Wednesday, 15 March 2023

A fortune lost and a fortune found; Hanwell and the great Westminster Cemetery Scandal of 1986.

As the dead don’t vote and they don’t pay rates they are generally of little interest to ambitious local politicians. But in 1986 the then leader of Westminster Council, Dame Shirley Porter, was much exercised by the problem of the city’s deceased, who whilst serving no discernible, useful purpose were costing the Highways and Works Committee of the City Council almost £400,000 a year to maintain in their bone-idle, eternal rest. Her efforts to resolve this problem cost the ratepayers of Westminster £4 million pounds but made small fortunes for several off shore investment companies.

Dame Shirley was the daughter of Jack Cohen, the barrow boy from Upper Clapton who became the nation’s favourite grocer, when he founded Tesco in 1931. Bright and ambitious Shirley found a position in the family firm was closed to her because her dear old dad thought that a woman’s place was in the home. When she married Leslie Porter in 1949 her father gave her new husband a job, and eventually a seat on the board, but Shirley was told to bring up the children and look after the house and to forget about making money or pursuing a career. When the children grew up she took up volunteering, becoming a magistrate in 1970 and then a Conservative councillor for the Hyde Park ward in Westminster in 1974. She became well known in local conservative circles for her campaigns to clean up Westminster’s streets (inspired by an official visit in 1976 to Leningrad and Moscow of all places; she recruited schoolchildren to march at the Lord Mayor's Show, shouldering brooms as though they were assault rifles, and goosestepping to the tune of ‘Pick up your litter and put it in the bin’) and to license sex shops in Soho. Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 general election galvanised Dame Shirley’s political ambitions and by 1983 she had managed to get herself elected Leader of the Council and had embarked on her mission to reduce excess bureaucracy and slash public spending. The Westminster dead were not going to be allowed to rest in peace for much longer.  

The council owned three large out of borough cemeteries at Hanwell in Ealing, and East Finchley and Mill Hill in Barnet. With a combined area of almost 100 acres the three cemeteries contained the bodies of around 175,000 former Londoners. As the cemeteries filled up, burial numbers dropped off and income from fees began to significantly reduce. When privately owned cemeteries become unprofitable, they generally are allowed to quietly return to nature but the Westminster cemeteries were well maintained by a small army of ground staff and a supporting bureaucracy. This was costing the boroughs ratepayers over £400,000 a year. Even worse the distance of the cemeteries from the borough they ostensibly served had, over the years loosened their appeal as final resting places to people actually living in the borough. Locals had taken over as the major customers and Westminster was underwriting the costs of what were effectively burial grounds for the residents of Ealing and Barnet.  As far as Dame Shirley was concerned, the situation was intolerable; why should the well-heeled residents of Mayfair and Belgravia be subsidising cemeteries to bury the rate payers of W5, EN5 and N20? Approaches to Ealing and Barnet Council’s failed; they were not interested in taking on the responsibility.

As far as Dame Shirley could see, there was only one possible solution, to this intractable problem; privatisation. But who would want to buy a cemetery that was losing money? To make the sale more palatable to potential buyers it was decided to competitively price them. After much debate it was decided that 5 pence per cemetery was about the right price. To sweeten the deal three lodge houses, a plant nursery, 12 acres of grazing land, a foreman’s flat and a car park were added as extra’s, priced at 70 pence. So the whole lot, 100 acres of cemetery plus the extras, was going, going, gone for the princely sum of 85 pence. But there a last-minute hitch, the council were unable to evict a cemetery worker from the lodge at East Finchley and had to withdraw it from the sale. They refused to drop the sale price from 85 pence though; instead, they paid the buyer £70,000 in compensation.  On the day the sale completed, the purchaser, Bestwood Property Ltd. (registered in Cyprus) paid Westminster 85 pence and the Council paid Bestwood £70,000. Bestwood hung onto their new purchase for less than 24 hours before selling it on to another off shore company, this one controlled by controversial developer John Whybrow (later jailed for fraud in an unrelated case) for £1.25 million. Within a few hours Whybrow had sold the cemeteries on again for £1.75 million. The sales continued, the car park, the nursery and the grazing land were all sold off for redevelopment, the lodges and flat as residential properties. Upkeep of the cemeteries came to a complete halt as Westminster had failed to give itself the powers to oblige the new purchasers to maintain their new investment. Disgruntled relatives of the deceased formed WAR – the Westminster Association of Relatives – and began pressurising the council to buy back the cemeteries. The Westminster Labour party complained vociferously and brought in the District Auditor. By 1990 the District Auditor had determined that the sale of the cemeteries was unlawful and the council had no alternative but to repurchase them from their latest off shore owners. In 1990 the council paid £4.25 million just for the cemeteries, the 15 pence part of the original sale. The additional items, the lodges, car park, plant nursery and even the crematorium at East Finchley were all gone for good.    

