Friday, 16 December 2022

Old St Pancras churchyard in the snow

The Soane Mausoleum

"Kings Cross, dense with angels and histories, there are cities beneath your pavements, cities behind your skies. Let me see!”                                                                                        Aidan Andrew Dun

When I stepped outside on Sunday evening the freezing air was full of large snowflakes gently sinking to the ground in the windless air. I had been sceptical when I had seen it earlier on the news but the weatherman had been proved right: snow was general all over London. It was falling softly upon the East End and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous streets of Westminster. It was falling too upon every part of lonely Old St Pancras churchyard where so many of the illustrious dead lie buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the railings, on the barren thorns. I felt light headed watching the snow swirl in the darkness at the back of the house, hearing it fall faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

By next morning the snow had brought the central line to a complete standstill anywhere east of Liverpool Street and I was obliged to trek to a mainline station to get into London. On the way to the office I took a detour to Old St Pancras churchyard to get some photos of the snow before it disappeared. In these days of global warming snow in London is an evanescent phenomenon; here one day, transformed to filthy slush the next and gone altogether within 48 hours. I would have preferred to have gone to Brompton or Kensal Green but I didn’t have the time and so I made do with St Pancras Gardens, a ten-minute walk from the office. The snow had stopped falling during the night but the sky was leaden and the light terrible.  I’m not enthralled with the photos I took, in fact I was so dissatisfied I processed them all in black and white because I thought they looked better in monochrome. After much debate I’ve decided to post the original colour versions. 

I clambered up an embankment to get a photo of the Soane mausoleum sitting inside its circular railed compound. The mausoleum was designed and built in 1815 by the architect Sir John Soane for his wife Eliza. The couple had met through Eliza’s uncle and ward George Wyatt the builder who had worked with Soane on the rebuilding of Newgate Prison. On the 10th January 1784 Soane took her to the theatre and a few weeks later, on the 7th February she took tea with Soane and a group of friends. Soane began to accompany her regularly to plays and concerts and, on the 21st August 1784, less than 8 months after that first visit to the theatre, they were married at Christ Church in Southwark. It was a happy marriage until they began to have children. They had four sons, two of them died in infancy, the other two survived into adult, both causing their parents endless grief.  John, the eldest, was lazy and suffered from infirmity. He was sent to Margate in 1811 to improve his health where he met a woman called Maria Preston. John badgered his father into agreeing to a marriage which he had deep reservations about; the £2000 dowry promised by Maria’s parents failed to materialise and the couple became financially dependent on Soane. Not to be outdone the 20-year-old George wrote to his mother a few weeks later to break the news that he had married behind his parent’s back, making no bones about his reasons, he had done it, he said, “to spite you and father.”  Sir John tried to keep his wayward offspring in check by tightly controlling their finances but George threatened to go on stage for a living and disgrace his father if he did not settle £350 a year on him. When the blackmail did not work George took, unsuccessfully, and was imprisoned for debt and fraud. Possibly behind her husband’s back Eliza Soane settled the debt and repaid the embezzled money to get her son out of prison. In September 1815 an article was published in the magazine Champion called ‘The Present Low State of the Arts in England and more particularly of Architecture’. Sir John was the target of an acrimonious attack in the article which, although it had been published anonymously, soon became clear had actually been written by George. His distraught mother wrote on the 13th October 'those are George's doing. He has given me my death blow. I shall never be able to hold up my head again'. She died, quite possibly of heartbreak, on 22 November 1815 and was buried on 1 December. Soane wrote in his diary that he had endured 'the burial of all that is dear to me in this world, and all I wished to live for!' He designed this elaborate mausoleum for his wife and was buried alongside her when he died in 1837.

In Lights Out for the Territory Iain Sinclair describes 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.” The tree has become one of the great myths of London with its backstory of how the young novelist personally supervised the clearing of the churchyard and the stacking of the headstones around the Ash tree. 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 most people assume that the gravestones had been arranged around the tree in the first place. A photo of “St. Pancras churchyard and it’s disturbed gravestones” published in ‘Wonderful London’ a 1926 book edited by St. John Adcock and published in 1926 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.

Mary Woolstonecraft and William Godwin were married at St Pancras Old Church on 29 March 1797. Mary gave birth to their daughter (the future Mary Shelley) on 30 August 1797 but died of septicaemia 11 days later on 10 September. William was married again in 1801, to Mary Jane Clairmont. When he died in 1836 he choose to be buried with his first wife. Mary Jane joined them in 1841 and all three are commemorated on different faces of what was originally Mary’s memorial. All very modern for the 18th century but Godwin's was a radical household. The post mortem menage a trois were later forcibly split up after passing just 10 years of their eternal rest together when William and Mary were disinterred in 1851 and reburied on the south coast by their grandson Percy. He wanted to grant his mother's wish that she be buried with her parents but didn't want to bury her in grimy Kings Cross. Instead he removed William and Mary's remains (but leaving Mary Jane Clairmont where she was) to a new Shelley tomb at the church of St Peters in Bournemouth.

