Thursday 29 April 2021

Hung, drawn and quartered; the cruel fate of Colonel Francis Towneley (1709-1746) St. Pancras churchyard

I came across this bucolic view of Old St Pancras church, with the old west tower and lead cupola, in the London Picture Archive. Dated June 7th 1756 the watercolour shows a periwigged gentleman in a blue frockcoat, pink breeches and felt round hat and a woman with voluminous yellow shirts and matching wide brimmed bonnet who fans herself as they take in the rustic view of the church from the South West, enclosed by a low wall and surrounded by trees, with the hills of Hornsey and Haringey in the distance. Even at this early date most of the headstones in the churchyard incline several degrees from the vertical and many look almost at the point of toppling over. Only one epitaph is visible, the unlikely sounding ‘Here lies the mangled remains of Francis Townley’. The artist, Henry Townley, had an eventful day out; an annotation at the side of the picture says “On returning across the fields to Holborn I was stopped by footpads but escaped by wounding one when the other ran off.” Henry was clearly not a man to be trifled with. At the bottom of the picture, he explains that “this sketch of St. Pancras church done by me on return to England upon seeing my poor Brothers Grave who was disgracefully murdered for taking arm in support of his exiled Prince at Culloden.” The mangled remains Colonel Francis Towneley were buried at St Pancras on 31 July 1746 the day after he had been hung, drawn and quartered along with 8 other Jacobite rebels at Kennington. As his bowels had been drawn and burnt whilst he was still alive and his head was removed to a spike on Temple Bar there would have been relatively little of him to inter in the churchyard. I wondered if this is why the parish burial register notes that his relatives were only charged a ½ fee for the vault to be opened; a discount applied by a considerate sexton because the deceased’s mortal remains were incomplete? Further examination of the register brought further examples of half fees to light, so perhaps not.       


Francis Towneley was born in 1709 at Towneley Hall in Burnley, the fifth son of staunch Catholics Charles and Ursula Towneley, His uncle Richard had joined the Jacobite army at Preston in 1715 and had been taken prisoner when the town surrendered. When he was put on trial a local jury acquitted him, revolted by the news of Colonel Oxburgh’s brutal execution at Tyburn. At the age of 18 Francis went to France and accepted a commission in the French army.  According to Walter Thornberry he served the king of France “for fifteen years, being at the siege of Philipsburg, and close to the Duke of Berwick when that general's head was shot off.” He returned to England in 1740 and joined the rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, accepting a commission as a Colonel in the Manchester Regiment. Francis was foul mouthed, “his fashion of hard swearing called forth an impromptu rebuke from one of the townsmen” according to Albert Nicolson in the DNB. He was also a dandy; at the retreat from Derby he rode a bay horse, had a white cockade in his hat and wore a plaid sash. When the Jacobite army fled to Scotland Towneley and the 114 men of the Manchester Regiment remained at Carlisle with 200 Scottish troops to somehow impede the progress of the Duke of Cumberland and the Redcoat army. Colonel John Hamilton was left in charge and surrendered the garrison almost as soon as the town came under siege. 

A curious old print of 1746, full of vulgar triumph, reproduces a "Temple Bar, the City Golgotha," representing the Bar with three heads on the top of it, spiked on long iron rods. The devil looks down in ribald triumph from above, and waves a rebel banner, on which, besides three coffins and a crown, is the motto, "A crown or a grave." - Walter Thornbury  

Towneley and the other Jacobites went on trial in London on 13 July 1746. Inevitably they were all convicted and the officers condemned to death for high treason. The execution took place on 30 July at Kennington in front of a crowd of thousands. This account appeared in the Derby Mercury on 01 August:      

