Epitaph Exploring in East Anglia! Part 2 The Great Churchyard, Bury St Edmunds

And now the good and the bad….(although that can be debatable.)


Dedicated to Capt Gosnold and is self-explanatory – it looks quite recent as well.
©Carole Tyrrell

An unacknowledged  Founding Father who may have changed history 

Captain Bartholomew Gosnold(1571 – 1607) 

Although the memorial stone and epitaph is largely self-explanatory there is a lot more to Gosnold’s story.  The explorer and colonist isn’t buried here. Instead he is reputed to lie in Jamestown, Virginia.  This was the colony that he helped found and, where. according to Presevation Virgina he is regarded as being …’the prime mover of the colonisation of Virginia.’

Gosnold was originally a Suffolk man who studied law at Middle Temple after graduating from Cambridge.  He made an influential marriage and had seven children. But the sea and adventure were in his blood and he sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh whom he was soon to outstrip.

In 1602  Gosnold. on the ship Concord. made his first attempt to found a colony in Southern New England. Along the way they named Cape Cod after the large number of the fish they found there and then he continued to sail on along the coast to a place with an abundance of wild grapes.  He called the place Martha’s Vineyard because of the grapes and also in memory of his infant daughter who had died in 1598.  However the colony was abandoned when its settlers decided to return to England.

There was big money and fame to be made from exploring and colonising in the 17th century.  These were usually private ventures and so profit driven. But for Gosnold and his ambitions there was only one snag; Raleigh held the patent for Virginia.   But Queen Elizabeth I, who was on the throne at the time, was very interested in revenue and Raleigh’s star was descending.  He’d already lost £40k on the Roanoke disaster which was a huge sum at the time.  Soon Gosnold held an exclusive charter for a Virginia charter to settle there and this eventually became what is now Jamestown.

Sadly Gosnold wasn’t destined to enjoy his acheivements for long.  He died, aged only 36, on 22 August 1607 as the result of a 3 week illness after only 4 months after landing in the New World.  The burial was an honourable one ‘with many volleys of small shot’ fired over his coffin.

This is believed to be Gosnold’s grave in Virginia.
shared under Wiki Creative Commons
©Ser Amanho di Nicolao

He was one of the prime movers in Virginia’s colonisation and it has since been speculated that without him it might have been Spain that ended up colonising the Atlantic coast.  Elizabeth I’s successor, James 1, was extremely keen to maintain peace with Spain in the 1600’s and Spain was equally enthusiastic to explore the New World.  Without Gosnold who knows what might have happened?

For centuries the location of Gosnold’s grave was unknown.  But, in 2002, a body was excavated in Jamestown which has been presumed to be his.  Preservation Virginia  revealed that it appeared to be a person of high status as a captain’s staff had been placed in the coffin with the body and the coffin had an unusual gabled lid.  DNA was taken and compared with that from a distant descendant of Gosnold’s interred in a Suffolk church but the tests were inconclusive.

I note that his wife is recorded on this memorial plaque so either she didn’t go with him or returned after his death.

And the bad…..or unfortunate…….

Sarah LLoyd – a warning to the passer-by. Charnel House, The Great Churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

This epitaph is meant to be a cautionary tale for the passer-by.  The inscription tells Sarah Lloyd’s sad story and again the mason has earned his money if he was paid by the letter.   It’s almost like reading a penny dreadful written in stone.


Pause at this Humble Stone

a Record

The fall of unguarded Youth

By the allurements of vice

and the treacherous snares

of Seduction


on the 23d of April 1800

in the 22d Year of her Age

Suffered a Just but ignominous


for admitting her abandoned seducer

into the Dwelling House of her Minstrefs

in the Night of 3rd Oct


and becoming the Instrument

in his Hands of the crimes

of Robbery and Houseburning

These were her last Words

May my example be a

warning to Thousands.


This seemed to tell all of Sarah Lloyd’s story but did it?  I did further research and found that there was more to it than the epitaph states. I am indebted to Naomi Clifford’s excellent blog post for this.

The facts are that Sarah Lloyd was employed as a maidservant for Mrs Syer at her house in Hadleigh near Ipswich and had begun an illicit relationship with Joseph Clarke, a local man. On the night of the burglary, she let him into Mrs Syer’s house while Mrs Syer and her live-in companion slept.  The pair then stole various items from the house including a watch and 10 guineas in cash. They also managed to steal Mrs Syer’s pockets, which were small bags, from their hiding place under her pillow.  These contained cash and jewellery worth 40s (£2.00).  According to the court transcript, Clarke then set fire to the curtains in one of the rooms although other accounts state that they started a fire in a stairwell.   Both of them then fled the scene, hoping to have covered up their crime,  but unluckily for them neighbours managed to quickly put out the fire and the house was saved.  Clarke advised Sarah to leave him out of it and, instead, to say that two other men had been involved.

They lay low until Sarah was recognised as she ran across a field and she was eventually arrested by the local constable. She confessed and the stolen goods were recovered from her family home.  The cash was never found and soon Clarke was also arrested.

However, according to the account of the trial Clarke was found not guilty and acquitted whereas, Sarah, although found not guilty of the burglary was found guilty of stealing.  The strongest penalty was awarded.  This seemed harsh to say the least. According to Naomi Clifford  when Sarah appeared at the local Assizes on 20 March 1800 all she said in her defence was:

‘ It was not me, my lord, but Clarke that did it.

Here is a link to a contemporary account of the trial:    (However, be warned that it’s in 16th century phrasing where the ‘s’ has been replaced by a long ‘f’ which renders, for example, ‘passing’ as ‘paffing’.


The charges against Clarke were dropped which may have been because he hadn’t confessed to his part in the crime whereas Lloyd had.  Also it was only her word that placed him at the scene as there was no other evidence.

The Assizes judge, Judge Grose, made several remarks which condemned Sarah:

A servant robbing a mistress is a very heinous crime; but your crime is greatly heightened; your mistress placed implicit confidence in your; you slept near her, in the same room, and you ought to have protected her… and though this crime was bad, yet it was innocence, compared with what followed: you were not content with robbing her mistress, but you conspired to set her house on fire, thereby adding to your crime death and destruction not only to the unfortunate Lady, but to all those whose houses were near by.  I have to announce to you that your last hour is approaching; and for the great and aggravated offence that you have committed, the law dooms you to die.’

