Thursday, 30 April 2020

"Design for Death" Barbara Jones (Andre Deutsch 1967) Out of print

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”
Virginia Woolf ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1930)

I own a lot of second hand books but the for the most part I know little or nothing about where they came from or who their previous owners were. Some have tantalising clues about their former lives. Book plates are rare but inscriptions quite common (‘To Patricia, I’m sure you will love this, Thomas Croatia 1987’) or the owners name (surely only people who possess a handful of books can be bothered to write their names in them?). I’ve found letters in second hand books (though nothing very exciting), shopping lists, newspaper clippings and pressed flowers. Some have library markings showing that they once belonged to Midwestern universities in Idaho or Ohio, or public libraries in Leeds or Bristol, before they were retired from active service. It is often ex library stock that most often has pencilled or, sacrilegiously, inked marginalia from readers who feel obliged to record their responses to the text (“What rot!” “is this true?”). These are nothing more than tantalising hints though into what is otherwise a book’s lost history.  

In contrast I know a lot about the past of my copy of Barbara Jones’ ‘Design for Death’. It is a first edition published by Andre Deutsch in 1967 which sold, according the price on the inside cover, for what would have a rather steep 63 shillings (or 3 guineas in posh money). That is equivalent to about £48 now, which incidentally is about what it would cost you now to buy a decent second hand copy of it (few books retain their monetary value over half a century). It was bought by Michael Gray, a young antique dealer from Marlborough. Michael was quite a well-known character in Wiltshire; he was born above the family emporium, Duck’s Toy Shop in the High Street, and briefly worked as a solicitor’s clerk in Bristol after leaving school before returning home to make his living as an antique dealer. He published at least 3 books of local history, archive photographs of the Marlborough area and was a pioneer conservationist who was appalled at the destruction, in the name of progress, of the towns physical fabric in the 1960’s and 70’s, much of it at the hands of the local council.  In 1982 he succeeded in persuading the local authority to save the threatened 17th century Merchant’s House in the high street and preserve it for future generations; it is now one of Marlborough’s best-known buildings. Michael’s copy of ‘Design for Death’ ended up on my bookshelf after he died in late 2018. Michael’s son Sam is a colleague of mine who happens to know of my strange obsession with death related material. He spotted it while sorting through his father’s effects and very kindly extracted it from the large pile of books destined to be sold as a job lot to a book dealer to give to me. I’m very grateful for the gift because this is a wonderful book which I had never heard of.

I hadn’t of Barbara Jones either, despite her being a contemporary of John Piper, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and Edward Ardizzone at the Royal College of Art and often mentioned in the same breath. Women artists often struggle for recognition and she certainly was no exception to the general rule. She was born in 1912 in Croydon in a comfortable middle-class household. Her father had a saddlery and harness business in the days before the internal combustion engine finally replaced equine muscle power. She studied at Croydon High School and Croydon Art School before escaping the South London suburbs forever at the Royal College of Art where she graduated in 1937. After graduation she worked part time as a teacher at the Royal College whilst simultaneously trying to build a career as a commercial artist. During the war she was heavily involved in the Recording Britain project and after the war she created murals for the 1946 Britain Can Make It Exhibition and worked for P&O painting murals on their cruise and passenger ships. She had an enormous love of British vernacular art and in 1951 curated the influential Black Eyes and Lemonade exhibition of folk art at the Whitechapel Gallery. The exhibition featured horse brasses, corn dollies, canal boat and fairground artwork, ship's figureheads, and the outfits of Pearly Kings and Queens. Following the success of the exhibition she produced her first book ‘The Unsophisticated Arts’ which featured her own drawings of material drawn from taxidermy, fairgrounds, canal boats, seaside, riverside, tattooing, food decoration, waxworks, toys, rustic work, shops, festivals and funerals. She went on to publish works on follies and grottoes, English popular art during the first world war, erotic postcards and, in 1967, Death. 

One of her close friends was Rose Macaulay and whilst Barbara might not have been as consummate a stylist her prose is lively and idiosyncratic and just as good as her illustrations. Her opening paragraph gives a hint of what is to come:

Everyone dies. For thousands of years, uncountable millions of corpses have been given funerals, and the living have always been faced with the problems of valedictory ceremonials for the dead and what to do with the corpses. Most of the have been buried, burnt, preserved, put in the sea, or exposed to the air. Quicklime, acids, eating, and shrinking are more rare, and on the whole the overtly scientific methods go with unnatural death, so that earth, air, fire and water are the most common agents of disposal.