The Burdett-Coutts memorial sundial

The adjoining burial grounds of St Pancras and St Giles were closed in 1854. In 1866 a portion of the grounds were sold to the Midland Railway Company to allow the building of a new main line into London and the construction of the new terminus of St Pancras.  A scandal ensued during the insensitive exhumation of thousands of bodies and the removal of hundreds of tombs and headstones. In 1874 the railway company approached the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles again to see if they were willing to sell the reminder of the burial ground. This time the public outcry was so strong that the vestries declined to sell and instead proposed laying out a public garden. One of those who took a fervent interest in the future of the disused burial grounds was the philanthropist Baroness Burdett Coutts who felt that as they were “no longer used for their original purpose, they have lost the protection of the living, without securing the sanctity that should protect the dead.” In a letter she later wrote to the vestry of St Pancras she goes into some detail about her motivation for involving herself in the preservation of London’s old burial grounds, explaining that “the feelings and reflections which even an unnamed tombstone is calculated to excite …. would be lost if the graves of the dead were obliterated from the land, for a number of stones huddled together, possibly as carefully as circumstances permitted, cannot convey the same feelings as does a grave, even to the least reflective mind. The mere fact of closing over and stamping out of remembrance the dead renders them lifeless indeed and denies to their memory those tender and salutary lessons so often given in the quiet of ' God's acres.'” The Baroness was determined that the garden should be a memorial to the dead interred there and that it should preserve the principal tombstones and key features of the burial ground. She funded works to conserve headstones and to landscape the gardens but her most lasting contribution to the project was the enormous sundial dedicated to the memory of the illustrious dead placed at the heart of the garden.

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

A Hebrew Family Romance; Sir Edward Sassoon, Bart. M.P. (1856-1912) Liberal Jewish Cemetery, Pound Lane, Willesden

Serious Motoring Accident at Cannes. Jan. 20. Sir Edward Sassoon met with a serious accident this morning. Whilst he was motoring to the golf links the car encountered a restive horse, and though the chauffeur took a sharp turn to the left in the hope of avoiding the animal, there was a collision of great violence. The car, after striking the horse, ran into tree, and, rebounding, fell over a six-foot embankment. Sir Edward received a terrible shaking, and his face was badly cut. The horse had to be destroyed.

Daily News (London) - Saturday 21 January 1911

When the 55-year-old MP for Hythe Sir Edward Sassoon died quietly at his Park Lane house on Friday 24 May 1912 the newspapers were quick to point out that he had never really recovered fully from his motoring accident on the French Riviera the year before. Sir Edward’s wife, Aline Caroline de Rothschild, had died in 1909 at her parent’s house in Paris and so their two children inherited the considerable family fortune; the newspapers reported that “he leaves a son, Philip, and daughter, Sybil, who made her first appearance in society this season. It is thought that these will now be two of the most wealthy young people in England.”

Sir Edward’s body was cremated privately at Golders Green in the early morning of Sunday 26 May. The ashes, still warm from the furnace, were taken to Victoria Station where a specially chartered train was scheduled to depart at 1.30 for Brighton carrying the mourners as well as Sir Edward’s mortal remains. A closed hearse and several carriages met the train at Central Station and the funeral procession then made its way down Queens Road to the sea front, past the pier and along Marine Parade to number One Eastern Terrace where the large house built by Sir Edward’s father still stands. The funeral cortege made its way a hundred yards up Paston Place where at the corner of with St George’s Road, at the back of what was then the rear garden of Eastern Terrace stood the family mausoleum, built in 1892 by Sir Edward’s father, Sir Albert Sassoon. The funeral arrangements had been kept secret so there were not many people around when the cortege first arrived at the mausoleum, though a sizeable crowd of curiosity seekers soon gathered. Inside the mausoleum Rabbi SJ Rocco conducted what the Sussex Daily News called “an impressive service” in Hebrew assisted, in English, by Rabbi Jacobs of the Jewish Synagogue in Brighton, Rabbi Conque of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, Rabbi Levinson and a Mr Lubetzki of Brighton. Sir Edward’s ashes were laid at the side of his father’s embalmed body and covered with white arum lilies by Mr Biggs, the mausoleum caretaker. At 4.30 the mourners all returned to London on the chartered train to take part in a 6.30 memorial service held at the Sassoon house at 25 Park Lane.   

The Sassoon Memorial up for sale in 1956 (



Sir Edward Sassoon, Bart, MP, died at his residence in London yesterday, aged 55. He had represented' the Hythe Division in the Conservative interest since 1899. At the last election Sir Edward was returned without opposition. The Sassoons are a Hebrew family of very great antiquity. They claim to be descended from Shephatiah V., son of David. There are numerous references to the Sasoons in Hebrew mediaeval literature, the name, indeed, is to be in found in the Talmud. For generations they were a well-known family in Bagdad, famous for their wealth and their integrity. Some years ago, one David Sassoon received notice that a plot was foot to sack his house and murder its inmates. He contrived to escape, and fled with his wife and children by the Persian Gulf to Bombay. There he founded the house of Sassoon, the only important firm not in the hands of Parsees. About 1863, after the death of David Sassoon his son, the late Sir Albert. then known as Abdallah, came to England in company with his half brothers Reuben and Arthur. Sir Edward Sassoon, born in 1856, was a son of Sir Albert, succeeding to the title in 1895. He was educated at London University. In 1887 he married Aline, daughter of Baron Gustave de Rothschild. She died in February, 1909. It was at a by-election in the early part 1899 that Sir Edward was first returned to the House of Commons as the member for the Borough of Hythe, defeating Sir Israel Hart by a substantial majority, and at the general election in the following year, he was re-elected without opposition. He enjoyed Parliamentary life, and was earnest in the pursuit of his duties. He was an enthusiast in the cause of Imperial cables, which he frequently advocated in Parliament. He was an honorary major in the Duke of Cambridge's Hussar Yeomanry. Sir Edward resided for two years in China, and gave much study to Oriental problems. He was also an authority finance and bimetallism. He emphasised his connection with the East by the ownership of two residences in India, Garden Beach, Poona, and Sans Souci, at Bombay. He also had a magnificent residence in Park Lane, London, and at Trent Park, Sandgate. He is succeeded in the Baronetcy by Mr Philip Albert David Sassoon, who was born in 1888. His only daughter is Sybil Rachel, who was born in 1894.