There was a further twist to the case in that Sarah told the Rev Hay Drummond, the local vicar, when he visited her, that Clarke had seduced her and regularly visited for sex. She’d regarded him as her husband and on the night of the crime she had revealed that she was pregnant and he’d promised to marry her.  Rev Drummond felt that she’d been used and immediately set about organising a petition together with Capel Lofft, a lawyer and magistrate. to try to obtain a Royal Pardon.    Lofft moved in influential circles but the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland refused any clemency as he considered that Sarah should be made an example as her alleged final words on the epitaph state. Although I think it more likely that she might have said ‘How did Joseph Clarke get off with not guilty?’

The pregnancy wasn’t mentioned again and she was executed on 22 April 1800 after it had been delayed for 14 days by the attempts to obtain a Royal Pardon.  Sarah was buried in the abbey churchyard  that evening with a crowd of 1000 people in attendance.  Mrs Lloyd. Sarah’s mother, had tried to commit suicide when she had heard that the execution was to proceed.

Although Sarah’s age is started as 22 on the epitaph she was unaware of her true age and was illiterate.

The epitaph also seems to have commented on Sarah;s morality although her ‘abandoned seducer’ isn’t named.However, her case has been seen as being part of a slow movement of change with capital punishment.  The first decades of the 1800’s brought significant reductions in the numbers of crimes punishable by death with other less harsh methods of punishment.  Sarah Lloyd was one of 7 women hanged in 1800. There were 6 in England and I in Ireland.  Only 3 more were to hang for stealing in a dwelling house and it ceased to be a capital offence after August 1834.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

Further reading and references:












Epitaph Exploring in East Anglia! The Great Churchyard in Bury St Edmunds

The Great Churchyard in Bury St Edmunds is big. Very big and forms a useful shortcut for the locals from an uninspiring car park (aren’t they all I hear you say) to Honey Hill. But the Great Churchyard is steeped in history and, according to a volunteer in nearby St Mary’s church, some of its pathways date back to Saxon times.  The church sits perched further up the hill and so looks  down and over the churchyard’s permanent residents.

St Mary’s and its elongated shape overlooking its part of the Great Churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

I came upon the Great Churchyard by chance on a day trip in 2006 while exploring the extensive Abbey ruins.  The Abbey’s ruins have eroded into strange shapes over the centuries and now look like lumpy fingers pointing accusingly at the sky.  But after Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey in 1539, much of its flint and mortar has been ‘recycled’  by the locals and can be seen in walls and nearby houses.   But it was the Churchyard’s memorable epitaphs that stayed  with me and so on a bright December day last year I returned.

There is a plethora of 18th century symbols on display: skull and crossbones, winged angels, open books and one memorial had its own duvet of moss on the coffin lid shaped top.

As I explored, I found this tombstone  and remembered that M R James had written  a book on the Abbey’s history. Ann Clarke is the name of the unfortunate character in his story ‘Martin’s Close. I did wonder if this was his inspiration……

An M R James connection? The Great Churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

But the real jewel of the Churchyard is undoubtedly the 13th century roofless Charnel House.  A rare survivor and its flint walls were lucky not to have suffered the same fate as the Abbey’s.  The Charnel House was where all the disinterred bones from the Churchyard were stored.  It’s empty now and is protected by iron railings.   The Charnel House  now acts as a roost for birds and also as a backdrop or gallery for the epitaphs that I remembered from 2006.




Amongst the collection are two 17th century tombstones placed on the walls. One is illegible although the symbols are still clear and the other is to a Sarah Worton, wife of Edward.  Under the epitaph is the verse:

Good people all as you

Pas by looked round

See how Corpes de lye

For as you are from time ware we

And as we were f(s)o must you be.

If you take a closer look you can see how the mason had to slightly squash the letters to get all the words in.

But there  are 4 significant epitaphs on the Charnel House walls and these are  dedicated to the good, the bad and the just plain unlucky.

Firstly, the unlucky……..

Henry Cockton (1807 – 1853)

Engraving of Henry Cockton from 1841 by James Warren Childe (1780 – 1862)
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

No. I’d never heard of him either until I started researching this post.  This is not a name widely known today although his first and most successful novel, ‘The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox the Ventriloquist ‘ is still available from various online booksellers.  Note the symbol of a blank scroll of paper and  quill pen above the epitaph which is the sign of a writer.

According to Wikipedia. Cockton was born in Shoreditch but ended up working in Bury St Edmunds where he married a local girl whose family were involved in the local pub trade. They had two children, Eleanor and Edward.  As we shall see alliteration was a theme of Henry’s life.  Valentine Vox  was a largely comic novel about a man who teaches himslef ventriloquism  and the jolly japes that ensue from this. It also involved social issues as, at one point,  the hero is incarcerated  in a private lunatic asylum and in the book’s preface Cockton rails against these places. Valentine Vox was a huge success and sold over 400, 000 copies and was published, like Dickens, in serial form.  After this Cockton should have gone onto greater things but he was destined never to make any money from his writing. Editors cheated him, publishers went out of business and  he was imprisoned for debt after being declared bankrupt.  In 1843 he wrote ‘Sylvester Sound, the Sonanambulist’ which was about a sleepwalker who performed daring feats during his sleep but it didn’t enjoy the success of its predecessor – see what I mean about alliteration?

But he kept on writing until 1845 when he announced to his readers that The Love Match would be his final novel.  Unfortunately bad luck continued to dog him – he was like King Midas in reverse as the song goes –  everything he touched turned to mud. He stood surety for his brother who thanked him by fleeing to Australia and a speculative malting venture collapsed and ruined him.  He and his family moved into his mother-in-law’s house and he wrote a further 3 unsuccessful novels.  Sadly, aged 46, he died of consumption and 4 days later was buried in an unmarked grave in the town churchyard without any obituaries.  Its exact location is still unknown.  The plaque was put up by admirers and friends.

