On my previous spring saunters I’ve wandered through two of London’s large, sprawling cemeteries; Kensal Green and West Norwood but this year I thought I’d stay nearer to home. St Nicholas is my local church and within walking distance of my home. It’s in a prominent position in the town as it’s at the top of the hill and opposite the entrance to Knole Park, another local landmark. One of its most famous Rectors was the preacher and poet, John Donne, who was in post from 1616 until 1631 and is commemorated with a metal plate on the pavement outside. Every time I visit its churchyard I find something new and at a time when Nature is beginning to awaken again what better excuse did I need?
The present building’s shape dates from the 13th century and in fact the present nave dates from 1270. It replaces an earlier church. The north aisle was added in 1320 and the chancel south aisle and tower around 1450. There have been many later alterations but the basic 15th century structure and style remains. In 1995 excavations took place to create more meeting rooms in what may have been the crypt. The interior of the church has some monuments dedicated to prominent local families.
But it’s the churchyard that fascinated me. Intertwined with plain Victorian headstones are some wonderful examples of 18th century tombstones adorned with memento mori. A couple are naively executed but others are finely carved with the wonderful 18th century calligraphy accompanying them.
The Spring sunlight illuminated the thick patches of moss and lichens that had carefully draped itself over the monuments and memorials. It made the subtle hues and shades really stand out; the combination of green and gold or browns seemed to gleam amongst more subtle hints.
Some of the lichens looked as if someone had taken a paintbrush loaded with colour and then dabbed it onto the stones. Moss has the effect of softening the edges of stones and letters and, where it replaces letters completely, gives a more organic feel to the epitaph.
A spreading horse chestnut tree was laden with sticky buds already beginning to burst into leaf. ‘How many years has it stood near the church door marking the seasons and years?’ I thought.
A chaffinch called loudly for its mate from the closed part of the churchyard. I had explored this in October and seen its large carpet of prickly sweet chestnuts as a fox had turned tail and run back to where it had come from. There has been a piece of bone abandoned on top of a flat headstone and I hoped that the fox had brought it in from a nearby butchers rubbish bin…….now alas this part of the churchyard is closed due to Health and Safety as it’s so overgrown. On this visit I disturbed a fluffy ginger and white cat who soon fled in the same direction as the fox.
Three large patches of snowdrops clustered protectively around the base of a tree, their pristine heads nodding in the breeze as if deep in conversation. Primroses had begun to stud the grass and I saw my first ever cowslip amid headstones.
The tiny bright blue flowers of Speedwell blossomed beside a small tombstone and a red-tailed bee, one of the first signs of Spring, buzzed along the top of the grass. Dog violets, a much underrated flowers in my opinion, frothed plentifully beside the iron entrance gate.
Nearby, was not so much a carpet of Spring flowers, but more of a small rug of them. More Primroses, the bright yellow of Lesser Celandine, another harbinger of Spring, and more dog violets all combined to make a wonderful collection of green, yellow and purple.
There are some remarkable epitaphs in St Nicholas churchyard and this one which has now been incorporated into the fabric of the church caught my attention.
The epitaph reads:
To the Memory
of John Braithwaite Chief Coachman
to his Grace Lionel Duke of Dorset
He died by an unfortunate fall from
Ye coach near Riverhead in this parish.
His loss was greatly lamented
and by none more than
by his Lord and Master
to whom he was a most just and faithful servant
This sad accident happened
on the first day of July in
the year of our Lord 1723
With the Caring for God’s Acre project which is linked with the bio diversity recording site, irecord, biodiversity within cemeteries is being examined more closely. They are real havens for wildlife especially in big cities as they are an invaluable green space that’s accessible to everyone. I’ve always enjoyed exploring cemeteries partly for this reason whether it be standing waist high in wild flowers on a hot July day in the meadow at Kensal Green cemetery or counting butterflies along the side paths leading to the Courtoy Mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery.
Sadly the Spring sunshine was replaced by April showers but Mother Nature ignored this and kept bursting forth regardless. I’m already looking forward to my summer saunter within St Nicholas.