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Saturday 25 May 1912

The mausoleum in the 1960's (

The Sassoon Memorial is now a grade II listed building. The Historic England website says that it was built in “1892. Stucco. Tent roof of copper. Square in plan with wing to south. single storey over basement. In imitation of Nash's Mughal-inspired design of the Royal Pavilion.” The copper dome was originally covered in gold leaf. Sir Edward’s son and heir, Philip decided that a mausoleum at the bottom of a garden was not an appropriate place for his ancestors to lie, especially as he wanted to sell the house. In 1933 the bodies of his father and grandfather were reburied in Willesden and the mausoleum sold off. It served time as a decorators storeroom, a furniture depository and, during World war II, an air raid shelter. In 1949 it was sold again and became a pub, The Bombay Bar. The story was reported widely in the newspapers, including in the New York Times which ran it became the headline ‘Baronet’s Tomb to be Saloon’.



A square, glass-domed mausoleum in St. George's Place, Brighton, once the burial place of Sir Albert Sassoon, one of the founders of the Sassoon family fortunes, is to become a public-house. The mausoleum, where the body of Sir Albert lay for 37 years, has served in its time as a decorator's storehouse and an air raid shelter. It has been bought by a local brewery, who plan to use it as an extension to a public-house next door. The public-house has only a beer licence and to obtain a wine and spirit licence another public-house nearby will be closed. It is estimated that the conversion will be a long job. The building has no windows, but light enters from the glass dome. The district in which the mausoleum is situated is surrounded by hotels and boarding houses. The tomb was built by Sir Albert Sassoon at a cost of £B,OOO. He died in 1896 and his body lay in the mausoleum until removed in 1933 and re-interred in London.

Belfast Telegraph - Saturday 27 August 1949

In 1956 the mausoleum was acquired by the Hanbury Arms which stands next door and was reopened as a ballroom. It was renovated in 2006 and became a private members club for a short time before entering its current incarnation as the Proud Cabaret, Brighton’s premier drag club compered by the incomparable Ms Dolly Rocket. The venue, according to its present owners “is truly astonishing. Our Drag Queen cabaret show is accompanied with world-class musicians and award-winning acrobats, fire breathers and burlesque beauties. Be prepared to be amazed.” If a night on the tiles seems likely to stretch beyond your usual bedtime then do not despair, “we're not just a Cabaret restaurant,” say Proud, “sashay down to Proud Cabaret Brighton for our fabulous Drag Extravaganza Bottomless Brunch. With raucous entertainment and bottomless booze, this is all singing, all dancing, brunching experience.” Not your usual mausoleum visit then?  

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Que horas são, meu coração? The unusual journey of Dom Pedro's heart


When we say, in English, I left my heart in… (San Francisco or wherever), it is merely a figure of speech indicating our fondness for a particular place. When Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, left his heart in the Portuguese city of Porto, he left it literally, in a jar of formaldehyde. Last summer we arrived in Porto on the 21st of August, the day Dom Pedro’s coração was removed from a mausoleum in the church of Lapa, where it had laid more or less undisturbed for the last 187 years, and was sent by military jet to Brasília to take part in Brazil’s bicentennial celebrations. I knew nothing about this until we were in the hotel in the evening watching SIC Notícias. My ignorance cost me the rare opportunity of seeing the heart of a king, as Dom Pedro’s had been, very briefly, put on public display in the church before being sent on its 8000 kilometre journey to South America. It is unusual, to say the least, for a disembodied heart to form the focal point of independence celebrations and to be received, after travelling in the passenger seat of a Brazilian air force jet, with all the pomp and ceremony that would have been accorded a living head of state including a cannon salute, a guard of honour and full military honours. After arriving in Brasília Dom Pedro’s heart was allowed a much-needed night of rest at the Palácio Itamaraty before taking a Rolls Royce next morning to an official reception with Jair Bolsonaro in the Presidential Palace.  In the skies above Brasília six military jets drew a vapour trail heart to welcome the heart. Whether all this was strictly necessary given Brazil’s many economic and military problems especially as the rest of Dom Pedro’s body has been in Brazil for the last 50 years, largely forgotten in the crypt of the Monument to Independence in São Paulo.

Dom Pedro and his muttonchops in Brazil

Dom Pedro had a short but eventful life. His father Dom João VI, acted as regent for his mentally unstable grandmother, ‘mad’ Queen Maria I and his mother was Doña Carlota Joaquina, the daughter of the King of Spain. At the time of their marriage his father was 18, his mother just 10; she tried to bite off his ear on their wedding night. It was a deeply unhappy union; Doña Carlota never reconciled herself to life with her husband or in Portugal, refusing to be sexually faithful (Dom Pedro’s own paternity is not a matter of certainty) and going as far as plotting to overthrow him with a group of disgruntled Portuguese nobles. As the second son of the miserable marriage, Dom Pedro only became heir to the Portuguese throne when his older brother died of smallpox at the age of 6.  As a 9-year-old he was forced to flee to Brazil, along with the rest of the dysfunctional royal family, when the Napoleonic army invaded Portugal. The only liberal in a family of absolutist monarchs, he grew up at loggerheads with his father and hating his mother, who he referred to as ‘a cadela’, the bitch. When his father was forced back to Portugal by the Liberal revolution of 1820, Dom Pedro took advantage of his position of Regent in Brazil in 1822 by impetuously declaring the liberation of the colony from Portuguese rule in an impromptu speech made to his followers from the saddle of a bay mare whilst out riding. He became King of Portugal in 1826 but after just two months abdicated in favour of his daughter, who became Maria II and was known popularly as a Boa Mãe, the good mother of her country . In 1831 he was forced to finally return to Portugal to fight in a civil war against his younger brother Miguel, who had usurped the crown from Maria. He married twice, had numerous extra marital affairs and 14 known children by 5 different women. He died of tuberculosis in the Palácio de Queluz in Lisbon in September 1834 at the age of 35.

