Saturday, 8 August 2020

Où fut inhumé Henri Forestier (1775-1806)?

You get some interesting requests for help when you write a cemetery blog. In February last year I received the message below on Facebook:


Sorry for my English, I'm French.
I write to you hoping that you will help me. I am a historian, and I am a specialist of a French general, Henri Forestier, who died in London in September 1806. He was buried in the St-Gilles-in-the Fields Chapel. I think it's the chapel built in 1803 in the cemetery of St. Pancras. I am looking for information about this chapel, and in particular the date of its destruction and what was done of the tombs in the chapel. Do you know where I can find this information? Thank You

Frédéric Augris

I had never heard of General Henri Forestier and I had never heard of a chapel in the St Giles burial ground on Hampstead Road. My initial response to Frédéric was that as far as I was aware there had never been a chapel in the St Giles’ portion of the St Pancras burial ground. Frédéric rather than just giving up on me as someone who clearly didn’t know what he was talking about, responded by sending me incontrovertible proof that there had indeed been a chapel belonging to St Giles on the Pancras Road. Once my eyes had been opened I started to see the chapel everywhere including places where it had previously escaped my notice like the famous illustration of the railway works that took place in the St. Pancras burial ground and on an early image of the Burdett Coutts memorial.  Maps from the 1840’s onwards show the Chapel standing opposite Goldington Crescent in the site now occupied by the Gardener’s cottage. I started to get intrigued by this hitherto unheard of mortuary chapel and by the fate of Frédéric’s missing general. 

The now demolished Chapel of the St Giles burial ground can be seen to the right of the tripod
A few google searches gave me the broad outline of the royalist general’s life, his intriguing connection with one of the most celebrated society beauties of the day Leonor de Almeida Portugal, the Marquesa de Alorna and Countess D’Oeynhausen and his mysterious death in London in 1806.  He was born in the village of La Pommeraye in the Pays de la Loire region around 1775. Not much is known of his parents, not even their names, but Henri did have several brothers including one who was the parish priest of La Pommeraye. In 1793 the clergy were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Civil Constitution of revolutionary France. 153 of the country’s 160 bishops refused to take the oath and about half of the country’s parish priests. Wholescale persecution of the church followed causing much resentment in the Vendée and other parts of the Pays de la Loire. When the National Constituent Assembly instituted nationwide conscription later in the year to bolster troop numbers in the revolutionary wars, resentment in the Vendée boiled over into open armed resistance when volunteers formed the Royal Catholic Army. A short but ferocious counter revolutionary civil war broke out in the Vendée and the 18 year old Henri threw himself into combat with enormous zeal and, judging by his meteoric rise through the ranks of the catholic army, a good deal of innate flair. His initial promotion was as secretary to the general staff, shortly afterwards to second in command of the cavalry and then to its head, in June 1793 following the battle of Saumur. He took part in several further battles including commanding the left wing at the assault on the garrison of Renne. When the Army of Anjou sued for peace with the government in 1796 Henri was sent to London to continue the struggle against the Republic by clandestine means.  By 1799 he was back in France getting himself seriously wounded in an ill judged second rebellion and forced into hiding until 1801 when he briefly reappeared in Paris only to refuse Napoleons peace offers. A wanted man in France he escaped first to Spain and then to London. In 1803, entangled now in a plot to oust Napoleon subsidised by the British Government known as L’affaire des plombs he travelled to Portugal and then overland to France. Unfortunately, the French ambassador in Lisbon had gotten wind of the plot and Henri narrowly escaped capture. He was sentenced to death by a court in Nantes, in absentia, in November 1805 but by this time he was back in London probably living with his mistress the Countess D’Oeynhausen at an establishment popular with French emigres, the Sabloniere Hotel in Leicester Fields.  

