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.