Thursday 27 June 2019

There's a Home for Little Children - West Ham Cemetery, Cemetery Road, E7

Edith Ledingham's memorial was raised by public subscription

When asked to think of burial places in the capital the like of Highgate and Kensal Green are the most likely to spring to mind, but in the interests of honesty it has to be conceded that most London cemeteries are relatively small, scenically dull and in terms of their monuments and memorials, unremarkable. The affluent, the important, the powerful, those with any degree of celebrity at all, are likely to be buried in one of the magnificent 7 or in a handful of later rivals but the vast majority of London’s population, the hoi polloi who pass their lives toiling in unnoticed anonymity, are more likely to be buried somewhere utterly undistinguished, like West Ham Cemetery.

Like many of its counterparts across London the West Ham Burial Board was set up following the passing of the first of the Metropolitan Burial Act’s in 1852. The cautious alderman of the borough took their time acquiring 12 acres of land from local philanthropist Samuel Gurney, advertising the tender in 12 newspapers and writing to 10 local land agents before settling on a flat and barren site in the far north of the borough. The West Ham Cemetery opened in 1857 and was later enlarged; its 20 acres now lie contained within a 10 foot high brick perimeter wall adjacent to the 10 and a half acres of the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery is now owned by the London Borough of Newham and is still a working burial ground. In London Cemeteries Hugh Meller notes that “it is apparent that little regard was paid to the landscaping potential [of the site], good drainage and cost being considered more important. Thus West Ham is remarkable more for its lack of distinctive features than anything else.”  It is true that to the casual observer the cemetery contains little of interest, no impressive monuments, no well known burials and only a few trees punctuating the rather bleak prospect. But some at least of the rather ordinary memorials do have interesting stories to tell.  

The most impressive memorial in the cemetery (there isn’t much competition it has to be said) belongs to Edith Ledingham. The monument was raised by public subscription, over 5000 people contributing to the £50 cost of the terracotta tablet set in Portland stone showing a small child seeking comfort from a diaphanously draped woman. Edith was the steward of the SS Iona, a passenger ship which caught fire while docked at Limehouse in September 1895. She died saving a child from the flames and was hailed as a heroine as a result. The Edinburgh Evening News of 21 September 1895 reported that the “funeral of the stewardess took place yesterday afternoon at West Ham Cemetery in the presence of a sympathetic assembly. It was at first intended to make a start from the Custom House, where the parents of the deceased reside, but with a view avoid any crush, the funeral met at the undertaker's premises, High Street, Poplar. The coffin, elm, bore the following inscription: Edith Mary Ledingham. Died 16th September, aged 21. The principal mourners were the mother and sister of the deceased.” Edith was initially buried in a public grave, presumably because her family could not afford a private one but 10 months after the funeral she was exhumed and moved to a private plot as memorials were not allowed on public graves.   

Researching the history of Margravine Cemetery in Hammersmith I had been astonished at the stories of dead babies found abandoned in the cemetery by the staff, something I hadn’t come across at other cemeteries. Trawling through newspaper archives for mentions of West Ham cemetery I came across a similar dead baby story in the Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser and Upton Park and Dagenham Gazette for Saturday 11 August 1894:

BABY FOUND IN A HALF-DUG GRAVE, Mr. Coroner Lewis held an inquest at West Ham on Wednesday on the body of a newly-born male child. It appeared from the evidence of the gravedigger, John Jarvis, that Friday night he left a grave in West Ham Cemetery only partly dug out. Next morning he was surprised find a deal box in the hole. The box was handed to the police, and was found to contain the body of the child. Dr. Grogono said the child had been born three days. The cause of death was exhaustion from lack of proper attention at the birth. A verdict in accordance with this evidence was returned. The Superintendent of the cemetery said, in reply to the Coroner, that the wall was too high for any woman to climb over.