At the Gallows they were not attended by any Minister, either of the Protestant or Catholick Religion. All the Assistance they had in their last Moments was from Mr. Morgan, who read to them Prayers and other pious Meditations, out of a Book of Devotion to which they all seemed very attentive, and behaved with a great deal of Seriousness. When they had finished their Devotions every one of them took some written Papers out of the Book which Morgan had in his Hand, and threw them amongst the Mob, The Contents of the Papers were, that they died in a just Cause; that they did not repent of what they had done, and doubted not but their Deaths would be revenged; with several other treasonable Expressions. They were then tied up to the Gallows, and in about five Minutes the Executioner cut down the Body of Mr. Townley, and laid it on a Stage for the Purpose. The Body being stripped, and laid at Length, having some Signs of Life in it, the Executioner struck it several Blows on the Breast, then cut off his Head, took out his Bowels, and flung them into the Fire near the Gallows. The next he cut down was Counsellor Morgan, which he laid on the Stage, and served in the fame manner; and so, of the rest, till he had finished the whole Execution. Dawson was the last; and when the Executioner had thrown his Bowels and Heart into the Fire, the Spectators gave three loud Huzzas, and at the same time crying out, God bless King GEORGE, and all the Royal Family.

A satirical print showing the heads of Towneley and Fletcher engaged in conversation on Temple Bar

According to Thornberry in front of the huzzaing crowd of Hanoverian loyalists a “monster — a fighting-man of the day, named Buckhorse — is said to have actually eaten a piece of Towneley's flesh, to show his loyalty”. The fiancée of one of the other men executed, James Dawson, was reputedly so traumatised by seeing her lover executed that as he was disembowelled, she cried out "My dear, I follow thee — I follow thee! Lord God, receive our souls, I pray Thee!" and died on the spot. Low farce followed high tragedy that day at Kennington – the hangman and his assistant had so many heads to juggle with that the crowd lost track of which belonged to who and began to lay bets on which was Colonel Towneley’s. Apart from the Colonel the decapitated bodies were sent for burial at the Foundling Hospital; the heads were covered in pitch and Towneley and Fletcher’s were sent to Temple Bar to be impaled on spikes. The rest were despatched to the north to be displayed in Manchester and Carlisle. On August 15th Horace Walpole, wrote to a friend telling him about an excursion into the city where he had "passed under the new heads on Temple Bar, where people make a trade of letting spy-glasses at a halfpenny a look."  On 20 January 1766 a man was arrested by the watch according to the Gentleman’s Magazine; “between three and four in the morning a person was observed discharging musket balls from a steel cross bow at the two remaining heads upon Tempie Bar.  Upon searching him above fifty musket balls were found in his pock wrapt up in a paper with this motto Eripuit ille vitam.” Thornbury says “on being questioned by the puzzled magistrate, he affected a disorder in his senses, and craftily declared that the patriotic reason for his eccentric conduct was his strong attachment to the present Government, and that he thought it not sufficient that a traitor should merely suffer death; that this provoked his indignation, and it had been his constant practice for three nights past to amuse himself in the same manner.”

"Orator H-y laying the Independent Rump Ghosts" a satirical print of a solicitor refusing to take the oath of loyalty to King George and an arse explaining the consequences of "see what you shall all come to". Towneley is one of the ghosts in the background, dressed in a winding sheet and reunited with his head.

The headless trunk of the gallant Colonel Towneley, a Lancashire gentleman of long descent, who commanded the Manchester regiment the Pretender’s service, was buried in old St. Pancras churchyard. The Colonel’s head was, I have heard, until very lately, preserved in a glass case in the drawing-room of London mansion, the property of a lineal descendant of the ill-fated Jacobite gentleman who was slaughtered at Kennington. I think that this interesting relic has since received reverent interment.

