collection and is on permanent display at the Old Town House in Cape Town. 

Friday 23 November 2018

A unusual morning out: Golders Green Crematorium, Hoop Lane, NW11

Into The Silent Land (1910) by Henry Alfred Pegram, presented to Golders Green Crematorium in 1936

At the end of October I had planned a day out in Finchley taking photos in the two big cemeteries up there. The weather forecast had been promising wall to wall sunshine for most of the week and then with less than 24 hours notice the meteorologists changed their minds and said that the morning would be overcast with intermittent bouts of heavy precipitation (rain to you and me).  I love cemeteries but I hate trying to photograph anything in the rain. I decided I needed something to do inside until the sun was scheduled to reappear in the early afternoon. Golders Green Crematorium is a 30 minute walk away from the St Marylebone Cemetery in Finchley and I had wanted to visit the columbaria there for some time. When I checked access arrangements they seemed pretty casual – turn up at the crematorium office and ask to see them, no advance appointment required. It seemed worth a try.
The crematorium was designed by Sir Ernest George and Alfred Yates in Lombardic style and built in stages between 1902 and 1939. It was the first crematorium opened in London and more than 350,000 cremations have taken place here
That morning was as overcast and rainy as the forecasters had promised as I trudged my way up the hill from the tube station to the crematorium. I took a few pictures under the portico (dodging the funeral parties – there were at least three cremations that morning) and then presented myself at the office to ask if there was any chance of seeing the columbarium. The receptionist looked a little dubious and checked with her colleague, “Doesn’t Eric have appointments this morning?” The colleague shrugged noncommittally so Eric was called on his mobile. He did have appointments, with some gentlemen from Oxford University who wanted to visit the remains of a Georgian nationalist kept in the columbarium. He could fit me in later I was told, if I didn’t mind coming back at midday. I passed an hour or so in Golders Green Jewish Cemetery which handily lies just across Hoop Lane from the Crematorium. Jewish cemeteries are a bit dull, particularly under persistent drizzle, and I wandered the endless rows of plain gravestones (the Ashkenazi half of the cemetery has vertical headstones, the Sephardi half, flat ledgers) trying unsuccessfully to find something interesting to photograph. At 11.45 I crossed the road back to the crematorium and waited a few minutes in the office until Eric came to collect me.       

I may be guilty of stereotyping but I expected a crematorium employee to be at the very least lugubrious, quite likely sombre and perhaps even positively funereal. Eric Willis turned out to be a breezy, energetic 70 year old with a noticeable Lancastrian accent and apparently boundless enthusiasm for his place of employment. He does dress in black, but that is his only concession to his profession.He presented me with a card which described him as being in the Maintenance Department of the crematorium and as a historian; his ostensible day job is keeping the fabric of the building in working order but he seems to spend much of his time operating as a de facto tour guide. As I was to discover his tours are conducted with almost apostolic fervour;  he is determined to convince you that every grisly rumour you have heard about cremation is untrue. If his plumbing is as good as his guiding, he is an excellent all rounder. He started his tour by sounding me out about what my interest in the crematorium was. I was only expecting to see the columbarium but didn’t mind starting the tour by being ushered into one of the wood panelled chapels where Eric showed me the cross, crescent moon and star of David altar pieces that are kept stowed behind a curtain to be used according to the religious affiliations of the deceased. He pointed out the rollers discretely hidden by the table top on which the coffin is placed during the service. Much to my surprise he opened the door of the chapel to take me into the back and show me the other half of the table, cut off from the chapel by a curtain hanging across a hatch. At the appropriate moment of the service the electric rollers are set into motion and the coffin glides smoothly through the curtain and into the back.  
Memorial plaque of Charles Montagu Doughty, author of Travels in Arabia Deserta