The first burial in the cemetery took place on 03 November 1857. The Essex Standard of 11 November reported on the event and on the new cemetery:  
The remains of Mrs. Meeson, wife of John Meeson, Esq., of Stratford, were interred in West Ham Cemetery on Tuesday last, being the first interment in this newly consecrated burial ground. Since the closing of All Saints and the Brickfield's Chapel burial grounds a very large increase of interments has taken place at St. John's. Stratford, and St. Mary's, Plaistow. The incumbent of St. John's very considerately made a reduction in the burial fees so as to afford greater facilities to the poor for the interment of deceased relatives, and a similar arrangement was also made by the incumbent of St. Mary's, Plaistow. The remoteness of West Ham Cemetery from many parts of the parish would point out the necessity of the parochial authorities providing some economical conveyance for the mourners as well as for the corpse, as there are many who are ill able to meet the ordinary expenses of a funeral, upon whom this increased charge would fall a great hardship. This matter would appear deserving the notice of the burial society, especially as they have a local precedent to warrant them in so doing. For several years past the guardians of the West Ham Union provided a horse-hearse, with cloaks, & that the funerals of paupers have been conducted with a decency and respectability that strongly contrasts with pauper funerals in many of the other metropolitan parishes.

Ann Maria Meeson must have died relatively young. Her husband, John Meeson Esquire of Statford only joined her in the cemetery 33 years later, in 1890. The Essex Newsman reported that the borough flag was flown at half mast and that the “large and representative congregation” in the parish church “was hundreds more in West Ham Cemetery, where the body of the deceased was laid in the grave which years ago received the remains of his wife. The funeral procession was of great length. An open carriage lined with lovely wreaths and crosses headed the procession. Next came an open car bearing the body, the coffin being hidden by wreaths. The mourners followed in eight carriages, and upwards of thirty other carriages were in the procession, many of them being those of gentlemen of the district.”

On a corner plot by the side of the main path stands a small red granite obelisk. The inscription on the base reads “In memory of the 26 boys who unhappily lost their lives by the disastrous fire which occurred at the school Forest Lane West Ham 1st January 1890 – erected as an expression of sympathy with the bereaved relatives by the managers and staff of the Forest Gate District School.” The story was reported widely in the papers all over the country; the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette of Tuesday 07 January 1890, just a week after the fatal fire, gives an account of the funeral of the victims the previous day;


The funeral took place yesterday at West Ham Cemetery of the twenty-six little boys who perished New-Year’s morning at West Ham Industrial School. An immense concourse of people assembled along the route and at the cemetery. The relatives of the deceased were supplied by the school with tea and bread and butter before the funeral. Several officials attended to represent the Local Government Board, and Mr Theobald, M.P. for the Romford Division, was also present. The bodies were conveyed in seven hearses to St. James's Church, and among the followers were twenty boys and twenty girls from the schools, who acted as choristers. The Service at church, which was choral, was performed by the Rev. Dr Nicholson, and at the grave side the Rev. Canon Scott officiated. The little coffins, which merely bore the names and ages of the victims, were placed in five graves, and during the sad ceremony the children mourners sang the hymn, “There's a Home for Little Children.'’

One can’t help wondering how anyone could think that a hymn with these words, sung by a choir of 40 children, would do anything but fill the hearts of the bereaved parents with wormwood and gall;

There's a home for little children
above the bright blue sky,
where Jesus reigns in glory,
a home of peace and joy
no home on earth is like it,
nor can with it compare;
for everyone is happy
nor could be happier there.

And tea and bread and butter before the funeral? Supplied by the institution that had let their children perish?  The industrial school was effectively a care home for children whose parents for whatever reason, were unable to take care of them (poverty probably being the commonest reason). The children came from as far away as Croydon but the majority were from the crowded slums of Poplar, Stepney and Bethnal Green. At the inquest the school superintendent Charles Duncan explained that the children had been put to bed at 7.45pm on New Years Eve, the same time as any other night, and that nothing unusual occurred until he was called from his quarters after midnight by the needle mistress Miss Terry who, in some consternation, told him that the needle room was on fire.  When he went to investigate he found not only the needle room but the corridor outside and the stairs leading to the dormitories full of smoke “so dense that be found it difficult to breathe.” He tied a handkerchief around his mouth and nose and on his hands and knees groped his way to the fire hydrant and extinguisher and tried, unsuccessfully, to put out the blaze. While he grappled with the fire other teachers evacuated the children. Unfortunately one of the dormitories was locked and the key in the possession of a teacher who had the evening off and had gone out to celebrate New Year. It took an hour to get into the two locked dormitories – every single child sleeping there had died of smoke inhalation and suffocation. The cause of the fire was a badly swept stove chimney which had set alight releasing clouds of toxic smoke.

