Tuesday 30 June 2020

To hatch a crow, a black rainbow.... cemetery wildlife

For places dedicated to the dead cemeteries are surprisingly full of life. This is particularly true of the neglected ones which are reverting back to nature, which in England is probably the majority of them. My principal interest in cemeteries is the monuments so there are times when I find the return of untrammelled nature a bit of curse (try finding an out of the way memorial without a machete in the rampant undergrowth of Abney Park or Nunhead) but generally speaking I get a bit of a thrill when I disturb a fox or startle a deer and I always enjoy the company of the crows and the parakeets who are more or less constant companions in all London cemeteries these days. I don’t go out of my way to photograph cemetery wildlife but if I am circling a grave, camera in hand, looking for a good angle and happen to spot an example of the local fauna it isn’t much effort to click the shutter.  

My favourite cemetery animal is Corvus corone, the carrion crow, cunning survivalists, scavengers, nest thieves, habitual cemetery dwellers who would happily consume the dead if they were given the chance but make do with worms, grubs, beetles, discarded garbage and the chicks of other birds if they can’t. I love their walk, half way between a waddle and a strut, like a corpulent parson. I love their stylish colouring; everything in one shade, starless and bible black. I photographed the one above in Brompton Cemetery.

Black was the without eye
Black the within tongue
Black was the heart
Black the liver, black the lungs
Unable to suck in light
Black the blood in its loud tunnel
Black the bowels packed in furnace
Black too the muscles
Striving to pull out into the light
Black the nerves, black the brainWith its tombed visions

On my first ever visit to Brookwood Cemetery I spent almost as much time deer stalking as looking at the graves. I spotted a Roe deer when I was sitting in the sun eating lunch. He allowed me close enough to take a photo and kept appearing amongst the graves as I spent the afternoon wandering the almost deserted cemetery. I started to follow and take more photos and the sunny September afternoon whiled itself away very pleasantly as I tried to get a decent photo of my quarry. You don’t see deer often in London cemeteries but in other parts of the country they are common and bold enough to have become a pest because they can’t resist snacking on funeral flowers.  

A magpie (Pica pica) photographed at the City of London Cemetery in Aldersbrook. Brueghel the Elder’s last painting was Die Elster auf dem Galgen, the magpie on the gallows; on his deathbed he instructed his wife to destroy several of his paintings but told her to keep this one. Magpies were famed as gossips and it was proverbial that gossip led to hangings. What message Brueghel was trying to give his wife isn’t clear, except perhaps to her. In England the number of magpies seen is a crude method of divining the future and was first recorded around 1780 in a note in John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth

Feral pigeons (Columba livia domestica) photographed in Bunhill Fields. How any animal so apparently stupid could become so successful is a mystery. Like the brown rat, the cockroach and the head louse these pests exist in perfect symbiosis with that other rampantly over-successful species, Homo Sapiens. Cooing pigeons are a constant of city life and are common in cemeteries. They seem to prefer the less overgrown ones as anything resembling a natural habitat can prove a little challenging for them.

I photographed this example of Psittacula krameria, the rose-ringed or ring-necked parakeet in Chingford Cemetery in February. Flocks of bright green parakeets are now a relatively common sight all over London and like of all people of good taste they love cemeteries. I’ve seen them in Kensal Green (they roost there in huge numbers), Margarvine Cemetery in Hammersmith, Abney Park in Hackney, Hither Green Cemetery in Lewisham and probably several more that I can’t remember off the top of my head. Oft repeated urban myths abound in how the capital came to have its rapidly expanding parrot population; they escaped from the set of the African Queen at Ealing Studios in 1951, they are all descended from a breeding pair released by a stoned Jimi Hendrix in Carnaby Street in the 1960’s, they escaped from a pet shop in Sunbury-on Thames in 1970, they escaped from aviaries damaged by the great storm of 1987, or they were accidentally released by Boy George and George Michael during a drunken row at  a flat they shared in Brockley in the 1980’s or by burglars unwittingly opening the cage of an aviary in George Michael’s house in Hampstead in the 90’s. Maybe all of these rumours are true or maybe they escaped en masse elsewhere or perhaps they simply made a bid for freedom in their ones and twos over the last half century and all met up in the local graveyard and made babies. But there are a lot of them now and global warming and exotic migrants of all stripes are gradually turning London into a tropical city.

The common grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis photographed above in Brompton Cemetery) is another migrant, from the United States. It is commonly denounced for being responsible for the decline of the diminutive and infinitely more attractive native red squirrel but as the last people to see a Sciurus vulgaris in the vicinity of London were probably the Romans, in truth it was moving into an empty niche when it occupied the parks and cemeteries of the great wen. A prolific breeder and minor pest it has never become le succès de la cuisine here that it has elsewhere and which might help to restrain the burgeoning population. If anyone fancies trying it The Wild Meat Company have a delicious sounding recipe for squirrel with chorizo stew, slow-cooked with onions, tomatoes, garlic, butter beans, chilli and smoked paprika. 