As he lay dying in Portugal Dom Pedro dictated a 14-page letter of exhortation to the people of Brazil. This letter, dated at 4am on the 23rd September 1823, the day before he died, gave his instructions on what was to happen to his corpse:  

Brasileiros! Eu deixo meu coração à heroica Cidade do Porto, teatro da minha verdadeira glória, e o resto do meu despojo mortal à Cidade de Lisboa, lugar de minha nascença. (Brazilians! I leave my heart to the heroic city of Porto, the theatre of my true glory, and the rest of my mortal remains to the city of Lisbon, the place of my birth.)

When his doctors removed the heart they must have been astounded at its size; it is hugely engorged and its weight is often said to be 20lbs. Now this surely can’t be right? Even a large human heart rarely exceeds one pound in weight – in fact any male heart weighing more than a pound is considered to be suffering from cardiomegalya, abnormal enlargement of the cardiac muscle. 20lbs would be about right for a giraffe heart. A human heart that size wouldn’t fit into the chest cavity unless you removed everything else that is supposed to be in there! Don Pedro’s heart may be big but it cannot weight 20lbs. It took eleven years for Dom Pedro’s heart to reach its final resting place; political instability in Portugal led to endless delays about where it should it buried and so it remained at Queluz under armed guard until a final decision was made. On 4th February 1836 the heart was sent via the battleship Jorge IV to Porto with a 70 strong guard of honour, a journey which lasted 3 days. The heart is kept in a glass jar of formaldehyde, the jar is inside a silver urn, which is held in a gold reliquary and the whole ensemble stored in a mahogany coffin. The coffin is kept behind a copper plaque inside a mausoleum which requires five different keys to open it. Stealing Dom Pedro’s heart is almost mission impossible.  

Dom Pedro I on his deathbed in Queluz, by José Joaquim Rodrigues Primavera, 1834.

His body, left to the city of Lisbon, was interred alongside his royal ancestors in the Pantheon of the House of Braganza in the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. The body remained there until 1972 when the military junta in Brazil requested that it be repatriated to Brazil in time for the 150-year anniversary of independence. It was the dying days of the Estado Novo, Salazar had died in 1970, and the country was embroiled in a set of disastrous wars in almost all of its colonial possessions. Virtually friendless on the international stage, Brazil’s military dictatorship was one of Portugal’s few allies. So when they asked for the corpse of a dead king Portugal was happy to agree and to throw in a couple of dead Princesses as well, to keep Dom Pedro from getting lonely in his new home in the specially built crypt of the Monument to Independence in São Paulo.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

As I wend my way to heaven I'll be full of Cherry Pie; David Jersey (1687-1755), St. Mary Magdalene, East Ham

Here lieth the body of
David Jersey
Victualler of the Parish of
Wanstead who departed this
life 1 May 1755 Aged 68 years.
Also 4 Daughters of above
who all died young
Likewise here lieth beneath the body
of Ann Jersey, wife of the above 

29 nine year old David Jersey of East Ham married Anne Garrin of Barking at St Stephens, Coleman Street in the City of London on 6 July 1721. David Jersey, victualler, was the landlord of the George and Dragon in Wanstead, a coaching Inn originally built in 1716 and serving as a staging post between the daily coach from Aldgate and the Essex coaches. Apart from what is recorded on his epitaph and in the marriage register at St Stephens we know very little about him. As sell as the four daughters who died young he also had a son William, who was baptised at St Mary Magdalene's in East Ham on 7 March 1730 and was buried there on 17 June of the same year. His daughters were called Esther, there were two Ann's, the first dying in 1723 and her sister and namesake being born the following year and then dying at the age of 7 in  1731, and a Mary.  

The marriage record of David Jersey and Ann Garrin at St Stephens, Coleman Street

One intriguing remnant of his life still remains in Wanstead. The coaching inn was demolished 
in 1903 and a new pub built on the site (now a Weatherspoons) and the name shortened to the George. Nothing remains of the old Inn except an old inscribed stone dated 1752 which was rescued and set into the wall of the new building. The stone is a memorial to a cherry pie that cost half a guinea (10s6d) on the 17 July “that day we had good cheer/ I hope to so do maney a Year.” The lettering on the stone has been touched up over the years and as a result the name Jersey has gradually lost the final e and the issue has grown to increasingly resemble the r standing next to it. To the uninitiated the surname now looks more like Jerry or Terry than Jersey. An illustration from 1906 in 'The Old Inns of England' by Charles Harper confirms that the name was once clearly legible as D. Jersey. Local legend has it that the stone commemorates a cherry pie stolen by a local workman who was fined half a guinea for his crime. As the minimum sentence for stealing a pie in 1752 was hanging or lifetime transportation to Van Diemen’s Land the story seems unlikely to be true. Another theory is that it may commemorate a monster pie festival similar to the Tollesbury Gooseberry Pie festival – Wanstead was famous for its cherry orchards in the eighteenth century.  But no one really knows why David Jersey wanted to immortalise a very expensive Cherry Pie.  

