Another afternoon with the dead and famous – a visit to St Pancras Old Church and churchyard Part 3

Part 3 The Man Who Never Was, Bach, Beatles and a man (or woman) ahead of their time)

he Coroner;s Court behind the churchyard under which 7000 bodies were interred.
©Carole Tyrrell

The Coroner’s Court is situated at the rear of the churchyard and, according to Lester,  7000 bodies had been re-interred beneath it. He hinted at a connection between it and The Man Who Never Was.

This was a Second World War ruse called Operation Mincemeat.  A cadaver was obtained and dressed up to become a Major William Martin, R N and put into the sea near Huelva, Spain.  A briefcase was attached to the body which contained fake papers which falsely stated that the Allied attack would be against Sardinia and Greece instead of Sicily which was the actual point of invasion. When the body was found, the Spanish Intelligence service passed copies of the papers to their German counterparts who in  turn passed them onto their High Command. It was  very successful  as the Germans still believed that Sardinia and Greece were the targets weeks after the landings in Sicily had begun. But the true identity of The Man Who Never Was has never been revealed although there have been several theories. BBC Radio’s The Goon Show which was hugely popular in the 1950’s were fascinated by it and The Man Who Never Was featured in several episodes.

In 1968 The Beatles needed some new publicity photos and so they embarked on a Mad Day Out in London.  Don, now Sir, McCullin accompanied them as photographer.  St Pancras church and churchyard were one of the locations they visited much to the delight of local residents. There are many photos of the day online and this is the very bench on which they sat in these photos.  It’s amazing to look at the photos now as they look so spontaneous and not part of a publicity machine. It’s a step back in time when stars were more accessible.

Nearby is the memorial stone to the English Bach, Johann Christian Bach(1735-1762).

He is also known as the  ‘London’ Bach and was the eighteenth (!) child of Johann Sebastian Bach and the youngest of his eleven sons. He moved to London in 1762and premiered 2 operas at The Kinds Theatre which established his reputation.  Queen Charlotte employed him as her music master and  in 1766 he married a much younger singer, Cecelia Grassi,  but the union was childless.  Bach’s symphonies and concertos were very popular in fashionable London circles but by the late 1770’s his fortunes had reversed. After his death on New Year’s Day 1782, Queen Charlotte had to cover his estate’s expenses and to provide a pension for his widow after his steward had embezzled his money.

Lester said that the memorial stone moves around a lot but not whether it was of its own volition…..

But towering over it is the Burdett-Coutts Memorial sundial. This impressive and attractive, in my opinion, structure was built during 1877-79.  It’s very High Victorian Gothic and could be seen in some people’s eyes as a Marmite construction in that you either loathe or love it.  The sundial is also known as an obelisk and it was created as a memorial to the people buried near the church whose graves were disturbed by the Midland rail works. It comprises of a tall square tower in a Gothic style with a tall Portland stone pinnacle bearing a sundial. Columns of pink and grey granite support it and are on either side of four inscribed marble plaques, These are topped by a Gothic arch and relief sculptures of St Giles and St Pancras.  The steps are decorated with mosaic panels featuring flowers, butterflies and the sun.  There are also animal sculptures at each of the four corners of the enclosure surrounding the sundial.

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814 -1906) was a wealthy philanthropist who inherited her grandfather’s huge fortune. It was £1.8 million at the time but in modern terms is now roughly £160,000,000.

Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett Coutts (1814-1906)
Painter unknown. Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

The Baroness was always unconventional. She fended off fortune hunters and instead gave practical help to the East End’s poor. It has been said that Coutts is Cockney slang for ‘boots.’  Angela worked with Dickens to set up a home and rescue centre for prostitutes and ‘fallen women’ in London’s Shepherds Bush. A significant patron to artists and actors, the RSPCA and many other causes.

After inheriting Holly Lodge in Highgate, her grandfather’s mansion, she created the nearby Holly Village in 1865 for her staff. These are Gothic style houses set around a village green and are now very sought after. In 1881, the Baroness married her 29 year old American secretary, William Ashmead, when she was 67.   The Baroness was buried in Westminster Abbey after dying aged 92 in 102.  As the saying goes, her works live on in her name.

But there is a name on one of the plaques who also defied conventional and was ahead of his, or her, time.

This was the Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) a transgender person who moved in high circles in France and Britain during the 18th century.  The Chevelier’s full name was Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste Andre Timothee d’Eon de Beaumont but Chevelier d’Eon for short. She was born a male and obtained a law degree, published books on the French tax system, was knighted and was also a celebrated fencer. What could come next?  A double life.