Illustrated London News - Saturday 25 October 1879

The two heads remained upon Temple Bar until the early 1770’s when first one and then, a few days later, the other were worked off their spikes by a particularly brisk wind and dropped to the ground. The Towneley family obtained possession of one of the heads, the one presumably that they judged to belong to Francis. Katharine Grant, a lineal descendent, wrote in the Guardian in January 2014 (and in many other places and at many other times) about the fate of the ancestral head; 

Pitch being an efficient preservative, and making allowances for weather and birds, Frank was in pretty good nick. Such good nick that in due course he was taken back to the patriarchal home, Towneley Hall, Burnley, and stuck behind the panelling in the family chapel, where he remained until central heating precipitated relocation. Resettled in a basket, and loosely shrouded by a napkin, he moved to the sideboard in the dining room to be passed round with the port. Perhaps he proved unpopular with guests, for he didn't last on the sideboard. In the end he was popped into a hatbox and returned to London, to Drummonds Bank in Trafalgar Square. It wasn't until after the second world war that he travelled north again, still in his hatbox. By that time, Towneley Hall had been sold to the Burnley Corporation, so my great-grandmother received him at Dyneley, the agent's house, to which the family had removed, and from there he was buried in St Peter's church along with other relations.

“Squire Ketch in Horrors”, a pro-Jacobite satirical print of 1750. Executioner John Thrift is confronted by his Jacobite victims, including Lovat (front), Kilmarnock and Balmerino (immediately behind Lovat) and Towneley and Fletcher, their heads on spikes at the rear

Sunday 25 April 2021

The Myth of the Hardy Tree; Old St. Pancras Churchyard

I cycle past St Pancras churchyard every working day of my life, yet it was only when I spotted a windswept group of prelates and parishioners one day that I paused to go inside. The Bishop of London was presiding over an event outside the small Norman church. It was as I wandered round the back of the building that I came across the Hardy Ash.

In the 1860s, the writer Thomas Hardy had been apprenticed to an architect, Arthur Blomfield, in Covent Garden. The building of the nearby Midland Railway had disrupted many of the graves in the churchyard and Hardy was tasked with making an inventory and reburying them. He stacked the headstones round a convenient ash tree. Then he seems to have moved on before the job was finished.

What remains is the scene he left, save for the extraordinary development of the tree, which has wrapped itself around the headstones as if to prevent anyone ever attempting to move them again. Each is numbered with a Roman numeral, and I like to think Hardy may have carved the numbers himself.

The Hardy Ash represents a wondrously direct and organic connection with history, but it is also the most beautiful artefact.

Jon Snow ‘The Great Trees of London’ 2010

The Hardy Tree has become one of the great myths of London; how the young novelist supervised the clearing of the churchyard and the stacking of the headstones around an Ash tree. Jon Snow even imagines him personally chiselling roman numerals into the sides of the stones. The information board by the tree is a little more circumspect, saying that “the headstones around this Ash tree (Fraxinus Excelsior) would have been placed here around” the time Hardy was supposedly overseeing the exhumations in the churchyard. There is no evidence that Hardy had anything to do with the tree named after him but even so I had, like most people, assumed that the gravestones had been arranged around the tree in the first place. It was with something of a jolt therefore that I came across a photograph of “St. Pancras churchyard and it’s disturbed gravestones” in ‘Wonderful London’ a book edited by St. John Adcock and published in 1926. The caption to the photo mentions the Midland railway Company obtaining an Act in 1863 allowing them to build a viaduct over the churchyard and says “the rockery made of tombstones is a result of the headstones being removed and ‘dumped’”. The photograph shows the familiar circular arrangement of headstones but with one significant difference; there is no tree! In 1926 the Hardy tree did not exist. The tree, presumably self-seeded, has grown since the late 1920’s and is less than one hundred years old.

The St. Pancras headstones photographed in 1926 for 'Wonderful London' 

Hardy himself wrote quite a detailed account of his involvement with the exhumations at Old St. Pancras published in the biography supposed penned by his wife Emily; ‘The Early Years of Thomas Hardy’. The account makes it clear that Hardy was not responsible for overseeing the exhumations, that was the duty of a Clerk of Works. Hardy was instructed to drop by in the evenings to keep an eye on the Clerk of Works and make sure that all was proceeding in an appropriately seemly manner and report back to Blomfield if it was not. The passage is worth quoting in full;

