Monday, 28 September 2020

Robbing the living for the sake of the dead; Barnes Common Cemetery

The Hedgman Memorial 

These two acres of sandy ground were originally purchased by the church authorities for £10 and a further £1,400 was spent on providing a chapel and landscaping. The cemetery was closed in 1954 and acquired by the Borough from the church in 1966 with the intention of turning it into a lawn cemetery. As a first step the chapel and lodge were demolished and the boundary railings removed, making it fair game for all manner of unsavoury happenings and many headstones smashed. The vandals may have been encouraged by Barnes sinister reputation that preceded the 1970s. Stories of murder and hauntings include that of a ghostly nun who is said to hover over the place where the body of an unfortunate Mrs Thomas was once exhumed.

Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons ‘London Cemeteries’ (2011)

Autumn is upon us; the days shrink as the nights draw in, Covid-19 infections double every 7 days, the economy teeters on the edge of collapse and another lockdown seems imminent. Since last week cemetery tours are now one of the few acceptable ways that people can take part in social gatherings involving more than 6 other humans without being herded up, baton charged and tear gassed by Her Majesty’s Constabulary.  And so I used what may well be one of our last days of semi-freedom, a pleasant and unseasonably warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in late September, to join a group of fellow cemetery enthusiasts at Barnes Common to take part in the ‘Graves in the Wood’ Cemetery Club tour hosted by that most genial and knowledgeable of taphophiles, Sheldon K Goodman.  This was my third tour with Sheldon; I’d previously been around Hampstead with him and also spent an October evening in the pitch dark with him and Sacha Coward in an unlit Tower Hamlets cemetery that was far busier than I’d ever seen it during the day (gangs of teenage cider drinkers in vampire makeup congregated around benches or other surfaces flat enough to sit on, mobs of pumpkin wielding east end urchins roamed the paths and the undergrowth crawled with single men on the prowl (only for each other, luckily,) Sheldon is running another after dark tour this Halloween, join him, it’s great fun). Barnes Common Cemetery is one of Sheldon’s regular tours and not somewhere I had ever been before (despite living and working in the area for most of the 1980’s). 

The 18th century motif on the mid 19th century Frickley grave

Barnes is tiny, a mere two acres of burial ground that has reverted to woodland since it closed in the 50’s. It isn’t unusual in having returned to nature, it isn’t any more overgrown than Abney Park or Nunhead or even Highgate East. What is unusual is that the cemetery walls and railings were removed so that there was no longer any boundary between it and the rest of the common. Now the unsuspecting Sunday stroller when taking the air on the common may suddenly find themselves in the middle of a cemetery without knowing how they got there. Some people apparently find this unnerving. Its diminutive size is partly the result of never being allowed to expand beyond that initial two-acre plot. In 1889 when the vestry of St Mary’s, the owners of the cemetery, released plans for an extension they were surprised by the vociferousness of the opposition. The West London Observer of 20 July 1889 set forth the case against the proposal; “the Barnes people must not be allowed to cut and carve their common any further, even for the purpose of extending their cemetery. Barnes Common is of value to the living —it can be of no kind of advantage to the dead,” fulminated the leader writer, pointing out that recent legislation meant that commons within three miles of a town were no longer just the concern of the commoners and that the neighbouring boroughs had a legal right to step to prevent encroachment. It demanded that in “Hammersmith, in Kensington, in Chiswick, Fulham—indeed, all over West London steps should be taken once to let those see whom it may concern that no further interference with Barnes Common will be tolerated under any pretence……the long and the short of it is, the Vestry of Barnes will have to abandon this latest proposal of theirs to add piece of the common to the cemetery. To do so would be rob the living for the sake of the dead.” The plan to extend the cemetery was dropped and Barnes only received its much-needed additional burial space when the municipal authorities opened East Sheen cemetery in 1906.