‘Design for Death’ is concerned with the physical culture surrounding death, and for that reason it is a companion volume to ‘The Unsophisticated Arts’ (the last chapter of which was devoted to funerals). “The intention of this book,” she says unashamedly, “is to look mainly at the things made today or recently in England or the United States. The other things are here for comparison, or because I like them; liking is the hard base of everything, so I have drawn what I like.” There are handful of photographs in the book and a few illustrations culled from coffin makers catalogues but other than that all the pictures in this copiously illustrated tome are her own. As she says (and despite the insistence that most of her examples will be drawn from England or the US), she draws whatever appeals to her and that includes cheap floral arrangements, shrunken heads, catafalques, Congolese anthropoid coffins, shrouded corpses, hearses, tombs, Mexican calaveras and English beer mugs. She is not much impressed by modern funerary culture (and it hasn’t got much better since the 1960’s) “The artefacts…are now badly designed. It is easy to understand why; people are less interested in death than they used to be.  In primitive societies, death is accepted and respected; it is everywhere…..  In small settled communities acceptance gets weaker, but since nothing much happens there in peacetime except farming, death has high entertainment value. Urbanisation finally kills acceptance, and today death is hardly talked of, is indeed seen as top tabu subject…”

A glance at the contents page tells you that the book has chapters on the Corpse, the Shroud, the Coffin, the Hearse and the Undertakers Shop, the floral tributes, printing and the word, the Procession, the Cemetery and the Crematorium, the Tomb, Relics and Mementos, where death gets you and, finally, Loving Death. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I’m clearly not the only one who rates it if a copy costs £50. I can’t resist one last quote, Jones’ trenchant observations on the modern cemetery;

Necropolis is metropolis, smaller. There is the old centre with a temple, trees and avenues, clot and space together, hundreds of houses built individual and expensive, and the mellow air of fixed habitation. Metropolis has a newer, meaner, conglomeration around the railway station; necropolis has a newer conglomeration around the crematorium or a new gate. Both of them have mean reduced suburbs on the outskirts, thousands of little houses only distinguished by the name on the gate and at some seasons by the flowers in front. The only difference is that the metropolitan suburbs are pink with occasional green pantiles and the necropolitan ones are white with occasional green chips.

Wonderful stuff

Friday, 17 April 2020

It's not about the money!; Plumstead Cemetery, Wickham Lane, SE2

Clergyman, n.  A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.
Ambrose Bierce "The Devil's Dictionary" (1911)

The first funeral at Plumstead Cemetery took place on Friday 27th June 1890. The deceased was 39 year old Dr. Henry Smith, the son of Mr E.T. Smith, the chairman of the Plumstead Burial Board, who pulled strings to get his son buried in the new cemetery, even having to get special dispensation from the Home Secretary, as it was not yet officially open for business. Henry had been unwell for some time. He had been given leave of absence for three months from his job as the Analyst for the Woolwich Health Board (where his older brother was the Medical Officer) back in January. His used his leave to travel to the South of France where he hoped the climate would be beneficial for his failing health. He had initially become ill two or three years before, after working at the Hospital for Consumption in Brompton and was presumed to have contracted tuberculosis from a patient. A long stay in the Midi under the care of his sister did nothing to improve his consumptive lungs. The week before he died, “feeling the king of terrors near”, as the Kentish Independent put it in his obituary, he set out with his sister to return to England. He made it no further than Paris where his alarmed sister sent a telegram to her father and older brother, asking them to come at once. Mr E.T. Smith and his eldest son took the first train to Dover where they were greeted with a further telegram letting them know that poor Henry was already dead. He returned to England in a lead lined French oak coffin with black iron handles and a brass nameplate with the inscription ‘Henri Smith Juin 20 1890’, arriving at the Woolwich Arsenal station on the Tuesday morning and being taken to his father’s house at the top end of Burrage Road in Plumstead. On Friday, at 2.30 in the afternoon, the coffin was taken back down Burrage Road in an open carriage to Holy Trinity Church in Beresford Square, Woolwich, where his father had been a worshipper for more than 50 years. The mourners, who followed in plain broughams, included members of the District board, the burial board and the Vestry, took part on a special service arranged by the Reverend Horsley. After the service the cortege reforme and made its way up to the new cemetery where another short service was held in the brand new mortuary chapel. At the grave side the choir sang the hymn “Now the labourer’s task is o’er” while the coffin was lowered into the ivy lined grave.  