Not content with having caused the Cemetery scandal Dame Shirley went on to involve herself an even murkier controversy involving the selling off of publicly owned assets, this time council flats in the ‘homes for votes’ scandal, an attempt to gerrymander in marginal wards of the council to make them more likely to vote conservative. When the District Auditor found the sale of homes to be illegal Dame Shirley and five other councillors were surcharged £31.6 million. The battle over the surcharges went through the courts; the original decision was overturned by the court of appeal in 1999 but reinstated by the House of Lords in 2001. By then the amount owed in surcharges had risen to £43 million but Dame Shirley had long gone, she resigned from the council in 1993 and moved to Israel taking her £70 million pound fortune with her, promptly redistributing it amongst her family in secret trusts and off shore accounts to keep it out of the clutches of the ratepayers of Westminster. In 2004 she reached agreement with Westminster to repay just £12 million of the £43 owed.        

Today Hanwell Cemetery is firmly back under the control of Westminster Council. The cemetery lodge on Uxbridge Road is still a private residence. It was designed by borough architect Robert Jerrard, and Meller and Parsons describe it as “a very substantial house, the largest lodge in London, which carries a high relief sculpture of St George above the main door.” It was last sold in October 2018, according to Rightmove, for £1,110,000. Apart from this there is little trace of the cemetery's turbulent recent past. Once you are in through the gates and past the lodge the first thing you see is the impressively large, neoclassical Arama Mausoleum which was apparently built in 1989, right in the middle of the cemetery scandal. This is the last resting place of the mysterious Leon Andre Arama, who was born in Marseilles on 12 Dec 1919 and died in Nice on 16 Jan 1987. I can find out very little about Leon or his family other that he joined the free French Army in Tangier in January 1943. Presumably after the war he moved to London and was extremely successful in whatever career he followed; mausoleums of this size are very expensive. Other than that, I have been able to discover absolutely nothing about him.

The cemetery was originally opened in 1854 as a new burial ground for St. George’s, Hanover Square. When General William Steuart donated land for a new church in Hanover Square in 1721, the plot was too small to accommodate a church yard. The new, very fashionable, parish was obliged to acquire a burial ground in Mount Street, a ten-minute stroll away from the church in the direction of Hyde Park. This soon filled up and by 1765 the vestry bought land for a second burial ground half an hour away, to the north of Bayswater Road. Both grounds were closed on public health grounds by the passing of the Metropolitan Internment Act of 1853 and in 1854 the Burial Board of St George’s opened a spacious new ground 9 miles away on the Uxbridge Road in Hanwell. Meller and Parson’s say that “there is, as you would expect from a wealthy borough, a sense of opulence about the cemetery which is still very well maintained,” but add that “surprisingly few” of the 100,000 or burials here “have been commemorated by remarkable monuments…. Stone angels in every imaginable posture are the favourite unimaginative motif, frequently adorning tombs of the innumerable retired colonial gentry, soldiers, planters and missionaries who are buried here.”

In the middle of the cemetery is a large memorial, unveiled in 1950, to 200 civilians who died in the blitz during the second world war. The most famous name on the memorial belongs to Al Bowlly the singer. Bowlly was born in 1898 in Lourenço Marques, the capital of the Portuguese colony of Mozambique (now renamed Maputo) to a Greek father and a Lebanese mother. He was brought up in South Africa and began a professional career in the mid 1920’s in a band that toured the colonies in Rhodesia, India and the East Indies. By 1929 he was in London and in a four-year period he recorded over 500 songs including ‘Love is the sweetest thing’, ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘Midnight, the Stars and You’. For a while it looked like Bowlly was going to be a hige star but problems with his voice disrupted his recording and performing and his popularity slowly began to wane. On 16 April 1941, he had been performing at the Rex Cinema in High Wycombe. He took the last train home to his flat at 32 Duke Street in St James, and was killed at ten past three in the morning when German parachute mine exploded outside his flat, blew his bedroom door off its hinges and across the room giving him a fatal head injury. He was buried with little ceremony in a mass grave at the cemetery. When I visited someone had left a framed photograph of the singer above his name on the memorial.

A story from the York Herald of Saturday 19 June 1875. There are longer versions of the same story in other newspapers but all the most interesting details are present in this shorter verion. The thing that caught my eye was the accusation of using dead babies as pillows for the heads of adult corpses to avoid having to pay the cemetery a burial fee. The allegation was made by a rival undertaker who seems to have also paid for the prosecution but that does not necessarily mean the story was not true:

Extraordinary Disposal of Dead Bodies. — Thomas Cocks, an undertaker, was charged at the Westminster Police-court, on Monday, "with unlawfully procuring, to be buried, the body of the deceased child of Frederick Harvey, as if it had been still-born." The child only lived six hours, and the defendant agreed to bury the body in a proper manner for 18s. A coffin was sent to the house, and the corpse taken away, but a grave certificate could never be obtained, and nothing was known of the interment at the Hanwell Cemetery. It was suspected that the body had either been disposed of for anatomical purposes or used as a pillow for the head of a dead adult. The undertaker, in reply, said he did not attend the funeral personally, and he supposed his men had "squared" the grave-diggers to bury the body as that of a still-born child. Summonses for 27 similar cases were granted against the undertaker, and one against the manager of the cemetery, after which the inquiry was adjourned. It was elicited in the course of the inquiry that an opposition undertaker was supplying the principal portion of the funds for the prosecution.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Behold London Forever; Peter Jackson (1922-2003) Highgate West Cemetery