Mr. Blomfield (afterwards Sir Arthur) being the son of a late Bishop of London, was considered a right and proper man for supervising the removal of human bodies in cases where railways had obtained a faculty for making cuttings through the city churchyards, so that it should be done decently and in order. A case occurred in which this function on the Bishop’s behalf was considered to be duly carried out. But afterwards Mr. Blomfield came to Hardy and informed him with a look of concern that he had just returned from visiting the site on which all the removed bodies were said by the company to be reinterred; but there appeared to be nothing deposited, the surface of the ground lying quite level as before. Also that there were rumours of mysterious full bags of something that rattled, and cartage to bone-mills. He much feared that he had not exercised a sufficiently sharp supervision, and that the railway company had got over him somehow. ‘I believe these people are all ground up!’ said Blomfield grimly.

Soon there was to occur a similar proceeding on a much larger scale by another company; the carrying of a cutting by the Midland Railway through Old St. Pancras Churchyard, which would necessitate the removal of many hundreds of coffins, and bones in huge quantities. In this business Mr. Blomfield was to represent the Bishop as before. The architect said that now there should be no mistake about his thoroughly carrying out the superintendence. Accordingly, he set a clerk-of-works in the churchyard, who was never to leave during working hours; and as the removals were effected by night, and the clerk-of-works might be lax or late, he deputed Hardy to go on evenings at uncertain hours, to see that the clerk-of-works was performing his duties; while Hardy’s chief himself was to drop in at unexpected moments during the week, presumably to see that neither his assistant nor the clerk-of-works was a defaulter.

The plan succeeded excellently, and throughout the late autumn and early winter (of probably the year 1865 or thereabouts) Hardy attended at the churchyard — each evening between five and six, as well as sometimes at other hours. There after nightfall, within a high hoarding that could not be overlooked, and by the light of flare-lamps, the exhumation went on continuously of the coffins that had been uncovered during the day, new coffins being provided for those that came apart in lifting, and for loose skeletons; and those that held together being carried to the new ground on a board merely; Hardy supervising these mournful processions when present, with what thoughts may be imagined, and Blomfield sometimes meeting him there. In one coffin that fell apart was a skeleton and two skulls. He used to tell that when, after some fifteen years of separation, he met Arthur Blomfield again and their friendship was fully renewed, among the latter’s first words were: “Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St. Pancras?”

The Hardy Tree (1960) by Frederick Wilfred

Despite my best efforts I was unable to find any other photographs of the gravestones without the tree or even the gravestones with an immature Ash growing between them. Perhaps this isn’t surprising; Ash trees can grow surprisingly quickly and a sapling can turn into a mature tree in as little as five years. The London photographer Frederick Wilfred took a photograph around 1960 of two little girls clambering along the top of the gravestones, one of them holding onto the already full grown tree that had sprouted up in the middle. John Gay took a similar picture, this time of a boy perched on top of the gravestones and leaning for support on a noticeably larger tree in the early 1970’s.  The tree grew at some point between the late 1920’s and the early 1960’s but I could not find any evidence to exactly pinpoint when. Nor could I find anything before the 1990’s to link the tree directly with Thomas Hardy.  The 1975 ‘Harrap’s Guide to Famous London Graves’ by Conrad Bailey features a rather good photo of the tree by Philip Sayer but the text on St. Pancras does not mention Hardy at all; “with the building of the railway from St. Pancras station, part of the burial ground was ploughed up and the headstones placed in the churchyard” is all it says. In 1978 in A Guide to London Churches’ Mervyn Blatch says “when the Midland railway encroached upon the churchyard, Thomas Hardy, the author, worked as an architect's apprentice in supervising the reburial of other remains in a pit and it may have been this experience which gave him his preoccupation with churchyards in his novels.... Many of the old headstones are arranged radially round a tree.” Although there was a comment about Dickens between the two sentences their proximity to each other is the earliest tenuous linking (entirely unintended) of Hardy and the tree. In ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ Iain Sinclair tells us that he was working on a long London poem provisionally entitled RedEye and gives an extract from the abandoned work (‘May 16, 1973: at St Pancras Old Church. Drawn against the repetitive boredom of the pavements to investigate the building – its slight eminence….’) which goes onto to mention Hardy and his supervision of the exhumations and “his ever-recurrent interest in churchyards”.  Later he describes the photographer Marc Atkin’s fascination with the Hardy tree “with its cluster of surrounding headstones – like a school of grey fins circling the massive trunk, feeding on the secretions of the dead.” This was in 1997 which is as close as I can get at this stage to the naming of the Hardy tree – sometime between 1978 and 1997.