The alluring Countess of Oyenhausen-Grevenburg, Leonor de Almeida Portugal de Lorena e Lencastre
Quite where Henri met the fascinating Countess is not known, (she was 25 years older and had two daughters not much younger than him) but he had visited Lisbon, where the Countess was born, and Madrid, where she lived, in the course of his travels.  Leonor de Almeida Portugal de Lorena e Lencastre, to give her full name, was born in 1750 into one of the wealthiest and most illustrious noble families in Portugal, the Tavoras. The power and wealth of the family proved to be its undoing as the clan fell foul of King Jose I’s autocratic prime minister,  Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal. Leonor’s maternal grandmother (after whom she was named) was the mistress of King Jose and therefore both she and her compliant husband, were form royal favourites. On the night of 03 September 1758 the king was returning home from an assignation with Dona Leonor when his coach was attacked by three pistol wielding ruffians and he was shot in the arm. The prime minister took personal charge of the investigation into what he immediately claimed to be an assassination attempt (rather than a bungled robbery of the kings unmarked carriage), tracked down the three gunmen and tortured a confession out of them that the powerful Tavora family were behind a plot to murder the king and put the Duke of Aveiro on the throne. Leonor was just 8 when her grandmother and grandfather were publicly tortured and executed and the rest of the family imprisoned.  Leonor spent 19 years a prisoner at a convent in Chelas where she passed her time reading Voltaire, and writing; her first book was published in 1772 and was called Poemas de Chelas after her place of confinment. Leonor was released in 1777 on the orders of the new queen Maria I who also encouraged her marriage to the Count of Oyenhausen-Grevenburg in 1779. The following year Leonor moved with her husband to Vienna where she attended Mozart concerts, met Madame de Stael and took up painting. Her husband was recalled to Portugal in 1785 and in 1790 he was made Governor General of the Algarve. In 1793, at the age of just 54, he died and his widow retired to the countryside of the Ribatejo to devote herself to the education of her 6 young children. The death of her family and the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars led to her fleeing Portugal and taking up residence in London where she was eventually to take up with Henri.

The grave of Leonor Countess de Oyenhausen on the cemetery of Prazeres in Lisbon
Frédéric thinks it is likely that Henri and Leonor were cohabiting at the time of his death in 1806. The sudden demise of an apparently healthy 30-year-old who kept close company with an older femme fatale inevitably led to rumours, one of which was that Leonor had poisoned him. Documents show that Leonor paid for Henri’s funeral and that Henri made Leonor’s youngest son his heir. Theoretically he didn’t have much money of his own to leave but he happened to be in possession of substantial funds from the British Government, money intended to promote the fight against Napoleon. Henri’s associates tried to wrestle the money away from Leonor but with apparently little success. They were reduced to pleading with the British Government to intervene. One of Henri’s former subordinates, the Chevalier de Saint-Hubert wrote to William Windham (from his prison cell in Nantes) that Leonor was an “execrable woman whom he (Forestier) had had the misfortune to know in Portugal, who had seduced him and who, having become his concubine, had during his long illness squandered the greater part of the sums he had in his hands and who still wanted to seize the rest under the pretext of a marriage that never existed. This contemptible creature after the death of her victim, because it was she who led him to the tomb as much to satisfy her lewdness as to seize his remains…” It was another of Henri’s former associates who started the poisoning rumour at about the same time. Henri, his constitution possibly fatally undermined by lubricity or poison (or both) died on 14 September and was buried, according to the parish register of St Giles-in-the Fields (where he is recorded as Alfred Henry Marquis De Forestier, a very sudden elevation to the French nobility) on 19 September in the ‘Chapel Vlt’.  Charles McCarthy the verger who kept the registers seems to have had a system of his own devising which he used to record the location of the burials.

A very busy parish, St Giles had several burial grounds, including the churchyard, the new burial ground on Pancras Road, and the work house burial ground. The new ground was acquired in the late 1770’s as the churchyard became overcrowded, though burials continued in the churchyard well into the 19th century (“Mr. Walker, speaking of the St. Giles' Churchyard in London says, ‘in less than 2 acres it contains 48,000 bodies.’ A London churchyard is very like a London omnibus. It can be made to carry any number. If there is no room inside - no matter, there is always plenty of accommodation outside. The same with a London churchyard - number is the last consideration. There are three things, in fact, which are never by any accident full. These are: The Pit of a Theatre, an Omnibus, and a London Churchyard. The latter combines the expansiveness of the two former, with the voluminousness of the Carpet Bag.” Punch 1849). Large numbers of the parish poor ended up living and dying in the workhouse on Shorts Garden which had its own burial ground. In his “Saint Pancras Past and Present” published in 1874 Frederick Miller describes the origins of the new cemetery:

Adjoining the old churchyard [of St. Pancras] is the Saint Giles-in-the-Fields Cemetery. An Act for providing a new burial ground for the Parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields and for erecting a chapel thereon, was passed in the year 1803.  About three acres and a half of ground, known as the Adam and Eve Tea Gardens, adjoining St Pancras Old Church was purchased; part was enclosed for the purposes of the churchyard, and the remainder was, on the 23rd November 1803 demised by the trustees for a term of 61 years. On Sept 12 1805 the chapel was consecrated by the Bishop of London, the ground having been consecrated in June 1803. His Lordship was pleased, said a newspaper writer at the time, to signify his approbation of the neat manner in which the chapel was furnished and fitted up.