Surely the eye-catching headstone of illustrator Peter Jackson in Highgate Cemetery was designed by himself? The author of “London Is Stranger Than Fiction”, a comic strip which ran in the London Evening News every Wednesday from 1949 to 1980, was, according to his obituary in the Independent “a man of many talents – antiquarian, artist, author, bookbinder, broadcaster, sculptor – but his passion was London. For more than 50 years he was a magpie pecking away in antiquarian bookshops and salerooms. Prints, maps, drawings, books, ceramics, medals, playbills and ephemera associated with London were bought, catalogued and put in files or carefully mounted and stored in cabinets in his large house in west London.”

Peter Jackson at home with his collection in 1991, from the Illustrated London News

His biography makes him sound like a character from Michael Moorcock’s ‘Mother London’; he was born in Brighton on the 4th March 1922, where his father was the manager of the local Gaumont picture house. He was educated at Hove High School which he left at the age of 16 to move to London, working as a messenger boy for Gaumont British. When called up for the army in World War II he was rejected as medically unfit because of his poor eyesight. Instead, he worked by day as a window dresser for British Home Store and at night as an air raid warden for Civil Defence. Somehow he still managed to find time to study at the Willesden School of Art (and to become the last pupil of the great Italian illustrator Fortunino Matania). After the war he became a full-time illustrator, adapting classic novels, Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers and the Hunchback of Notre Dame amongst others, as comic strips for serial publication in newspapers.  In 1948 the editor of the Evening News was looking for someone to produce a cartoon strip in the style of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, based on curious and little known facts about London. Jackson sent in a few drawings and was summoned to Carmelite House to see the editor. He was asked if he knew anything about London history and he responded with disarming candour "Erm, nothing at all, I'm afraid." Despite this he was given the job on a three week trial  that turned into a 31 year run and which made London into a lifetime’s obsession. In an interview with the Fulham Chronicle he told them that “when I started I knew nothing about London. I ransacked the shelves of public libraries to learn about the strange and curious in London. Then they put a piece in the paper asking people to send in their London stories and I was given the job of sorting through them.” Things changed quickly; when his first collection of ‘London Is Stranger than Fiction’ strips were published in book form in 1951 the introduction claimed that “He will work for days on research into a single cartoon incident, poring over old books in the British Museum or following a trail on an ancient map through the labyrinth of modern London.”

London is stranger than fiction for 5 July 1950 included the mummified head of Holy Trinity Minories

Jackson became a great collector of London related material. In an article in the Illustrated London News of 01 September 1991, his friend Denise Silvester-Carr said that “for 40 years he has been a magpie pecking away in antiquarian bookshops and salerooms. Prints, maps, drawings, books, ceramics, medals, playbills and ephemera associated with the history and topography of London have been bought, catalogued and now mellow in files, yellow on bookshelves or are carefully mounted and stored in cabinets on four storeys of his ivy-clad Victorian house…. Very little has escaped his attention or collection. Curators and department heads from national museums cast covetous eyes at the 25,000 prints when they come to inquire about missing links in their holdings.” His collections yielded several books on London, two of them produced in collaboration with an old colleague, Felix Barker the theatre critic of the Evening News; London: 2,000 years of a city and its people (1974) and A History of London in Maps (1990). Alone he authored books on London Bridge, Walks in Old London and George Scharf's London.

After a lifetime as a bachelor, he unexpectedly married Valerie Harris in 1995 at the age of 73. He died on 2nd May 2003.

And on 20 September 1950 we get a quiz about the Bligh memorial 

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Gangsters, the most inebriated woman in the world, flatulent Lord Mayors and Olaudah Equiano; Chingford Mount Cemetery, Old Church Road, E4


Chingford Mount was opened as a non-conformist burial ground by the Abney Park Cemetery Company in 1884 when the 32 acres of the company’s first cemetery in Stoke Newington were starting to become a little overcrowded.  “Forty-four years ago-on the 28th May, 1840 the Lord Mayor of London opened the burial-ground at Abney-park,” reported Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper on 25 May 1884, “with the marvellous growth of the Great City, so rapid have been the funeral marches to the grave, that its thirty acres are being swiftly swallowed up. Accordingly, the limited company to which the ground belongs has secured a fresh estate of seventy-eight acres, and thirty-three of them having been enclosed for the purpose of sepulture, another Lord Mayor yesterday opened what is to be known as Chingford Mount Cemetery. It occupies a fine position on the first hill beyond the valley of the Lea, and is approached by good roads from Clapton, Tottenham, and Walthamstow. A grand avenue of elms opening on the ivy-covered ruins of old Chingford church forms a picturesque feature of the locality.” The tree lined avenue is still there, the original elms have gone and been replaced by London planes.