I haven’t posted on here this month as I am moving house…..to Sevenoaks which has a church dedicated to St Nicholas. It’s a fine old church with a fascinating churchyard. It has a fine array of headstones and monuments with symbols on display that I hadn’t previously seen.
I knew instantly that I’d found a good place to live. (if I can survive climbing the hill to reach it.)
I will be offline during the move but hope to be posting August Symbol of the Month over the bank holiday.
The remarkable discovery of a stone sarcophagus in Lant Street, Southwark last year spurred the Museum of London to collate forty years of work into one exhibition. How did Roman London commemorate death and what can we learn from what they’ve left behind?
Exhibition curators Jackie Kiely, Rebecca Redfern and Meriel Jeater have put together a collection that looks at the Roman way of death and Britain’s place on the edge of the Roman Empire.
As part of its major restoration project , Brompton Cemetery held a short series of free walks around the cemetery last month to discuss future plans. I joined one which was led by Nigel Thorne, Project Manager and Halima Khanom, Partnership and Community Engagement Officer for the Royal Parks..
The weather had been dull and overcast all day but, as we gathered at the South entrance project office, blue sky suddenly burst through the clouds and it became a lovely golden summer evening bathing the chapel and monuments in a soft glow. A relief really as we were out in the open throughout. Nigel was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable and began by revealing that Brompton had received an impressive grant of £6.2 of which £4.2 had come from the Heritage Lottery Fund (your £1 lottery ticket does something useful after all even if it doesn’t make you a millionaire) and the rest had come from Parks for People.
He added that he saw cemeteries as another form of public space which I’d not previously considered and an aspect that maybe isn’t emphasised enough. Brompton is already well used as a cut through with joggers much in evidence and people on the edge of the group huddled in so as not to be entangled with cyclists.
This was to be updated. Apparently it hadn’t existed when Brompton had opened and had been just been land owned by British Gas. The ex -assistant cemetery manager’s accommodation and the Friends base was now the Project Office.
Almost opposite was a bijou sized building which had been, of all things, a police box dating from when the Royal Parks had had their own police force. It was now hiding behind a temporary fence.
Nigel stopped by the Robert Coombes monument. This is dedicated to a champion sculler and the upturned boat on top of it with his waterman’s coat draped across it had once had a set of oars attached. These were now long gone and so, sadly, were the heads of the four statues, one at each corner. Cemetery vandals always seem to go for the heads of statues.
Nigel revealed that this monument was to be restored at a cost of around £40k. However, although the HLF grant included £140k for monument restoration, a substantial legacy would instead pay for Mr Coombes. We noticed that there was a tabletop grave very near to Coombes which was being propped up by blocks of wood.
Chapel – mysteries and surprises:
Nigel almost shuddered as he related stories of the horrors of 1970’s restoration. ‘They would have been better off leaving it alone!’ he said with feeling. There is a gap between the inner and outer dome which is accessible but a tight squeeze apparently. A good opportunity I thought , to explore and record areas not normally accessible. It’s envisaged that the Chapel will be open more often once restoration is complete and visitors to a recent art exhibition were very pleased to have an additional opportunity to go inside.
There would be a disabled visitors’ ramp at the chapel entrance to increase access.
Nigel pointed up at the crumbling Bath Stone visible along the top of the East wing’s roof. ‘Very soft.’ he explained.
Two huge basements had been found under each of the East and West wings. The latter was originally the cemetery supervisor’s office. But there was a surprised in the West wing as there were no stairs making it inaccessible.
Another secret had been discovered when investigating the floor. It had always been assumed that it had been made from poured concrete but this was revealed to actually be lino. When that was taken up there was a lovely flagstone floor in a radial pattern – something to see when the chapel is reopened.
Nigel indicated where Brompton’s original owners had run out of money and the lonely cupola above a colonnade marked the spot.
The Western catacombs:
These were never used as catacombs but they form part of the boundary walls facing onto the rail and tube line. A gated and blocked entrance at either end still remains with a far grander one in the centre. Originally it had a promenade over the top on which visitors could walk and admire the fields and canal on the other side but these are obviously long gone. Parts of the promenade still remain but I wouldn’t fancy walking on it now. Some of the wall is now supported by buttresses and one end of the catacombs is now in the new Horticultural team’s area.