The memorial stone as it is now

The memorial stone from 'The Old Inns of England Vol II' by Charles G. Harper (1906)

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

'All The Living And The Dead' Hayley Campbell, Raven Books (£18.99)

Rather mortifyingly, this book made me cry in public. I was reading a chapter called ‘Tough mother’ about the author’s visit to meet Clare Beesley, the head bereavement midwife at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. The harrowing subject of still births proved too much for my rickety emotional defences to cope with and even though I was on packed rush hour tube in Mile End Station my eyes filled with tears. At least I managed to avoid audibly sobbing. I cried all the way to Liverpool Street, where I wept on the escalators when I changed trains to the Metropolitan line, and I carried on quietly snivelling until I reached Kings Cross. I’m in my 60’s so no one paid any attention but it was still an uncomfortable experience and one that has never happened to me before. It is the cumulative details and the pure, unalloyed heartbreak that got to me; I can’t reduce the experience to a quote from the book but this passage gives you some idea;

Clare shows me the cupboard of knitted hats and baby clothes – mostly white, different sizes from handmade tiny ones to full-term. The knitted caps serve a cosmetic purpose here rather than one of warmth, ‘’’: as a baby passes through the birth canal the planes of its skull overlap so it can fit, but if there is excess fluid in the baby’s body – as a result of its death – the planes of the skull can dig into the brain, deforming the head. Clare says she puts the little cap over it and no one can tell the difference. Next to the bonnets are brass-hinged wooden jewellery boxes, or so I think, until she stands on her tip toes to reach one, opens it and it’s empty but for a white lace doily. ‘These are the coffins for the very little ones’, she says, holding it up so I can see inside. I had no idea that a bereavement ward existed, let alone coffins for babies as big as my car keys.

I had started the book with some reservations and Hayley Campbell had quite a bit of work to do to overcome these. I have an issue with book endorsements on newly published hardbacks; no one has had a chance to read and review the book so these endorsements inevitably come from the authors friends or acquaintances. Hayley Campbell has some big hitting friends; on the front cover we get Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger no less; not many authors would be able to garner accolades from literary heavyweights like these. On the back cover we get, amongst others, Nigella Lawson, Caitlin Doughty, Tuppence Middleton, and Charlie Gilmore. In her opening pages Hayley tells us that her father is Eddie Campbell, the comic book artist who illustrated Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell’. Neil Gaiman is an old friend of the family and Hayley wrote her first book about him.  Audrey Niffenegger is her step mother! So, when Niffenegger says the book is “essential, compassionate, honest”, it can’t be taken as an impartial opinion. 

Hayley Campbell in Brompton Cemetery, photo by Chieska Fortune Smith/Daily Telegraph

Rather annoyingly Niffenegger turns out not to be wrong.  Campbell’s book is very good and her own discomfort with the subject matter makes this a very different prospect from anything by Caitlin Doughty or Mary Roach’s breezy ‘Stiff’. There are times in the book when the subject of death threatens to overwhelm the author and a dead baby sends her perilously close to being traumatised. Campbell persists in her journey because, she says, “I think there is urgent, life-changing knowledge to be gained from becoming familiar with death, and from not letting your limits be guided by a fear of unknown things: the knowledge that you can stand to be near it, so that when the time comes you will not let someone you love die alone.” In each of her 12 chapters we meet a death professional, “those who work around death every day” and who are asked to show us “what they do and how they do it – to explore not only the mechanics of an industry, but how it forms a foundation for what it is they do. The Western death industry is predicated on the idea that we cannot, or need not, be there. But if the reason we’re outsourcing this burden is because it’s too much for us, how do they deal with it? They are human too. There is no them and us. It’s just us.” Campbell meets with funeral directors, grave diggers, embalmers, executioners, pathology technologists, death mask sculptors and others. Her book is often funny, sometimes very moving and always fascinating. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Tales from the crypt; St Mary the Virgin, Wanstead


The only place I visited at this years Open House event was the crypt of St Mary’s in Wanstead. Our guide for the short tour was Sian Paterson who was knowledgeable and funny and made sure that we didn’t brain ourselves on the pipe for the water mains that cuts across the entrance tunnel as we descended. The foundation stone of St Mary’s was laid in 1787; the crypt must have been completed before work started on the main body of the church. It runs the entire length of the building, about 25 metres, with an additional 10 metre entrance tunnel leading from the churchyard. Inside there are, I think, 15 vaults running either side of the main passage, the odd number being presumably being because the vault housing members of the Child family (including the Earl’s Tylney) must be considerably larger than standard. A vault originally cost £105 for a parishioner and £125 if you were from outside the parish boundaries. That would have been quite a hefty sum in the early 1800’s but each vault has space for several coffins and I would imagine the lease is in perpetuity so in theory the occupants can rest undisturbed until the last trump. The crypt is constructed in red brick with stone imposts on the pillars on which often sit candle stubs left over from the times when families still came to visit or left by the bricklayers when they bricked up the vaults. Vault walls have ventilation holes large enough to view the coffins inside and Sian showed us how to shine the torch from your mobile through one hole while you viewed the interior through another.  

A portion of the bricked-up entrance to one vault has been knocked down at some unknown point in the past and the coffins disturbed. It was originally thought that this had happened in the 1950’s and that the perpetrators were intending to steal the lead linings of the coffins. You can clearly see that the lead has been cut and peeled back, some seems to have been removed but some large pieces are still in place, peeled back as though to allow access to the inner coffin. A visitor to a previous Open House in the crypt told Sian that he had been in the church choir in the 1950’s and it was a rite of passage for new choirboys to be taken down to the vaults and dropped over the broken wall to stand next to the coffin! He also told that her that the vault had been broken into long before then. Some locals like to think that perhaps body snatchers had been at work; the date on the vault is MDCCLXXXVIII (1788) which is the right timeframe for resurrectionists (and shows that the vaults were being used while the church was still being built) but why would the vault have been left open? The robbery must have taken place at a later date. If the robbers were after lead why did they leave so much of it? Maybe they were looking for jewellery left on the corpse? Who knows – maybe someone other than a petrified choirboy needs to get inside the vault and check. 