The cemetery was formally opened by the flatulent Sir Robert Fowler, twice Lord Mayor of London, in a ceremony which he enigmatically described as “sad and interesting”. (Frank Harris demolished Sir Robert’s reputation in ‘My Life and Loves’. The learned mayor was described in the first D.N.B. as “a perfect storehouse of quotations from orators and poets, Greek, Roman, and English” but Harris characterises him as “a large man who must have been five feet ten at least in height and much more in girth” who at a society dinner “ate like an ogre…. smacking his lips and hurrying again to his plate, intent on cutting and swallowing huge gobbets of meat while the veins of his forehead stood out like knotted cords and the beads of sweat poured down his great red face!” The result of the gourmandising was an attack of fetid flatulence that drove the hostess, “as pale as death”, from the dining room in search of fresh air.)  According to Lloyds Weekly “After the chaplain, the Rev H. Varley, had read some appropriate passages of Scripture, Dr. Llewelyn Bevan delivered an address, referred to burial customs in ancient times, and pointing out how the harsh restrictions with respect to those who had died unbaptised, who had committed suicide; or were ex-communicated, had led to the divisions which were now to be found in " God's Acre." We have only to look back a hundred years to find a tax on burials, the impost being levied on a sliding scale, by which four shillings was paid for a "common person," and as much as fifty pounds for a duke. Wise reforms have stayed man's tyranny from being carried down to the grave, but there is ample room for improvement in our burial customs. Would not the opening of this new cemetery afford a timely opportunity for the introduction of more simple ways for showing reverence for the dead?”  Chingford certainly offered a simpler, and cheaper, way of burying the dead; fees at Abney Park were 20 shillings for a child and 40 shillings for an adult and a private cost £3 3 shillings, but at Chingford children could be buried for a little as 4 shillings and adults from 10 and private graves started at £1 1 shilling. Further enticement to use Chingford were Sunday burials, banned at Abney Park, but available there from 1887; “this concession to the wishes of many East End residents is evidently already fully appreciated, especially by working-class people and middle-class traders, many of whom find exceedingly inconvenient to leave their employment and business during the week-days in order to attend the funerals of their deceased relatives,” said the  Hackney and Kingsland Gazette of 2 March 1887, “these are times when East-enders can ill afford to lose day’s wages, even for so needful a purpose; and the Sunday interments, which, as above stated, have already commenced, will sure to prove a great boon to the bereaved.”

There are no outstanding monuments at Chingford Mount, Dr Llewelyn Bevan would be pleased to note that simplicity became an indelible feature of the cemetery. Meller and Parsons in London Cemeteries praise the trees rather than the memorials, “some of them are magnificent,” they say, especially the avenue of planes. The cemetery was used for a couple of mass reinterments following closure of burial grounds elsewhere. In the late 1930’s Ram’s Episcopal Chapel was scheduled for demolition;

Over 200 years ago, shortly after George II became King, an Irishman disagreed with the churchwarden of Hackney (London) parish church. He wanted to occupy pew 13. They refused to let him do so. Mr. Stephen Ram, banker, son of Sir Albert Ram, of Dublin, therefore, built his own church some few hundred yards away. Every Sunday since then services have been held, but Ram's Episcopal Chapel, Homerton, is now a dangerous structure, and it to be demolished. (Beeston Gazette and Echo - Friday 22 July 1938)

The burial ground of the chapel was emptied of its occupants who were all reburied in Chingford.

In 1898 The famous Whitefield Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road was demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale. This meant removing the bodies from the burial ground, including that of John Whitefield’s wife Elizabeth. The St. Pancras Gazette of Friday 24 January 1908 ran a story commemorating the 10th anniversary of the new tabernacle;

The rebuilding of the chapel in 1898 necessitated the removal of a large number of coffins and human remains, under a license issued by the Home Secretary. In excavating underneath the back part of the chapel, extensive vaults were found. These had at various times been cleared out, and the coffins placed in three large brick chambers in the rear, which were then bricked up. One of them had been thus closed for 65 years, and another for over 40 years. On opening those chambers 200 coffins were found, of all sizes and in all conditions. They had been placed in piles one upon another, and those towards the bottom were in many cases crushed out of shape.

The front part of the chapel enclosed a large piece of ground, in which many graves and brick vaults had been made. Some of the wooden coffins discovered here were very sound, but contained nothing but bones in nearly every instance. One iron coffin was found quite intact except for rust. Here also was discovered the mummified body of a woman, resembling marble in appearance, and as hard, but very light in weight, apparently having undergone some system of embalming. There was no plate remaining on the coffin.

The coffin of Mrs Whitefield (1768) was quite sound. It was made of solid cast lead, half an inch thick, with the handles and plates soldered on. It was exceedingly heavy. The whole of the coffins and remains were placed in large packing cases, close upon 300 in number, and reinterred at Chingford Mount Cemetery, Mrs Whitefield's being placed in a separate grave.

