Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Buried with her baby in her arms and her coffin draped with the Spanish Republican flag: Conchita Supervia (1895-1936) Liberal Jewish Cemetery, Willesden

I first visited the Liberal Jewish Cemetery in Pound Lane in Willesden in the pre-pandemic summer of 2019. I was intrigued by an unusual grave in which a large circular altar-like stone block is supported on the back of four tortoises. Despite a plaque saying the grace had been ‘restored by her admirers in 2006’ I couldn’t read the name and had no idea who was buried here. Meller and Parson’s ‘London Cemeteries’ gave me a bit more detail; in the cemetery “the most unusual memorial dated 1936, comprises four stone tortoises which support a curved sided pedestal confined between two discs, the upper inscribed with the name Conchita Rubenstein who ‘Died with her daughter’.” This was as far as I got with my research; I parked Mrs Rubenstein intending to come back to her when I had more time only to find Sheldon from the Cemetery Club getting in there before me. In his blog post just a few weeks after I visited the cemetery Sheldon revealed that Mrs Rubenstein was in fact Conchita Supervía, a Spanish opera singer born in Barcelona in 1895. Some sources say she made her stage debut at the age of 15 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and others say that she was only fourteen when Richard Strauss himself chose her to play in Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera in Rome. She sung all over Europe as well in South America and the United States. She made over 200 recordings and even had a film part as singer Baba L'Etoile in a 1934 British production called Evensong based on the life of Dame Nellie Melba. Some accounts of her life politely say she married twice but none of them mention the name of her first husband by whom she had a son, Jorge.  In 1930 she converted to Judaism, married a Mr Benzion Rubenstein and came to live in London. She died in childbirth at the age of 40.  

The Aberdeen Press and Journal of Tuesday 31 March 1936 gives an account of the distressing circumstances of her death under the headline ‘Famous Prima Donna's Sudden Death’;

Madame Conchita Supervia, the famous Spanish prima donna, died in a London nursing home yesterday. She was the wife of Mr Ben Rubinstein, an English timber broker and fruit farmer. Madame Supervia was expecting a baby, and only on Sunday went into the nursing home "very happy and very well." At 11 a.m. yesterday the baby was still-born. A clot of blood developed, and. despite the efforts of the doctors, Madame Supervia died.

A few days later the Dundee Evening Telegraph gave an account of her funeral:

With the body of her child in her arms, Conchita Supervia, the coloratura contralto, was buried at the Liberal Jewish Cemetery, Willesden, to-day. Her coffin was draped with the new Republican flag of Spain red, purple, and yellow, and rested upon arum lilies sent by her husband and her son from the garden which was such a source of pleasure to her at her home at Rustington, Sussex. The ceremony was according to the Jewish rites, with its centuries' old traditional prayers, but there was no singing. Many of the wreaths on the wet grass by the graveside were without names, and were from admirers who had heard but never forgotten her voice. One of these: typical of others, bore the inscription—"That I may sometimes hear the echo of her voice in the moonbeams." About 200 people were present at the ceremony, and they included Senor Dr Perez D'Ayala. the Spanish Ambassador, and his wife. The mourners included Mr Ben Rubenstein, her husband, and George, her 17- year-old son, together with numerous other relatives and friends. Rev. M Perizweg recited the committal words, first in Hebrew and then in English. As his voice pronounced the words—"May she come to her rest in peace," Mr Rubenstein dropped earth into the grave and the son performed the same symbolic action with the recitation of the prayer of resignation to the will of God. Among the masses of spring flowers was a wreath of tulips, lilies and daffodils from the Spanish Ambassador and his wife. Others who sent flowers included the directors of the Royal Opera House and Violet Lady Melchett, whose wreath bore the inscription— "In loving remembrance of darling Conchita."

Her memorial is designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was also responsible for the Phillipson mausoleum in Golders Green.

Monday, 4 October 2021

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; Hester Hammerton (1711-1746) All Saints, Kingston-Upon-Thames


I came upon an account of the life of Hester Hammerton, the once celebrated female sexton of Kingston-upon-Thames in Kirkby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum. For those unfamiliar with this publication it is an early 19th century compendium of the marvellous and the bizarre; it contains biographies of the singular characters of the age (the Chevalier D’Eon and Joseph Merlin for example), accounts of calamities, (shipwrecks, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes etc), details of monstrous births, (four legged cockerals, two headed calves and numerous conjoined twins), prodigious eaters (a polish man who regularly ate 5 pounds of raw beef and 10 tallow candles at one sitting) and stories of miraculous escapes from death (Elizabeth Woodcock of Impington who survived 8 days buried alive in snow). Whilst written to appeal to the sensation seeker it has to be conceded that its articles are generally well informed and that its contributors often took pains to establish their facts.