“There are the doors to the original ovens,” Eric said, nodding at what looked like a wood panelled wall, before taking me round the corner and adding “the new ovens are here.” This I was not expecting, to be so casually allowed into the business end of the crematorium. All three furnaces were in operation and a coffin stood on a gurney patiently waiting for one to be vacated. Eric who carries a thick folder of diagrams, print outs, and press cuttings with him at all times, opened it to show me an illustration of the inner workings of a cremation furnace and explain how the oven is preheated to 850 degrees centigrade before the coffin is slipped in. He fishes in his trouser pocket and produces a small photo album which he flips open to show a snap shot of a coffin bursting into flames the moment it enters the furnace. He shows me more photos of the cremation process, coffin burnt away to reveal the dark outline of the occupant, occupant reduced to black skeleton, black skeleton reduced to cremains - calcined bone fragments and not much else. Eric put his photo album back into his pocket and glanced at the waiting coffin. “Chipboard,” he said knowledgably, the giveaway he told me was that there were no coffin handles, chipboard not being strong enough to support the weight of a human body on screwed handles. We walked around to the other side of the furnaces where Eric glanced in at a small porthole. “That ones nearly done,” he said, inviting me to take a peek. It took a second or two to realise that I was looking at a blackened skeleton engulfed in flames. The head was pointing towards me so that I was looking at the top of the skull, beyond which I could see the rib cage. It felt quite natural to be looking, not remotely ghoulish. There was something quite comforting about it, almost cosy and for the first time ever I began to feel that perhaps cremation isn’t such a bad way to dispose of our mortal remains. I stood chatting to Eric for a few more minutes before he took another glance into the porthole. “Oh, the skull’s gone,” he said, making way for me to have a look. He showed me where the calcined bone falls through the grilled floor of the furnace into a metal container. Once the cremation process is finished and the furnace cooled any remaining bones are carefully swept into the container as well.

The 'new' Columbarium 

To produce the fine white ash that most of us think of as the end product of the cremation process the calcined bone has to be ground into powder. This is done in a cremulator, a machine that looks like an old fashioned heavy duty spin dryer, the type that opens from the top rather than the side. Inside the perforated drum are a couple of dozen extremely heavy stainless steel balls (heavy enough to break your toe if you were clumsy enough to drop one on it). The bone is added to the drum and the machine churns bone and steel together for ten minutes or so, reducing it to a powder as white and fine as sifted flour. From there the ash is transferred to a labelled plastic container and shelved while it waits to be collected by the funeral director, who will bring along the urn chosen by the family as the final receptacle. Eric suddenly remembered there was a step in the process before the cremulator. There is one other element to a cremation, other than bone, that won’t burn, metal. This is usually coffin nails but occasionally there is something else metallic actually inside the body being burnt, generally knee or hip replacements. These are removed from the bone remains with a powerful magnet; Eric pulled it out of its guard and waved it around like a light sabre. He then showed me a dusty box of artificial knee joints and other bits and pieces that had been recently removed from various cremains, including the metal skeleton of a teddy bear.
The West columbarium

There was something very reassuring about Eric’s tour behind the scenes. I was impressed by the crematoriums openness; there were no dirty secrets here, not in a place where they were willing to let total strangers wander in and see the whole process at work. And Eric does excellent public relations for the cremation business, it is no wonder that his bosses allow him to down tools and show anyone interested around. From the crematorium Eric showed me around the columbaria. Golders Green has three; the west columbarium is a three storey Romanesque tower completed in 1902 whose most visited occupant is Bram Stoker and there is an east and new columbarium. Eric is happy to show you around all three and introduce you to some of its more famous remains which include Sigmund Freud and Anna Pavlova. As we stood chatting outside I asked him how long he had worked for the crematorium. About twenty years he told. He had originally come to London in 1968 from his hometown of B……,(now I can’t actually remember where in Lancashire Eric is from, somewhere beginning with B, but apart from Manchester and Lancaster, everywhere in Lancashire begins with B so that isn’t much help, Bury, Bolton, Burnley, Blackburn, Blackpool, Bacup, one of those) accompanying his wife whose brother who was a private detective and wanted her to work as his secretary to her. Eric was a plumber and had no trouble finding work but when he was made redundant in the late nineties he fancied a change and took a job in maintenance at the crematorium. His boss was responsible for the guided tours at that point but when he went off sick Eric found himself expected, at very short notice, to take over. It was sink or swim but Eric found himself taking to it like a duck to water. He should have retired years ago but he loves job and he loves the crematorium so much that he can’t bring himself to give it up. He is very proud of what he does “google me”, he said, “I have friends all round the world because of this job.” Google him, it’s true, he does. He showed me press clippings from German newspapers, emails from people who came once and still stay in touch with him years later, print outs of blogs and visitor reviews that all have nothing but praise for him. At one point we were discussing the Philipson Mausoleum which stands in the crematorium grounds. He flicked through his folder to a print out of a web article. The wording looked familiar but I still had to read a whole paragraph to realise they were mine. “I wrote that!” I told him. He wasn’t as excited as I was, in fact he didn’t seem at all impressed by the coincidence. Still, I couldn’t hold it against him. He have me the best morning out I’ve had for years. Thank you Eric.    