The lead coffin containing the remains of the Rev. A. M. Toplady (1778) was discovered in an earth grave as sound as when first deposited there. Being at an unusual depth it was not removed, but remains under the floor of the new basement hall encased in concrete, the exact spot being marked by a suitable tablet.

The last resting place of Olaudah Equiano, the one-time slave who became a writer and abolitionist, was a complete mystery until 2018 when Professor Vincent Carretta of the University of Maryland discovered his burial entry in the register of Whitefield’s Tabernacle. According to the register he was buried on 6 April 1797 in the chapel burial ground. Unless his coffin was missed during the clear out of 1898 then his mortal remains are now buried in a mass grave in Chingford Mount. 

The most famous graves in the cemetery belong to the Kray Family; twins Ronnie and Reggie, their brother Charlie, mother Violet and Reggie’s first wife Frances who committed suicide in 1967 at the age of 23. The Kray’s are of course England’s most famous gangsters; small time petty crooks who used violence and intimidation to become big time crooks and who became national celebrities as night club owners when crooked landlord Peter Rachman sold them a gaming club in Knightsbridge, Esmeralda’s Barn in the early 1960’s. When they weren’t hobnobbing with celebrities at their club, intimidating their rivals or extorting money out of anyone with a business interest in the West and East Ends, they were indulging hubris by killing anyone who got on their nerves, most famously George Cornell at the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, allegedly for having called Ronnie a “fat poof”. Then there was Frank ‘the mad axeman’ Mitchell who the Krays sprung from Dartmoor prison in December 1966 but killed when he became a tiresome nuisance. And finally Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie who Reggie stabbed to death at a party in Evering Road in Hackney. McVitie was a member of the Kray gang and his death caused disquiet in the ranks – they must have all wondered who might be next. The answer was no one – Scotland Yard arrested the twins in May 1968 and they spent the rest of their lives behind bars becoming national anti-heroes in the process.   

In 1898 one Jane Cakebread was buried at the cemetery. According to the South Wales Daily News of 10 December “The funeral of this notorious old lady was mournful in its desolation at Chingford Mount Cemetery on Friday morning. The body of the woman whose name was known to many thousands of persons in all parts of the country was consigned to the grave with but one mourner, and he was Mr Thomas Holmes, the North London Police Court missionary, who had for years striven to do her good in life. He carried with him a simple wreath of flowers, and placed it reverently upon the coffin, which bore the plain inscription Jane Cakebread died Dec. 3, 1898. Aged 64." And why was 64-year-old Jane Cakebread notorious? Because she was, according to the London newspapers, the most inebriated woman in the world. She had an astonishing 281 convictions for drunkenness or disorderly conduct and spent almost 12 and a half years in total behind bars because of her alcoholism. When imprisoned she would sing her favourite hymns or recite portions of the Bible.  Her memory was sharp; she could quote two chapters from the Book of Job.   She prayed on her knees, only to rise from those prayers and spew obscenities.  Lady Henry Somerset tried to save her by taking her into her temperance home. Cakebread created chaos and was thrown out after three weeks. At her next court appearance Lady Henry suggested to the magistrates that the inebriate needed a psychiatric assessment. Her response when she was removed to Hackney Infirmary was to try and bite one of the guards and to kick Dr Gordon, the medical officer in the chest, breaking two of his ribs. She was eventually confined to an asylum where, deprived of liberty, fresh air and gin, she died.   

A better-behaved ‘old’ lady had been buried at the cemetery in 1887. This account is from Aberdeen Press and Journal of Thursday 24 February;

DEATH OF "MOTHER KETTLE." - Mrs Flanders, alias "Mother Kettle," whose face was familiar to thousands of men, women, and children, who have of late years visited Epping Forest, died a few days ago, and at the end of last week her remains were interred in Chingford Cemetery. The deceased, who was said to be the only licensed female driver of public conveyances kept for hire, could always be seen during the summer months in charge of a waggonette drawn by a pair of horses, in good condition, and well harnessed, and she knew all the favourite spots in the Forest. She was specially pointed out to the Queen when Her Majesty opened the Forest, and "Mother Kettle" was very proud of the distinction with which she had been honoured. Deceased was only 52 years of age.

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

The Shame of Being a Bastard, Folkestone's mysterious recluse; Captain George Anthony Lindsay Wilson (1832-1905) The catacombs, Kensal Green Cemetery

 Captain George Wilson was presented several times to Her Majesty at court

Rumours about the true identity of the reclusive George Boreham had been circulating in Folkestone’s polite society for years but when he died at the age of 74 on 22 January 1905 the whispers turned into full blown, public speculation. Some said that he was the Tichbourne claimant, others claimed that he was refugee French nobleman.  Some of the rumour mongering was sensationalist; that Boreham was Major Murray, who had been found guilty of justifiable homicide in 1868 when he had killed a blackmailing solicitor called Roberts in what became known as the Northumberland Street murder. Boreham was not Sir Roger Tichbourne, nor a French aristocrat or the disreputable Major Murray but his true identity, when revealed, caused almost as big a shock.  The man who had relinquished his former identity, abandoned friends and family, changed his name and hidden himself away in one of the most unfashionable places on the Kent coast would have been appalled to see his carefully guarded privacy invaded whilst his body was still barely cold in its coffin. Within hours of his demise the Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald had their reporters on the case and before he had been dead a week were outing him, detailing their findings on the front page under the headline “Romance of High Life; Folkestone’s Mysterious Recluse; His Identity Revealed; Former Society Favourite Dies In A Basement.”;