Thursday 25 June 2020

'Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards' by Stefan Buczaki (Unicorn £15.00)

Few spaces are as enchanting and romantic--with a touch of the tantalizingly morbid--as a churchyard. From the earliest pagan sites to modern urban cemeteries, these burial grounds have always enjoyed a sacred, protected status. Their preservation, and their removal from the day-to-day hubbub of life, have led them to become tranquil oases in which wildlife can flourish--a microcosm of the natural habitat that has long since disappeared from their surroundings.

Stefan Buczacki

Greenstead church in Essex
There is an unremarkable small dark brown beetle about 1.5 to 2 mm in length that glories in the sonorous Latin name of Rhizophagus parallelocollis but is more commonly known in English as the Graveyard beetle. It acquired it’s colloquial name because as well as being frequently found in basements, compost piles, and mammal burrows it is “common in cemeteries where it swarms in graves, tombstones, and on corpses in 10-24 month-old coffins” (according to Dr Peter Jarvis in The Pelagic Dictionary of Natural History of the British Isles).  When the lead coffin of Abott Dygon of Canterbury, who died and was buried inside the cathedral in 1509, was opened in the 1970’s large numbers of semi fossilised graveyard beetles were found inside his chasuble. A mass of beetles was also found in York Minster in 1979 when the lead lined stone coffin of Archbishop William Greenfield was opened for the first time since his death in 1317. For many amateur entomologists the presence of the beetle inside coffins could only mean that the human corpse was its food source. More seasoned observers knew that it was more likely to prey on fly larvae, or eat mould and other fungi or possibly decayed wood. The presence of the beetle in stone coffins seems to rule out rotten wood as a food source. Lead lined coffins of the type used to inter  high ranking clergy were sealed tightly enough to stop the entrance of any sort of arthropod, even one as small as 2mm but as the bodies of Abbotts and Archbishop’s often lay in state before being sealed up it is quite possible that flies and beetles laid eggs on the corpses before burial. As the Graveyard beetle is often found in locations without corpses it seems most likely that it is either a maggot predator or a mould eater, but no one knows for sure. None of these rather interesting facts are recounted in Stefan Buczaki’s ‘Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards.’ He says that as far he knows the Graveyard beetle is the only creature named after the locality and “although no doubt important in recycling” it is “an altogether unwholesome beast” before going on to quote Dr Peter Jarvis. And there in a nutshell, we have the problem with this overly short book, lots of interesting nuggets but a total absence of detail and nothing remotely morbid to darken any of its breezily written pages.   

The publishers, Unicorn, market this as a gift book i.e. something you are likely to buy to give to away to someone else. It is a pretty book, heavily illustrated with colour photographs and drawings, and the text interspersed with graveyard poetry (kicking off, of course, with the most famous exemplar Elegy written in a country churchyard with its lowing herds, beetles wheeling in droning flight, moping owls and rugged elms). It is very carefully designed in the best possible taste but, to be quite honest, a bit too twee for my tastes. Stefan Buczacki is an experienced author whose first book, Collins Guide to the Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants, was published in 1981 and who has gone on to write over 50 other titles. He started his career as a scientist in the Agricultural Research Council and went on to become a broadcaster as well as an author, appearing initially as a panel member and then as chairman on 600 editions of Gardeners Question Time on Radio 4 as well as contributing to or presenting numerous other radio and TV shows. He loves natural history and he loves churchyards; this book should have been wonderful but in truth it is a little disappointing. It starts with a brief history of churchyards and burials and then a series of short chapters dealing with typical churchyard flora and fauna follows. The best chapter is on the Yew, probably because he looks at his subject in some detail. He also deals with the lichen that encrusts tombstones and churchyard walls, bats and owls. Part of the problem for even a quick tour of churchyard natural history like this is that apart from Yews, which were planted in churchyards all over the country, there is actually very little in the way of a typical ecology for burial grounds. The author points out that enclosed churchyards are often samples of the natural habitat of the surrounding area as it was before subsequent development. They provide oases of surviving habitat that often don’t have much in common with other churchyards. A natural history of English churchyards is therefore almost the same thing as a natural history of England. The subject is too big for such a modestly sized book. Buczacki is an elegant and knowledgeable author and he ever significantly expands his text for a new edition and the publisher drops the illustrations, I would certainly buy a new copy. 

