I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a very flamboyant and imposing monument. However, it is also one with great poignancy. It dates from the early 17th century and can be found in St Olave’s church, Seething Lane in the City of London. I was working in the City at the time and spent my lunch hours exploring the ancient City churches. St Olave’s is known for several grinning skulls on the entrance arch to the churchyard which dates to 1658. They impressed Charles Dickens so much that he included it in his book of sketches, The Uncommon Traveller, in which he renamed the church, St Ghastly Grim.
The diarist, Samuel Pepys and his wife had strong connections to St Olave’s and Mrs Pepys is buried within it. It is a church steeped in history.
So, Sir Jacobus, or James, Deane is in good company. This would have been an immensely expensive monument when it was created and is one laden with skulls. Deane and his 3rd wife kneel, facing each other, over a prayer table which was a convention of the time. They are both fashionably dressed as she wears a ruff and bonnet in addition to her beautifully carved black gown. Jacobus himself wears dull gold armour which has been highlighted in red.
The two women also dressed in fashionable clothing on either side of the couple are Jacobus’s first 2 wives and both carry skulls. However, it isn’t a Gothic fashion accessory but an indication that they both died before their time. The three swaddled infants beneath the figures, a pair and then one on its own, all died in infancy. According to the V & A:
‘Newborn babies were swaddled, wrapped in cloth with bands around them for the first 6-12 months of their lives. It was thought to strengthen the spine and help their body develop. Swaddling would usually bind the whole body, leaving only the head to move. These bands were usually just plain linen.’
The swaddling bands can be seen quite clearly on the figures of the infants. The pair rest on a small skull as does the single one which again indicates mortality.
Two other skulls grin from on top of the monument. Cherubic heads or possibly winged messengers also look back at the observer and there are several armorial bearings as well.
Sir Jacobus Deane was knighted on 8 July 1604 and was a very wealthy man. He made his fortune as a merchant adventurer to India, China and the Spice Islands and was very generous to the poor in every parish in which he lived or owned property. He built almshouses and left liberal bequests. Susan Bumsted was his first wife and Elizabeth Offley was his second. James’s third and last wife was a widow, Elizabeth Thornhill. She already had a son by her first husband and her third husband was John Brewster. Sir James Deane died on 15 May 1608 aged 62 having left no children.
There has been a suggestion that there is a significance to the number 3 contained within the monument. I can’t see it apart from the references to 3 wives and 3 children, but I would refer you to the Rushton Triangular Lodge in which there are a plethora of references to this number and its symbolism. It dates from the same period.
One of the greatest cemeteries in London is Highgate in North London. Crammed with the great and good and also some of the not so good it contains some of the most dramatic funerary architecture to be found in the capital.
The cemetery is bisected by Swain’s Lane with Highgate West on one side and Highgate East on the other. Usually the West side can only be accessed by being on an official tour but this year it was a little different……
Social distancing, in this case, was a good thing! As The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust(FOHCT) were unable to hold tours during the summer they cunningly decided to offer ‘free range’ tours instead. For £10 you could book a time, agree to follow a few sensible rules on safety etc and then wander round the West side at will. And if you had the energy, as Highgate West is large, have a look round the East side as well. The West is very overgrown and FOHCT like their visitors to be safe. They didn’t want their visitors to have a nasty accident and then haunt them forever more.
Please note that I have covered Highgate in a previous post – 16/2/2016 to be exact so some memorials mentioned here will have been covered more fully in that post.
So, on 10 July, I entered through the arch of the chapel and into the green cathedral of the West side. The trees had linked arms above the graves, monuments and memorials to form a canopy over the entire site. It felt as if everything was bathed in green light as I walked up the hill. At its highest point Highgate is 375 feet above sea level. Cemeteries are often built on these as their permanent residents are nearer ‘my God to thee.’
I passed the empty chair memorial to a young actress and spotted a pelican in her piety symbol amongst the undergrowth. The overgrown nature of the West side gives it a real charm and mystery. A helpful steward directed me to the Rossetti group of graves which I’d always wanted to see but he also pointed out the grave of a woman who had died when her dress had caught alight. Apparently this only ceased with the coming of the mini-skirt and possibly central heating.
The Rossettis have their own path named after them but the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is not buried with them. Instead his parents Gabriele (1783-1854) and Frances (1800-1886), his brother William (1829-1919) and William’s wife Lucy Madox Brown (1843-1894), who was the only daughter of Ford Madox Brown, his sister Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and Dante’s wife Lizzie Siddal (1829-1862) occupy the plot.