Photograph by Philip Sayer

My guess would be that the arrangement of the headstones was not carried out in the 1860’s when the railway works were carried out. It seems more likely that it dates from around 1877 when the old burial ground was converted into a public garden. The work would have involved clearing all the headstones from the St Giles burial ground and perhaps that was when someone came up with the radial arrangement. In 1896 Mrs Basil Holmes in ‘The London Burial Grounds’ mentions that “there are many high stacks of tombstones in the garden, and a ‘trophy’ and a ‘dome’ of headstones, numbering 496, which were taken from the part acquired by the railway.” The dome seems a good description of the Hardy tree’s headstones (without the tree).

In August 2019 Camden Council announced that “the Hardy Tree has been infected with a parasitic fungus. As a precaution, we have installed a temporary fence around it, but cut back the hedge to allow people to continue to view the tree.” The temporary fence is still there nearly two years and there are fears that the tree is infected with Perenniporia fraxinea, a pathogen that can kill its host. The tree was coming showing signs of coming into leaf when I was there a couple of weeks ago but its days may be numbered. 

Wednesday 21 April 2021

'His death was occasioned by puncturing his finger, while sewing up a dead body'; William Bingham (1793-1821) St Giles burial ground,


Here [St. Giles burial ground] also were interred the remains of William Bingham, surgeon to the Fever Hospital, Pancras-road, who departed this life May 3lst, 1821, aged 28 years. 'His death was occasioned by the puncturing his finger while sewing up a dead body.'

Frederick Miller: “Saint Pancras, past and present: being historical, traditional and general notes of the parish, including biographical notices of inhabitants associated with its topographical and general history” (London 1874)

William Bingham is one of those individuals who are only remembered for the ludicrous way in which they died. In this case it was a trifling injury, a needle prick, sustained whilst engaged in the gruesome, and ostensibly futile, activity of suturing a cadaver. His grave had almost certainly gone missing by the time Frederick Miller wrote ‘St. Pancras Past & Present’ but luckily Frederick Teague Cansick had made a note of his epitaph and published it in full in 1872 in ‘The Monumental Inscriptions of Middlesex with Biographical Notices and Description of Armorial Bearings Vol. II’. All subsequent written sources citing the epitaph omit the eulogistic lines of verse to focus on the bathos of the manner of his demise. Cansick’s transcription also rather mysteriously bears a first line saying ‘Here lies a kind parent’; as far as we know William Bingham was neither married nor had any children.

Bingham's epitaph from Cansick's 'Monumental Inscriptions...'

We don’t know much about William Bingham the surgeon. His parents were William Bingham and his wife Jane (nee Appleby) and he was born on 23 March 1793 and baptised on 08 April at St James in Westminster. He had two younger brothers, John and James, and when he was 11 his father died. His mother remarried 18 months later on 10 April 1806 to Timothy Hewlett, a wharfinger at Botolph’s wharf on the Thames. She was 41, he was 52. It was Timothy’s second marriage, his first had lasted for 14 years but remained childless when his wife died 1799. Timothy’s will, dated 06 August 1809, left his wife the interest of £1000 invested in the 5 per cents. If she died, the interest was to go to her eldest son William. But it was William who died first; his mother died on 29 September 1829 and was buried in the St. Giles burial ground on 06 October. Timothy died just a few days later and was buried on 17 October at All Hallows in Tottenham with his first wife. Two years later there was a case heard in the High Court of Chancery about William’s will; Timothy and Jane’s heirs were squabbling about money he had left in trust for his mother with the Hewlett’s arguing that when Jane died Timothy would have been her heir (for the 10 days or so he was still living) and on his death they became the rightful heirs to William’s money. Jane’s nephews argued that they were her heirs, not Timothy. As William had only left the interest on his money to his mother the Master of the Roll’s ruled that he intended his next of kin to inherit on his mother’s death. As Timothy was not ‘kin’ in the sense of being a blood relative he ruled that Jane’s nephews were the rightful heirs. 

