Thursday, 7 May 2020

Diocesan Graveyard Law; St Peter's Churchyard, Aldborough Hatch

Maybe it is my imagination but the London sky looks bluer to me during lockdown than it ever did in normal times. It is quite frustrating to be stuck indoors hunched over a laptop, trying to work from home, when the sun is blazing in a perfect cerulean sky. Particularly when you are only allowed out an hour at a time. A couple of weeks ago I used my hour (well, maybe a bit more than an hour, please don’t tell the police) on a beautiful spring morning to take a long stroll to St Peter’s churchyard in Aldborough Hatch.

Aldborough Hatch is one of those rare places in London where the city abruptly ends and the country suddenly begins. St Peter’s is a brisk ten minute walk from Barkingside Underground Station and the Central Line, across a footbridge, skirting a golf course, passing through a farmyard and by a converted chapel, then along a footpath that runs along the side of a field to where the church stands alone on the edge of Fairlop plain facing the open Essex countryside. At the back of the church is a Council Estate, the perimeter of the great Wen – from here it is 27 miles of concrete, cement, brick and tarmac all the way through the centre of London, across the Thames and out the other side to suburban Kent and Surrey. The unchecked expansion of the capital stopped here early in the last century, as if London had suddenly lost its appetite for further growth, and the hamlet became a frontier town with commuters in its semi-detached villas and resentful farmers vigilantly guarding their fields and livestock against further incursions of the city. 

In the 1860’s when St Peter’s was a hamlet a typical mention in the newspapers would have been; 

Six fine agricultural horses, valued at £240, were stolen the other evening from a farm at Aldborough Hatch, Essex. The animals were traced in the direction of London for some distance, and then the clue failed. (Western Daily Press - Monday 15 March 1869)

Fifty years later, in the golden years prior to the first world war, the stories reflected that clash of city and country cultures that signalled Aldborough Hatch’s transformation into a London suburb. In February 1911 the Chelmsford Chronicle reported on a case in Ilford County Court. Henry Charles Pawsey a farm labourer of Aldborough Hatch was suing Dr Frederick McKee of Cranbrook Road, Ilford for damages for injuries sustained when the good doctor’s motor car had knocked him down on 08 October the previous year. Mr Metcalfe, Henry Pawsey’s barrister said that his client had suffered a broken leg and that the “circumstances were made additionally serious by the fact that defendant had chosen to excuse himself by saying that the plaintiff was drunk at the time. Witnesses would say that plaintiff was a very respectable man, that he was the best workman his employer had ever had, and that he was absolutely sober.”  The court heard from George Manning, a baker, that his horse was standing on the main road at the time of the accident when Dr McKee had roared past him in his motor car “at about eight miles an hour.” Shortly afterwards he heard a car horn sound three times and a shout. In the witness box Dr McKee explained that two men had been in the middle of Aldborough Road as he drove in the direction of the Hatch. He sounded his horn for the men to clear out of the way but just as he was passing one of the men swayed into the roadway and was caught on the mudguard of the car. Dr McKee put on his brake and went to the assistance of the fallen man, asking his name and address “but he was unable to give them. He assumed that the man had been drinking; both men in fact were drunk.” Dr McKee put his medical expertise into practice and finding that the man’s leg had been broken put it into a splint and then got him into his car and drove him home. On the way Mr Pawsey sang songs and thoroughly enjoyed the novel experience of whizzing along in an automobile. Judge Tindal Atkinson told the court that the plaintiff had “not brought satisfactory evidence of negligence. People must be cautious, he said, in crossing the roads nowadays, even in the quietest parts of the country.”   

An 1851 act of Parliament ‘disafforested’ nearby Hainault and 100,000 trees were felled in just two years creating open farmland. Large farms were laid out with housing for farm labourers. The act allowed for land to be set aside for a church and in 1861 the Crown Commissioners of Woods and Forests granted £1000 for the building of a church to replace a nearby chapel of ease and £20 a year towards the salary of a rector. The building was designed by Arthur Ashpitel, a Hackney born architect who was friendly with the artist David Roberts and travelled to Rome with him, who designed the ornament cast on Big Ben and who built churches, almshouses, schools and pubs, almost exclusively in the predominant gothic revival style. St Peter’s is one of six churches in London built from the Portland Stone debris of the Old Westminster Bridge. Wikipedia repeats the speculations of Ron Jeffries, author of ‘Aldborough Hatch, The Village in the Suburbs’ that the builders of the church “also had the contract to demolish Westminster Bridge, which was built of Portland stone. Rather than use bricks from the brickfields of Ilford, it was cheaper to transport the stone by barge and horse and cart.” Ashpitel would never have designed his gothic church to be built in brick, it was clearly always meant to be a stone building. Luckily Westminster Bridge was being demolished at the same time and the rubble being sold as building material. See Bell's Weekly Messenger of Saturday 25 August 1860;

Sale of Old Westminster Bridge.— On Tuesday the sale of old Westminster Bridge, to clear the way for the completion of the new structure, was commenced at the bridge by Messrs. Eversfield and Horne, of Parliament street, when several hundred tons of Portland stone in blocks, granite kerb, pitching, etc., forming the material of the old bridge, were sold by auction. The different lots all fetched good prices, the stone being in first-rate condition, a great portion of it was purchased for the railways now in construction in the metropolis. The sale is to be continued from time to time until the entire bridge is disposed of. The works of the new bridge are advancing steadily; it is anticipated that New Westminster Bridge will be entirely finished the autumn of 1861. 