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; Shrouds of the Somme by Rob Heard, Queen Elizabeth Park, Stratford, 8-18 November, 2018

When I went to see the ‘Shrouds of the Somme’ at the Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford on a wet and blustery November afternoon I expected to have the place to myself. Surely no one else would abandon the warmth and bright lights of consumer paradise Westfield Stratford City and brave rain and sleet to venture out into the fast fading light at the start of a Saturday evening? I was wrong. There were a lot of people there, well wrapped up in overcoats and anoraks, hoods pulled up over their heads, umbrellas facing into the keen wind, and mobiles in hand to record the experience as they inched their way around the 72, 396 diminutive shrouded figures laid out on the lawn in front of the ArcelorMittal Orbit. From loudspeakers a voice intoned the names of the dead in alphabetical order, giving their rank and sometimes their age; when I arrived they had just started on the names beginning with B and when I left 40 minutes later they still hadn’t got past the Cs. The 12 inch figures, representing the missing British and Commonwealth dead from the Battle of the Somme, those whose bodies were never recovered or identified and who are listed on the Thiepval Memorial in Picardy, were laid out in neat, evenly spaced rows by members of the Royal Anglican Regiment and volunteers last week. They will remain there until the 18th November when the soldiers will patiently gather them up again to be sold at £35 each in aid of charity.
The man responsible for Shrouds of the Somme is Somerset artist Rob Heard. In December 2013 Rob started a project called 19240 by producing 500 prototype 12 inch figures, wrapped and bound in a hand stitched calico shroud. The plan was to eventually produce 19,240 of them, one for each of the commonwealth soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. With his 500 prototypes Rob was able to attract enough funding to complete the project which was exhibited, to mark the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Somme, at Northernhay Gardens in Exeter from 1st July 2016. No one was expecting the strength of the public reaction to the installation; over 60,000 people came to see it, many laid flowers, some prayed and others cried. When one of the visitors talked to Rob about his great uncle, who had been of the dead from the first day of the battle but whose body had never been recovered, he planted the idea that eventually produced the Shrouds of the Somme. Rob produced all the figures himself; “It was very important that one person created these figures, that it didn’t become a factory line,” he said, “that person just happened to be me. One day I wasn’t making them and the next I was, and once I had started I couldn’t stop.” 
The Lost Lives exhibition is also on show at the Queen Elizabeth Park (see photo above). It commemorates the fallen of the First World War with one shrouded figure for each of the 1561 days of the war alongside a small plaque which records the actual number of dead that day. As with the shrouds installation the public add items to the exhibition including crosses giving the name and other details of a dead soldier stuck into the ground on the plaque giving the date of their death.

The hundredth anniversary of the Armistice seems to have struck some collective chord, at least in the UK, and quite possibly elsewhere. In Paris sixty world leaders gathered together to be lectured by President Macron for 20 minutes on the lessons they should learn from the First World War. Unlike me and everyone else at the Shrouds of the Somme President Trump felt unable to defy the elements and struggle through the rain for a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Military cemetery though to be fair we hadn’t had our spirits sapped by having to listen to a speech by President Macron. The experience seems to have finally opened a rift between the two leaders who previously seemed to be doing their best to be supportive of each other. As usual whenever he is caught out doing anything faintly embarrassing Trump’s reaction was to compound the offense on Twitter, telling the French they were having to learn to speak German before the US intervened in both world wars to save them.  