Friday 19 June 2020

Gypsies, tramps and thieves; St Mary & All Saints Churchyard, Lambourne End

The hamlet of Lambourne End sits on the valley slopes below below Hainault Forest and above the river Roding, a mile or so away from the village of Abridge. The church of St. Mary & All Saints is surrounded by a few cottages and larger houses, at the dead end of a narrow and winding lane. One of my friends always said the church looked like it should be in New England; even the normally pernickety Sir Nikolas Pevsner in the ‘Buildings of England’ series coos that St Mary’s is ‘charming.’ The church is not generally untypical of this part of Essex; built from flint rubble with a weather boarded tower, Norman doorways and extensive 18th century renovations. In fact the only really unusual thing about it is that it is whitewashed; it’s this that makes it look almost American. The churchyard has a large modern extension but it is, of course, the old part that is most interesting. Unfortunately, as is often the case, many old headstones have been cleared away and disposed of leaving the churchyard looking half empty. The oldest headstone I could find was still in excellent condition and had a magnificent deaths head surmounted by a winged hourglass, a very typical 18th century design. It commemorated two children, Thomas Babbs who ‘dyed on the 5th day of July 1736 aged 5 years and 6 months’ and his sister Caroline who ‘dyed 23rd day of Dec 1737 aged 9 weeks’. It would have been a miserable Christmas in the Babb’s household that year. On the other 18th century headstones the inscriptions are illegible, worn away by acid rain, two centuries of weathering and obscured by florid lichen growth. 

There are a handful of chest tombs and a barrel vault for Thomas Hadgley ‘late of Wandsworth in the county of Surrey, who departed this life 31 July 1831 aged 79 years’. According to Wakefield's Merchant and Tradesman's General Directory for London 1793 Thomas Hadgley was a linen draper and haberdasher. There was a Hadgley who was a brewer in Abridge in the early 19th century; presumably the two men were related and Thomas came to join his brother in country retirement when he gave up the haberdashery business in Wandsworth. Only the top of the vault is above ground but there are openings at either end and the light of a torch is enough to illuminate a single lead coffin half leaning up against the wall inside.  The other notable memorial is the chest tomb of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes, known as Old Hot and Hot to the men that served under him for his love of blisteringly spicy victuals. The Admiral saw action all over the world, he was present at the capture of Portobello in Panama in 1739, served as lieutenant in the Cartagena Expedition of 1741, was at Louisburg and Quebec, and commanded the East Indies Station from 1773 to 1777. After peace was signed with France, he retired to his country house, Luxborough Hall in Essex, and dedicated himself to enjoying the ‘most princely fortune’ he had acquired in India (reputed to be worth £40,000 a year). He married twice, in 1753 and then in 1765, on both occasions to widows, but neither marriage resulted in any children of his own. He died in 1794 and was buried in some style in Lambourne. His fortune passed to his stepson Edward Hughes Ball Hughes, a well-known dandy, socialite and spendthrift known familiarly as Golden Ball who was celebrated for marrying a Spanish dancer and losing £45,000 pounds in one night at Wattier's Club. 

Normally the church is open is open during the day but in this, the plague year, its doors are firmly shut. It was a shame as it has associations and monuments to the often eccentric local gentry and clergy. The most prominent local family are the Lockwoods. In the 18th century Richard Lockwood was an ‘eminent Turkey merchant’, (not a purveyor of poultry but someone whose commercial enterprises specialised in trading with the Levant) and MP for Hindon, the City of London and the city of Worcester. According to the author of his monument inscription, ‘in the decline of life, thinking himself incapable of doing his country any farther public service he retired from the fatigues of business to his estate at Dews Hall and passed the last years of his life in cheerful enjoyment of family and friends and a truly religious service of his God.’  After a period of ‘gradual decay’ he ‘expired on the 31st day of August 1756, in the 78th year of his age’ and was buried inside the chuch. Richard’s heirs inherited the family traditions of duty and sacrifice in such a virulent form that over the coming century his descendants seemed doomed to exterminate themselves in the service of King and Country. According to Burkes ‘History of the Landed Gentry’ his nephew William was shot blind in 1774 battling with the mob whilst at Westminster School but the most favoured outlet for the family’s insatiable desire for self-immolation was the Coldstream Guards and the Hussars. Lockwood’s fought under Wellington in the Peninsular campaigns at Talavera and Busaco, were killed in the Crimean War taking part in the Charge of the Light Brigade and of course died in the first world war. Somehow the family survived the culling of its young men and was providing local members of Parliament up until the 1950’s. The Lockwoods were interred in a family vault inside the church and mural tablets and memorials put up on the chancel walls. John Lockwood, the son of Richard, has a fine monument of white marble by Joseph Wilton RA depicting Hope with an anchor in her left hand. The Reverend Michael Tyson who was rector of Lambourne in the 1770’s wrote to a friend “one of the most elegant modern monuments I ever saw was last week put up in my church for a Lockwood. I had ten guineas for allowing it a place."  