Like Charlton, Greenwich and Woolwich, Plumstead has a quietly spectacular hillside location. It is a relatively late cemetery, only opening as we have seen in 1890. Until then the town had managed to bury its dead in the churchyard of St Nicholas but rapid expansion had taken place in the 1880’s with new housing developed for the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich; burial space began to run out.  The parish burial board began to consider plans for a modern new cemetery but ironically ran into opposition from the Rector who preferred the option of acquiring a strip of land between the church and the road as an addition to the churchyard. There was a strong suspicion amongst the ratepayers of Plumstead that the vicar was more interested in his burial fees than in ensuring the decent interment of his flock. Shortly after the new cemetery was opened (28.06.1890) the Kentish Independent recalled why a new burial ground had been so important to the parish; 

Proposals are already under consideration of the Home Office for closing the old churchyard at Plumstead, and, although those who take the income from the churchyard can still point to an unused strip of ground next to the roadside, it is palpable that the grave space is already overcrowded to a fearful extent, and ought not to have thrust into it any longer the wholesale harvest of the dead. The authorities with whom action will rest will have presented them some astounding figures. It is just thirty years since the new portion of Plumstead churchyard was added to the older part. The new ground was but acre and half in area, and, therefore, sufficient for about 4,240 graves, but in the thirty years which have passed an average of five hundred persons have died per year, and nearly all the 15,000 bodies have been put under ground in this little spot. In the same time the eleven acres of Woolwich cemetery have been virtually occupied and a new cemetery provided. With fifteen thousand dead and decaying bodies opposite their windows, can we wonder at the people who reside near the churchyard fancying that the odours upon the evening air give them sensations of sickness? It may be all imagination and nonsense, of course, but, although we are taught that the earth is the speedy curer of all corruption, we take leave to conclude that there may be excessive conditions which render even this great law of nature nugatory and inoperative. Look with confidence to the Home Secretary for a peremptory closing of Plumstead Churchyard as soon as the fiat has gone forth for opening Plumstead Cemetery.

The burial board was asked to look at the possibility of opening a new cemetery in 1887 and given a two year deadline for acquiring one. “At the end of the first year they may be said to be making fair progress,” reported the Kentish Independent in January 1888 following a vestry meeting where the chair of the board, Mr E.T. Smith, had asked the vestry to sanction a loan of £7000 to purchase a “most convenient and suitable spot for their burial ground, picturesquely placed between Wickham Lane and the wooded heights of Bostall Heath, a site easily accessible from the town, and beautiful to look upon.” More controversially Mr Smith outlined the board’s plans to have just one mortuary chapel to serve all denominations “as this appears to be the plan adopted in most of the modern Cemeteries the different creeds will probably soon adapt themselves to the arrangement, and the objections which at first sight present themselves will speedily disappear in practice.” On behalf of the board Mr Smith also dismissed what the newspaper dubbed ‘the Vestry Economists’, the faction that wanted the cemetery to be a profitable speculation for the parish. The Independent agreed with the board that it did not “favour the plan of doing a good business by competing for outside custom. We know that there are Cemeteries in the north and east of London which do this, and offer various inducements to attract funerals from distant places, but we do not want to see Woolwich and Plumstead the perpetual highway of wretched hearses and funerals of the lowest class, such as we see in other outskirts of the Metropolis. The Cemetery is for Plumstead, and, to keep it respectable, the people of Plumstead will not object to pay a sufficient fee, or even an extra farthing rate once a year to help in liquidating the loan.” What the newspaper did not make explicit was that the board had thrown down the gauntlet not only in lumping Anglicans in with the other creeds and refusing to allow them their own church in the cemetery but even more controversially it proposed to not consecrate any of the grounds. The objection of the board to consecration was not spiritual – they were all established churchmen to a man – but financial and in particular to the insistence of the Vicar of St Nicholas’ that he had a right to his full ecclesiastical fees for all burials in the new cemetery.