Much mystery has surrounded a gentleman who took up his residence here about thirty years ago, Rumour, as usual, has been busy, and in this case, as the years passed, the most extraordinary tales were woven. Perhaps there was some reasons for this, for every effort was made to hide the identity of him who passed away at No. 13 Alexandra-gardens, on Sunday last, at the age of 74. Even after death the same system of secrecy was adopted. Why should the public be curious?  

The newspaper thought that the shadowy solitary’s property investments in the town, almost 30 ‘valuable’ houses, many of which had been left standing empty, were sufficient reason to justify their unmasking of the recluse as being in the public interest. And so a reporter had been despatched to see John Andrew, Folkestone’s Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, to offer the usual legal fee to inspect the register; “but the official sheltering himself behind what he stated to be his instructions, firmly but courteously declined to allow the book to be consulted.” The reporter next called upon Messers Hambrook and Johns, Undertakers, the firm that had been put in charge of the funeral arrangements. They also declined to divulge any information. Councillor Payer of the borough council, who was known to be one of the few people who had ever exchanged more than just a handful of words with the recluse cheerfully admitted to the paper that he was aware of his identity but refused to name him as he had promised to keep it a secret; “a promise is a promise and I mean to respect it,” he told them.

The old Kent port of Folkestone where George lived for 30 years

Eventually it was, as is so often the case, an anonymous informant who gave the newspaper the deceased’s real name. In the town he had been known as George Boreham for almost 30 years, the name borrowed from an old manservant of his. By this name he had conducted all his business in the town and by this name he was recorded on the census returns of 1881 and 1891. The many property investments that so perturbed the local newspaper were not transacted in his name; he placed all his trust in his housekeeper, Mary Campbell, an unmarried woman 11 years his junior and purchased his many houses in her name. If the relationship between the pair was another subject for the local gossips, this is not mentioned in any of the newspaper accounts.  Boreham’s real name was George Anthony Lindsay Wilson and he was the son of General Sir John Wilson, a British army officer, a veteran of the Peninsular War and twice acting Governor of Ceylon.  

The 1881 census return showing George living as a boarder in one the houses he bought in Mary Campbell's name

George has been born in 1832 but was not baptised until 5 January 1835 at St James in Westminster. His mother was Elizabeth Lindsay from Berwick in Northumberland. She was 24 when George was born, his father was 55. George was later told that his mother had died when he was a baby but his father brought him up with the help of his rather beautiful unmarried aunt, his mother’s sister. His father was wealthy, as well as a successful military career he was the sole heir of his own father, and the family lived at one of the grand, new villas in Westbourne Terrace.  George was educated at Rugby and Oxford and on going down from the university he took a commission in the Guards. He was presented at Buckingham Palace on several occasions and the Queen even gave him a small oil painting of a dog which later hung on the wall of the living room in Alexandra Gardens. By the age of 24 he was planning to be married and seemed to have a settled and prosperous future ahead of him in the military and as a family man in his own right. But disaster struck. His father died after a short illness in 1856 at the age of 76. George would no doubt have got over the shock of his father’s death, it was what was revealed in the old man’s will that completely changed his life.  

What his father had never told him was that he had never married his mother and that he was illegitimate. The will contained not only this bombshell but also revealed that his mother was alive and well and pretending to be his aunt. As he looked at his attractive, relatively young mother the scales fell from George’s eyes and he realised that his father had been raising his bastard whilst living in sin with his mother. He never got over the shock and felt obliged to abandon his mother, whom he never spoke to again, and to quit his place in society. Marriage was now out of the question and his imminent wedding was called off. He moved out of London to an estate in Brentwood in Essex. According to the Daily Mirror (Friday 27 January 1905) he “neglected his mansion and estate at Brentford, allowing his horses and cattle to roam about in a state of primitive nature, and as a result was placed for a brief period in an asylum.” Records show that he was admitted to the Essex Asylum at Warley in 1870 but the family solicitor battled to get him released into the care of a local doctor. In the 1871 census return he is listed as living at 11 High Street in Brentwood, a ‘visitor’ in the house of Joseph Earle, a general practitioner. Shortly afterwards he moved to Folkestone where, according to the Mirror, “for a time he stayed at the Clarendon Hotel, where he became attached to a governess named Miss Campbell, who alternately acted as his housekeeper and secretary, living with him till the last. He never married, but lived in the utmost seclusion, although he became notorious for strange freaks of philanthropy. For instance, he would often buy a whole row of stalls for a local theatre or other entertainment and give the tickets away indiscriminately.” The paper also said that “he became known as the "old gentleman of Alexandra-gardens," shunned public gaze, and seldom went out except at night, in a bath-chair.” The Shields Daily News (Monday 18 September 1905) claimed that when he moved to Folkestone it was apparent that “he was a man of considerable wealth, as he lived in good if quiet style, and was frequently seen driving down the Lees in a smart turn-out with two ponies.  Then suddenly he changed his mode of life. He turned a vegetarian, was more seen on the Lees, and never left his residence until after dark.”