On the north side of the altar is a monument to Thomas Winniffe, former Dean of St Paul’s and Bishop of Lincoln. According to Bishop Gowden no one or ‘was more mild, modest, and humble, yet learned, eloquent and honest than Bishop Winniffe.’ Born in Dorset probably in 1576, Winniffe lived through one of the most contentious and conflict-ridden half centuries in English history from the death of Elizabeth, the accession of James the first, the civil war and execution of Charles 1, (to whom he was chaplain) and dying midway through the interregnum in 1654 at Lambourne. From good county Yeoman stock, Winniffe entered Exeter College Oxford in 1594 and took his BA in 1598 and MA in 1601. He became a fellow of the college and in August 1605 was one of the college scholars that took part in a dispute in moral philosophy before King James, Queen Anne and Prince Henry. He would have come to the attention of the court again the following year when he became involved in the notorious Star Chamber trial involving the alleged bewitching of Anne Gunther, a young girl from Moreton in Oxfordshire. Anne demonstrated many of the classic signs of being under the maleficent influence of witchcraft; falling into trances and fits, prophesying, vomiting pins and crying out the names of the women who had bewitched her. Anne’s sister was married to an Exeter College man and through the family connection many fellows and scholars heard of the case, including Winniffe, and travelled the half dozen or so miles from Oxford to Moreton to see for themselves the young girl’s torments. When his initial attempts to prosecute the witches locally failed, Anne’s father contrived to bring the case to the attention of the king himself. James was a serious, if sceptical, student of witchcraft and the case captured his interest. And so Thomas Winniffe found himself testifying to the Star Chamber in 1606 over the various strange and unnatural events he had personally witnessed. One of Anne’s symptoms was that, when in her fits, a strange and abnormal swelling the size of man’s head manifested itself in her belly and as a result of this her body become unnaturally heavy. Winniffe testified how one occasion he and a colleague, one Robert Vilvaine, had attempted to try and lift the body of the slight young girl when she was in one of her fits and found that they could barely lift her head from the pillow no matter how much effort they made. The case was eventually resolved when investigators appointed by the King demonstrated that the bewitching was a fraud concocted by Anne’s father Brian Gunter with his daughter’s connivance as part of long running feud between the argumentative villager and his neighbours.

It seems odd to describe a hamlet of a couple of dozen houses, two or three and a church as sprawling but in Essex agricultural communities were based around the farms and manor houses. Workers cottages were built near to the farms and the settlement could be spread over two or three square miles. Lambourne End where there are barely a dozen houses in sight of the church is undoubtedly picturesque. There is a pub a mile away up the valley side on the edge of Hainault Forest and the combination of rural charm and tranquillity, proximity to the East End of London and alcohol made Lambourne End a honeypot for cockney excursionists from the late nineteenth century until the Second World War. In 1942 London Transport withdrew its Sunday service on the 101 bus route which ran during the week from the free ferry at North Woolwich up through Beckton, East Ham, Manor Park, and terminated at Wanstead. On Sundays instead of turning back at the George in Wanstead the bus went on through South Woodford, Woodford Bridge, Grange Hill and Chigwell Row to Lambourne End where it disgorged its cargo of East Enders to run riot in the hedgerows and woods. Before the bus service day trippers came in pony and traps organised by the social clubs of Hackney and East and West Ham. The steady stream of visitors with shillings and half crowns to spend were entertained by a large gypsy community which organised side shows, horse rides and other attractions. Boisterous cockneys, proud Romanies and sullen  locals often made for an explosive mix. On Sunday 18 August 1895 Reynolds's Newspaper reported:

At Epping Police Court on Friday, Walter Bibby, 26, a gipsy, living in a caravan at Hainault Forest, Lambourne, Essex, was charged on a warrant with maliciously wounding William Goddard, an engineer, of 36, Ada-street, Broadway, London Fields, at Lambourne End, Essex, on August 6. Counsel said on August 6 a party of 140 or 150 members and friends of the Lansdowne Working Men's Club, Hackney, went down to Lambourne End in five breaks. During the afternoon there was a dispute with some gipsies over the hiring of a horse, and this led to the excursionists being attacked in the evening. Prisoner stood on the wheel of the brake, and as the vehicle began to move, he raised a large iron bar and threw it with all his force at the people in the brake. It struck William Goddard on the head, cutting his head open. Prisoner: Not me, sir. I'll fetch the man forward who threw that, sir. William Goddard and James Wynn, a fitter and carpenter, of 28, Well-street, Hackney, bore out the statement of counsel, and swore to the prisoner as the man who threw the iron bar. Goddard said he was still under the care of a doctor. His head was put open by the blow. The prisoner was remanded for a week.

It might have seemed an open and shut case but by 6 September the Chelmsford Chronicle was reporting the other side of the story:

