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