The impressive, but utterly ruined, memorial for John Pullen of 107 Castelnau

For a small cemetery Barnes has more than its fair share of interesting permanent residents. Sheldon started his tour at the graves of landscape painter Edward ‘Moonlight’ Williams (died 1855 just a year after the cemetery opened) and his two sons, also landscape painters, Henry John (who took his wife’s surname of Boddington and died in 1865) and George Augustus (died 1901). Edward had three other sons who were also painters and two of which, like Henry John, changed their surname so that the art market wasn’t flooded with a plethora of virtually indistinguishable Williams’s. Collectively they were dubbed the Barnes’ school, their work of the sort that adorns nostalgic Christmas cards or, at one time, chocolate boxes. Just a few yards on from the Williams’ grave is the memorial to 27-year-old William Hedgman, the largest, though for me not the best, monument in the Cemetery. The memorial is big – I’m no good at judging distances or heights but it has to be over 20 feet high, the angel at the top is the only statue that has retained its head in the whole cemetery so it is clearly too tall for the vandals (though it has lost its nose somehow). Sheldon said that William’s father James was the proprietor of the first commercial swimming pool in London (I think I have that right). The memorial covers a sizeable vault and the family exhumed relatives from Abney Park to fill up some of the vacant loculi. Other graves we visited included Samuel Rabbeth, (1858–1884) a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital who contracted diphtheria after performing a tracheotomy on a four year old child and finding the windpipe blocked with mucus, sucking it clear with a tube. The child didn’t survive either. Rabbeth is also commemorated at Postman’s Park. And Francis Turner Palgrave compiler of The Golden Treasury, Ebener Cobb Morley, father of the Football Association, and the area where the common grave of Julia Martha Thomas is located. Julia was murdered in 1879 by the notorious Kate Webster who dismembered Julia’s body, boiled the flesh off the bones, allegedly skimmed off the fat and tried to sell it as dripping to a local butcher, and threw whatever was left into the Thames. Kate was eventually hung for her crimes and whatever had been collected of Julia’s body buried in Barnes. The head was missing for many years and only turned up in 2010 under David Attenborough’s patio.  Our last port of call was the badly damaged grave of George Chirgwin a flamboyant music hall star known as the white eyed kaffir who died in 1922;

WREATHS IN THE FORM OF A VIOLIN. The funeral of Mr. G. H. Chirgwin, the White-Eyed Kaffir, took place on Friday at Barnes Cemetery. The chief mourners were Mrs. Chirgwin and her two sons.  There was a large crowd of sympathisers, while many of Mr. Chirgwin’s professional friends were present, including Sir Oswald Stoll, Mr. Charles Gulliver, Mr. Harry Tate, Mr. Joe Elvin, and Mr. Cragg (“Papa”). There was a large deputation from the Music Hall Artistes Railway Association, and representatives of the Music Hall Benevolent Home, Twickenham. An extra hearse was filled with wreaths, two of which were in the form of the White-eyed Kaffir’s fiddle. One was composed of mainly white chrysanthemums and bore on it the representation of the famous white eye in small mauve and white flowers. (Gloucester Citizen - Saturday 18 November 1922)

Sheldon’s tours always finish with a singer from the music hall and a rendition of one of their better-known numbers. Chirgwin started off as a straightforward minstrel singer until he added a white diamond around the eye to the usual blackface (and sometimes went ‘negative’ with a white face and a black diamond). Sheldon gave us one of Chirgwin’s minstrel numbers called ‘The Blind Boy’ written by Robert Lee and George Washington Moore of the Christy Minstrels. Sheldon was doubly hampered by having to perform in a visor and sing in falsetto but as usual he gave a spirited performance even though ‘The Blind Boy’ isn’t the catchiest number in his graveside repertoire. We all enjoyed and I suspect so did Chirgwin lying at rest beneath our feet. 

Samuel Rabbeth (right)

There were a couple of memorials that caught my eye which Sheldon didn’t mention. One was the gravestone of William Frickley who died in 1858 which bears a rather nice example of a flying hourglass with an ouroboros, a snake with its tail in its mouth, a symbol of eternity. The motif isn’t uncommon – I had seen a very nice one the previous week in the churchyard of St Thomas in Navestock, Essex. That one was dated 1772; by 1858 the motif was very old fashioned indeed and not really in use any more. The Frickley grave sticks out like a sore thumb in a high Victorian cemetery because it is such an anachronism, a tombstone from the Georgian period. Perhaps William Frickley had antiquarian tastes The memorial which impressed me most was for John Pullen of 107 Castelnau, who died on 05 October 1903. John was a rich man; probate records show him leaving an estate worth £15502 12 shillings and tuppence. His memorial is rather fine and shows a sadly now headless female figure standing next to what is now an empty niche (but which may well have originally held a portrait of the deceased). Photographs on Geograph and Flickr show that the female figure on the memorial still had her head as recently as 2013; someone seems to have removed it around 2014. None of the memorials at Barnes are listed.    

Detail on the Palgrave grave

A trawl through the newspaper archives revealed a couple of interesting stories about the cemetery. The Beverley brook is a small river that runs for 9 miles between Worcester Park and the Thames between Putney and Barnes. It flows close the cemetery and in 1900 the cemetery authorities seem to have dammed a small tributary stream with unforeseen consequences. In the Pall Mall Gazette of 11 July 1900 there was a report about a meeting of Barnes District Council:

Child’s Coffin Floating Barnes Cemetery. It was reported last night, at a meeting of the Barnes District Council that Barnes Cemetery had become so waterlogged that when child’s grave, made fifteen months ago, was opened for a new interment, the coffin was found afloat. Steps are being taken to remedy this state of things, which is believed to be due to the damming of a stream near the cemetery.

The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 12 July had more details:

Owing to the damming back of a stream near the Barnes Cemetery, the latter had become so waterlogged that when a grave was opened the coffin was floating about. In another case the gravedigger put branches the bottom of a newly made grave to hide the water, and when the coffin was let down the mourning party were splashed. Means will be taken to remedy the evil; the matter having been reported to the District Council.