THE AFFRAY WITH GIPSIES AT LAMBOURNE-END. At the Epping Petty Session on Friday, before C. J. Bury, Esq.. and other justices, Alfred J. Truckell, 40, of 1 Suffolk-road, Dalston, was summoned for maliciously wounding Jemima Finch, at Lambourne, August 6th, the occasion of the affray with gipsies already reported. Mr. Atkinson appeared for complainant, and Mr. Hobson defended. Complainant, married woman, said that on August 6th she saw defendant at about three o'clock in the afternoon against the Beehive public-house. He asked her to pay him back a sum of 2s. 4d., but she wanted to know what he meant, as she had not had a farthing from him. Defendant was one of the party bean feasters. She saw him several times during the afternoon about the place, but did not speak to him. In the evening she saw the brakes going away and noticed they stopped at Lambourne End. She saw defendant get out the second brake carrying a red stick about a yard and a half long. She was the first person he met, and, without speaking, he raised the stick as if to strike her on the head. She put up her left arm to shield her head, and received the blow across her arm. The blow broke her arm between the elbow and wrist, and she fell to the ground. Defendant remarked, "You cow; I'll do for you." Witness then became unconscious. She was taken to Dr. Brickwell's surgery and her arm was attended to. Cross-examined: She was waker and lived in a van. On this day she had a pony which she was letting out; there was a dispute about paying for the hire of ponies. She and others heard the brakes coming, and merely went out into the roadway to see them pass. Mr. Hobson: What did they all go out for? I don't know, sir. It's not private property. If they like to go out by the roadside they can. The two first brakes stopped because they were asked to stop by several people. Mr. Hobson: Can you suggest a reason why Mr. Truckell got off the van and at once struck you? He did his own mind, I suppose. I didn't say anything. Ada Bibby, wife of Walter Bibby, said she saw the defendant strike Mrs. Finch as alleged. She saw men jump out of the brake and start beating the gipsies. The Chairman: A free fight? Witness: A fight between them. Esther Dorton, of Lambourne-end, also deposed to seeing the defendant strike the complainant with a stick. The defendant, who reserved his defence, was committed for trial to the Assize, and was allowed out on bail. 

In November both cases were disposed of at the Essex Assizes in Chelmsford. The prosecuting barrister was Lord William Cecil, son of the prime minister Lord Salisbury.  During the trial it became clear that there had a number of skirmishes between the Hackney excursionist’s and the gypsies on August 6 caused by an argument over the cost of hiring a pony. Although in theory Alfred Truckell was on trial with the two gypsies Walter Bibby and Jemima Finch’s husband Henry in reality the prosecution argued that the gypsies were solely responsible for the violence and it was left for the defence barrister to argue that Truckell was as guilty as the other two accused. Unsurprisingly Truckell was acquitted and Bibby and Finch found guilty and sentenced to 3 months hard labour.  

Thursday 4 June 2020

'So full of beauty, so empty of brains!'; the mummified head of Holy Trinity Minories

In October 1879 Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were upsetting the balance of power in Europe by entering into the Dual Alliance, Bolivia, Chile and Peru were battling over guano and sodium nitrate rights in the Atacama Desert in the Saltpetre War, Russia and China put an end to mutual hostilities by signing the Treaty of Livadia but on terms so unfavourable to the Qing Dynasty that the Chinese negotiator was immediately sentenced to death by the Emperor, and Oxford University’s  resistance to sexual equality finally started to crumble with the admission of the first female undergraduates at Lady Margaret and Somerville Halls. The attention of the readers of the London Times skirted over these momentous events at home and abroad however and found itself fixed instead on a grisly artefact discovered almost thirty years earlier in the crypt of the church of Holy Trinity Minories.  A visit to the church to see a mummified head kept in a battered box by the curate inspired Claude Webster of the Temple to write a letter to the Editor. Webster's missive initiated a flurry of correspondence and controversy on the head which some believed to be the cranium of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and father of Lady Jane Grey, the nine day queen, who was beheaded at the Tower of London on 23 February 1554, 11 days after the execution of his daughter. On October 10 this first letter appeared under the headline ‘A Neglected Relic’;

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, A visit recently paid to the old and well-nigh forsaken little church of the Holy Trinity in the Minories gave me an opportunity of inspecting the mummified head of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, who was beheaded for high treason in 1554, and which may there be seen in company with the parish registers. This suggestive relic of the Maryan age is in the highest state of preservation, having, by the accident of its having been for a couple of centuries or more wrapped up in oak saw dust, become converted into leather, to which in touch and appearance it will exactly compare… My purpose, however, in this letter is not to go into the question of the value of the evidence of identity of this remarkable object; Dr. Bell has pretty well determined that; but rather to invoke, through your columns, the aid of the Government in taking the needful steps for the suitable care of this unique and mournful relic. At present the head, as already stated, is in a really good state of preservation, showing the eyes, teeth, and, on the back of the neck, even the double blow of the axe; is deposited in a commonplace metal box, and may be taken up in the bands of any inquirer, and is dealt with, no doubt, often roughly without a thought. The curate of the church made no difficulty in allowing myself and accompanying friends to do what we would with the relic, which was replaced in its box, as it was taken from it, with as little ceremony as you would use with a parchment deed or register. Surely so interesting a remain as this pleads itself in its own mute and life-like features for more considerate treatment. If still left in the dingy, forlorn old church, in which it has reposed forgotten and neglected for so many years, the head might, at least, be securely placed in a glass case, and so fixed to the walls of the building as that its surreptitious removal would be difficult. Let the relic be treated with suitable dignity and consideration, even if it be regarded as the only example extant of a head severed from its body by the headman's axe but as the father possibly of Lady Jane Grey, whose pitiful story will never be forgotten while English history remains to have a reader, this interesting object has a claim of no ordinary kind, which doubtless only requires to be made known to be suitably recognised. The Legge family, represented by the existing Earldom of Dartmouth, long used this church as their place of sepulture, the vaults being filled with its members. They have ceased to be buried there, and hence probably, have ceased to take an interest in the church, or I feel assured this matter would not have escaped their notice. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. Claude Webster, Temple October 8th.