The board proved obdurate and resisted the vicar’s blandishments regarding the thorny issue of burial fees. They hoped by not consecrating ground within the cemetery they would neatly side step the controversy. But it merely allowed the vicar to seek the help of the Bishop of Rochester and portray the board as dangerous radicals who were keen to bury the dead of Plumstead in unconsecrated ground. The Kentish Independent returned to the fray in June 1890 when it reported that the Bishop of Rochester looked likely to get his way and that a “portion of the ground must be consecrated. From that ultimatum,” the paper noted “whether we desire or not, we cannot escape. The consequence will that the vicar of the parish and the sexton and clerk, if there be any, will be entitled to their fees just though the cemetery were the churchyard. This is not just. It may be right in principle to make these officials some recompense for the loss of income, but the matter is clearly one for compromise. In the case of Woolwich, we believe, the ecclesiastical fees were voluntarily reduced, and in Woolwich Cemetery an interment in a common grave costs but 10s. inclusive. In Plumstead Cemetery it is proposed to charge 9s for the interment and 14s. 8d. ecclesiastical fees, or total £1 2s. 8d. The 14s. 8d. is the full sum now paid in Plumstead Churchyard, and cannot, with any show of reason, be maintained in the cemetery where considerations of the ground and of services rendered are absent.”   

Although the chair had buried his son in the cemetery at the end of June, the formal opening took place on Tuesday 5th August.  The delay was “in consequence of objections to consecration” noted the Woolwich Gazette which covered the opening ceremony; “From the first the Burial Board, most of whom are Churchmen, have been opposed to consecration, chiefly on account of the privilege thereby conferred upon the vicar of charging ecclesiastical fees; but, after long resistance, the Board have found it impossible to maintain their position, and have had to submit the mandate of the Bishop of Rochester, requiring that a portion of the ground should be consecrated.” The official opening ceremony was conducted by the Bishop in the presence of about 60 people. The Bishop consecrated 3 acres of the site and after signing the order of consecration delivered a brief address. “He exhorted his hearers to look forward to death,” said the Gazette, “not with dread, but as the gateway to everlasting glory. Surely they would all recognise that in death there was a universal  ground of kindredship, and how much more must they recognise a still closer ground of brotherhood, in the hope of glorious eternity in Heaven.”

The rows about burial fees continued to rumble on. A year later the excessive cost of pauper burials at Plumstead forced the board to reduce its fees by 6 shillings but the stubborn vicar responded by a mere shilling reduction in his own fees. The Woolwich Gazette reported on 01 May 1891:

EXORBITANT BURIAL FEES. The Finance Committee drew the Boards attention to the disparity of fees paid for pauper funerals, viz : Charlton, 10s.; Woolwich, 9s. 6d.; Plumstead, 12s. 8d.; Plumstead Cemetery £ 1 3s. 8d, Mr, Kemp said he could not account for the figures named for Plumstead Cemetery. The pauper funerals always took place in consecrated ground, and the vicar's fee, over which the Burial Board had no control, was 14s. 8d. The Burial Board on the representation of the Guardians  had reduced the charge for ground in the case of pauper funerals from 9s. To 3s and it was understood that the vicar had agreed to reduce his fee to 12s 8d. The Clerk was directed to write to Mr Johnson for details of the charges. 

Monday, 13 April 2020

"The Five; the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper" - Halle Rubenhold (Penguin £9.99)

Elizabeth Stride's grave in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow 

I bought Bruce Robinson’s 800 page door stopper “They All Love Jack” about four years ago but have never worked up the courage to start reading it. Can the man who wrote and directed ‘Withnail & I’ succeed in making Jack the Ripper interesting? It’s an intriguing question but 800 pages of closely printed text is a very long answer for someone who doesn’t understand the fuss about Jack the Ripper.  I like a good murder as much as the next man but quite why so much paper, ink and angst are expended on those five murders in Whitechapel mystifies me.  No one will ever know who if the five canonical victims were even killed by the same man and we certainly won’t ever know who the killer or killers were.  The thousands of pages devoted by Ripperologists to examining whether it was Walter Sickert or James Maybrick or Prince Albert Victor or Montague John Druitt or Dr Barnado get no closer to solving the mystery than scholasticism got to divining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Is there is anything new to say about the Whitechapel Murders? Well, yes there is, as Hallie Rubenhold demonstrates in “The Five; the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper” a fascinating look at the lives of those who have previously played little more than a walk on part in the hoary old drama, the victims.  