Friday 21 June 2019

Only doing their duty; Henry Vickers (1868-1917) & Frederick Charles Sell (1872-1917), West Ham Cemetery

49 year Sub Officer Henry Vickers and 45 year old Fireman Frederick Charles Sell were members of the West Ham Corporation Fire Brigade based at the fire station in Silvertown. They were both killed in the 1917 Silvertown Explosion, caused by a fire in a TNT factory which the government had, with minimal regard for health and safety, set up in the Brunner Mond Chemical works, just across the road from the fire station. The factory had opened in 1893 to produce soda crystals and caustic soda. In 1912 management terminated production of caustic soda which left spare capacity in the factory which the government requisitioned in 1916 to carry out the extremely dangerous process of purifying TNT. Brunner Mond objected, pointing out that the factory was in a heavily populated area of London. It was also a very poor area of London so Brunner Mond’s objections went unheeded.  On the evening of 19th January 1917 a fire broke out in the melt pot room of the factory. The fire station was literally a few hundred yards away and so the corporation’s fire fighters were quickly on the scene and already tackling the blaze when it ignited 50 long tons of TNT. The resulting explosion spread red hot debris for miles around, causing many secondary fires.  A chunk of heated masonry hit a gasometer on the Greenwich peninsula, 200,000 cubic feet of gas exploding into a spectacular fireball.  60,000 buildings were damaged but, amazingly, only 73 people died, mainly because at 7pm on a Friday the factory and surrounding workplaces were all deserted. Many of the victims were mangled beyond recognition and identification, in those pre dental records/DNA test days, was a traumatic affair. Cases recorded by the Stratford Express include a fireman who was at the scene at the time of the explosion miraculously survived only to return home to find his wife and child had perished. A mother of a worker at the factory identified him by his head, which happened to be the only part his body that had been recovered. Another man identified a fellow lodger from the remains of a lower leg because he recognised the copy of the Daily Sketch which the victim had used to stuff a hole in the sole of his boots that morning before he left for work. A millhand identified the body of his 32 year old wife in one mortuary and his 13 year old son in another. His ten year old daughter he found in the ruins of his house. 

Henry Vickers and Frederick Charles Sell were both fighting the initial fire in the melt room and were killed instantly by the subsequent explosion.  Frederick’s 15 year old daughter Winifred and Ethel Betts, the 4 month old daughter of another fireman, are buried in the same plot in West Ham Cemetery. Henry’s son Harold formally identified the body of his father and his 15 year old sister. She had been in the fire station at the time of the explosion and was found in an adjacent field with her back broken. Harold arrived home in time to assist a colleague of his father’s carrying his sister from the field to the pavement in front of the fire station. He helped to lay her on a mattress where she quietly died. Two of his brothers and his mother had also been in the station at the time of the explosion but they survived. Also based at Silvertown fire station was George Betts. His wife had put their 3 children to bed at 6pm. After the explosion she brought two of them out into the street and a passing stranger went back into the house to find the third, four month old baby Ethel, but she was already dead. 

Monday 3 June 2019

Crumbling into Anonymity - Highgate Cemetery (West)

"Highgate Cemetery....a vast army of Victorian Merchants, officers, widows and judges gently crumbling into anonymity beneath ivy and saplings and lushly sinister mare’s tails.”   

Professor Mark Girouard

It may be the doyen of London cemeteries but I have never been especially fond of Highgate. Uniquely amongst London cemeteries (in fact uniquely amongst any cemeteries anywhere as far as I know) the Friends of Highgate charge an entrance fee for visitors to the East cemetery. The current charge is £4, which isn’t extortionate by any means, but one has the feeling that Karl Marx, who is after all the major draw amongst the permanent residents, probably doesn’t approve of this blatant bit of capitalism. Once you have paid your four quid you can roam freely and completely unsupervised and spend the whole day inside if you want.  Access to the older Grade II listed West cemetery is more tightly controlled and is by guided tour only. One of the reasons I like cemeteries is that in a city if 8 million inhabitants they give me the opportunity to get away from other people. I hate being herded around anywhere but particularly in cemeteries which I prize as little oases of calm in the general bewilderment of London. Having said that the tours are good, the guides knowledgeable and they only cost £12. But they tend to follow the same route around the cemetery and you are not allowed to stray away from your group or loiter over anything you find particularly interesting. The whole thing is just too controlled for my liking and has stopped me forming any sort of attachment to the cemetery itself.