Holy Trinity Minories photographed in the 1880's. 
Far from London, William Quekett the rector of Warrington and erstwhile vicar of Christ Church Watney Street was considerably excited by Mr Webster’s letter and immediately dashed off a response, sharing his memories of the discovery of the mummified head almost thirty years earlier; 

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, Perhaps I may be able to throw some little light upon the discovery of this relic. In the year 1851 my son was a scholar at Merchant Taylors' School, and the Rev. Mr. Blunt, the incumbent of Holy Trinity, Minories, was one of the masters of the school, and well known to me. One day a message was brought to me by my son that Mr. Blunt wished to see me at Holy Trinity, Minories, for he had a great curiosity to show me. At the appointed time I met Mr. Blunt there, and he produced a small decayed oaken box -the cover destroyed- and in it there was a human head perfectly preserved. It looked just like a New Zealand chief's head, of which I had seen many. The countenance expressed great agony; the eyes, the teeth, the beard were perfect; and at the back of the head a very deep cut was visible above the one which separated the head from the body. The executioner, no doubt, made a false blow. Mr. Blunt informed me that they were restoring the church, and in a corner of one of the vaults under it, belonging to the Dartmouth family, and much decayed, this small square box was found, which went nearly to pieces on removal. In it the head, as it was then seen, was discovered. Mr. Blunt had, if I recollect, a zinc box made of the same size, and returned the head again to the vault. A few days after I went on a visit to Mr. Sidney Herbert at Wilton. I mentioned after dinner one day to the party staying there this singular discovery. Mr. Herbert stated he knew Lord Dartmouth, and would mention the circumstance to him. On my return to my parish in London shortly afterwards I was favoured with a visit from Lord Dartmouth, with a letter of introduction from Mr. Herbert. I sent him to Mr. Blunt, and he inspected the head, and from inquiry afterwards I heard be had stated that it was a branch of his family, that the portrait of the individual was in their possession, and that it was well known at the time that the executioner failed in his duty. Directions were given for the due preservation of the head, and up to the time of Mr. Blunt's death these duties, I believe, were faithfully carried out. My visit to the church was about 28 years ago, and I have never been there since. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. WILLIAM QUEKETT. Rectory, Warrington, October 10.

Magic lantern slide of the mummified head - former ebay listing
Also inspired to put pen to paper was the current vicar of Holy Trinity Minories, Edward Tomlinson, who felt honour bound to respond to the suggestion by Mr Webster that the mummified head was somehow neglected or badly treated by the parish;

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, As Mr. Claude Webster's letter, inscribed "A Neglected Relic," which appeared in The Times of yesterday, seems likely to lead to the impression that the mummified head, supposed to be that of the Duke of Suffolk, is in danger of falling into decay from neglect or of being surreptitiously removed from its present resting place, I trust you will allow me space to assure your readers that such fears are entirely groundless. The box which contains this curious and unique relic is certainly “common-place," but it is perfectly secure, and is kept under lock and key. I believe it is the same in which it was deposited when first discovered under the chancel floor some 40 years ago. I confess I have never felt satisfied with the custom that has allowed the clerk to take the head out of the box to show it to visitors, and I have for some time felt the advisability of endeavouring to arrange that it might be placed in a properly-closed glass case, where it might readily be seen without its being touched…. I am, Sir, your obedient servant, E. M. Tomlinson, Vicar of Ho]y Trinity, 4, Tavistock-square, Oct 11. Minories.

Mr J. Standish Haly of the Temple also wrote in that day commenting that Mr Webster “in his interesting account of the mummified head of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk… appears to have some doubt as to whether the head is really that of the beheaded duke.” Mr Haly had no such doubts “tradition is generally to be respected in such matters,” he noted before outlining what can only described as extremely circumstantial evidence linking Henry Grey to Holy Trinity. Mr Frederic Surtees of Boxley Abbey near Maidstone, was not convinced that anyone should be making a fuss about Henry Grey “Sir, Except that he was the father of that ‘admirable young heroine’ as H. Walpole termed Lady Jane Grey (or rather Jane Dudley, as she should be called, for she had been married to Lord Guildford two years before her execution), there is nothing in the history of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, entitling his memory to any special regard on the part of the English nation. One charge of treason against him having been dropped, be rushed recklessly into the Wyatt rebellion, fled, and, having hidden in a hollow tree, was betrayed by an underkeeper, taken to London, and beheaded.” Mr Surtees also turned out to be something of an expert on decapitation, “your correspondent, I may observe, is in error in thinking that this is ‘the only example extant’ of a head severed from its body being now in existence” he told the editor before citing the examples “in St. Dunstan's, in Canterbury, the severed bead of Sir Thomas More is still shown in its leaden casing, having been preserved by the filial affection of his favourite daughter Margaret Roper” and of Oliver Cromwell whose head was then in the possession of Horace Wilkinson of Sevenoaks. On the whole Mr Surtees felt that “if Sir Stafford Northcote [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] has any national money just now to spare for such purposes, assuming that it is obtainable, it would probably be generally considered that Cromwell's head would have a prior claim, as an object of national interest, to Henry Grey's, Duke of Suffolk, though one might exclaim on beholding it, like the fox looking at the mask, in the Greek fable  οα κεφαλ, κα γκέφαλον ούκ χει [So full of beauty, so empty of brains!]”.