When opened the catacombs were found to full of spoil which took a year to dig out. This had to be done as it was pushing out the wall that faced onto the railway line.
Improved paths and access
Nigel told us that all of Brompton’s current paths are made of tarmac. This leads to a uniformity of paths that can be confusing for a visually impaired visitor. As a result, one blind woman had no idea where she was in Brompton. It was now hoped to have a hierarchy of paths to counteract this.
We paused by a rampant area of long grass and wildflowers (or weeds depending on your point of view). Nigel commented that the area needed a tidy up and that grave owners in the area had been given Brompton’s policy and their obligations at the time of burial – no vertical tombstones or planting.
A perennial problem was the planting of small trees and shrubs on graves which are now huge. According to Nigel they reduce light and space as well as damaging and obscuring memorials and monuments. He indicated a somewhat spindly rose bush which looked very untended.
A huge laurel plant had had its lower branches lopped but regrowth had already started. There was a monument just underneath it which we could hardly see. I found others examples such as the Mary King grave by the chapel.
There’s a debate between those who like cemetery to look messy to encourage wildlife and those who don’t. I personally like wild areas to encourage this as Brompton is known for its large crow population and I’ve disturbed the odd sunbathing fox. The large bramble stands, in Nigel’s opinion, were of benefit only to the foxes as hiding places.
Garden of Remembrance:
The tall hedges surrounding it are to be reduced in size as they encourage anti-social behaviour. Visitors can buy a 1m memorial tablet under which up to 4 urns can be buried.
Visitors café and centre:
Work on the visitors centre and café is well on schedule – I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the speed at which they are being built. Nigel added that the café was intended to be a social enterprise and not another outpost of one of the chains. It would be staffed by local people and use local produce (blackberry jam anyone?). The visitors centre opposite had all sorts of exciting plans such as allowing visitors access to Brompton’s records of the 200k people buried within it.
A fascinating walk – our thanks to Nigel and Halima – which covered not only Brompton’s ambitious restoration plans but also some of the problems of cemetery maintenance and restoration.
Chiswick Old Burial Ground is a large extension to the old churchyard at St Nicholas, Chiswick, close to the River Thames in west London. The Georgian graves clustered closest to the church (including the grand tomb of the artist William Hogarth) give way to Victorian and more modest headstones, filling a site that’s just under 7 acres in size. Unlike some of London’s larger Victorian cemeteries, most of the memorials here are fairly modest in scale and ornamentation, made from stone or occasionally marble. But one incongrous memorial catches the eye, despite being tucked away near the cemetery’s northern boundary wall: a striking copper tomb turned green by the passing of the years, which marks the burial place of two artists.
The two masks of comedy and tragedy, or Sock and Buskin as they are also known for reasons I’ll explain later, are not often found in cemeteries. And as you might expect, when they are there’s a theatrical association.
But what is the history behind this two faced symbol and how did these icons from Ancient Greece come into Victorian cemeteries?
It began with the custom of actors wearing masks, an essential part of the performance, in early Greek theatre. It was a vital part of Greek culture and civic pride. However, Comedy and Tragedy were viewed as completely separate genres and no plays ever combined them.
This genre began in Athens around 532 BC with Thespis, the earliest recorded tragic actor. He was known as ‘Father of Tragedy’ and it has been suggested that his name inspired the English term, thespian, for a performer.
Muse of Tragedy:
Melpomene is the Muse and is often depicted holding the Mask of Tragedy. She often also holds a knife or club and also wears the ‘cothurni ‘or buskin boots that elevated her above other actors. She was a daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne as was Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, and there were also 7 other daughters who were all Muses.
After the defeat of Athens by the Spartans in the Peleponnesian War and the subsequent decline in its power, comedy became more important than tragedy. I imagine that people wanted some relief after a protracted war and these were comic episodes about the lives of ordinary Greek citizens. Maybe they were similar to today’s comedy sketches. Greek comedy is reputed to have had a major influence on Roman humour as well. Perhaps they had an early version of Up Pompeii…..