Henry’s widow petitioned the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance and in 1856 a local paper printed another appeal for his family. But Valentine Vox, his most successful novel. has enjoyed a life beyond its creator. Jack Riley, a performer and writer on ventriloquism uses it as his stage name and Chris Jagger’s 1974 album also borrowed it.   So a tragedy all round?  It certainly was for Henry but not so much for his family…….

While researching online  I found a blog on which there was a lively dialogue between the blogger and respondents who claimed to be Henry’s descendants.  According to them, Henry’s widow remarried, Eleanor became a teacher and Edward eventually became Professor of Music at the Greenwich Royal Naval College.

And the the victim of a somewhat unkind Act of God……

Mary Haselton (1776-1785)

This fulsome eptaph is dedeicated to the unfortunate Mary Haselton who, in 1785, was struck by lightning while saying her prayers. There was virtually nothing about her online but I may contact the town’s Local Studies department. The epitaph reads:

Here lies interred the Body


A Young Maiden of this Town

Born of Roman Catholic Parents

And Virtuously brought up

Who being in the Act of Prayer

Repeating her Vespers

Was instantaneously killed by a flash

Of lightning August the 16 1785

Aged 9 years

Not Silom’ (?) ruinous tower the Vicoms slew

Because above the many sinn’d  the few

Nor here the fated lightning wreak its rage

Its Vengeance sent for crimes manned by age

For while the Thunder’s awful voice was heard

The little supplicant with its hand upraised

Answered her God in prayers the Priest had taught

His mercy (?) and his protection sought

The last 4 lines are unreadable even on Zoom view.  But it’s an amazing piece of verse and the mason who carved it really earned his money if he was paid by the letter.

It’s interesting that Mary’s parents religion is so openly stated. There had been a relaxing of attitudes towards Catholics in the 18th century despite the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots.

However there’s no way of knowing Mary’s actual burial place within the Great Cemetery but her memorial is in safekeeping on the wall of the Charnel House.


Part 2: The good and the bad…a Founding Father and a notorious crime.

 ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated. 

 Further reading and references.







Part 3 – a nurse’s enduring love and a patient’s remarkable artistic legacy – Netherne Hospital cemetery Aug 17.

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.

Edward Adamson
Shared under Wikipedia Creative Commons licence.

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.

View from Farthing Downs, 500ft up, across to Neherne Cemetry.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Further Reading:

Outsider Art: From the Margins to te Marketplace, David Maclagan Reaktion Books 2009

Art as Healing, Edward Adamson, Coventure 1984













Part 2: Betty, Jean, Gunner William, Jessica and a German POW – a return visit to Netherne Hospital Cemetery August 2017.



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.

Book of Life dedicated to the 7 year old Betty Trotman.
©Carole Tyrrell


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.













By a candle’s flickering flame  – a visit to Brompton catacombs July 2017

The Western catacomb which runs along the western wall of Brompton Cemetery which faces out onto the railway.
©Carole Tyrrell

Shadows move on the coffins and walls. Above you the glass orbs set into the high ceiling admit a little light into the depths but you prefer the intimate illumination of the flame.  It reflects on the brass fittings and the patterns of the nails on the coffin on the shelf beside you. Your loved one now rests eternally in Brompton catacombs as you sit by the head of the coffin in its space or lochulus.  Family news, world events: you talk to them as if they were alive with your voice the only sound in the silence. Then you open the book that you have brought with you at the bookmarked page, and then read the next chapter of what was their favourite novel.  It’s almost like having your own private mausoleum.

Finally, almost reluctantly, you close the book, after having marked next week’s chapter and pick up the candleholder.  As you walk towards the cast iron entrance gates, your footsteps echo behind you and the candle finally goes out as you open them.   The sun outside temporarily blinds you as you pull the gate closed and then lock it with your own key. The symbols of eternity and mortality on them remind you of the other world behind.  Then you ascend the flight of steps and return into Brompton Cemetery and the noisy world again.   You have been ‘communing with the dead’ as our guide, Nick, explained.

Brompton Cemetery isn’t holding an Open Day in 2017 due to the ongoing restoration project but, instead, on 15 July they held catacomb tours. These are not usually open and I haven’t visited these for some time so eagerly took up the opportunity. It was a drizzly day so it was good to be under cover. The catacombs have the most magnificent cast iron doors featuring snakes, downturned torches, an ouroboros and a winged hourglass – all symbols of mortality and eternity. You know that you are entering the realm of the dead once you step inside.

I have visited several catacombs located in large London cemeteries and what has always remained with me is the special and unique atmosphere that each one has: Kensal Green, Highgate, Brompton and the Valhalla that is West Norwood. One of Nunhead’s catacombs has now become the Anglican chapel crypt and is only open on certain days.

Catacombs never became popular in England and most of the coffin spaces available were destined to only have dust as an occupant. These are known as loculi or loculus in the singular. Even Highgate was unable to sell all theirs in the Egyptian Avenue and I would have thought that they would have been snapped up. However, there is reputed to be a cemetery in Cheshunt which is doing a roaring trade in selling them as they have an Italian and Greek community who view catacombs differently.

There is another set of catacombs under Brompton’s western colonnades with an identical set of doors on the other side of the circle but these have remained unused.  The other Western catacombs on the boundary side were never used and when reopened were crammed floor to ceiling with spoil which took a year to remove.

We were visiting the Eastern colonnade crypt and a flight of steps led to the iron doors.  As Nick said imagine six pallbearers carrying a coffin on their shoulders down them on a wet day.  The coffin would have been triple lined: wood, lead, wood so a heavy load indeed.  Brompton, unlike other catacombs, such as West Norwood or Kensal Green, didn’t have a chapel above the catacombs with a handy hydraulic catafalque to transport the coffin down into the darkness.

Nick indicated an interment in the first chamber behind the doors. This was sealed in with a plaque and epitaph dedicated to Captain Alexander Louis Ricardo of the Grenadier Guards.  For me, it was a reminder of the still unsolved Victorian Charles Bravo murder.  Captain Ricardo was Florence Bravo’s first husband who died young from alcoholism in Cologne. I noticed ferns growing from a family vault beneath him and wondered about damp as a perennial problem.