The Essex Asylum at Warley near Brentwood

The Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald reported that he was secretive to the last and that there was no announcement of his funeral arrangements. As they had placed a reporter on surveillance outside the undertakers they were able to report that;

Shortly after ten clock last night, a Herald representative visited Alexandra-gardens having followed a single-horsed hearse. This drew down into Oxford-terrace, and a few minutes later eight bearers carried a massive oak coffin out of No. 13, Alexandra-gardens and deposited it in the hearse. This was then driven down Victoria-grove into, Shellons-street and Grace-hill, to the undertaker’s offices where the coffin was laid on tressels for the night. The brass plate the coffin bore the inscription: ‘‘George Lindsav Anthony Wilson. Died January 22nd, 1903. aged 73 years,” The remains will be interred in the Catacombs, Kensal Green, to-day. The body will be taken to the Metropolis by the 9.15 train from the Central Station.

George made no will and so his considerable fortune passed to the Crown. Luckily Mary Campbell, who was the legal owner of his property portfolio in Folkestone, was adequately taken care. His father was also buried at Kensal Green. His mother's last resting place is unknown. 

George's last resting place in the Catacombs at Kensal Green 

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The man who buried himself - Vital Douat (1825-1875) St Patrick's Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Leyton

On Sunday 3 December 1865 the reverend Father McQuoid presided over what must have struck him as an unusual funeral at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leyton. The deceased, a French wine merchant from Bordeaux called Vital Douat, arrived on an ordinary dray cart rather than a hearse, direct from the train station. There was no undertaker (and consequently no help getting the heavy coffin down from the cart and into the chapel) and only one mourner, a mysterious foreigner who called himself Signor Bernardi, who spoke almost no English.  Bernardi insisted that Monsieur Douat was buried with full Roman rites but as soon as the coffin had been lowered into the grave and the gravediggers started shovelling earth over it, he disappeared, never to be seen again. The Douat grave lay unmarked, unvisited and neglected for several months until the weeds had taken over the plot and Father McQuoid had almost completely forgotten about the peculiar funeral. 

The entry for Vital Douat for the Oct-Dec quarter of the 1865 Civil Registration Death Index

Meanwhile in Paris, Marie-Clara the widow of Vital Douat, presented herself at the office of the Insurance Company where her husband had assured his life for 100,000 francs just a few months before. The Insurers were presented with copies of the English death and burial certificates and a claim was lodged.  The Insurers were suspicious; shortly after Monsieur Douat had taken out his life policy he had returned to Bordeaux and declared himself bankrupt. Investigation by the local fiscal authorities at the time had soon revealed the bankruptcy claim to be fraudulent and Douat had fled the country. The Insurers contacted Scotland Yard with their suspicions and the case was assigned to Sergeant Nathaniel Druscovich.

The Moldovan Detective Druscovich
Druscovich had been born in the parish of St George-in-the-East on the notorious Ratcliffe Highway in the east end of London in the 1840’s, the son of a carpenter from Moldova. He spent some of his childhood in Romania and spoke English with a noticeable foreign accent all his life. For this reason Scotland Yard often gave him their ‘foreign’ cases and so the thin file on Vital Douat landed on his desk to investigate. Druscovich soon discovered that on arriving in London Douat had booked himself into Fords Hotel in Manchester Street, Marylebone under the name Roberti. While there be had convinced a French waiter to sign the name Dr Crittie to a forged death certificate which he claimed was to be used to play a prank on a friend of his who never replied to his correspondence. The certificate said that one Vital Douat had died of an aneurism of the heart on 20 November. This certificate was presented to the Registrar of Deaths at Plaistow on 1 December by Douat (who was now using the name Bernardi), the body supposedly lying at 32 Anne Street, E13. The same day Douat presented himself at St Patrick's Cemetery, purchased a burial plot from the sexton and ordered a grave to be dug.

Druscovich then picked up the trail in the Mile End Road where Douat, now using yet another alias, Rubini, had bought a heavy ready-made coffin from an undertaker, asking for it to be adapted by the addition of extra lead lining and the handles to be placed at the ends of the coffin in the continental manner rather than at the sides in the English way. Two days later Douat/ Roberti/ Rubini/ Bernardi appeared again at the undertakers, paid for his coffin, hired two labourers to help him transport it and made his way to Shoreditch Station where he took the train to Leyton and had himself buried at St Patrick's. Druscovich had enough information to request an exhumation certificate from the Secretary of State for Home Affairs and a few days later accompanied by his boss, Inspector Williamson, two of the witnesses who had seen Douat whilst in London, and a doctor the small party made their way to Leyton to dig up the coffin. In the event neither the witnesses nor the services of the doctor were required, because once the coffin had been disinterred and unscrewed it was found to be completely empty. A warrant was issued for Douat’s arrest but by this time he was no longer even in Europe. Having decided it would be safer to remove himself as far away from the continent as possible until his insurance claim was settled out he had sailed to the United States sometime earlier.