There are several vicars buried in the vaults and at least a couple of Lord Mayors. Sian introduced us to Sir William Curtis, affectionately known as ‘Billy Biscuits’ and who is described in the History of Parliament as "a portly and bottlenosed bon vivant". Sir William was born in Wapping in 1752, the son of a sea biscuit manufacturer. In time the family business extended to ship owning and their vessels carried convicts to Australia and engaged in whaling in the South Seas. Sir William owned a large house called Cullands Grove near Southgate and was famous for the lavish banquets he hosted there, George IV sometimes attended them. In time he became an MP, served as Lord Mayor of London and was created 1st Baronet of Cullands Grove in 1802 by George III. He died in Ramsgate in 1829; on the day his body was removed from his residence Cliff House, the large funeral set out through a town in which the shops “were closed ; minute guns were fired from the yacht till the return of the Procession; and although the weather was wet and stormy, every one appeared eager to pay this last tribute of affection and respect to departed excellence” according to the London Evening Standard of 27 January. “The party accompanied the funeral to the second Milestone beyond the town of Ramsgate. The body will remain the first night at Sittingbourne, the second at Dartford, and will pass through London on Wednesday on its way to Wanstead” the newspaper added.

SIR WILLIAM CURTIS's WILL The will of the deceased worthy Baronet having been duly proved, and administration granted, in the distribution of extensive property, real and personal, we find the following items:—

Item. I bequeath my physic to the dogs; remainder in fee to the physicians who attended me, in recompense for their singular sagacity, in discovering that "my last disease was mortal." The gally-pots I leave to Lady Sefton, who is admirer of porcelain; and as Lord Deerhurst is a patron of boxes he is welcome to those that held pills and boluses.

Item. To Mr. Michael Angelo Taylor, I leave my handsome footman, who is a capital plate cleaner, as he used regularly to swab the dishes on board my yacht. He has no objection to any work he may be put to; and is remarkably light in his ascents and descents the back stairs. He will have only look to his livery—and he will be answerable for his breeches and stockings.

Item. To Mr. Brougham, my courage, being a JUDGE in that matter.

Item. To the Duchess of Saint Albans, my charity; with the injunction that she shall not spend more than fifteen shillings in advertising every five given, in consequence of its impulse.

Item. To Rowland Stephenson, my activity, a reward for his honesty, in not stopping, when his partners did.

Item. To the Commissioners of Customs for Ireland, for the signal service which they did to merchantmen, in permitting my pleasure yacht to have the first entrance into new docks Dublin, whereby she became free in her moorings, with divers other advantages, too numerous mention, I bequeath one penny per man, to purchase salt to their potatoes. 

The entrance to the Childs/Tylney vault - the heart of the 2nd Earl Tylney, John Child,still sits outside the vault in the glass bottle it was shipped in from Florence. 

Friday, 7 October 2022

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; Highgate East Cemetery


Unless they are particularly unusual, I don’t normally pay much attention to modern memorials when I am visiting cemeteries. As a general rule of thumb, the more recent they are the less interesting they will be. A production line headstone of polished black granite, churned out in a Chinese factory, embellished to order with photo and trite verses, etched with flowers, football club crest, or crucifix, and despatched to England in a shipping container from Nanjung or Guangzhou, will cost less than a grand.  A simple stonemason’s product, made from British stone, with minimal lettering and decoration will cost you at least four or five times that. There aren’t many mass produced Chinese memorials in Highgate cemetery though. I don’t know what the current price is but back in 2018 a grave cost £19,975 plus a £1,850 burial fee. It was, and no doubt still is, Britain’s most expensive graveyard and anyone who can afford to be buried here will not baulk at the cost of adorning their final resting place with a modish headstone; vulgarity is forbidden in Highgate’s middle-class Elysian Fields.  

Walking around the cemetery a couple of weeks ago I found myself paying attention to the hitherto ignored headstones of the North London bourgeoisie. In a path by the boundary wall by Waterlow Park I stumbled across the grave of Andrea Levy. I paused because I know who Levy is; the author of ‘Small Island’ and ‘The Long Song’ died of cancer in February 2019, just before the pandemic shut the UK down, and before she had the chance to draw her retirement pension, at the far too young age of 62. Her headstone follows the classic template for the new memorials, a simple slab of dressed black stone with elegant typography announcing her name and profession, novelist, her dates, 1956 to 2019, and an enigmatic three-word epitaph - ‘This is life.’ The purpose of these brief epitaphs is, I assume, to give us a flavour of the deceased’s personality. Levy’s fails I think because the meaning isn’t clear and so it doesn’t really tell us anything about her. This is life? What is? Being dead and buried in a cemetery? Isn’t this death, not life?  

Levy was cremated and judging by the size of the plots, this is true of most of the modern memorials. Just across the path from Levy stands the grave marker of Sally Hunter. Squashed up against the boundary wall the plot is only big enough to bury the remains from a cremation. The stone is another plain black rectangle with white lettering giving Sally’s dates, 1958 to 2015, her profession and her epitaph; ‘LAWYER should have been a marine biologist’. It is a much better epitaph, wistful, funny, memorable. Film director Gurinder Chadha, whose movies include ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ and ‘Bend it like Beckham’ explained where the epitaph came from; “Sally was one of my best friends, she fell into Law at university but never wanted to be a lawyer. Her big passion was snorkelling, diving and the sea. she would escape to Egypt, or anywhere she could snorkel, at a drop of a hat. She was a very well read, witty, passionate person who made the wrong choice in career life. We miss her terribly.” 

The headstone of Joe Alvarez is unusual because it mentions that he was a father. In very stark contrast to the older gravestones in the cemetery, where the deceased is often defined by their relationships, ‘beloved wife of…’ ‘husband of…’ ‘…and their children….’ etc., the modern memorials at Highgate are monuments to bourgeois individualism with no mention of significant others. As though they lived in a social vacuum, or that they don’t want to share their moment of glory with anyone else, even if they were married to them for half a century. At least Joe Alvarez, publisher and press photographer who died of cancer at the age of 46, mentions the relatively young family he left behind when he died in 2019.