Lit candles had been placed on the coffin shelves to light our way which added to the ambience.  Victorians were fascinated with the idea of an afterlife and seances and mediums were big business. Sir William Crookes of the notorious Katie King case is also buried in Brompton.   Nick added the Victorians were a heady mix of hardheadiness and sentimentality.


The glass inserts that allowed some light into the catacomb have long gone and been bricked up.  Brompton’s original owners, The Westminster and West London Cemetery Company initially offered 4000 loculi for sale but of these only 700 were sold. So if you have a hankering for going underground they still have at least 3300 spaces available. Nick informed us that the last request for a catacomb space was in 1926.


English catacombs were based on the ones in Rome. Cremation was illegal until well into the 19th century so it was either under or over ground burial until then. Catacombs at Brompton were also called upon as a temporary mortuary when necessary. A visitor noticed that one coffin was just under the roof above four other coffins stacked on shelves and asked how the cemetery workers got it up there. Nick indicated the pulley blocks that they could have used to lift it up and manoeuvre it into place. Quite a feat.


Nick indicated the plumber’s diaper mark on the exposed side of one coffin which indicated that he had sealed it properly and there would be no leakages.  He also pointed out the wreaths, somewhat desiccated by now, that mourners often left by the coffins, and there was a small elegant urn containing ashes placed on a shelf next to one.


Our visit lasted 30 minutes and we filed out towards the light of the outside world again leaving Brompton’s catacomb’s incumbents to eternally sleep on.


The attractive colonnades of Brompton are above the catacombs and have plaques on their walls. These were to enable friends or other relatives without keys to pay their respects to the deceased at the plaque.  These are reputed to be affixed directly above the departed’s place within the chamber.


A word of caution for anyone considering visiting a catacomb for the first time: if you feel uncomfortable about seeing coffins, and a lot of people do, then don’t visit or think carefully about it first.

Please note:  Photography is not permitted in the Brompton catacombs.

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell




The Lord of the Manor and the local ratcatcher lie equal in their eternal sleep under the traffic’s drone – a visit to St Leonard’s, Streatham


View of exterior St Leonard's Streatham. ©Carole Tyrrell
View of exterior St Leonard’s Streatham.
©Carole Tyrrell

The substantial church of St Leonards at Streatham could almost be seen as God’s’ traffic calming measure as it makes the drivers on the busy Streatham High Road inch past its walls.  But once inside St Leonards churchyard the noisy flow seems to fade to a hum and you can appreciate a church which has had a chapel on its site for over 1000 years.

I was on a guided tour organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and our guide was John Brown who had an obvious affection for St Leonards.

The first church was built in 1350 and the lowest part of its tower still stands.  St Leonards was then rebuilt in 1778 and altered again in 1831 when the nave was completely rebuilt and a crypt created.  During the 1860’s a chancel was added.  But, on 5 May 1975, disaster struck when a fire completely destroyed the interior.  It was then re-designed and St Leonard’s now has a whitewashed interior within its 19th century walls.  This has created a wonderful backdrop on which the surviving wall tablets and memorials are well displayed.  An inspiring blend of the ancient and new.

We began by exploring outside  and stopped to admire the tower which is known as Sir John Ward’s Tower .  According to John, it has the highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon  growing halfway up it. The tower is built from Surrey flint and is topped by a modern spire dating from the 1841.

The highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon on Sir John Ward's Tower, St Leonard's Streatham. ©Carole Tyrrell
The highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon on Sir John Ward’s Tower, St Leonard’s Streatham.
©Carole Tyrrell

The churchyard contains over 250 memorials  dating from the 18th century with the last burial in 1841. Part of the graveyard was  bombed during the 2nd World War and, as a result, has been landscaped to create a Garden of Remembrance.  John revealed that some of the burials had only had a wooden graveboard  which had long since disintegrated.

St Leonards was a very fashionable church during the 18th and 19th centuries and, as a result, a chapel of ease dedicated to All Saints was built in a nearby road. Alas, even God was expected to adhere to the rigid class system of the time as the local gentry worshipped at St Leonards and their servants would attend their own service at All Saints.  Dr Johnson and James Boswell are known to have visited the church.  This may be one of the reasons that there are several prominent local people buried in the churchyard.  John pointed out some of the more illustrious tombs;  Merian Drew, the lord of the manor and his daughter Jane Agnes Fisher, George Pratt of Pratts Department store in Streatham and  the Colthurst family member who had owned Coutts bank.

William Dyce, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and polymath, lies under a broken cross.  He designed the florin coin and was a much in demand portrait painter.  Amongst his many achievements were the frescoes in the robing room of the House of Lords although they remain unfinished. He also painted another celebrated fresco for the House of Lords, ‘The Baptism of Ethelbert’.    My own favourite of his paintings is ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858’ with its haunting, melancholy atmosphere and muted colour palette.     He was also a churchwarden at St Leonards and was responsible for designing the chancel in 1863.  Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ of 1827 featured on the Royal Mail 2007 Christmas stamps.   Robert Garrard, the royal jeweller s also lies here and there was a  flat, plain slab on the grave of one of novelist Trollope’s nephews  who was the owner of the building firm, Trollope and Colls. I also admired the small sculptures of angels on the Montefiore monument. There were also several tombstones dating back to the 1700’s with a scattering of skull and crossbones.

A large monument had been made from the wonder material of the 19th century, Coade Stone.  A Mrs Coade, invented it but for a long time the recipe was lost.   However it and the techniques for producing the stone have now been rediscovered and a new range of Coade sculptures are currently available.

We then followed John inside to admire two 17th century imposing and magnificent monuments in the porch.  The striking Massingberde memorial commemorates a London merchant and Treasurer of the East India Company who died in 1653.  The two figures facing each other symbolise the triumph of life over death. The dramatic Howland monument   was erected by a grieving widow, Elizabeth, to her husband John who died in 1686 and features a brooding skull and several cherubs.