In public the Chevalier was a diplomat to Russia and England but in private he was employed by the most secret spy service in France.  This was the Le Secret Du Roi or the King’s Secret.  He reported directly to Louis XV and became, as a result, the temporary liaison to the English court in 1763.  When denied the permanent position he then published a book of French state secrets  which he’d collected during his spy’s life but ensuring that he kept back the most controversial.  This ensured that he remained on Louis XV’s payroll.  A tricky tactician as well and as a result he accepted political exile in England.  He became a celebrated public figure  but in 1770 a controversy began.  It was suggested that she had been born a woman but had been raised as a man in order to collect a family inheritance.  Bets were placed on the London Stock Exchange and it was suggested that she had placed some herself.  However in 1777 she was officially declared to be a woman at the age of 49. Chevalier then negotiated her return to France with the French government. She gave them the remaining incriminating documents still in her possession and agreed to publicly present as a woman for the rest of her life.

But life was dull after being a spy and diplomat and she returned to London never to leave again. But after the French Revolution she lost her pension from her days as a spy.  Despite continuing to write she lived the rest of her life in poverty.   But on her death it was finally discovered that she had been a man all along.

A final, fascinating tale of another unconventional St Pancras resident who left behind a reputation and flamboyance.

And here she lies in a London churchyard with many others who made up part of the capital’s cosmopolitan inhabitants. People who were not afraid to take risks, to go against the grain, to set in motion changes to society even though they would not live to see them.

It was quite a shock to leave St Pancras and walk up to the Euston Road and enter the teeming, bustling modern world again.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

A Walk in the Past – a churchyard tour Of St Pancras Old Church – St Pancras Old church guidebook

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Pancras_Old_Church

 http://casterbridge.blogspot.com/2009/05/levelled-churchyard.html

https://www.theflyawayamerican.com/st-pancras-old-church-london/

http://thelondondead.blogspot.com/2014/06/polly-peachum-and-black-hole-of.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Never_Was

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Burdett-Coutts,_1st_Baroness_Burdett-Coutts

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/angela-burdett-coutts-born-london

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-chevalier-deon-who-left-france-as-a-male-spy-and-returned-as-a-christian-woman

https://www.them.us/story/chevalier-d-eon-trans-woman

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Christian_Bach

 

 

Another afternoon with the dead and famous – a visit to St Pancras Old Church and churchyard Part 2  

The Mills headstone showing the fateful words ‘Black Hole.’ Nowadays we think of Black Holes differently.
©Carole Tyrrell

Escape from the Black Hole, the inspiration for a British icon and Frankenstein

A worn and damaged headstone, with a missing top half marks the last resting place of Captain John Mills who escaped from the Black Hole of Calcutta. He was buried with his wife Isabella and her epitaph was n the missing half.  They were an interesting couple.

She was born in 1735 and became a singer of some renown. In 1760 David Garrick persuaded her to take the part of Polly Peachum in ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. But she gave up the stage to marry Capt Mills after the death of her first husband.  They spent several years in India before returning to England. She died aged 92 in London in 1802.

Lester invited us to take a closer look so we all drew closer and yes, the words Black Hole were inscribed on the remaining half of the tombstone. But what was the Black Hole?

According to The London Dead blog:

‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’ is a controversial incident of 1756 where troops of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, allegedly placed  146 British and Anglo-Indian prisoners overnight in conditions  so cramped that 123 of them died. John Zephaniah Holwell, later Governor of Bengal, was included among the prisoners….Mr Holwell, though alive, was now unconscious…carried towards a window so tha the air there, being less foul, might revive him. But each man near the window refused to give up his place, for that meant possiby giving up his life. Only one, Captain Mills, was brave enough, unselfish enough, to give way to Mr Howell.’

John Zephaniah Howell (1711-1796)
shared under Wiki Creative Commons

 

Capt Mills was obviously a courageous and compassionate man who died aged 89 on 29 July 1811.  The Scots Magazine gave him a fulsome obituary but sadly I have been unable to find a picture of him.

However, today the words ‘Black Hole’ have a somewhat different connotation and I did find myself looking for any hovering wormholes or portals.

 

 

William Jones, one of Charles Dickens schoolteachers, has a headstone here with a little plaque commemorating this fact. However, Dickens didn’t  remember Mr Jones fondly at all and based the character, Mr Creakle, from David Copperfield on him.  Dicken recalled Mr Jones as:

‘by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know…one of the worst tempered men that ever lived.’