Photograph taken for EM Tomlinson's 'A History of the Minories'

Thynne and Thynne, Solicitors of 11 Great George Street, Westminster wrote to the Editor at the request of their client the Earl of Dartmouth to clarify that “although Holy Trinity Church has ceased to be the place of sepulture of the Legge family, he has not on that account ceased to take interest in the church. The mummified head, supposed to be that of the Duke of Suffolk, beheaded in 1554, does not belong to his Lordship, neither has he any control over its present care or future destiny. His Lordship would be very glad to find that the Government adopt Mr. Webster's suggestion, but should this not be the case he would willingly assist in any well-considered plan for the preservation of the relic.” Albert Hartshorne of Little Ealing felt that “it is surely obvious that the time has arrived for this fragment of humanity to be treated with the dignity and consideration for which Mr. Webster pleads. But I venture to protest strongly against its being put into a glass case and exhibited for the gratification of the curious. Either let the poor head be taken at once to a convenient burying-ground, for reverent and decent interment, so that it may be spared the last indignity of becoming an attraction for Cockney sightseers.” Another correspondent had rather different ideas;

Sir, would you allow me to suggest that the head be deposited with the authorities of the National Portrait Gallery? It would then be carefully preserved in the fittest place for it; and could never be treated with indignity. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. Charles Aldridge, Newington Butts, London, S.E.

Interestingly Sir George Scharf, Keeper of the National Portrait Gallery had already been asked to give his opinion on the head just a couple of years earlier. On very little evidence the sculptor Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower had said of Scharf that no better judge of a historical head existed, and so the museum keeper had been asked to determine if a 400 year old mummified head bore more than passing resemblance to certain 400 year old portraits, all imperfectly authenticated and of undetermined accuracy, of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. Scharf thought the head corresponded with a portrait then in the possession of the Marquess of Salisbury at Hatfield. Scharf’s notebook sketches of the head still exist.  

George Scharf's notebook sketches of the Holy Trinity head
The correspondence in the Times ended as it began with Claude Webster being allowed the last word;

TO THS EDITOR OF THE TIMES Sir, I have no reason to regret the controversy which has arisen in consequence of my letter which you were so good as to insert on the 9th inst., calling attention to "A Neglected Relic" as I feel confident that steps will now be taken to insure proper treatment for this remarkable object.  As I notice you give insertion to a proposal that the head should be deposited with the authorities of the National Portrait Gallery, I hope you will permit me also to offer an idea on that point. It would be that the head be now removed from the church in which it has so long reposed, but, inasmuch as I am given to understand that this decayed building will have to make way for the contemplated extension of the metropolitan railway, I would urge that the Church of St. Peter in the Tower would be the most fitting depository for the relic. In regard to Mr Tomlinson’s  letter of the 11th inst., it appears to me that he shares my objection to the custom which has allowed the clerk to take the head out of the box to show it to visitors, one result of which has been the entire removal of the hair of the beard to which Mr. Quekett alludes, but no steps, notwithstanding, have been taken to prevent this being done; for this, however, I would fain press. Mr. Tomlinson also virtually concedes the identity of the head, though I admit, with him, that there is still some room for question but he so accurately states the circumstances which have influenced myself and others in arriving at the conclusion that the head was that of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, that it is unnecessary I should say more…. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. - CLAUDE WEBSTER

Or Perhaps not quite because over ten years later, in January 1890 Edward Tomlinson the former vicar of Holy Trinity was writing to the Editor again;

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES. Sir, in a letter which appeared in The Times last week, Mr. Seymour Haden states, as if it were an acknowledged historical fact, that the mummified head preserved in the Church of Holy Trinity, Minories, is that of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. As I spent much time in investigating this question, and as it is of some antiquarian interest, perhaps you will allow me to place before your readers, as briefly as possible, the known facts bearing upon the identity of this head. The head was discovered about 40 years ago in a corner of one of the vaults, but there was nothing about it by which its identity could be established. That it is the head of the Duke of Suffolk is a mere assumption grounded on the fact that the precinct of the Minories was granted by Edward VI. to him, but further investigation shows that shortly after he obtained the grant he sold the property to his brothers, Lord Thomas and Lord John Grey, and his half-brother Mr. George Medley, who held it in common. The Duke and his retinue were living at Sheen, and although it appears that some of the belongings of the younger brothers were residing in the Minories at the time, both the body and the head of Lord Thomas Grey were buried at All Hallows, Barking. There is no known record of the burial of the Duke of Suffolk, but there is little to lead to the supposition that either his body or his head were laid to rest in what was then the Chapel of the Minories. But there is much to be said on the other side. A contemporary historian asserts that the Duke's head was severed from the body with one blow, whereas on the back of the neck of the head now in the church there is distinctly a cut besides that which had parted the head from the body. Then, again, the vault in which the head was found dates only from 1706, the bodies which had been previously buried within the area, then taken for the vault, being removed elsewhere. There is only one man who was beheaded at the Tower who is known to have been buried in the Minories - viz., Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. He, his wife, and daughter (a nun of the Abbey) were all buried there. It is not unlikely, however, that the head belongs to some unknown person of later times. I have in my possession a curious account of the doings of a parish sexton about 100 years ago, who appropriated coffins for other purposes than that for which they were intended, and in order that he might more easily dispose of the bodies he cut them up. Some of these may have been mummified, like those found in other City churches, and from one of these the head in question may have been severed. I am &c, EM. TOMLINSON, former vicar of Holy Trinity, Minories. East Meon Vicarage, Hants, Jan 7