The Thrale memorial tablet by John Flaxman - reputedly drawn from the life. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The Thrale memorial tablet by John Flaxman – reputedly drawn from the life.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

At the top of the chancel by the altar were the Thrale monuments. These were to Henry Thrale and his mother-in-law, Mrs Salusbury.  Henry, who is also commemorated by the nearby Thrale Road, was a wealthy brewer and MP.  He and his wife, Hester, entertained the well -known movers and shakers of the day including Dr Johnson and James Boswell. There were two epitaphs written in Latin by Dr Johnson and a beautiful  tablet by John Flaxman is set into the wall.  It has  three female figures on it which were reputedly carved from the life. One of them is Sophia Hoare.  John Flaxman (1726-1803) was a prolific sculptor of funerary monuments, mainly in the Classical style, and his work can be seen in Westminster Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral as well as many churches.

The mutilated statue of Sir John Ward. St Leonard's Streatham ©Carole Tyrrell
The mutilated statue of Sir John Ward. St Leonard’s Streatham
©Carole Tyrrell

A somewhat dog eared and damaged figure lies on top of what looks like a table tomb.  This is what’s left of an effigy of Sir John Ward in his armour.  Colin Fenn of FOWNC has compiled a list of helpful notes to accompany the reconstruction drawing of it and estimates the figure as dating from 1350-1380.    Sir John fought with the Black Prince at Crecy and, in the modern Streatham stained glass window, he appears holding a model of the first, 14th century chapel that he built.  The rest of the window records the history of Streatham and St Leonard’s and is well worth seeing.  It’s by John Hayward as all the stained glass within St Leonard’s.

There are more  intriguing memorials in the Chapel of Unity and  John drew our attention to Edward Tylney’s. He was the Master of Revels, under Queen Elizabeth 1 and King James 1, and who put on plays and other entertainments for the Court.  He was renowned for being vain and had the memorial created during his lifetime which is why there is a blank space for the date of his death in 1610. But there is another version in which the mason was so relieved at Tylney’s passing that he omitted to add the date of his death.   Nearby is William Lynne’s affectionate tribute to  his wife, Rebecca which dates from Cromwell’s reign. Part of it reads: ‘

 ‘Should I ten thousand yeares enjoy my life I could not praise enough so good a wife.’

The oldest inscription, dated 1390, was below the altar and is a small brass plate which asks for prayers for the repose of a long past rector, John Elsefield.

Then we descended the spiral staircase to the crypt.  This was an unexpected surprise. Although not as extensive as West Norwood or Kensal Green it was still impressive and atmospheric with incumbents in their loculi.

Loculus which is Latin for ‘little place”, plural loculi, is ‘an architectural compartment or niche that houses a body, as in a catacomb, mausoleum or other place of entombment’  Wikipedia

The crypt is laid out with 2 corridors and the gated individual family vaults lead off them.  Some contained entire families including the Thrales.  John showed us one in which the loculus had been bricked up as the occupant had been buried in only a shroud.  This was Mr Costa, a silk merchant, who left instructions that every pauper who carried his coffin was to be given a guinea.  Needless to say, his coffin was carried by many poor men and so his wealth was redistributed.  Only the undertaker was left empty-handed.  There’s also two earls who ended up down there whilst visiting Streatham but I don’t think that the two events are connected.




The crypt was rebuilt in 1831 and was used as an air raid shelter during the 2nd World War during which time an experiment was carried out to determine the depth of the charnel pit under the flagstone floor. The measure went down as far as it would go which was 20ft but the pit extended far below that.   More recently it became the home of a local tramp called Black Tommy who had his mail delivered there.  One wonders with whom the postmen would have left large packages when Mr Tommy was out.

Tombstone of the local ratcatcher St Leonard's Streatham ©Carole Tyrrell
Tombstone of the local ratcatcher St Leonard’s Streatham
©Carole Tyrrell

As a finale, John showed us the substantial headstone of the local ratcatcher which proved that he was certainly busy, successful and appreciated.   Sadly, the epitaph appears to have completely vanished.  Afterwards a couple of us strolled about the churchyard reading the fine epitaphs on several  memorials.







© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

Our grateful thanks to John Brown for his knowledge and enthusiasm, St Leonard’s, and Cathy Mercer of FONC for organising the visit.


http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn_07/articles/wrig_09.html  baptism of ethelbert

http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artist.php?artistid=120 – portrait of William Dyce


© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.









Rapunzel’s Retreat – Severndroog Castle, a hero’s memorial


View of Castle when derelict and boarded up in 2008 copyright Carole Tyrrell
View of Castle when derelict and boarded up in 2008
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Severndroog Castle hides teasingly behind its cover of ancient trees but it can be seen from miles around if you know where to look.  It perches on its hilltop, looking down and over the suburbs and landmarks below as it has done since 1784.   But it’s not a proper castle.  Instead Severndroog is one of the largest memorials to a single person ever created and is a much loved local landmark.

But, after walking up Shooters Hill, following the sign post and following the paths bordered by verdant hedges and a field you may start wondering where the Castle is.  And then as you round the path’s curve the Castle begins to slowly, almost reluctantly, come into view.  The only sound is birdsong or perhaps a dog walker calling to their dogs and you’re in the midst of one of the oldest woodlands in London.

The Castle nestles within Oxleas Wood which is reputed to be 8,000 years old and you’re aware that the outside world has retreated completely. In 2004, ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, was performed nearby in the woods on a lovely summer’s evening. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, even Jabberwocky, appeared and disappeared before our very eyes as they led us through the dark forest.


Severndroog almost belongs in Alice. It’s dainty, a fairy tale creation of a castle. A triangular building with hexagonal turrets at each corner, it was designed by the architect, Richard Jupp who was known for creating light houses.  It stands 63 feet or 19 metres high and has been compared to Horace Walpole’s magnificent Strawberry Hill as they shared similar decorative features.  These include circular windows and decorative ceilings.  The battlements and turrets are why Severndroog is called a castle, although it was never designed to be a fortification. Instead it was originally a summerhouse and a memorial. It was known as Lady James’s Folly after the woman who had it built in 1784.


She was the widow of Sir William James of the East India Company who defeated pirates and captured the brigand castle of  Suvarndurg, hence Severndroog, an island fortress of the Maratha Empire on India’s West Coast between Mumbai and Goa in 1755. . A plaque over the entrance to the Castle commemorates this although it’s not that easy to read now. He died of a stroke on his daughter’s wedding day in 1783 presumably after receiving the bill..