In 1909 an elderly woman keeled over and died whilst attending a funeral;

Mrs. Charlotte Greenhill. aged seventy-seven, of Norfolk-square, Hyde Park on whom an inquest was held at Mortlake died suddenly from heart disease while attending a funeral at Barnes Cemetery. Her executor stated that she told him she prayed every night that she might not live to the morning. (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Tuesday 04 May 1909)

And then there was the Barnes Cemetery Tragedy of 1927 as reported by the West London Observer on 14 January, the rather sad story of the lonely cemetery lodge keeper who gassed himself because he was “absolutely fed up”;

"Suicide whilst of unsound mind" was the verdict recorded by Alderman Dr. Michael Taylor, J.P., at a Mortlake inquest on Wednesday on Frank Lenan, aged 56, lodge keeper at the Barnes Common Cemetery, who was found dead with his head in the gas oven at the cemetery lodge on Tuesday, 4th January. A brother-in-law, William Cornet, of Cleveland Road, Barnes, identified the body, and said that the deceased, who was a widower, was a cheerful and healthy man. He had no troubles, and had never shown any signs of mental derangement. Edith Cornet, a sister, said that the deceased had no children, and his wife died twelve months ago. He lived by himself at the cemetery lodge, and did everything for himself, except prepare his dinner, which was brought to him daily. On Sunday the deceased spent the evening with them and when he departed, at about 10.46 p.m., he seemed quite cheerful. On Monday witness sent her daughter with his dinner, but she understood that after waiting for sometime, her daughter left the basket outside the door. Witness went herself to the lodge the next morning and found that the basket was still outside the door. She looked inside the door and saw a boot protruding, and came out again. The Coroner then produced a letter to the witness which read, "I wish Mrs. Cornet to have £l00, Betty Cornet £3O, and the remainder and home to Mrs. Giles, my sister, of Kingston. Thanking all for their kindness to me. Absolutely fed up. —Yours, etc., Frank Lenan. Pass book and deposit book at the Midland Bank." Mr. Cornet mentioned that there was more than the sum mentioned credited at the bank. Mrs. Emmie Giles, of Shortlands Road, Kingston, a sister, said that she visited the deceased every Friday. He had sometimes said, "What a life! Nobody to speak to." and witness thought that the deceased felt the loss of his wife. Thomas Edward Dainton, the commonkeeper, who said that he had known Lenan all his life, thought that he had officiated as cemetery keeper for 12 years. On Tuesday, Mrs. Cornet came to him and they went together to the lodge. He opened the back door and saw a boot protruding from behind the door. He then found the deceased lying on his left side with his head in the gas oven, covered over with an overcoat. P.C. J. Pettit, who was called in, said that the man was already dead. Dr. J. B. Scott, a divisional police surgeon, said that the body was pink from the gas fumes. Following a postmortem examination he attributed death to asphyxia, caused by coal gas poisoning. 

As he sat on his favourite bench in the Cimetière du Montparnasse he often recalled the day when he and his wife – his first wife – had first stumbled upon the mysterious lost and overgrown cemetery on Putney Heath, on the way to Barnes. Unlike the well-laid-out cemeteries of Paris and indeed of France as a whole, neatly walled and with all the tombstones set in orderly rows, this one seemed to have no clear boundaries and the tombstones appeared to grow like the tress in whose midst they appeared, randomly and without logic. Many of the statues had been vandalised over the ages and there were a great many decapitated angels. Originally perhaps there had been some attempt at order and symmetry, for somewhere near the centre a space had been cleared and a memorial to a certain William Hedgeman, in the form of a large cross standing on an inscribed plinth, had been erected. But three of the four paths leading to it from the sides had lost all semblance of straightness, the way had been blocked by fallen trees and more gravestones, overgrown now by creepers and moss…. They had been walking across the Heath one Saturday morning on their way to the pub in Barnes…when they had come across the cemetery. They must have passed within yards of it on numerous previous occasions without stumbling upon it, and even after many visits there was always the sense of suddenly and unexpectedly entering a lost world.

Gabriel Josipovici – ‘The Cemetery in Barnes’

Gabriel Josipovici is one of our more underrated writers (that’s why you have never heard of him!). The 79-year-old published his first book in 1968 and his most recent piece of published fiction is ‘The Cemetery in Barnes’ a intense and ambiguous novella about a translator and his relationship with his first wife in Putney, his years of solitude in Paris and life in the Abergavenny mountains in Wales with his second wife. In Paris the unnamed protagonist translates second rate novels, wanders the city in his free time exploring the Parisian cemeteries of Père Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse, is haunted by the death by drowning of his first wife on the Thames towpath and listens obsessively to Monteverdi’s opera ‘L'Orfeo’ in which Orpheus descends to Hades to recover his own dead wife Eurydice. It is a dark and brooding piece of work and, as you would guess from the title, the cemetery on Barnes Common plays a key symbolic role.  

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