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.