Plaque commemorating Sr William James victory in India. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Plaque commemorating Sr William James victory in India.
copyright Carole Tyrrell


Lady James filled the first floor of the Castle with mementos of him and would sit amongst his swords, armour and clothes to remember him.  If you look up at the doorway of one of the oddly proportioned rooms you may see some very decorative original Georgian artwork.  Now the room is used for weddings but was empty when I last visited and you could still see the dumb waiter from the Castle’s days as a tea room set into its floor. Locals could still recall enjoying a cuppa and then spending a penny to climb the spiral staircase to the roof.

Lady James bought the highest land in Eltham and reputedly had the Castle constructed within sight of her own house.  It stands at least 40ft further above sea level than the cross on top of St Paul’s Cathedral. From Severndroog’s roof you can, on a clear day, see 20 miles in all directions and across 7 counties over the treetops in 360°.  As a result of this advantageous vantage point, Severndroog was used as a radar station and air raid lookout during the Second World. A barrage balloon floated above the Castle during the war and, due to the leafy covering of trees, it might still be there.  However, there have been pirates aboard Severndroog but manning illegal radio stations from a turret.


Lady James died in 1798 and the Castle passed through various owners. But there’s always been plans for it. In 1847 there was a proposal to build a 10,000 catacomb cemetery in terraces on the site and in 1922 the London County Council bought it and opened the first tea room.  Eventually in 1986, it became the property of Greenwich Council who boarded it up and left it.  Vandalised and abandoned, in 2002, the council suggested that it be leased to a property developer to be converted to dull offices. No doubt the shopping centre was next. A preservation trust was formed, the Castle appeared on BBC’s Restoration and slowly the Castle came back to life.



I first visited the Castle when it was still boarded up.  It completely enchanted me as soon as I saw it.  I only knew that it was a folly but nothing of its history and how it came to be built.  I remember thinking that it would have been perfect for Rapunzel with its tall walls and turrets.  I revisited it during the heavy snows of 2010 when its dark walls stood out starkly against the bare trees and branches and the surrounding white.  On both visits it seemed like a secret castle, my own personal one.  The spectacular view over the rose garden below its slopes is breathtaking as the suburban sprawl stretches into the distance.

View over rose garden below the Castle as suburbia stretches on into the distance. copyright Carole Tyrrell
View over rose garden below the Castle as suburbia stretches on into the distance.
copyright Carole Tyrrell



In June 2016 I revisited the Castle after its restoration and renovations.  It had re-opened on 20 July 2014 with a new ground floor tea room and the rooms had been spruced up.   I re-climbed the 86 steps of the spiral staircase to the roof to admire the view once again.  The Millennium Wheel on the horizon, the 02 on my right hand side with the Thames snaking past it and the view just stretched on and on.  Below us was the tree canopy as parakeets swooped and screeched amongst the branches.


Severndroog is one of my favourite places in London and I would love to live there. Imagine climbing the spiral staircase every day to lob missiles at any marauding property developers or letting down my newly acquired hair extensions to allow friends to climb up to the roof to admire the view.    As I climbed down the staircase again I thought how pleased Lady James would be that the Castle is still there, still being used and admired and preserving her husband’s memory and her vision.


©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless stated otherwise.







(this page contains local people’s memories of the Castle and show what a well-loved building it has always been.











































A lasting memorial to a remarkable woman – Mary Seton Watts and Compton cemetery – Part 2 of a visit to Compton, UK


Autumn view over the churchyard showing the cloisters from the road oustide. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Autumn view over the churchyard showing the cloisters from the road oustide.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The golden autumn sunshine of the last afternoon had created long shadows and bathed the leaves on the trees in gold.   It was one of those autumn days on which you’re glad to be outdoors to make the most of the last golden days before the dark season sets in. Once you’ve gorged yourself on the beautiful Watts Chapel, make sure that you have left yourself enough time to explore the churchyard.  This is a tranquil place which was created by Mary Watts and Compton Parish Council and has gorgeous views over the surrounding countryside from the cloister at the top of the hill. From the road outside we could see the cloister and several of the terracotta memorials, two of which are Grade II listed.  The Wattses erected the picturesque oak lych gate at the entrance in 1897.  Mary Watts’ terracotta wellhead, encircled by a yew hedge, is along the left hand path.  This was designed in 1906 and also Grade II listed.    There are inscriptions on its top sides; ‘ the lord god planted a garden eastward in eden and a river went out of eden to water the garden.’

Mary Watts and the Parish Council laid out the cemetery which is also known as the Watts cemetery, in 1895-8.  It’s Grade II listed and was created as the old Compton churchyard was completely full.  At an 1894 meeting of the Parish Council it was proposed to buy land from the nearby Loseley estate and the Council agreed to raise a sum of £1300 from the poor rate of the parish for the purpose of ‘providing and laying out a Burial ground and building the necessary Chapel or Chapels thereon.’   Mary Watts wrote to the Council a year later, offering to build a cemetery chapel, with her husband’s financial help and inspiration.  Evergreens were planted which included cedars and yews and Mary planted the Irish yews. The graveyard and chapel were consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester on 1 July 1898.   It was extended in 1950 and a garden of remembrance was added in 1959.  The Parish Council still own and manage the cemetery.

The graveyard feels like a much older cemetery and a real part of the community.  It was created from local materials and local people with Mary Watts as part of the Compton Potters Guild. As with the Watts Chapel it’s in the Arts and Crafts style that was popular at the time.  Mary was fully involved with the churchyard as, from September 1896, she sat on the Parish Council sub-committee that was responsible for the graveyard together with the rector of St Nicholas, H H Gillett, the Loseley landowner William More-Molyneux and Mr Andrews, estate steward at Limnerslease, the Wattses nearby home.  It was landscaped in the Romantic style with winding paths and the choice of trees was designed to inspire feelings of mourning and contemplation.

Another view of the cloisters, Compton churchyard. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Another view of the cloisters, Compton churchyard.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The cloister was added in 1907.  It keeps to a similar Italianate theme as the Chapel.  Again, it’s also Grade II listed and has been compared to the loggia in Postmens Park.  This was G F Watts, Mary’s husband, memorial to self-sacrifice near St Paul’s in the City of London.    There is a memorial to G F Watts on the cloister wall with a small recumbent statue of ‘Signor’ as Mary called him flanked by two seated cherubs. Mary’s memorial tablet is also there.