As with any subject even loosely related to the Ripper murders the lives of the victims have been trawled over already countless times by the hordes of investigators determined to unmask the killer. In most accounts the biographies of the victims are little more than a paragraph or two appended to an endlessly detailed description of how they met their deaths. Rubenhold avoids producing a martyrology by virtually ignoring their fate at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer and, even more pointedly, by studiously avoiding almost any mention of the killer. This simple editorial decision restores balance back to the lives of the five women and allows them to be something more than the victims of London’s first and most notorious serial killer. In her account of the five women Rubenhold judiciously fills in gaps in the story with details of the social background, putting their often harrowing stories into a wider context and drawing some interesting conclusions in the process. She questions, very convincingly, the notion that all five women were prostitutes murdered as they went about their business selling sex. Only Mary Jane Kelly seems to have been actively involved in prostitution at the time of her killing and the only other victim with a background as a sex worker was Elizabeth Stride. The other three victims were destitute, down on their luck, and in failed relationships but there is no evidence at all to confirm what seems to have been a lazy and prejudiced assumption made at the time that they were street walkers. In fact Rubenhold suggests that the manner of their death suggests that they were more likely to be sleeping rough than selling sex. Poverty, alcohol and bad luck are the factors that led to their death.  

All five victims were buried in paupers graves in what were then the new cemeteries of east London. Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim, and Catherine Eddowes, were both buried in the City of London Cemetery, Annie Chapman was buried a short distance away in Manor Park Cemetery, Elizabeth Stride in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow and Mary Jane Kelly in St Patricks Roman Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone. They would have been buried in common graves with at least 5 other people. Only two of the graves are now marked with headstones, Elizabeth Stride’s and Mary Jane Kelly’s. The City of London cemetery has two plaques marking the approximate spot where Mary Ann Nichols and Catherine Eddowes were interred (the exact grave site is not known) and as far as I know there is nothing marking the site where Annie Chapman was buried quite possibly because the area has been reused for more recent burials. 

Swedish born Elizabeth Stride was buried at the East London Cemetery in Plaistow on Saturday 06 October 1888. Her funeral was a modest affair attended by a small number of mourners with the costs defrayed gratis by the undertaker Mr Hawkes. The headstone is a relatively recent affair which has appeared in the last 20 years. Whenever I have been there has always been some form of recent tribute left the grave.

Mary Jane Kelly, or Marie Jeanette Kelly as she is described on her headstone, was buried at St Patricks Roman Catholic Cemetery on Monday 19th November 1888. The Belfast Telegraph carried an account of the funeral published on the same day;

FUNERAL OF MARIE KELLY. The funeral of Marie Jeannette Kelly the victim of the late Spitalfields murderer took place today at Leytonstone Cemetery, Essex, in the presence of a large number of people. An hour before the remains left the Shoreditch mortuary many hundreds of onlookers assembled in the vicinity and watched while the final arrangements were bring made. The coffin was placed upon an open hearse drawn by two horses, and was followed by two mourning carriages containing the man Joseph Barnett, who had lived with the deceased, and several of the unfortunate woman & associates, who gave evidence at the inquest. The coffin bore the following inscription 'Marie Jeannette Kelly, died November 9th 1888 aged 25 years’, and on it were placed two crosses, and a cross made of heartsease and white flowers.  The whole of the funeral expenses were borne by Mr. Wilton, sexton of St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, who for many years has shown practical sympathy for the poorer classes.

Mary Kelly’s grave has had more than one headstone; they seem to go astray, probably stolen by souvenir hunters. Again there are often recent flowers at the gravesite. 

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Joseph Wilton and the body snatchers of Wanstead - St Mary the Virgin, Wanstead

About 1830 the parish instituted an armed watch against body snatchers. The watchmen used the vestry room in the church until 1831, when a sentry-box was erected in the churchyard. This was presumably the stone box, given in memory of the Wilton family, which still stood there in 1971.

A History of the County of Essex – W.R. Powell (1973)

It may be an east London suburb now but early 19th century Wanstead was deep in the depths of the Essex countryside and too far away from the hospitals and anatomy schools of London to suffer unduly from the depredations of resurrection men. There would have been a trade off for the body snatchers between the ease of obtaining fresh corpses and the difficulties of transporting bulky and illicitly plundered cadavers from their source to their final destination in Guy’s or St Thomas’ Hospitals. There certainly would have been less vigilance in the churchyards of somnolent Essex villages but this would have been offset by the additional risk involved in moving a dead body eight or nine miles to London. The villages of the Essex borders suffered considerably less body snatching than the parishes of the City of Southwark but the theft of freshly interred corpses was not entirely unknown. On the 26th October 1824 the Morning Chronicle reported on a raid carried out in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin a few days previously:

Resurrection Men - On Friday night, some of these wretches made a daring attempt on Wanstead Church-yard, and in part succeeded. They first got up the body of a child recently interred and afterwards the body of a female which they placed on the edge of the grave; they then commenced on the grave of the parish beadle, and had made some progress, when they were fortunately disturbed, and made their escape with the child only. These fellows are supposed to be the same gang that last year opened a grave in Chingford churchyard from which they took a patent iron coffin, broke it in pieces and carried away its unconscious tenant.

