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.’
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, 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