We didn’t have enough time to find the two Grade II listed memorials; one to Margery Gillett, the Rector’s wife and the other to a novelist, Julian Russell Sturgis(1848 – 1904).   We also didn’t find the Huxley family grave either as the author of 1932’s Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s, ashes are interred with his parents.  We did find some m


A lovely Art Norveau memorial.  There is a very similar on in Golders Green Crematorium's cloisters. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A lovely Art Norveau memorial. There is a very similar on in Golders Green Crematorium’s cloisters.
copyright Carole Tyrrell



The churchyard is still open for burials and we did find one recent terracotta memorial dating from 2012.

A modern terracotta memorial in Compton churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell
A modern terracotta memorial in Compton churchyard
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The Chapel and churchyard are the result of one woman’s vision and determination to create a lasting memorial to her husband and to give something lasting to the community.  I was full of admiration for Mary Seton Watts as she has left a lasting tribute to Signor and to herself.  A significant artist in her right, she was obviously extremely capable, talented and a born organiser.  Thanks to her and to Signor, there is a unique place in the Surrey hills for which she will always be remembered.

© text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated


Watts Chapel; An Arts & Crafts Memorial, Veronica Gould & Joanna Howse, Books for Dillons, published 2 October 1993  (NB: This may be out of print but the Gallery may still have a few copies)








A unique gem in the Surrey hills – The Watts Memorial Chapel – Part 1 of a visit to Compton, UK

Exterior View of Compton Chapel in autumn. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Exterior View of Compton Chapel in autumn.
copyright Carole Tyrrell


On a Surrey hillside near Guildford, hidden behind tall Irish yews, nestles a secret jewel of the Arts and Crafts movement.  It’s a short walk from the Watts Gallery along a busy road with no proper pavement so be careful but it will be worth it.  This leads you to Compton churchyard.   Walk in under the lychgate and climb the twisting, winding path that leads you up through the trees to a building that looks as though it belongs in Italy instead of England.  Unique is an often over-used word but here it’s the only one that adequately describes the beautiful structure before you.  It’s the exceptional  and intriguing Watts Memorial Chapel.

The Grade 1 listed chapel is best viewed on a sunny day when its terracotta walls turn to orange and the dazzling reliefs, figures and symbols on the frieze around its exterior become three dimensional. Walk around the outside of the chapel and marvel at the sumptuous combination of Celtic,  Art Nouveau and Romanesque patterns and styles. The calm faces of angels look down surrounded by stylised animals, birds and labyrinths.

Section of exterior frieze around Chapel. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Section of exterior frieze around Chapel.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is a building created by love and faith. The metal cross on the imposing Romanesque entrance door was inspired by one on Iona. The pillars on each side contain the letters ‘I AM’ symbolising God as creator guarding a kneeling, reading man surrounded by animals and insects. In many ways this doorway reminds me of the entrance to the little terracotta mausoleum at Nunhead  Cemetery . A carved border of angels’ faces looks down at you, as your eyes are drawn up to the Garment of Praise above them. This resembles an embroidered wall hanging but in clay, depicting angels blowing trumpets,  phoenixes and birds.

Entering the chapel, after ensuring that neither of the ginger and white cemetery cats, obviously art lovers, haven’t followed you in, is like going into darkness from light.  I’d seen the cats on previous visits but on my trip in October 2015 they were nowhere to be seen.  Take time for your eyes to adjust.  Pale faces suspended in the shadows watch you. Then suddenly the light through the tall narrow windows begins to illuminate the glittering, swirling ‘glorified wallpaper.’ All around the dome’s walls are lifesize pairs of angels in red and green, either staring towards or away from you.   The ones facing you are angels of light and the ones looking away are angels of darkness. Symbolic medallions around them intertwine with the sinuous Art Nouveau whiplash and golden tendrils of the Tree of Life. The upraised arms of the angels direct your eyes to the dome’s roof and to the 100 cherubs’ faces on the crosspieces, the four larger angels on each of the corbels and finally the sun in the roof’s centre.

interior view of Watts Chapel showing one of the Celtic inspired Angels of light. copyright Carole Tyrrell
interior view of Watts Chapel showing one of the Celtic inspired Angels of light.
copyright Carole Tyrrell


The gilded terracotta altar is opposite the entrance.


Incredibly, the Watts Chapel was created by an amateur.  Mary Watts, the devoted second wife of the Victorian painter, George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), designed the entire building without any prior experience.  It must be one of the very few 19th century buildings designed by a woman. Mary dedicated  it to:

the loving memory of all who find rest near its walls, and for the comfort and help of those to whom the sorrow of separation remains“.

She  formed the Compton Potters Guild with local villagers and they assisted with the carvings and gesso decorations. A coachman modelled the angels’ faces above the entrance. Even the local children each painted a leaf, a flower or fruit on the interior walls. She also saw the Guild as a way of keeping the locals occupied and away from bad influences such as drink. The chapel was her husband, G F Watts’, gift to the village of Compton.   He was also known as Signor and financed the building  by painting commissioned portraits.

The Chapel was begun in 1895 and the gesso interior painting was completed in 1904. The Archbishop of Canterbury attended the consecration ceremony, together with Signor, amongst others. The Watts  lived at ‘Limnerslease’ which was near the churchyard and it was from their grounds that the clay to build the chapel came.  Burne- Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, somewhat unkindly, renamed the house ‘Dauber’s Den’ which reveals how G F Watts was viewed by some of his contemporaries.   The Gallery has had a refurbishment and Watts’  paintings now have interpretation boards and are better displayed with additional sculptures.