The Small Pox Hospital at Kings Cross/St Pancras

The Fever Hospital at St Pancras, also known as the Small Pox hospital, was founded by Dr Robert Poole in 1740 and was originally had just 14 beds and was based in Windmill Street in Fitzrovia. The hospital moved to larger premises initially in Clerkenwell and then, in 1793 to a new purpose-built hospital in Battle Bridge, where the Great Northern Hotel currently stands in Kings Cross. This is where William Bingham would have worked, caring for the seriously ill infected and administering vaccinations which were, in 1821, just as controversial as they are in 202. This is from the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of Friday 13 July 1821;

Vaccination. —During the last month the casual Small-pox was not very severe within the parishes of London and Bills of Mortality; the first week the month began with the loss of patients; five died in the second week, and seven in each of the following two weeks, making together 29 deaths, to which may now be added two who died in the Hospital at St. Pancras; but 414 were vaccinated there during that month. It is to be noticed, that the chicken-pox has been very prevalent, and has, from many similar appearances, been often mistaken for the second small-pox, after vaccination, called the varioloid disease; many of its characters have led persons anxious for the safety of their children to conceive it to be that disease, without the least foundation; and this has led them, their first alarm, to unjustly condemn and mistrust Vaccination, and to give hasty encouragement to practitioners, who avail themselves of their distress, by immediately inoculating with variolous matter, by which they spread the contagion, and give the pestilence to the patient and to the neighbourhood, instead of proceeding with the easy and short cure of the Chicken-pox, which almost every nurse has sufficient skill to cure by her general experience.

Sunday 11 April 2021

The End of the Road; A journey around Britain in search of the dead - Jack Cooke (Mudlark, £14.99)


Perhaps I don’t spend enough time on the internet but I had never heard the story of how Thomas Hardy’s heart was eaten by a cat until I read this book. It is one of those stories that you deeply want to be true whilst simultaneously strongly suspecting that it isn’t. According to Robert Gittings in ‘The Older Hardy’ it was Sir Sydney Cockerell, the forceful Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Hardy’s literary executor who had decided that the novelist merited the honour of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Hardy himself had always made it clear, including in his will, that he wished to be buried in Stinsford Churchyard, in the parish where he was born. His family, torn between the high honour of the proposed interment in Poet’s Corner and the writers stated desire to be buried with his ancestors, did not know what to do. The dilemma was resolved by the vicar of Stinsford who said as the writer had his heart set on being buried in the churchyard that is what they should do, bury his heart in Stinsford and send the rest of him to Woking, to be cremated before being buried in Westminster Abbey.  The local doctor was summoned and asked to remove Hardy’s heart which, he agreed to do, operating on Hardy’s corpse in his bedroom. The precious organ was wrapped in a tea towel and stored in a biscuit tin until it could be picked up the next morning by the funeral director. When the undertaker arrived next day, he discovered that one of Mrs Hardy’s cats had managed to get into the biscuit tin and had eaten most of the writer’s heart for breakfast. The undertaker did not bat an eyelid, he wrung the cat’s neck and stuffed it into the polished elm box he had brought with him along with the remains of the heart. The cat was buried, with great ceremony, in lieu of Hardy’s heart in Stinsford churchyard whilst the rest of Hardy’s body was conveyed to Woking for cremation. I once knew someone who tried to kill a cat with his bare hands. His neighbour had asked him to get rid of an unwanted feline which he decided to dispatch using the same method he used on the rabbits he bred for the table, picking them up by the rear legs and clubbing them across the back of the neck. Thirty years after the event he still bore the long scar the cat had left on his forearm when he picked it up and it curled back on itself and raked a seven-inch gouge in his skin. Cats are not easy to kill with your bare hands. Biscuit tins are probably hard to open with paws. And wouldn’t Mrs Hardy have created a stink if someone had killed one of her cats? This story surely cannot be true?     