Construction of old Westminster Bridge commenced in 1739 and wasn’t completed until 1750. It was considered a modern wonder of the world at the time, an unrivalled feat of engineering, the building of which was painted by Richard Wilson, Samuel Scott and, on numerous occasions, the Venetian maestro Canaletto. In the early morning of 03 September 1802 William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were driven in a post chaise over the stones of which St Peter’s is built on their way to Calais to visit William’s illegitimate daughter Caroline and her mother Annette Vallon. The Napoleonic wars had stopped the poet seeing his 9 year old daughter for several years but the peace of Amiens had been signed the previous year and William had a final chance to see her before his marriage. That early morning glimpse of London as William drove over the bridge inspired one of his most famous poems; Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still! 

By 1850 the old Bridge was developing serious structural defects and subsiding badly. Plans were made to build a new bridge immediately to the west of the old, adjacent to Charles Barry’s newly built Houses of Parliament. The old bridge was demolished as the new bridge was nearing completion and divers used to dismantle the piles driven into the bed of the Thames.   St Peter’s was consecrated on 6 May 1862 and the new Westminster Bridge opened on 24 May.

The oldest grave I could find in the churchyard was for Lydia Sarah, wife of Walter Goodman of Clapton who died aged 23 on April 28 1880, 160 years ago. Walter remarried and lost his second wife, Mary (affectionately known as Pollie) at the age of 37 on November 30 1984. He economised by sticking her in the same grave as Lydia and popping her details onto the same headstone. The original churchyard wasn’t big but it still took the 1920’s to run short on space. An extension was added in the early 1930’s (judging by the dates on the oldest memorials). There are no memorials of any note, for the most part they are mass produced slab headstones which the odd angel and a couple of Christs from the 1950’s. There was a wooden cross marking a burial from 1916 but surely it could not be the original grave marker? There were two subsequent burials in the same grave, from 1925 and 1941 and even that seems too long ago for a wooden marker to have survived in good condition, even one as well looked after as this one seemed to be with its relatively fresh coat of paint and new white lettering.      

There are a number of commonwealth war graves, more than you would expect in a small rural churchyard. There were nearby airfields at Hainault in the first world war and at Fairlop in the second and in the old part of the churchyard is the grave of 2nd Lieutenant Harry Walter Jassby a Canadian RAF officer from Montreal who died just a week before the end of WW1 when his Sopwith Camel was involved in a mid-air collision with another aircraft.  Harry Jassby was Jewish, a fact which was overlooked when the decision was taken to bury him in a Church of England churchyard. His commonwealth war grave headstone bears a Star of David and a Hebrew inscription, the epitaph 'in life he flew  the azure sky, in death he flew to heaven high' and there were three pebbles carefully placed on the top which means someone is maintaining the Jewish tradition in this Anglican place of burial. There was also a poppy wreath laid on Remembrance Day last year by the South West Essex & Settlement Reform Synagogue Bnei Mitzvah Class 2019 on behalf of the synagogue and the local Jewish community. 

In the extension close to the new vicarage is a memorial to Rose Jacobs who died in 1961. On the base of the statue of a man waiting to be given water from a jug by a woman modestly clutching a shawl over her breast is the inscription “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.  John XiX” from the Kings James Bible. The vicar who would have buried Rose was the rather endearing sounding Lawrence Pickles who liked to swim in the lake that still existed then in the adjacent meadows and wasn’t averse to gardening in the nude. 

Whether the poor man who was found dead in a nearby field in October 1907 is buried in the churchyard I don’t know:

POISONED IN A FIELD at ALDBOROUGH HATCH. An inquest was held at Ilford, on Monday, by Dr. Ambrose, on an unknown man, aged about 55, who was found dead in field at Aldborough Hatch. P.C.  Woolmer said there was nothing identify the body. Near it was lying a book with the title, "British Rule in India." The following day a bottle which had evidently contained laudanum was found. —Dr. Drought said an examination showed that death was due to laudanum poisoning. The man had probably been dead hours when he was found. —The jury returned a verdict that death was due to overdose of a narcotic poison, self-administered.

Chelmsford Chronicle - Friday 11 October 1907

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