One of the most poignant stories from Netherne Cemetery is that of Jean Barboni. He was an 8 year old who died in the hospital in 1915 and whose death haunted his nurse, Elizabeth Martin, for the rest of her life. Ms Martin’s niece, Edith Kelly, contacted her local paper to share her aunt’s memories and her own outrage at the then state of the cemetery. Elizabeth had shared her still vivid memories of Jean with Edith 30 years later after his death. She had devotedly nursed Jean who was born with what we would now call learning difficulties but then was classed as mentally defective. Edgard Barboni, his father, was an officer in the French army and a physicist engaged in top secret chemical warfare work during the First World War. They had had another little boy named Pierre and were finding it difficult to cope as Jean required specialist care. Eventually he was admitted as a private patient in a house for the ‘mentally subnormal’ as the Victorians classed him at Netherne. Edith discovered, through her aunt’s diaries that she had always felt that she had contributed to Jean’s death by allowing him to be put in a pauper hospital, Netherne, where he contracted TB. After Jean’s parents returned to France with Pierre Elizabeth tended Jean’s grave until her own death. Edith was quoted as saying
‘ For as long as I could remember, she regarded him as her own child. I suppose the emotional involvement must have been that much greater because the parents were in France and possibly never visited the grave again.’
As I left the cemetery and walked back around the border of the field again I noticed the large number of flints on the ground. I was tempted to take one home as a souvenir but it was too heavy. However, the local flints provided inspiration for a Netherne patient, Gwyneth Rowlands, who painted faces, usually of women directly onto the ones that she found in the fields around the hospital. She might have even found some in this very field.
Sadly, I could discover very little about Gwyneth, despite her work being on display at the Wellcome Collection recently. She was admitted as a patient in 1946 and stayed there for 35 years probably until it closed in the 1990’s. But on a recent visit to the Wellcome Collection Reading Room I spoke with one of the volunteers, Rock, who told me that Gwyneth may still be alive and she had been in contact with a staff member up until 3 or 4 years ago. She is considered to be part of the Outsider art movement. Gwyneth’s technique was to paint directly onto the flint using watercolour, indian ink and varnish.
Art therapy which subsequently became part of the Outsider or Art Brut movement began at Netherne in 1948 when the pioneering Edward Adamson (1911-1996) became the first artist to be employed full time as an Art Director.
He formed a huge collection of over 4000 pieces of artwork which is now housed at The Wellcome Collection in London. He believed that the creation of art was a healing process especially for those who could not speak or express themselves in any other way. However, Adamson wasn’t a teacher or someone who used the artworks as a diagnostic tool. Instead his approach was as a facilitator artist. He worked at Netherne until his retirement in 1981. Art therapy was also called ‘psychiatric art’ . The Outsider Art movement is concerned with artists who are outside the mainstream, usually self-taught and often living within institutions. It often has no meaning except to the artist themselves although the raw power and emotion of some of these artworks can be really impressive as with Gwyneth’s flint heads.
As I walked over the top of Farthing Downs later on that afternoon heading for Sunday afternoon tea and cakes at Chaldon church I saw the cemetery on the opposite slope. I hoped that it would always be surrounded by large green fields and that its incumbents would always rest in peace under the chestnut trees and wildflowers.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
Outsider Art: From the Margins to te Marketplace, David Maclagan Reaktion Books 2009
Art as Healing, Edward Adamson, Coventure 1984
A familiar gap in the trees across field.
©Carole TyrrellThe Victorian iron gates were still in place and seemed to have been cleaned at least as I pushed one open and re-entered Netherne Hospital cemetery. Someone had thoughtfully hung a wind chime from the other gate.
There had been blue August skies above me as I’d plodded up Woodplace Lane again. The suburbs of Coulsdon and Hooley soon petered out to give way to fields. I lost my bearings around the newly expanded Netherne on the Hill. But I retraced my steps and found myself at the entrance of a large ploughed field and saw a gap in the trees on its opposite side.
I began to walk across the field towards it. As I did so 3 or 4 policemen and women walked past the entrance. ‘Yes, we’ve found her, she’s visiting the cemetery, it’s ploughed so no damage to crops otherwise we’d have suggested that she walk around the border.’ said one into his walkie-talkie. ‘Doesn’t look like a ghoul.’ They walked on and I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted – me a dangerous person? Obviously the neighbourhood watch had been on duty and I wondered what had been going on at the cemetery.
A defiant purple branch of buddleia stood tall over the wait high wildflowers as a white butterfly fluttered around it. Bright splashes of colour from ragwort, scarlet pimpernel, speedwell, red sorrel and fleabane stood out amongst them. There were also fresh puffballs and older ones half hidden in the undergrowth.
The birdsong stopped as I stood inside the graveyard and looked around. It didn’t look as forgotten as it had done in 2007. The cemetery had been cleared but was now rampant again with summer vegetation. There was now a clear border around it which made it easier to explore. The horse chestnut trees still stood tall with bright shiny conkers here and there beneath them. At the bottom of the cemetery was a luxuriant bush of ripe elderberries and I looked over the hedgerow to see two horses grazing in a nearby field.