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Death on the Highway, 1914 - the Melesi Mausoleum, St Pancras & Islington Cemetery

Never completely trust anything you read on the internet, however unimpeachable the source might seem. The Mausolea & Monuments Trust website told me that this Mausoleum had been built by Gaetano Melesi in 1913 after his wife Letizia had been run over by a taxicab in “the first motor accident”. Other sources informed me that the accident had happened in Holborn. Unusually Gaetano decided that his wife’s funerary monument should memorialise the manner in which she had died. The artist responsible for the marble relief on the panel to the left of the door seems to have not had even a basic grasp of narrative sequence as it shows Letizia already prostrate on the floor behind her dropped handbag with the taxi that has presumably just knocked her down still approaching from the rear, its helmeted and goggled driver, open mouthed and hunched over the steering wheel,  waving his left  arm frantically in a futile attempt to ward off an accident that has already happened. A benign angel hovers over the scene waiting to accompany Letizia to heaven. We see her ascent to paradise in the panel on the right side of the door where Gaetano kneels in prayer in front  of a representation of the mausoleum itself (which must mean, that if you look at the right hand panel on the representation of the Mausoleum, you will see replicated in miniature, the same panel, with Gaetano kneeling in front of the mausoleum, in which the right hand panel will replicate, even more minutely, Gaetano kneeling in front of the mausoleum in which the right hand panel….. and so on, ad infinitum, in an infinite regression).     

The ur-motor accident should have been noteworthy enough to make the newspapers I thought. A quick search of an online archive soon dispelled the notion that there was anything original about Letizia Melesi’s accident. Road traffic accidents involving pedestrians were, as we shall see, a relatively common occurrence from the early years of the twentieth century. The first pedestrian killed in the UK by a petrol driven motor vehicle was 44 year old Bridget Driscoll, who was knocked down visiting the Crystal Palace in Sydenham in August 1896. Although there was some dispute concerning the speed at which the car which killed Bridget was travelling, the engine had been modified to stop it exceeding a top speed of 8mph. The driver claimed to have been travelling at half that. Just a few weeks before this first fatal accident the law had been changed allowing cars to travel at a maximum 14mph; previously the upper speed limit had been 4 mph in the country and 2mph in urban areas. The new speed limit ushered in the age of motorised carnage that we live in today.

The only fatal accident in Holborn in 1913 involving a pedestrian and a taxi that I could find in the newspapers occurred on Monday 14 July. According to the Pall Mall Gazette  ‘William Edward Minty, thirty-six, a taxi cab driver, of Camden-street, Islington, was charged at Bow-street with the manslaughter of an elderly woman named Fanny Braider, a barrister’s laundress, living at Theobalds -road, Holborn.’  The cab had been driven into a hand cart being pushed along the road by Alfred Waring, a porter of White Cross Place, Finsbury. Waring was sent flying and the handcart was knocked onto the pavement where it fell on Fanny Braider. According to Waring immediately before the collision Minty had been driving with his “head hanging over the steering wheel, as though he were asleep.” The cab driver took Waring and Fanny Braider to the London Homeopathic Hospital but the elderly woman later died of her injuries. My searches revealed no trace of an accident involving anyone called Melesi in 1913, or even 1914, which is actually the year, according to the inscription on the mausoleum, that Letizia died. The only reference I found to Letizia in the newspapers was a notice of her marriage to Gaetano in the Cork Examiner of Thursday 02 May 1901;

Melesi – Sessarego  April 27th, at St. Colman’s Cathedral, Queenstown, by the Rev M' Higgins, PP Castletownroche, Gaetano Melesi, of Ballabio, Lecco, Italy, to Letizia (Lettie), third daughter of Joseph  Sessarego,  Queenstown.

An article in the Winter 2013 edition of Mausolus (the Mausolea & Monuments Trust’s magazine) gives more accurate details of the mausoleum than the Trust’s main website. We learn for example that it was actually built in 1922, that Letizia died on 11 January 1914 and it makes no claim to her fatal accident being the first motor related death. While there are no contemporary accounts of Letizia’s accident the article gives a family version from Angela King, passed down from Helena Sessarego who was Letizia’s sister and Angela’s grandmother. Angela says the two sisters were very close and that Helena was the matchmaker responsible for Letizia’s marriage to Gaetano.  “A few days before Letizia's death they visited a fortune teller,” Angela writes, “the woman refused to tell Letizia's fortune and insisted on refunding her fee. Both my great aunt and my grandmother had thought this very amusing. Later that week, they both went to confession. As they came out of church, Letizia said goodbye to Helena, turned and fell and was run over by the taxi. My mother said Letizia had a magnificent funeral with black horses wearing white plumes and a black carriage with a mass of wreaths on top. I think looking at the mausoleum it was believed that she went straight to heaven. She appears to be borne aloft by angels. As she'd just been to confession she would be in a state of grace and free from sin.”