Edwardian postcard of the 'Historic Stone Watch Box' of Wanstead Parish Church

The traumatic night of 26th October 1824 is the only instance of grave robbing in Wanstead that I can find in the newspapers. If it was and the Victoria County History is right, it took the good burghers of Wanstead 6 years to react and set up an armed watch against body snatchers. If they ever did use the stone ‘sentry box’ (which is debateable, as it’s not a sentry box at all but a tomb) they didn’t use it for very long. In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, allowing doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students access to the unclaimed corpses of people who had died in hospitals, prisons or workhouses. Overnight resurrection men and burial ground watch men found themselves redundant including the putative armed watch of Wanstead. If the watch had ever used the Wilton tomb as a sentry box it was pretty disrespectful of them. The monument had been built in the early 1800’s as a memorial to the sculptor Joseph Wilton who died on the 25th November 1803;

DIED - On Friday last, at Somerset House, after a lingering illness, aged 85, Joseph Wilton, Esq. Royal Academician, Sculptor to his Majesty, and Keeper of the Royal Academy. His works at Westminster Abbey, &c. evince his extraordinary excellence in his profession.

Hampshire Chronicle - Monday 05 December 1803    

The interior of Wilton's tomb is heavily decorated with graffiti dating back to the 19th century 

Joseph Wilton was born on 10th July 1722 in Charing Cross. His father, William, was a plasterer who produced ornamental plaster works for architectural decoration. William was declared bankrupt in 1728 when Joseph was 6 but soon bounced back and became a hugely successful and wealthy supplier of not only plaster but papier mâché which was produced in a factory in Cavendish Place which, according to Nollekens’s biographer J. T. Smith, employed ‘hundreds of people’ making ornaments for chimneypieces and mirrors. William was successful enough to acquire a substantial country property at Snaresbrook. Joseph was initially educated at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire and destined to be a civil engineer but as is often the way he showed an early taste and talent for the arts. As his father effectively made his living in the arts he objected less to his son’s proclivities than fathers generally do in this scenario. In fact he arranged an apprenticeship as a sculptor with the Belgian sculptor Laurent Delvaux who had recently left London to return to his native Brabant. Wilton left Delvaux in 1744 to study in Paris at the French Academy where he won a silver medal and the lifelong friendship of fellow sculptor Louis François Roubillac. In 1747 in company with Roubillac he travelled to Italy, first to Rome where he spent 3 years and won a gold medal from Pope Benedict XIV, and then onto Naples and finally to Florence where he spent 4 years. He returned to England in 1755, living with his father in Charing Cross and becoming a much sought after sculptor. He was appointed state coach carver to the King (one of the coaches he worked is still used in state ceremonials) and shortly afterwards sculptor to his majesty. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy and a contributor to its first exhibition in 1769. And then, abruptly, he gave up working. His father had died the previous year and coming into his rather extensive inheritance Joseph decided that he preferred to spend his time in idle dissipation rather plying his mallet and chisel. It took him a little less than 25 years to burn through the fortune that his father had taken a lifetime to accumulate and he was declared bankrupt in 1793. He was saved by his friends in the Royal Academy who had him appointed as keeper and provided him with apartments at Somerset House where he died in 1803. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Wanstead and later a memorial was erected in the form of a Grecian aedicule of Portland stone with battered sides, incised panels, a round-arched entrance and domed top with corner acroteria. Some say it was modelled on the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem but most people continue to think it resembles a sentry box and never realise that it is actually a tomb. This is probably why the interior is heavily festooned with graffiti, some of it dating back to the 19th century often overlaid with more modern efforts from the likes of Caspar & Django (2010), Alan Measles and Zeus.