Jack Cooke’s book is the latest of a short run of taphophile travelogues that have gone to press in the last 12 months.  This is his second book, his first was a guide to climbing trees, and he spent a month driving around Britain in a second-hand hearse to provide him with the raw material to turn into his latest offering. I am not sure what the point of the hearse was (they certainly aren’t built for long distance travel); despite ostensibly being an apt choice of vehicle for a tour of the graveyards of mainland UK it seemed like a poor joke and led me to expect a more facetious book than this actually is. The 33-year-old author opens his travelogue with a chance trip to a local churchyard which you will not be surprised to learn, led him to start musing on mortality and reminded him of how ‘divorced’ he is from death; “I inhabited a high-turnover world, a place of constant change that continued without pause or reflection. I ignored the dead because they interrupted life”, he says. This leads him to the well-worn conclusion that “most of us live in denial of death. We practise unconscious alchemy, loath to accept our own mortality and searching for ways to prolong life in an age of modern medicine. Those already dead and buried are to be skirted around, side-stepped, wherever possible put to the back of our minds.”  His response to this modern culture of death denying is to pay a couple of grand for the second-hand hearse in Bristol and to spend a month getting closer to extinction on a taphophile tour. He starts off in his home county of Suffolk and then meanders down to London. He arrives too late to get into Highgate Cemetery (he would have needed to have booked a tour anyway) and waits until nightfall to scale a wall on Swains Lane and visit George Wombwell’s tomb. If it had not been for his relative youth and that previous book on climbing trees, I might have been sceptical of this account of clambering over high cemetery walls and finding his way in the dark, through the overgrown and labyrinthine burial ground, to his target tomb. His inability to plan in advance and carry out basic research are revealed the next day when he tries to visit the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see the skeleton of Charles Byrne and finds out that it has been closed for refurbishment for at least two years and then goes on to University College to see Jeremy Bentham only to be told by a security guard that the embalmed philosopher is on a tour of the USA.  

Cooke’s style is workmanlike but very readable. He follows Jean Sprackland to Cornwall and Morwenstow, the parish of the 19th century poet, the Reverend Robert Hawker. Cooke describes his “famously eccentric habits. He dressed more like a pirate than a parson, his clergyman’s dog collar matched with a purple velvet coat and knee-high sea boots. He was also said to have been very fond of animals, and was accompanied on his daily rounds of the parish by a pet pig…” Sprackland says “We cannot know… whether or not Hawker tricked the locals by disguising himself as a mermaid, sitting on the rocks singing and combing his hair; or whether he excommunicated a cat, or hanged a mouse for breaking the Sabbath. Myth grows on myth. Tangible and still standing, however, is the driftwood hut he built on the cliff above Sharpnose Point, where he would go to write poetry, smoke opium and watch the sea.”  The month-long journey from Suffolk to Orkney and Hoy is related at a narrative pace at odds with his leisurely progress in the hearse. He seems determined to cram in as many stories as he can; I was familiar with some of them but many were completely new to me. After that initial visit to the local churchyard most thoughts of mortality seem banished, an exception being when he struggles to find the grave of his grandmother and thinks of how much, when she was alive, he “took her for granted, her continued presence and her links to the past.” Perhaps a young man of 33 with a wife and two young children and still making his way in the world, is asking too much of himself to imagine he can turn his thoughts away from life long enough to confront and conquer the denial of death. His high turnover book is too crammed with incident and detail to avoid the ‘constant change that continues almost without pause or reflection’ that he laments so keenly in his opening chapter. Having said that he is good company and  I am glad I accompanied him on his journey.   

All photographs are by Jack Cooke