Vital Douat at work sealing his own coffin in an illustration from "A Sleuth and a Mystery Coffin: Another True Story of the Master Detectives of Scotland Yard" published in the Chicago Tribune, Dec 4, 1927
Douat was arrested at Antwerp on his return from the United States. Whilst in Belgium he was tried for further crimes of forgery, including burning a ship in order to claim the insurance and, shockingly, condemned to death once convicted. By March 1867 the hapless Douat (surely the most incompetent white collar criminal of all time?) had had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment and had been extradited to France to face fraudulent bankruptcy and forgery charges there. This was widely reported in the press:   

GETTING OFF LIGHTLY! A convict condemned to death in Belgium, whose sentence had been commuted to hard labour for life, has just been delivered up to the French authorities. His name is Vital Douat, of Panillac, in the department of the Gironde, and he was formerly a wine merchant in Bordeaux. He was condemned to death by sentence of the 13th of November last at Antwerp, for having in that city, where he had taken refuge in the false name of Willis Romero Donatry, wilfully set fire to certain combustibles for the purpose of burning one or more ships, being also convicted of forgery. He is now about to take his trial in France for fraudulent bankrupt, and for the forgery of bills of lading to the value of nearly a million of francs. His position is somewhat strange, for he escapes from a sentence of hard labour for life to undergo trial which can entail at most hard labour for a definite period, and should he be acquitted, which is not, however, very likely, there seems to be no way by which he can be given up again to the Belgian authorities for crimes committed in Belgium.

Douat's son Pierre-Albert was the French caricaturist J. Blass.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Sundown in the snow, Kensal Green Cemetery (December 2022)


These are the rest of my photographs from my visit to Kensal Green on the 15th December, all taken just before sundown.

This is Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia’s poem ‘Cementerio en la nieve’ (Cemetery in the snow) from his book Nostalgia de la Muerte (1934). My translation (all errors mine, please feel to correct in the comments section)) is below:

A nada puede compararse un cementerio en la nieve.
¿Qué nombre dar a la blancura sobre lo blanco?
El cielo ha dejado caer insensibles piedras de nieve
sobre las tumbas,
y ya no queda sino la nieve sobre la nieve
como la mano sobre sí misma eternamente posada.
Los pájaros prefieren atravesar el cielo,
herir los invisibles corredores del aire
para dejar sola la nieve,
que es como dejarla intacta,
que es como dejarla nieve.
Porque no basta decir que un cementerio en la nieve
es como un sueño sin sueños
ni como unos ojos en blanco.
Si algo tiene de un cuerpo insensible y dormido,
de la caída de un silencio sobre otro
y de la blanca persistencia del olvido,
¡a nada puede compararse un cementerio en la nieve!
Porque la nieve es sobre todo silenciosa,
más silenciosa aún sobre las losas exangües:
labios que ya no pueden decir una palabra.

Nothing can compare to a cemetery in the snow. What name to give to whiteness on white? The sky has let fall unfeeling drifts of snow upon the tombs and now nothing is left but snow upon the snow like a hand left resting on itself for all eternity.

The birds prefer to cross the sky, striking the invisible corridors of air, to leave just the snow, which is like leaving it intact, which is like leaving it snow

Because it is not enough to say that a cemetery in the snow is like sleep without dreams, nor like sightless eyes.

If something has a sleeping insensible body, from the fall of one silence upon another, and from the white persistence of oblivion, then nothing can be compared to a cemetery in the snow!

Because above all snow is silence, made even more silent on bloodless slabs: lips that can no longer say a single word.

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Kensal Green in the snow (December 2022)

The tomb of Alexander Nesbitt Shaw ('late of the Bombay Civil Service")

I took all these photos at Kensal Green Cemetery on the afternoon of the 15th December. The snow that had fallen a few days before was still on the ground and the temperature was still hovering around zero despite it being a sunny afternoon. The light was spectacular, a clear, cloudless afternoon with the sun already low in the sky by the time I arrived at 2.30. Despite it being ten days before Christmas there were still leaves on some of the trees and the colours of sky, snow and the last gasp of autumn were just beautiful.

I also took a lot of twilight pictures but I’ll post them later in the week.

Previous previous pre-Christmas visits to Kensal Green can be seen here (2018) and here (2019) and here (St Mary's Catholic Cemetery 2021)

View along Central Avenue towards the Anglican Chapel

Memorial to Major General Sir William Casement, Indian army officer

The Tomb of William Mulready, artist and Royal Academician 

The tomb of the circus equestrian Andrew Ducrow

A multitude of Angels (playing with your heart?)

The grave of George Ryall formerly of Lahore, India

Damn, I can't for the life of me remember whose grave this is...