 

Sir John Soane’s monument within its little enclosure is one of only 2 Grade 1 listed monument within London cemeteries. The other is Karl Marx in Highgate. Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was an architect who designed in the Neo-Classical style and his monument was heavily influenced by it.  He was the architect of the Bank of England, although little of his work there exists now, and Dulwich Picture Gallery.  However, it’s his museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields that has proved to be his lasting legacy.  It’s well worth a visit as it’s very idiosyncrastic and gives you a glimpse into Soane’s influences.

The mausoleum was erected after Soane’s wife’s death in 1815.  It contains him, one of his sons and his wife.  He was estranged from his other son.  The information board states:

‘Classical design. The central marble cube has four faces for dedicatory inscriptions, enclosed by a marble canopy suppoted on four Ionic columns, Enclosing this central structure is a small balustrade with a flight of steps down into the vault. The central domed structure influenced sIr Giles Gilbert Scott’s design of the telephone kiosk.’

The phonebox is another British institution and, although it may now be an endangered species due to mobile phones, it’s still instantly recognisable. I often see tourists posing by one. At their height there were approx 90,000 in use but this has now dropped to roughly 10,000. But redundant phone boxes can still have their uses: I have seen them used to house libraries or defibrilators.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) author of Frankenstein
Painting by Richard Rothwell. Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

 

Mary Shelley, the writer of Frankenstein, used to walk through the churchyard with her future husband, Percy, as they discussed their elopement.  The fateful night at the Villa Diodata in Italy in 1816 not only produced Mary’s classic ‘Frankenstein’ but also ‘The Vampyr’. Its writer, John Polidori, is also buried in St Pancras. Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft have memorials here but their remains were transferred to Bournemouth as a result of the railway works during the 19th century. We noticed the offerings placed on top of William’s monument.

Mary Wollstonecraft died 10 days after giving birth to Mary on 10 September 1797 aged 38.  This echoes one of Frankenstein’s central themes which is life from death. She was the author of one of the first feminist works, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792. The Godwins led an unconventional life and Mary had an affair with the painter Henry Fuseli. She was rediscovered as one of the great feminist icons at the turn of the 20th century.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

A Walk in the Past – a churchyard tour Of St Pancras Old Church – St Pancras Old church guidebook

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Pancras_Old_Church

http://casterbridge.blogspot.com/2009/05/levelled-churchyard.html

https://www.theflyawayamerican.com/st-pancras-old-church-london/

http://thelondondead.blogspot.com/2014/06/polly-peachum-and-black-hole-of.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Never_Was

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Burdett-Coutts,_1st_Baroness_Burdett-Coutts

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/angela-burdett-coutts-born-london

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-chevalier-deon-who-left-france-as-a-male-spy-and-returned-as-a-christian-woman

https://www.them.us/story/chevalier-d-eon-trans-woman

 

Another afternoon with the dead and famous – a visit to St Pancras Old Church and churchyard Part 1

 

 

Old St Pancras church – note Victorian ‘improvement’ of additional tower.
©Carole Tyrrell

Part 1 The Church and the Hardy Tree

Despite their transformation into swish new, trendy areas of London,  Kings Cross and St Pancras still retain their historical origins if you know where to look.

However, I can remember when St Pancras was the station that time forgot. In fact if Stephenson’s Rocket had puffed its way along a platform at one time I wouldn’t have been surprised, The MIdland Grand, an enormous rabbit warren of a building was still awaiting its Cinderella like transformation in 2003/4.  Now, reborn as St Pancras Renaissance, it’s always a magnificent sight to see as you perambulate along the Euston Road.

But behind St Pancras International, as it’s now known,  there is still a part of London that has welcomed  visitors and immigrants from all over the world and is testament to the capital’s ever-changing history.

In this quiet part of North London, if you listen hard enough you can still hear the running feet of The Beatles or Mary and Percy Shelley discussing their elopement as they take a Sunday afternoon stroll. But, even more gruesomely, you might also hear body snatchers plying their trade.

This is St Pancras Old Church and churchyard.  But it’s not to be confused with St Pancras New Church which is the one with the weirdly proportioned caryatids that face the Euston Road.

The Research History Group of Brompton Cemetery visited on an overcast September afternoon when the churchyard, or park, as it’s now known seemed sombre and silent under the canopy of the 160 year old tress.  But it wasn’t always like this. Our knowledgeable guide, Lester Hillman, told us that during the 19th century, instead of the elegant iron railings that border the front of the churchyard , there had been pubs and adjacent to the church there had been a terrace of houses.

The famous music hall star Dan Leno had been born in one of them.  During the 1850‘s there had been balloon ascents as well and I did wonder how the permanent residents of St Pancras had ever got any of their eternal rest.