It still seemed incredible that 1350 people were buried here but now the cemetery felt less abandoned. I looked again at the 6 memorials set into the concrete plinth, presumably to preserve them, but at least I now knew why the 7 year old Betty Trotman had been buried there.
In 2010, the developers of the Netherne on the Hill site had claimed in a local newspaper that they had never been approached by any family members of the people buried there. But in 2013, a Croydon paper reported on the 2 and a half year campaign by two local people, an amateur historian called Adrian Falks and a Ms Wendy Mortimer. They had both called for the cemetery to be cleared and the graves within it to be maintained.
Ms Mortimer knew that she had a great-aunt, Frances, who had been buried there in 1915 and had been extremely upset when visiting the graveyard in 2008 to find her last resting place to discover how overgrown the site was. She had had to crawl under a fence to actually get inside to find 5 feet high brambles and no memorials. Ms Mortimer’s great-aunt, Frances, had been an epileptic, which at the time wasn’t properly understood and appropriate treatment didn’t really exist. Frances had become brain damaged after falling from a wall, presumably during an epileptic fit, and had subsequently been sent to Netherne where she was classed as ‘an idiot’ in the less than PC classification of the time. A photo in the paper shows Ms Mortimer kneeling in the middle of the then cleared cemetery beside flowers in memory of her great aunt. It was a tragic tale of a life ruined which nowadays with the correct medication would have been very different.
As I walked around the edge of the cemetery I could see holes dug by animals, presumably foxes. Again in 2010, it was alleged by another Croydon paper that burrowing animals had dislodged some of the remains buried there and that bone fragments had been found.
Due to the war hospital scheme which displaced the asylum population in order to treat nearly half a million wounded or shell- shocked soldiers, some of which are buried here. There are also the children of serving soldiers interred there.
I am indebted to Adrian Falks’ research on the soldiers who were buried at both Cane Hill and Netherne Asylums. However, the names of most of the servicemen remain hidden in closed records. But here are the stories of two of them who are buried at Netherne.:
In 1914, Gunner William James Carpenter joined the army for a better life. But he found Army discipline was too tough and often went AWOL which led to constant disciplining. William finally deserted just before being sent to France in 1915. But after an argument with his wife he left their Peckham home and vanished for nearly 90 years. He had died alone in Netherne hospital but it’s unknown how he ended up there.
Until 1962 a German POW, Hermann Albert Schnid, was buried there. He had contracted syphilis which was treated at the hospital and he’d died there in 1917. In 1959, the German War Graves Commission wrote to the Netherne authorities requesting that his body be exhumed and moved to the Cannock Chase German military Cemetery in Staffordshire.
Mr Falks also discovered the names of a few of the children of serving soldiers who were buried in the cemetery. He was quoted in a newspaper article as saying that he thought the state of the cemetery was ‘shocking’ and ‘that all but one of the children buried at Netherne had had fathers who were fighting in the First World War.’
Some of the children are:
Leslie Thomas Jackman aged 11 – died 11/12/1917 – whose father was a serving soldier
William Arthur Simmonds aged 15 died 15/10/1917 – his father was presumed killed at the Battle of Arras.
Sidney Peters aged 5 – died 03/10/1915 – had a soldier father.
Jessica Davis – aged 11 who died from TB on 20/02/1915. It’s not known if her soldier father survived the war.
and these two:
Both of her parents, Dorothya m
William John Newland – aged 15 – died from pulmonary TB on 18/02/1918. I found his case particularly poignant as he was an orphan without next of kin who had been transferred from an Epsom workhouse infirmary. I hoped that someone was with him when he passed away.
And finally Betty Trotman, aged 7, recorded on the Book of Life memorial as having died on 31/05/1929 after a 5 month stay in Netherne. It had been surmised that her parents probably worked at the hospital. I am indebted to a local resident who had searched for more information on Betty’s family via genesreunited. Both of her parents, Dorothy and Charles were Londoners and have moved to Godstone in Surrey. They married in 1921 but it’s not known if Betty had any siblings. Dorothy died in 1991 aged 90 and Charles preceded her in 1959 aged 65.
Asylums were often overcrowded and an epidemic such as influenza or TB would soon spread amongst patients.
I haven’t found any photos of these incumbents in Netherne cemetery which is sad as I would have liked to be able to put faces to the stories I stood there in the hot August sunshine and realised that under the wildflowers were people with names, Jean, William, Betty, Frances, etc who had all ended up in Netherne often because there was nowhere else for them to go. But some of the once anonymous dead had been reclaimed by their relatives and they no longer rested alone and forgotten.
But one of the saddest and most moving stories is undoubtedly that of 8 year old Jean Barboni who died in Netherne in 1915 and whose nurse mourned him for the rest of his life.
Part 3 – the nurse that never forgot the little boy she cared for and a patient’s remarkable artistic legacy.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.