John Francis Rigaud, portrait of Sir William Chambers, Joseph Wilton and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

'Dull anonymity prevails..'; Barkingside Cemetery, London Borough of Redbridge

My favourite entries in Hugh Meller and Brian Parsons’ ‘London Cemeteries’ are the disparaging ones. Barkingside Cemetery which serves the north-eastern corner of the London Borough of Redbridge (the commuter districts of Gants Hill, Newbury Park, and Fairlop as well as Barkingside)   finds them at their most acerbic; “although well maintained it represents a sad departure from the exuberance of Victorian Cemetery planning. The ground is flat, the tombstones feeble, planting is scant and buildings nil. A centrepiece has been formed by an ugly brick structure that resembles a wishing well but actually houses a dripping tap. Dull anonymity prevails.....There is no chapel, only a waiting room and lavatories. Functionalism reigns supreme in a world that the Victorians would find it hard to recognise.” One would like to take issue with them but it is difficult. On a sunny day it isn’t an unpleasant place to wander but you have to concede that the cemetery is as dull and suburban as the community it serves.

Barkingside was opened as a municipal cemetery in 1923 by Ilford Urban Council. The deceased of the area had previously been laid to rest in the churchyard of Holy Trinity but by the 1920’s house building in the local area had driven up the population to the point where its dead were starting to outgrow the space available to bury them in. Conveniently there was a vacant 6 acre plot of land right next to the church, bordered by a recreation ground to the east and new housing developments to south and west. At the chilly consecration ceremony in January 1923 the Bishop of Barking pleaded indisposition and stayed warm indoors while the stalwart Bishop of Colchester took his place leading a procession of clergy, choir and congregation around the muddy periphery of the site before delivering a a brief but lugubrious oration to the small and shivering crowd, reminding them, as if they needed reminding in that bitter wind, of the transitory nature of life. In this changing world, he told them, Christians believed that there was a life that changed not. They believed there was a land fairer than this, and by faith they could see it afar off. They did not take their loved ones bodies to the grave as those who had not hope, but as those who would be carried home on the shoulders the Good Shepherd. The restive congregation barely paid attention but reporter from the Chelmsford Chronicle dutifully noted down the details of the Bishop’s peroration and preserved them for posterity before escaping from the cold empty cemetery to the warmth of of the taproom at the nearby Chequers Inn.  

The only burial Meller and Parson’s note is Paul Philip Levertoff, a Belorussian Jewish scholar who rather improbably became a Church of England clergyman. He was the father of poet Denise Levertov who I like to think surely flew back from the States to attend his funeral in 1954. Another headstone bearing a compass marks the last resting place of Leonard Caius Bliss who died in 1991 and commemorates him simply as an ‘Inventor’. As full of useless data as it is the internet bears no trace of any of the inventions of this relatively recently deceased inventor but his ingenuity must have at least impressed his family. There are, as always, a few war graves. These include 21 year Reginald Alfred Alabaster of the 206 Squadron who died at RAF Leuchars in Fife in 1944 when the Liberator bomber he was crewing overshot the runway in bad weather killing all 11 crew and a civilian meteorologist. And 40 year old Leading Aircraftman William George Skeet of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, 2911 Squadron. On a mild November afternoon Aircraftman Skeet was riding a bicycle along a country lane in Aldborough Hatch. He stopped to chat to 43 year old Phil Perkins, the landlord of the Dick Turpin public house. The conversation was rudely interrupted by a V2 rocket which dropped out of the sky 12 miles short of its central London target and instantly killed both men. 

The most prominent memorial was raised in 2008 and dedicated to the memory of the children and staff from Dr Barnardo’s home who were buried in the cemetery or in next door Holy Trinity churchyard between 1885 and 1976. The Barkingside Home for Girls was founded in 1873 when Barnardo married Syrie Louise Elmslie and the couple were given the lease of a 60 acre site in Mossford green as a wedding present. It became Barnado’s principal Home and the headquarters of the charity. The Home always had a dedicated plot of ground within the cemetery but most burials were not marked with headstones. The new memorial commemorates  the names of all 633 children and staff buried here on four large slabs of fine grained black dolerite stone from Zimbabwe.

There are no really distinguished memorials in the cemetery but I have a soft spot for the grave of Joyce Alford, “a sweet young nurse who sacrificed her life for her work” according to her epitaph who died at the age of 19 in August 1946.The bust that tops the modest memorial may be a portrait or it may not but it is one of the few notes of individuality struck in the rows of ‘feeble tombstones.’