Kirkby’s tells us that Hester Hammerton was baptised on March 16 1711. Her father Abraham performed the office of sexton of All Saints Church “in which his daughter was accustomed to assist him.” Hester and her brother-in-law Thomas German were both with their father on the 2nd of March 1730, digging a grave for a Mr George Hammond of London. Also present were Richard Milles and Sarah Smith. They were digging too close to one of the main pillars of the Chapel of St Mary; the vicar Dr Rawlinson, explained in a letter to a friend exactly what happened next:

On Monday last, our sexton, with his son and daughter, being employed in digging a grave, part of the ancient chapel of St Mary’s fell in upon them, killed the sexton and one other man, Richard Mills, on the spot, bruised and wounded several others and buried in the grave both the son and daughter for above three hours, during which time many were employed in digging out the rubbish, in order to get at the bodies that were buried. After the removal of the timbers, and several loads of rubbish, they heard very plainly some loud groans and cries in the grave. Soon after, they came to the heads of two persons: the man was speechless and almost dead, having his head closely confined between two stones; the woman was not so much pressed; but being immediately taken care of by Dr. Cranmer, they are both in a fair way of recovery. The Bailiffs and Churchwardens by their great humanity and diligence on this occasion had a great share in preserving the lives of the two persons abovementioned, by the speedy removal of the rubbish and by keeping off the crowd who pressed in upon the labourers in great numbers. The damage besides the lives already lost is computed to amount to above £1000.

The entry from the parish register at All Saints showing the burial of Abraham Hammerton and Richard Milles on the 5th March -'killed by the fall of the church' and Sarah Smith on the 15th.  

Abraham Hammerton and Richard Milles were both killed on the spot but the vicar was writing too soon to know that Sarah Smith would also eventually die of her injuries. Abraham and Richard were both buried on the 5th March, Sarah was not buried until the 15th. Hester and her brother-in-law Thomas both survived and Hester inherited her father’s position as sexton to the parish though luckily her injuries prevented her first job being the melancholy one of digging her own father’s grave. Kirkby’s describes Hester as a ‘strong, lusty woman of a comely countenance.’ It claimed that injuries received in the accident prevented her from ever wearing stays again and says that ‘her usual dress therefore was a man's waistcoat and hat, a long loose gown and a silk handkerchief tied round her neck.’ On Sundays she would bow to convention and ‘dress extremely clean and neat, in a gown of the then fashion, a mob cap with frilled border and ribbon, and a nosegay in her bosom.’  The writer says that Hester ‘was very fond of all kinds of manly diversions, such as cricket, football, bull baiting, also of smoaking and associating with men but nevertheless, she preserved her moral character unimpeached. If any person offered to take liberties with her, she never failed to resent the affront and her fist inflicted merited chastisement on the offender. She possessed great bodily strength and would dig all the graves and ring the great bell herself. She died at Kingston and was buried February 28 1746 in the 35th year of her age.’

Hester's burial recorded in the parish register for 28 February 1746

Hester was instrumental in apprehending Philip Wilkinson and William Sweet, two Londoners who came down to Kingston with the intentions of robbing the communion plate from the church. Hester wandered into church to ring the two o’clock bell and found the two men ripping off the gold lace and fringe of the pulpit hangings. Incensed the doughty Hester grabbed one of the men by the collar and threw him over the reading desk and into the pew below. Whilst she was occupied the other thief crept up on her from behind and hit her over the head with a blunt instrument, stunning her and allowing both robbers to flee the scene. A few days later a boy was caught lurking around the church and suspected of being somehow being involved in the robbery. He denied this but said that if he was released, he would tell the authorities who had robbed the church. His information led to the capture and arrest of Wilkinson and Sweet. The pair were tried at Kingston Assizes on 10th April 1735 and being found guilty of sacrilege, sentenced to death.  The Derby Mercury of 17th April gives this account of their execution;

On Thursday, soon after One o'Clock, Philip Wilkinson and William Sweet, were executed in the Market-Place at Kingston. They said they forgave the Boy and the Woman who were instrumental in their Death; desired the Prayers of the Spectators; and just before they were turn'd off, declar'd, as they were dying Men, that they were innocent of the Fact for which they suffer'd, nor had they been guilty of any Robbery whatsoever; and that they never saw the Boy or Woman before they came to appear against them.

Kirkby’s gives the following postscript to the story;

The bodies of the above two men, after execution, were carried into the Castle Inn yard, and no particular account was given of them afterwards. As christian burial was refused them, on account of the crime of sacrilege, of which they had been convicted it was not till above seventy years afterwards that a discovery was made, which seems to clear up this matter. August 25 1807 - As some workmen were digging a hole in the garden of Mr. John Smallpiece the butcher, near Clattern-bridge (late Mr. Laming's garden) the skeletons of two men lying together were discovered. These were conjectured to be the remains of Wilkinson and Sweet. The garden in which they were found was a bowling green, and belonged to the Castle Inn, at the time when the bodies of those two men were left in the yard, and there is no reason to doubt that, as it was generally supposed, they were buried in that bowling green.