Highgate seems to exert a particular fascination over foreigners with taphophilic inclinations. Tracey Chevalier (American), Audrey Niffenegger (American) and Fred Vargas (French) have all set novels in and around the cemetery in recent years. Loren Rhoads (American), author of 199 Cemeteries to see before you die dates her own taphophile obsession back to a visit to Highgate in the early 1990’s. Her visit was inspired by a chance encounter with a copy of Highgate Cemetery; Victorian Valhalla in WH Smiths on Victoria Station and its iconic photographs of the cemetery by John Gay (aka Hans Göhler, German). Guy Vaes (Belgian) featured Highgate prominently in his 1978 book of photographs  Les Cimetières de Londres. The abandoned and overgrown Highgate of the 1970’s and 80’s photographed so lovingly by Gay has come to epitomise Victorian Gothic (even though the Victorians would never have allowed any cemetery to get into such a dreadful state of neglect). It is the cemetery converted to wildwood with toppled headstones and angels smothered in ivy that has found a special place in so many taphophile hearts. Only the English would so willfully neglect their burial places and allow them to revert so spectacularly back to almost untrammeled nature. Can you imagine the French letting Père Lachaise to get into the same state as Abney Park or Nunhead?

Highgate was the creation of Stephen Geary, an architect and entrepreneur, who was heavily involved in the Victorian burial reform movement. Like many who concerned themselves with the   campaign to abolish churchyard interments he had a marked proclivity for grandiose architectural styles (see Thomas Willson for example).  His first significant work was a sixty foot monument to King George IV which stood in an area then known as Battlebridge at the junction of Grays Inn, Pentonville and Euston Roads.  Neither the King nor his monument proved particularly popular and the giant statue was demolished in 1842, just six years after being built. Its nickname has lasted rather longer however – Kings Cross. Geary was a founder of the London Cemetery Company which founded Nunhead and Brompton as well as Highgate Cemeteries.  In 1830 the 17th century Ashurst Manor in Highgate was demolished and St Michael’s Church built on the site of the house. The London Cemetery Company bought, for £3500, 20 acres of the estate’s gardens due south of the new church, on the slopes of Highgate Hill. These were laid out as the cemetery with landscaping by David Ramsay and the first catacombs and the celebrated Egyptian Avenue designed by Geary himself.

The cemetery was consecrated on the 20th May 1839 by the Bishop of London and the first burial, of the 36 year old Elizabeth Jackson of Golden Square, took place just two days later on the 23rd. Elizabeth was buried in a grave 10 feet deep, 6ft 6in long and 2ft 6in for which her family had paid 3 guineas. The depth of the grave and the additional cost (13 shillings more than the minimum price) were to allow for additional burials in the same plot and Elizabeth was eventually joined by three other relatives. Business in the newly opened cemetery was brisk – there were 204 burials in the first year and numbers substantially increased in the years that followed. By the 1850’s the company was charging between £10 and £94 for space in the terrace catacombs depending on how many coffin places were required, brick vault graves taking 6 coffins were £15 5 shillings or £21 for one big enough to take a round dozen. A common grave was £2. Demand was high enough to justify acquiring 19 acres of additional land on the other side of Swains Lane and opening what is now the East Cemetery. Around 163,000 people have been buried in 53,000 graves since the cemetery opened. The business plans of all the cemetery companies suffered from the same fundamental flaw – plots were sold in perpetuity meaning that income was high in the early years when the cemetery was empty but dropped off steeply when the available space for burials inexorably filled up. The cemetery started to hit financial problems in the mid twentieth century. By the end of the second world war there was little unused space in the cemetery, income was no longer sufficient even to maintain the grounds property. In 1975 the cemetery closed.

In 1865 William Justyne wrote in his Guide to Highgate Cemetery that “no cemetery near London can boast so many natural beauties.” He praised the hilly ground “rising in terraces”, the winding paths, the long avenues of shrubbery and said that in summer “when the birds are singing blithely in their leafy recesses….there is a holy loveliness upon this place of death, as the kind angels hovered about it…” The hyperbole started early. Justyne also praised the view of London from the cemetery grounds, “there spread out like a broad map, is the great metropolis of the world with its countless spires of every shape and almost every age.”  The rampant vegetation has long since obscured the views of London, you will need to go to Hampstead Heath to get a sense of what they once would have been.  Nunhead and Norwood   had views to challenge Highgate’s, and still retain them today..  Hugh Meller has to concede that “the one disappointment at Highgate is the moderate quality and variety of its monuments which seldom compare to with the best at Kensal Green or Norwood.” I can’t dispute that Highgate does have its own romantic charm but I can’t imagine ever loving it as much as I do Kensal Green.