Muse of Comedy:
She is called Thalia but can also be sometimes spelled as Thaleia and is depicted holding the Mask of Comedy in one hand. She’s generally depicted as a young woman crowned with ivy. Thalia wears the thin-soled shoe known as the ‘sock’ from the Latin soccus. It may seem strange but it’s the footwear of the two Muses that led to them being called ‘sock and buskin’.
And so both Comedy and Tragedy became two sides of the theatre world.
They were seen as one of the iconic conventions of classical Greek theatre and date back to the time of Aeschylus (525-456 BC) commonly considered to be the father of Greek tragedy. The Ancient Greek term for mask is ‘prosopon’ or face. There are paintings on vases, such as the 5th century BC Pronomos vase, depicting actors preparing for performance with masks. However none have survived due to the organic materials from which they were created such as stiffened linen, leather or cork with wigs of human and animal hair. After the performance they were dedicated at the altar of Dionysus.
It was mainly the chorus that used masks on stage of which there could be up to 12-15 members. Masks created a sense of unity when representing a single character or voice. They always created a sense of mystery and were also a method of disguise. The actor would use the mask to totally immerse himself in his role and become someone else. It also allowed him to appear and reappear in several different roles instead of only being seen as one character. The exaggerated features of the mask also enabled audience members who were sitting at a distance to see characters emotions.
I have found four monuments featuring Tragedy and Comedy each in differing styles, in London Victorian cemeteries: Fred Kitchen in West Norwood Cemetery with a link to Charlie Chaplin. There are two in Brompton Cemetery: Gilbert Laye and Augustus Henry Glossop Harris’s elegant monuments and the exuberant Andrew Ducrow tomb in Kensal Green.
Fred Kitchen (1872-1951):
The graceful Kitchen memorial was recently restored by the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain & America in March 2016 with the Heritage Lottery Fund’s support. It almost dazzles under a summer sky. Both Fred and his father, Richard (1830-1910) rest here and note the broken column on which the Sock and Buskin are placed. This denotes that the head of the family as a broken column indicated that the support, or head of the family, rests here.
Fred came from a theatrical family in that his father, Richard, was the Ballet Master and Dancer at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Fred worked mainly in the music halls which were considered a low form of entertainment but many famous comedians learned their craft in them. He was discovered by the legendary impresario, Fred Karno, while playing in a production at Glasgow’s Princess Theatre. It was the stuff of showbiz legend, or cliche depending on your point of view, as Fred was standing in for the chief comedian and so, as a result, a 50 year career theatrical career began. From 1897-1910 Fred was a member of Fred Karno’s Army along with such legends as Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Kitchen had a unique style which featured a splayed walk as he had flat feet and scruffy costume. Chaplin later admitted that this had influenced or he had simply ‘borrowed’ it for his iconic tramp character. In 1913 Fred appeared in a Royal Command Performance for King George V and continued to work until 1945 aged 73. But the music hall circuit was beginning to vanish but his son, Fred Kitchen Jr, continued the family tradition in film and theatre.
Gilbert Laye (1855-1826) – Brompton Cemetery
This is a striking memorial with ‘Comedy & Tragedy’ of either side of a stylised young woman who is holding what appears to be a lyre. There isn’t much known about Gilbert Laye, the incumbent, and I could only find one credit for him online. This was as the director of ‘My Lady Molly’ at Daly’s Theatre on New York’s Broadway. It was a musical comedy and opened on 5 January 1904 and closed on 16 January 1904. He was also briefly the manager of the Palace Pier in Brighton. Both he and his wife, Evelyn Stuart were known as struggling minor actors/ However, she was known as a respected provincial Principal Boy. However, it was their daughter, Evelyn Laye (1900-1995) who became a huge star on stage in musical comedy roles. She made her stage debut in 1915 and acted until well into her nineties. Evelyn worked with Noel Coward and made her first appearance on Broadway in 1929 in his Bitter Sweet. However, her parents disapproved of her first marriage to
actor Sonnie Hale in 1926 which ultimately ended in divorce when he left her for actress Jessie Matthews. Evelyn attracted public sympathy over this with the divorce judge branding Matthews ‘an odious creature.’
Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1852-1896)
This is a very sophisticated monument with a barefoot mourning woman in robes and her hair tied back resting one outstretched arm on the cenotaph. In vintage photos, the other is raised towards a bust of Harris which tops the plinth. However, the bust is no longer in place and neither is the hand that seemed to stroke it. There are three people commemorated on the monument: Augustus himself, his wife Florence Edgcumbe and their daughter, Florence Nellie Cellier. None of them appear to be buried in Brompton as Augustus died at Folkestone and Florence’s ashes were scattered elsewhere. Florence remarried after Augustus’s death so she may actually be buried with her second husband.
Augustus was a British actor and impresario who came from another theatrical family. Born in Paris his father was a dramatist, Augustus Glossop Harris, and his mother was Maria Ann Bone, a theatrical costumier. The Brompton Augustus Henry was known as ‘the Father of British pantomime’. He co-wrote and produced scripts for large scale pantos that were performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane every Christmas. They attracted a popular cast including the legendary Dan Leno. Augustus was also involved in local politics and, in 1890, represented the Strand division in the London County Council. In 1891 he was appointed a sheriff and was also knighted. He married Florence Edgcumbe Rendle in 1881 and after his death she remarried and died in 1914.
Florence Nellie Harris Cellier was their daughter. She married Frank Cellier in 1910 and divorced him in 1925. He was an actor who both appeared and directed in numerous plays and acted in Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’ in 1948.
‘Comedy and Tragedy’ lie beneath a laurel wreath and violin on top of a carved cloth at the base of the cenotaph.
On one of the most desirable and prominent plots in Kensal Green Cemetery lies Andrew Ducrow. To call his blue painted tomb flamboyant is an understatement although the 19th century magazine ‘The Builder’ described it as a piece of ‘ponderous coxcombry‘ . It was supposedly created for his first wife but as the epitaph states
‘Within this tomb erected by genius for the reception of its own remains are deposited those of Andrew Ducrow’
It’s a feast of symbols ranging from 4 Egyptian style 4 sphinxes and columns on the mausoleum and a Greek style roof. A relief over the door depicts Pegasus, the winged horse and a weeping woman in Grecian dress with ‘Comedy and Tragedy’ beside her on clouds.
A pair of gloves and hat lie almost just discarded waiting for their owner to don them again on part of a broken column. There’s also beehives, shells, flowers and downturned torches. Two angels flank the now bricked up entrance which are the closest to any Christian symbolism.
However, Pegasus and an urn decorated with horses heads and garlands are not just mere emblems but direct references to Ducrow’s profession which was as a renowned circus performer. He was known as the ‘Father of British Circus Equestrianism’. Modern day horse acts owe a huge debt to him as he created many horse feats and acts that are still in use today. For example, his most famous act ‘Courier of St Petersburg’ is still performed to this day at equestrian events. In this a rider straddles 2 cantering horses while other horses bearing the flags of the countries through which a courier would pass on his way to Russia passed between his legs.
Ducrow owned a circus called Astley’s Amphitheatre and had learned his skills from his Belgian father who had emigrated to England in 1793. However, Ducrow also had another act that attracted and thrilled audiences. This was the ‘plastique’ or physique performances in which he and his sons would wear ‘fleshings’ or flesh coloured body stockings and pose on white stallions as they carried them around the amphitheatre several times. It must have been quite a sight to see under the lights and it’s a shame that no-one has yet attempted to revive it. There was a black performer in the company called Pablo Fanque who is mentioned in the Beatle Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band track, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ which is one of my favourites.
As you can imagine Ducrow and his company were incredibly popular but bad luck dogged him. The Amphitheatre burned down 3 times and after the last one in 1841 he had a nervous breakdown. He died soon after in 1842 and the Amphitheatre and circus were taken over by others who had worked with him.
I’ve really enjoyed researching, writing and posting my entries – it’s been wonderful to have an opportunity to immerse myself in history again and to meet other interesting cemetery enthusiasts via cyberspace. Please keep sending your comments.
So let’s raise a glass, cup or mug and celebrate and revel in being taphophiles. After all everyone has to have a hobby….without cemeteries where would all those eager Pokemon Go enthusiasts go?
This photo was taken in West Norwood Cemetery near the Columbarium – every time I visit there is is always a glass jar or vase containing fresh flowers placed on the shelf. I thought it looked appropriate.