Charles Dickens who lived opposite the churchyard as a child described it as:

‘ a desolate place surrounded by little else but fields and ditches’

This seems incredible now as the area is so built up. Dickens featured St Pancras in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in which one of the characters, Jerry Cruncher and his son, Jerry Jnr, visit the churchyard in order to ‘fishing’. This was a euphemism for body snatching which was rife at the time.

Jerry Cruncher’;s friends going fishing from A Tale of Two Cities.
©Goodreads

Although the churchyard is now much smaller, during 1689-1845 88,000 burials took place in it and It’s estimated that 1.5%  of the 66 million Londoners who have lived in the capital over the centuries have been buried here. It closed to burials in 1850 and was acquired by parish authorities becoming a public park in June 1877.

We first visited the church which is very attractive and to walk through its door is to walk into London’s past. Roman, Norman and Tudor brickwork are almost cheek by jowl with each other and the memorial of the very first burial is preserved on a wall near the altar.  This is to a Mary Berisford who was interred on a very auspicious day, 21 August 1588, which was the day of the Spanish Armada. On the opposite wall is the memorial to Daniel Clark (died 1613) and his wife, Katherine (died 1627) and he was cook to Elizabeth 1st.    This large monument is dedicated to William Platt and his wife and they look as if they’re sitting in a box at the theatre.

The memorial to William Platt and his wife inside the church
©Carole Tyrrell

A piece of a Roman altar is embedded in the top of the present one. It was found nearby and seems appropriate as St Pancras was a Roman saint.

According to the guidebook, the church:

‘may possibly date back to the 4th century…..the present building has been here since the 11th or 12th century  close to the River Fleet.’

A picture of the church in 1827 taken from an information board.
©Carole Tyrrell

The river now runs underground but continues to supply Highgate Ponds.  Lester informed us that the 17th generation descendant of Richard III swam in them daily. However, little remains of the medieval church.

A memorial to a bygone occupation that of pew opener
©Carole Tyrrell

As we left the church to enter the churchyard I spotted a wall memorial to a Amelia Rogers whose occupation was given as ‘pew-opener’. This undoubtedly referred to the days when there were box pews with doors and she was obviously greatly valued.

 

One of the features for which the churchyard is renowned is The Hardy Tree.  This is an ash tree which has grown in and around the headstones placed around it.  Sadly, the tree isn’t looking very healthy these days and an exclusion fence has had to be placed around it as branches have fallen from it. Fungus is clearly visible.  The Hardy connection comes from the novelist Thomas Hardy.

Thomas Hardy (1840-19280
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

During 1862-67, as a young man, he studied architecture under Arthur Blomfield, in London. At this time, the Midland Railway was being built over part of the churchyard and Hardy was given the task of supervising the proper exhumation of human remains and the dismantling of tombs.

In The Early Life, Hardy recounts being involved with the overseeing of churchyards that were being cut through by railroad companies. His employer, Arthur Blomfield, described “returning from visiting the site on which all the bodies were said by the railway companies to be reinterred; but there appeared to be nothing deposited, the surface of the ground quite level as before” In order to make sure the bodies were actually buried properly, Hardy was asked to check one such job at irregular intervals. One evening, accompanied by Blomfield, he watched as a coffin fell apart. Out dropped a skeleton and two skulls. When years later he met Arthur Blomfield again, “among the latter’s first words were: ‘Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St. Pancras?'” http://casterbridge.blogspot.com/2009/05/levelled-churchyard.html

In 1882, 20 years later, he wrote the poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ which may refer to this period.

‘O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’

The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should!

“Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place
Where we have never lain!

“There’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet!

“From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!”

 

The Hardy Tree is a London legend but no-one’s quite sure if Hardy himself placed the headstones there. However, it was certainly created at the right time. With the Eurostar coming to St Pancras in 2007, another part of the churchyard was lost and there has been a Hardy Homage.  A graceful swirl or half circle of headstones marks the spot

The homage to the Hardy Tree when Eurostar took a piece of the churchyard away.
©Carole Tyrrell

Part 2: Escape from the Black Hole, the inspiration for a British icon and Frankenstein

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

A Walk in the Past – a churchyard tour Of St Pancras Old Church – St Pancras Old church guidebook

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Pancras_Old_Church

 http://casterbridge.blogspot.com/2009/05/levelled-churchyard.html

https://www.theflyawayamerican.com/st-pancras-old-church-london/

http://thelondondead.blogspot.com/2014/06/polly-peachum-and-black-hole-of.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Never_Was

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Burdett-Coutts,_1st_Baroness_Burdett-Coutts

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/angela-burdett-coutts-born-london

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-chevalier-deon-who-left-france-as-a-male-spy-and-returned-as-a-christian-woman

https://www.them.us/story/chevalier-d-eon-trans-woman