However, although G F Watts was a celebrated painter in his day he has fallen out of favour as have other artists of his time. He was notorious for marrying the actress Ellen Terry who was just 17 to his 47 and it barely lasted a year. Mary was his second wife and 36 years his junior. She was an inventive and accomplished artist in her own right and devoted herself to her husband and his memory. Signor painted Society portraits and subjects taken from mythology such as ‘Clytie’ and moral, storytelling pictures. But he was also an important precursor of Symbolism with such work as ‘The Sower of the Systems’. 2004 was his centenary year and he was commemorated with an exhibition at the nearby Watts Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

However the Watts Chapel isn’t for everyone. Some may find it too overpowering in its use of symbols and extravagant decoration and others may see it as an indulgent folly. But to me it’s a uniquely spiritual building. Mrs Watts used many sources for her creation including the Book of Kells and Egyptian sphinxes, and I find it fascinating to discover the symbols used and decipher their meaning or simply just enjoy them.

The Watts Gallery sells an excellent book on the meaning of the carvings and the chapel’s background, if you wish to explore further. They also have further examples of the work of the Potters Guild which finally closed in the 1950’s and their works are now collectors items.  West Norwood cemetery has a piece on a grave.  However, the Gallery does sell modern reproductions and had some on display on my visit in 2015.  There is also an excellent tea shop at the gallery.

 NB: Please remember that the chapel is also a parish building and may be in use on some days.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell


Watts Chapel; An Arts & Crafts Memorial, Veronica Gould & Joanna Howse, Books for Dillons, published 2 October 1993  (NB: This may be out of print but the Gallery may still have a few copies)


Part 2 – A lasting memorial to a remarkable woman – Mary Seton Watts and Compton Cemetery.




An afternoon with the dead and famous – Part 2 of a visit to Golders Green – the crematorium


The front entrance to the crematorium. Built in the style of a Northern Italian monastery. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The front entrance to the crematorium. Built in the style of a Northern Italian monastery.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Spring was in the air at last as we gathered in the West Memorial Court to await our guide, Eric Willis. We were in extremely good company as we were surrounded by  Marc Bolan, Bernie Winters, Hughie Green, Norman Vaughan, Ronnie Scott and Keith Moon amongst others.   Sadly it was only their memorial plaques that were there. But it was like a trip down memory lane as you had to be of a certain vintage to remember some of them.

I had been expecting a drab, municipal building but the Crematorium is built in the style of a Northern Italian Lombardic monastery in warm red brick.  It looks out onto Hoop Lane and its semi detached houses and if you didn’t know what it was you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a large church.  Its tall campanile tower actually houses the crematorium  chimney.  The impressive cloisters, 240 feet in length,  are also filled with the memorials of the great and good.

The Crematorium is the oldest in London opened in 1902, 17 years after cremation was legalised and in response to a growing demand for cremations. Although the crematorium was completed in 1939, buildings were added whenever money became available. The land had been purchased for £6000 and the architect, Sir Ernest George, also designed Claridges Hotel in Mayfair.  It’s still privately run and, to date, has conducted over 328,052 cremations  with the ashes of 100,000 people scattered over the dispersal lawn in the grounds. It’s estimated that 2000+ creations take place there every year. The Crematorium  is Grade II listed with 3 columbariums, 3 chapels and a and Hall of Memory. All religions are welcome and as we were shown the Jewish shrine I spotted a small altar to an Indian deity.

A little shrine to an India deity in the cloisters.  copyright Carole Tyrrell
A little shrine to an India deity in the cloisters.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

However, the crematorium is also secular which means that the service and music are the decision of the friends and family of the deceased.  It also caters for atheists with a ‘communists corner’ where the ashes of numerous ex-communists are held.

The word columbarium comes from the Latin for dovecot or niche for sepulchural urn. The West and East Columbariums are built in the form of towers and had the appearance inside of a reading room with urns deposited on the shelves instead of books. They stretched up to the ceiling. But each one told their own story.  Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, had a plain and simple urn. But the ornate urns to two victims from the Titanic disaster were especially poignant as their grandchildren had recently visited due to the recent centenary.  In the East Columbarium, Eric revealed that he places every moth or butterfly that was trapped and died inside the columbarium very neatly under Captain Thomas B Hanham RN’s  impressive bust.

In the Ernest George Columbarium Eric showed us the ballerina Anna Pavlova’s urn in a small alcove.  It was flanked by a ceramic swan and a a ballet dancer.  Sadly her ballet shoes had also been on display but had recently been stolen and so, as a result, security had had to be tightened. And then we moved onto Sigmund Freud’s magnificent and large Grecian urn on top of a matching column surrounded by flowers. Please note that since my visit  Freud’s beautiful urn has been smashed.  I don’t think that it was a Freudian slip.

Afterwards we visited the West chapel which can seat 200 people and had a beautiful marble plaque to the Maharajah of Cooch Bahar and his family.  Eric then led us into the crematorium itself to see the business of reducing the dead to ashes with the staff patiently answering our questions and dispelling various myths about the process.

The 12 acres of grounds are beautifully kept and the crocus lawn in Spring is renowned. Sadly, we had just missed this splendid sight and, despite an exhaustive and informative tour, we ran out of time to explore them. Instead we admired the ornamental lily pond by the Victoria Cross memorial on which 2 mallard ducks paddled near the tea rooms. There are 14 holders of the Victoria Cross who are commemorated on the memorial who have been cremated at Golders Green.  We didn’t see the Marc Bolan Society’s gift of a bench with white swans as armrests.  They gather on 16 September every year to remember the singer and cosmic elf’s death in 1977. We also missed seeing the bronze statue, called ‘Into the Silent Land’ of a young girl being lifted heavenwards by a mysterious draped figure.  Apparently, at its previous site within the grounds, it had scared a staff member so much as it loomed out of the morning mists, it had had to be moved elsewhere in the grounds.  Eric showed us photos of the statue from his own collection together with some of his own paintings and his affection for the Crematorium was obvious.

Golders Green is well worth a visit or two  as there is so much to see and appreciate. My thanks to the very knowledgeable  and entertaining Eric Willis, and Golders Green Crematorium for their hospitality.  Even if we were, at times, reduced to celebrity spotting  as famous names leapt out at us at every turn.

I visited the Crematorium in 2013 and although I’ve always intended to return as there was still much to see such as the mausolea including the Philipson Family mausoleum designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and the second pond but haven’t managed it yet.  Well worth a trip if you’re in London.

Copyright text and photos Carole Tyrrell