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 an in 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. 


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