Next to Alvarez are the remains of Paul Winner (1934-2019). His headstone demonstrates another notable trend amongst some of the modern memorials – apart from his name and dates and an image of the roofline of a distant castle seen over the tops of trees, the only information given are the words ‘Dream Conductor’. I presume this is how Mr Winner liked to see himself but in real life he was a well known PR consultant of Latvian Jewish descent, a keen amateur artist who studied at Oxford, ran his own highly successful PR company, was married with two children and lived in Hampstead. From his obituary in The Times; “When Winner started out at the marketing agency Lonsdale-Hands in 1964, many British company directors did not believe in public relations. Richard Lonsdale-Hands, its patrician chairman, initially did not know what to make of the puckish young man. Winner was given the unpromising job of marketing the White Fish Authority in 1966. The chairman soon revised his view when Winner served up a mouthwatering proposition by phoning newspapers to champion the 100th anniversary of “the marriage of fish and chips”. The date of the centenary is contested, but editors with pages to fill cared not. Winner added fat to the fryer by ensuring that all parliamentary candidates at the 1966 general election had fish and chips delivered to help them through the night. A vinegary package was even sent to the prime minister, Harold Wilson. The campaign generated coverage all over the world, including a leading article in The Times.”

Close by is the grave of Daniel St John Smith, whose plain headstone gives no dates and simply states ‘International Man of Mystery’. I could find out absolutely nothing about this human enigma. 

According to his grave stone George Ross 1935-2011, was a Philosopher, Teacher, Physicist, Romanian and Nudist. It is another grave marker with a suggestive but essentially meaningless epitaph;  “If…” His Times obituary says “George Ross was an intellectual bohemian who, before he applied to leave his native Romania in 1963, was set for a career in physics. The communist state employed Ross, who graduated fourth in the country, as a bottle- washer and a glassblower in a light-bulb factory before letting him go. A kind, emotional man, who spent the rest of his life teaching physics and philosophy of science, mainly in London, he never abandoned the high moral principles that made life under a people’s dictatorship unbearable.

Born in 1935 into a wealthy and distinguished Sephardi family in Bucharest, Ross grew up multilingual. One grandfather spoke 14 languages. A second taught him geometry like Socrates taught the slave boy, by drawing lines in the sand with a stick. Ross longed to study philosophy, but since the communist curriculum offered only dialectical materialism, he chose physics, and kept up his real interests, and his wide reading, in private.”  At the age of 28 George emigrated with his mother to Israel where he met his future wife Rosemary Emanuel from North London at the Weizmann Institute. Rosemary’s parents through a lavish wedding for the couple in London; “plunged into synagogue life,” says The Times, “the ardent individualist was shocked by being expected to conform; not a good omen for his married future. Though appropriately learned, he never wanted to be a practising Jew.”

Paul Nathan, 1924 -2016, was apparently a Physiologist and Farmer and judging by the star of David and the pebbles left on his headstone, also Jewish. His epitaph is ‘Eating chocolates and telling stories’. It is relatively easy to find details of his published papers on physiology (‘Antigen Release from the Transplanted Dog Kidney’ 1966 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences when Nathan was based at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati) but I couldn’t find many, or indeed any, biographical details.

No mention of wife or children on the memorial of Ian S. McDonald (1936-2020) is not due to any reluctance on his part to acknowledge the part they might have played in his life; he didn’t have any.  Although many of the North London bourgeoisie feel that their life is best summed up by their profession, a little part of them rebels and wants to be remembered for something more than their career. McDonald who was a ‘Civil Servant in the MOD Prominent in the Falklands War’ was also, his headstone would have us believe, a Raconteur.  He was the official spokesman for the MOD during the Falklands conflict and was frequently featured on news programmes, becoming almost a household face for a few months. His restrained style of delivery, sometimes described as ‘sepulchral’,  but “heavily bespectacled, dark suited and with a penchant for erudite aphorisms, he gained the public’s confidence and the grudging respect of the media.”

The saddest epitaph I saw was for a Jonathan Howel Ellis (1959-2020) – “Best project finance lawyer in the world”, a quote attributed to someone called Jon. I hope it wasn’t Jonathan himself who came up with this sad summation of 61 years spent on Earth.

Friday, 23 September 2022

Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead; the display of human remains in museums


With my new found in South American mummies I decided to revisit the remains of ‘Guimaral’ at the Wellcome Collection, which, very handily, is just a brisk 20-minute walk from my office along the traffic fumes of Euston Road.  I have seen him before, and he is very memorable, but nevertheless I was keen to get reacquainted. It was a Thursday evening and the Wellcome was quiet; despite the proximity to my workplace I haven’t been back there since the ending of Covid restrictions. On the ground floor everything seemed pretty much as it was back pre-pandemic except that the Blackwells book store behind the café has disappeared and the security staff seem to have lost any interest in checking bags. But on the second floor there have been some unexpected changes; ‘Guimaral’ had once reigned as the undisputed draw of Medicine Man, the Wellcome’s tribute to its founder Henry Soloman Wellcome but at the place he had lived since the gallery opened in 2007 all I found was an empty display case. A notice informed me that the “naturally preserved or ‘mummified’ body of a young man who died approximately 600-800 years ago” had been removed from being exhibited as a result of “changing ethical standards around displaying human remains and in light of work reviewing whose perspectives receive prominence in our collections.” The notice made clear that until now the Wellcome regards itself as having “prioritising the gaze of science and museum visitors over the burial intentions of the culture of origin.” Even worse the mummy had been obtained in the 1920’s at “a time when human remains were often acquired for anthropological study, including to support the development of racist scientific theories about supposed racial hierarchies.” Having voiced concerns about the burial intentions of the culture to which the mummy belonged the Wellcome then has to admit that it does not actually know what his cultural origins are; “we will research this man’s geographical and cultural origins,” they say “in order to inform appropriate future care.” Until the museum can establish this the mummy will presumably remain in storage, an object too controversial to be seen by the general public.

