In the golden light of a late August afternoon, accompanied by the distant gentle clack of bowls and footballers shouts, I entered the tranquil walled garden behind Preston Manor. The black iron gate set into the 13th century wall gave no clue that this was no ordinary garden. Outside the traffic of London Road roared past but in here all was peaceful.
Flagstone paths border and cross the space meeting in the middle where a sundial stands proudly. A wisteria arch curves gracefully over one path and must look magnificent in season. The colourful flower beds are a riot of plants; agapanthuses, roses, daisies and ferns, amongst others, are a feast for the senses. Water lilies decorate a sunken pond and it’s a popular location for weddings. But, if you stroll past one wall and look closely amongst the foliage, then you will find a group of poignant memorials.
The little tombstones are lined up against the wall and commemorate the pets, chiefly dogs, of the Manor’s previous owner, the Thomas-Stanfords. They date from the 19th century and into the Edwardian era. The touching epitaphs celebrate the lives of obviously well-loved pets. ‘To the memory of my Dear and Faithful Dog, Pickle,’ Little Rags, Tatters, Beauty, ‘Jock, Stout of Heart and Body’, Queenie, Punch, Faithful Little Jimmy and Tiny; the animals seem to come to life before you as you read their dedications.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
A local newspaper article of the 1930’s describes some of them in vivid detail. Tatters’ epitaph is brief and to the point. Little Rags was a Scots terrier with hair which swept the ground which must have given him the appearance of a walking wig and Fritz was a dachshund who barked at any man, friend or foe. A doctor prescribed nerve pills to quieten him but nothing could stop Fritz’s performances. A dog whose bark was worse than his bite and the male household staff must have worn ear-plugs!
Peter, a Scotch terrier, lies beside Fritz and is remembered by the words ‘In Memory of Dear Peter Who was Cross and Sulky but Loved us.’ Peter’s speciality was to bite anyone wearing a white apron whether they had tasty tit-bits or not. When his owner disguised herself as a maid, he failed to recognise her and bit her as well!
Lady Thomas-Stanford’s favourite dog was Kylin, a Pekingese. In a painting, Kylin is guarding a dog biscuit and looks a real character. One of her favourite pastimes was to throw a biscuit into the air, watch it go the length of the hall’s polished oak floor, race after it before putting one paw on it and skid along the slippery floor. When Kylin finally came to a halt she would guard it before beginning the game again. However, It might not have been so amusing at 3am when the house was quiet….
Perhaps the saddest memorial is to Soot who ‘for 9 years was our Faithful Friend and Playfellow, who was cruelly poisoned. Died as consequence on July 17th, 1884’. Soot had an eventful life. He was a black poodle with a distinguishing white patch on his chest.. One day he was stolen and a dog with a similar appearance but no white patch, was traced to Leadenhall Market. However, the finder plucked a hair from the dog’s chest and discovered that it was only black at the tip. A few more hairs from the chest were examined and all were found to be dyed as the roots were white. So the dog was definitely Soot and was brought home in triumph. He then lived a happy life until his untimely death.
The last dog is Peter, who was ‘A True Scot’. He was a black Scots terrier who always followed Sir Charles, carrying his stick. Peter was always very mindful of his responsibility with the stick and would refuse to indulge in any activity that might lead to him dropping it and failing in his duty.
My Old Cat Bruce is the only feline in the line of weathered memorials but at the other end there are several modern stones. One could almost expect an inscription of ‘Dunmousing’ above them but these are for municipal mogs from the public sector. ‘George the Pavilion Cat’ was a very fortunate cat in having that whole enchanting folly to explore and guard. ‘Fred the Town Hall Cat’ is now on permanent retirement as he lies next to the flint walls.
There’s no mention of the cemetery in the opening hours information but locals are very proud of it. Interestingly there is a small pets cemetery corner at Henry James’s former home,Lamb House, in Rye Sussex and at Great Dixter, a dachshund shaped metal memorial marks the spot of a departed pet.
As you leave the garden, there is Preston Manor to explore, if it’ s open. Although not an attractive building and now owned by the council it does have the reputation of being haunted. Perhaps by a phantom Pekingese eternally playing her dog biscuit game or Fritz lying in wait for an unsuspecting male visitor. Across the grass is the medieval St Peter’s Church. Its churchyard is atmospheric to say the least and is also reputed to be haunted. In contrast to the loving inscriptions in the pets cemetery, it contains one of the most gruesome memorials I’ve ever read. A plain stone, set into one of the walls, reads ‘Beneath this path are deposited portions of the remains of Celia Holloway who was murdered in Lovers Walk in the parish in the year of Christ 183- aged 32 years.’
After reading that you’ll no doubt want to walk into Brighton town centre to explore the Lanes or to look at the rusting birdcage that was once the West Pier concert hall and now lies marooned and alone out to sea.
All photos copyright Carole Tyrrell and are scans from film prints
First published in Friends of Nunhead Cemetery News