Another rare view of the demolished chapel
To avoid confusion between the various burial grounds the verger carefully noted in the register where each burial took place; OG for old ground i.e. the churchyard, NG for the new ground on Pancras Road and WHP for the work house paupers. There are just two mentions of the ‘Chapel Vlt’ in the register and then a handful of burials coded PCV which must mean Pancras Chapel Vault. The other reference to the vault comes in an unusually voluble entry in February 1805 "Revd Daniel Parslow - late curate of this parish, he officiated at the consecration of the new Chapel vault at St Pancras of which he laid the first stone and was the first buried therein aged 38. He broke a blood vessel in his head, while preaching on 03rd February 1805." Daniel Parslow left a widow and 10 children when he died of an aneurysm in the pulpit that February. The rector of the parish was John Buckner, the Bishop of Chichester, and he got up a subscription for the relief of his curate’s family – he raised almost £8000.  Mrs Parslow was thus relieved of the burden of producing more children and of supporting her existing ones by her husband’s premature demise. The potent curate seems to have been interred in the vault before building work on the new chapel had finished; according to the Star of Friday 13 September;

The chapel belonging to the parish of St. Giles in the Fields, situate near Pancras Church, being completed, was consecrated yesterday, with all due solemnity, by the Lord Bishop of London in the presence of the Churchwardens, Trustees and other principal inhabitants of the parish. 

Henri Forestier died a year and a day after the consecration of the new chapel. During that first year no one else had joined Daniel Parslow in the vault. Once Henri once is laid to rest in the vault that is the last we know about the whereabouts of his body. In the following years there were a few other interments in the vault but it was never a hugely popular burial place – perhaps the fees were prohibitive. The Chapel was demolished at some point in the second half of the 19th century but we have no idea what happened to the handful of bodies entombed in the vault. 

An inset from a map of the parish of St Giles-in-the-fields dated 1829 showing the burial ground and chapel in St Pancras 
The two adjacent burial grounds of St Giles and St Pancras were almost certainly closed for further burials in 1854 following the passing of the Metropolitan Burial Act two years earlier.  The chapel may have stood unused for a while before being converted to a school. It was certainly in use as school by the late 1860's as newspapers give accounts of penny readings. It is still a school in 1874 when Frederick Miller writes 'St Pancras Past and Present':

The St Giles Cemetery Chapel, which met with the approval of Bishop Porteus nearly seventy years since, has now become the School house of Old St Pancras Church and the public for a season were invited weekly to listen to Penny Readings.

In 1877 the St Pancras and St Giles cemeteries were reopened as public gardens (see Preserving God’s Acre). The Chapel and houses along Pancras Road were the western boundary of the garden. In 1881 the guardians of the St Pancras Workhouse bought Cooks Terrrace, the row of houses to the left of the chapel (from the road) and in 1889 the Midland Railway purchased land from the east of the churchyard and the vestry used the money to buy the houses to the right of the chapel. In 1890/91 the workhouse demolished Cooks Terrace and built the hospital block that still stands there today. At the same time the vestry demolished the houses standing to the right of the chapel and remodelled the gardens. We can’t be sure but it seems likely that it also demolished the chapel and built the gardeners cottage on the site of the chapel at around the same time. The bodies that were buried in the vault must have been removed at some point between deconsecration of the chapel in the 1850/60’s and it’s final demolition in the early 1890’s. The burial society of St Giles could have decided to remove the bodies at any point in the forty years between closure of the cemetery and demolition of the chapel. But where would they have sent them? Unlike most London churches St Giles-in-the-fields never cleared out it’s crypts so never seems to have forged the relationship other churches did with one of the new cemeteries that had sprung up on the outskirts of London. If they did get the bodies removed to a new cemetery which one would it have been? Hanwell? Brookwood? St Pancras in Finchley?  Did they simply move the bodies from the Chapel Vault to their own crypt at the main church?   

1 comment:

  1. Thank you David for this article. I hope that a reader can provide us with a solution.
    Frédéric Augris