Depictions of motor accidents are unusual enough to have earned the Melesi Mausoleum Grade II listed status but fatal accidents involving pedestrians were already sickeningly common in 1914. On Saturday 24 October the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette opened an account of an accident on Bath Road; “the ugly dangers of motor traffic were again experienced near Colnbrook on Sunday afternoon. About 4.30 a gentleman and lady were walking on the side of the road near the 18th mile stone, where there is no footpath, when two motor cars came along behind them, and the hindermost, in attempting to pass the other, ran into the gentleman. The mudguard of the car appears to have twisted him round suddenly and his head was evidently struck violently by a portion of the car, whereby a gash of three inches was made across the forehead and a depressed fracture of the frontal bone. Fortunately, Silas Birch, of Pleasant Place, Langley, was near by and able to render first aid.”  The fortunate intervention of Silas Birch seems not to have been of any long term benefit to the the injured gentleman; he was taken to the King Edward VII Hospital in Windsor where he “passed away early on Tuesday morning”.  

It was the young and the elderly that seemed to have most trouble dealing with the dangers posed by the new fangled motor car as it roared around the streets of London at 10mph. As in Letizia’s case, taxis were often the culprit. On 06 February,  52 year old Emma Ellen Sayers, wife of Captain Robert Sayers of 91 Palewell Park, East Sheen, was killed changing omnibuses on Hammersmith Broadway when struck down by a passing lorry.  Ten days later 5 year old Richard Berry was knocked down and killed by a taxi cab as he crossed Tottenham High Road.  8 year old John Thomas Kempton of 16 Mardale Street, Shepherds Bush was killed on the afternoon of Saturday 28 March, by a car travelling at 9 or 10 miles an hour on Goldhawk Road as he raced across the street to spend a halfpenny his mother had given him to buy sweets.  On 09 April 9 year old Charles Thomas Deade of 3 Bennett Street, Chiswick was run over by a van belonging to Steinway Pianos in front of the Police Station on Chiswick High Road. According to witnesses the van ‘passed right over his head’.  A month later an unknown woman of around 70 was knocked down by a taxi cab on Chiswick Road fracturing her skull and later died of her injuries. 48 year old Martha Baker of 10 Woodlawn Road, Fulham, was knocked down by a taxicab on 10 September  at 11.15 at night in King Street Hammersmith. She was taken to hospital and treated for scalp injuries before being discharged home where she died the following Tuesday.  On 20 October 14 year old butchers boy Leonard Pryke was knocked off his bicycle and under the wheels of a LGO omnibus on the London Road, Norbury, by a car driven by an unnamed lady. He was taken to Croydon General Hospital  where he was found to have sustained a fractured left humerus, bruised chest, fractured ribs on the left side, and concussion of the brain. He died soon after five o'clock the same day.

The most unlikely accident of 1914 happened on 29 June on Holborn Viaduct. 23 year old Doris Emily Hawkes was hurrying across the viaduct when she found her way obstructed by a large crowd of concerned onlookers which had gathered around a small boy who had just been knocked down by a car. The boy’s injuries were thankfully not fatal. Doris quite naturally paused at the edge of the crowd to see what was happening and perhaps failed to notice that she was standing in the roadway.  As she craned to see over the heads in front of her she would not have been aware that Dr Langdon Brown of Welbeck Street was being driven at a reckless speed of 12 miles per hour by his chauffeur along the viaduct on his way to his job as a consultant in St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The chauffeur may well have been distracted by the sight of the crowd but he certainly did not see Doris;  surely he would not have run her over if he had? After driving over the hapless girl Dr Langdon Brown ordered his chauffeur to stop and put her in the back seat. They were already on their way to hospital after all. For some reason he refused to accept responsibility for the small boy mown down earlier by another vehicle Alas urgent medical attention failed to save her life and Doris died of her injuries the same day.