The ’curious’ account which Edward Tomlinson mentions was later published in full in his ‘A History of the Minories’ (1907); 

In a short Time will be wanted, a Piece of Ground in a private Situation for the Purpose of a Burial-Ground for the Use of the Parish of Trinity Minories, the Vaults of the Church being considered Useless from the following Circumstance; A few Days ago Curiosity invited an Inhabitant of the aforesaid Parish to take a Peep into his Neighbours Premises, where, to his utter Astonishment, he discovered Mr Smallcole, the Beadle, dividing into Lengths with a Saw, some of the late Inhabitants undecayed last Surtouts; this induced him to call one of the Churchwardens to View the industrious Dealer; Mr Churchwarden being rather alarm'd ordered Mr Smallcole to give up the Keys of the Parish Wood Warehouse (for I can give it no other Name) and toll the Bell to invite the Inhabitants to a Sight of a depository for old Timber and mangled Bodies: — when the Door of the Warehouse was opened the most shocking Sight my Eyes ever beheld presented itself to view, it had a nearer Resemblance to a Slaughter-House than a Vault for the Interment of our dearest Friends: on the Lid of a Coffin there appeared the hind Quarters of an old Inhabitant who had not been intered more than eight Months; Mr Churchwarden being desirous of proving to the World that he was not a Colleague in the Wood Trade, draws the Remains of another human Body from the Top of some of the other Coffins, with the Flesh hanging to the Bones: after the Inhabitants had taken a survey of their Friends and Relations in the Situation above described, they retired to the Aile of the Church, and there, to the Disgrace of all Society, contented themselves with ordering Mr Smallcole to ask Pardon and not to be guilty of the like again: this being a Fact, I should not wonder to hear of the Undertakers being obliged to seek some other Employ, as Coffins are of so little Use and attended with so much Expence.
September 19, 1786.
N.B. The principle Supporters of Mr Smallcole are Jews, and a Sect of People known in the Parish by the Term of Speckled Bellies.

True to his word Tomlinson did indeed preserve the head in a glass case but it wasn’t to remain long at Holy Trinity. In 1899, the church was closed under the provisions of the Union of Benefices Act 1860 and united with the parish of St Botolph's Aldgate. The mummified head was moved to St Botolph’s where it continued to be an object of curiosity to any Times reader who demanded to see it. Interest in gruesome relics declined as the 20th century unwound and the head gradually disappeared from view. In the Diary of a gay priest; the tightrope walker by Malcolm D Johnson the entry for 12 December 1986 mentions that workmen labouring in the crypt “have found a biscuit tin with a human head inside in the vault beneath the font steps. In 1852 it was discovered in the vaults beneath Holy Trinity Minories but the hair and beard fell off. The word went round that it was the unfortunate Duke of Suffolk…but a surgeon from the nearby London Hospital pointed out that it had not been cleanly cut by an axe but hacked from the body probably with a small knife. For a time it was ‘one of the amenities of Aldgate’ and was put in a glass case for public perusal in St Botolph’s sacristy. My predecessor found its gaze disturbing and so interred it here.” In Crypts of London Johnson says that he had it reburied under the floor of the West Crypt. Just four years later it was being dug up yet again, this time by a team of archaeologists sponsored by the London Diocesan Fund. According to a report in London Archaeologist (06.10.90) “excavations took place between April and July 1990 inside a crypt at the S end of the church of St Botolph-without-Aldgate, before conversion of the crypt into offices…. This crypt was filled with burials and sealed in the 19th c, except for the later interment of a head, reputedly that of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, executed in 1554. The excavators recovered this head and the parish reinterred it in the churchyard.”  And so the story of the mummified head of Holy Trinity finally ends, or does it? In her blog about Lady Jane Grey Lee Porritt says “the head was supposedly buried in the churchyard of St Botolph, Aldgate in 1990. I have heard from an impeccable informant that this is not the case, and that the head is held in a safe and appropriate place, the location known to only a handful of people who need to know its whereabouts.” Hmmm. Someone should write to the Times.