How very different things were back in 2007 when the Wellcome Collection opened in its new building. James Watson (of DNA fame) presided over the opening ceremony and the Guardian reported on 17 June that “Britain's newest national museum - dedicated to medicine and its impact on life - will open its doors this week to reveal some of the strangest artefacts connected with human anatomy: a blade from a French guillotine, a robot used in the sequencing of the human genome, an Andy Warhol painting of the heart, a Chinese torture chair and a 14th-century Peruvian mummy.” Clearly the desiccated Peruvian (if that is what he is) was a major element of the Wellcome’s modern take on the Wunderkammer and one that was no different from anything else in its list of oddities, a guillotine, a robot, a painting, a chair and a dead Latin American.  Shortly after the opening the Naked Scientists Blog (01 July 2007) visited Medicine Man and spoke to staff about public reaction to the collection. Visitor Services Assistant Brittany Hudak told them that “I think that so far people have tended to gravitate towards the Peruvian Mummy, or even people coming in the door have asked ‘where's the mummy?’  Which goes to show that the fascination of the mummified body is apparently still alive and well.” Ken Arnold, the Head of Public Programmes for the Wellcome added “This is a mummified male figure in a sort of foetal position with its very delicate skin draped over the skeleton.  It's between five and seven hundred years old.  One of the things that I'm sure intrigued Wellcome is that fact that actually this is completely naturally preserved.  It's simply wrapped in textiles and then dried.  It shows that the people who did this had a strong understanding of how to preserve biological material.  Also, of course, what we're able to do now is apply modern scientific techniques to study objects like this.” In fifteen years the Peruvian mummy has effortlessly changed status from star attraction to bone of contention along with the Shuar tsantsa, often called a shrunken head, which lived in the display case opposite. Both have been removed from display until the Wellcome decides what to do with them.

Skeletal remains; one of 20,000 in storage at the Museum of London (photo Amanda Ruggeri)

It was in 2000 that Tony Blair and Australian premier John Howard, issued a joint statement pledging to increase repatriation of Indigenous Australian human remains back to their communities, saying that “the governments recognise the special connection that indigenous people have with ancestral remains, particularly where there are living descendants.” At the time, under English law, national museums were banned from permanently giving up anything in their collections, a position which effectively nullified the joint statement. In 2004 the Labour Government passed the Human Tissue Act, prompted by a scandal at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital where medical staff had stored body parts from dead children without their parent’s permission. The Act contained a clause allowing nine, named national museums the power to transfer human remains less than 1,000 years old out of their collections “if it appears to them to be appropriate to do so for any reason”. Since then, the nine named institutions have received many requests for the repatriation of human remains from Governments and communities around the world, and have had to wrestle with the ethical issues raised by the acquisition and storage of the dead. In a UCL blog written in 2017 Julia R Deathridge ponders the question ‘should human remains be displayed in museums?’ “In the past human remains were regularly collected from excavation sites and displayed in museum cases with little thought put into the person that they once were. However, feelings towards the use of human remains in the UK have begun to change in recent years.” She points to the 2005 Department for Culture, Media & Sport Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums and says that since then “human remains have been given a unique status within collections and are no longer treated as objects.” It is a refrain you often hear in the argument – human remains are not the same as other objects, their status is completely different. But is that right? And what would the dead themselves have wanted? Would they want to be on display in a museum, would they have given their consent? Professor Geoffrey Scarre of Durham University thinks not; in a 2003 article on ‘Archaeology and Respect for the Dead’ in the Journal of Applied Philosophy he argues “it is fairly certain that an Egyptian pharaoh would not have wished to be translated from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings to a glass case in the British Museum… Ancient Egyptians took very seriously the issue of their welfare after death. For Egyptians of all ranks, one of the main tasks of this life was to make suitable preparations for the prosperity in the next…” I am sure that is all true but the real question for me is should we care what the dead want? Should the wishes of the dead take precedence over the wishes of the living?

In a response to Deathridge’s blog the artist Susan Elaine Jones wrote “I feel the importance of displays of human remains is invaluable. The last hundred years may be unique in human history in terms of not seeing human remains and engendering a culture of death denial. Historically, attending death beds, visiting church ossuaries and saintly relics and dissections for public education (not just behind closed doors of medical schools) all took their turns in human history of displaying the dead and helping the living come to terms with their mortality. It seems a peculiarly modern whim that the only way to show respect is to hide our dead. With death happening in hospitals rather than at home, and a culture of closed coffins, it isn’t surprising that the public have to turn to displays in museums, Body Worlds, and even death awareness events such as Dying for Life to be able to look their inevitable future of death in the face, and so make the most of their lives. For all these reasons, I would argue strongly that most displays of human remains are both essential and respectful.”

Whilst I agree with Jones’ view there is no getting away from the fact that the acquisition and display of human remains in museums was often (but by no means exclusively) underpinned by a world view that viewed non-European cultures as other and inferior. The issue of whether human remains should or should not be displayed in museums is therefore contaminated by questions of racism and exploitation. The two issues can be unravelled – Gunther Van Hagen’s Bodyworld exhibitions elicit their own share of controversy but the dead all consented to be on display. Personally I don’t see why human remains should not be on display but I have no religious or spiritual beliefs and I think only human arrogance makes a human corpse a special or privileged object. All flesh is grass. As Blake said; “drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.”