Lizzie features as the model in several of Dante’s paintings and the Victorian web points out that she died aged 32 instead of at 30. She was addicted to laudanum which was derived from opium and was a Victorian cure-all. Laudanum was prescribed for morning sickness and cranky infants amongst others. It was easy to become addicted and she succumbed. Lizzie was pregnant at the time of her death, although she may not have known it, and had already had a stillborn child with Dante. It is still not known if she died of an overdose or a deliberate act of suicide. However, she was a talented artist in her own right and some of her work was featured in the 2019 exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’
But Lizzie has also been commemorated by an act that occurred after her death. One of Dante’s early biographers recorded it:
On the day of the funeral Rossetti walked into the chamber in which the body lay. In his hand was a book into which at her bidding he had copied his poems. Regardless of those present he spoke to her as though she were still living, telling her that the poems were written to her and were hers, and that she must take them with her. He then placed the volume beside her face in the coffin, leaving it to be buried with her in Highgate Cemetery. This touching scene will some day doubtless be the subject of a picture. Time, after its wont, hallowed and sanctified the memory of loss, but the bereavement was long and keenly felt. Meanwhile, the entombment of Rossetti’s poems had an effect upon which the writer had not calculated. They were familiar to many friends, and passages of them were retained in the recollection of some. These poems were during subsequent years the subject of much anxiety and wonderment, and the existence of the buried treasure was mentioned with reverence and sympathy, and with something of awe. Seven years later Rossetti, upon whom pressure to permit the exhumation of the volume had constantly been put, gave a reluctant consent With the permission of the Home Secretary the coffin was opened” by a friend of Rossetti and the volume was withdrawn. [Knight 76] from the Victorian Web site
It would haunt Dante for the rest of his life. In one of his most famous paintings ‘Beata Beatrix’ painted in 1869, which is an amalgam of several drawings of Lizzie, a white poppy features. The red dove represents their love and the poppy the laudanum that hastened her death. It’s derived from poppies. Dante died in 1882 and is buried at Birchington-on- Sea.
William Rossetti was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote widely. He was also the biographer of his family. One of Christina’s most famous poems was ‘Goblin Market’ and she also featured in ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’
I returned to the path but discovered a selection of the rich and famous as I walked up to the Circle of Lebanon.
Alas, the venerable 250 year old Cedar of Lebanon after which it was named succumbed to old age in 2019. It was a survivor from the Ashurst estate on which Highgate West was built on and was an impressive sight. Now a wildflower garden stands on the spot. I had come out onto the upper terrace and from there I could see the layout of the Circle much more clearly. There are some impressive monuments here: Nero the lion eternally slumbers on the Wombwell monument. George Wombwell was a Victorian menagarist who owned 3 travelling animal shows. The monument to John Maple features low relief carvings from the life of Christ. He owned a very successful furniture business which occupied a large site on Tottenham Court Road. It no longer exists. The Circle is built in the Classical style and the inner circle contains 20 vaults and another 16 were added in 1870.
The Terrace catacombs were closed although I have been inside them on a previous visit. By contrast they are in the Gothic style and were built on an existing terrace from the Ashurst estate. The frontage is 8 yards long with room for 825 people in 55 vaults each containing 15 loculi or coffin spaces. I was reduced to peering through a doorway on this occasion before turning to the magnificent Beer mausoleum which was built for his 8 year old daughter, Ada.
As it was a self-guided tour I had time to admire the summer wildflowers which were growing in profusion. Cemeteries are good places to find these; Acanthus, ragwort, verbena, Ladies Bedstraw, Vipers Bugloss, Rosemary Willowherb and also a buddleia in full bloom studded with Peacock butterflies on Faraday Path.
A sidepath from the Circle led me along another path which I’d not previously seen. The atmosphere seemed different and it was certainly darker, perhaps due to a thicker tree canopy, as I walked along it to a gate at the other end. This would have originally opened onto Swain’s Lane and there was what appeared to be a former gatekeeper’s lodge nearby. It still bore the monogram of the London Cemetery Company who were the original owners of Highgate cemetery. Time slips have been reported along this path and I wondered if it was the gate through which a man is reported to look out at unwary passers-by.
I retraced my steps towards the magnificent Egyptian Avenue one of Highgate’s highlights. Tom Sayer’s monument lay to my right with his faithful dog, Lion, eternally keeping guard and then the Sleeping Angel. This is dedicated to Mary Nichols who was a Londoner who died in 1909 from heart failure and diabetes. It’s a lovely tribute.
The horse on top of the Acheler memorial records John Acheler who became wealthy and well known as a ‘Knacker’. He called himself ‘horse slaughterer to Queen Victoria’.
And then the Egyptian Avenue! The centrepiece of Highgate West in my opnion. It may be looking a little tired but it’s a magnificent example of how the Egyptian explorations of the 19th century influenced funerary architecture. Note the two large obelisks flanking the entrance and the stylised lotus flowers on the columns as you enter through the arch and into the passage that will take you into the lower tier of the Circle.
The Avenue was also a catacomb but they were never really popular as other London cemeteries soon realised. After all if Highgate couldn’t sell all theirs then who could? The passage contains 16 vaults on either side which were each fitted with shelves to hold 12 coffins. These were bought by individual families for their own use.
By then I thought it was time to explore the East cemetery while I still had the energy.
Wildflowers were also in profusion here: clover, bird’s foot trefoil and vetch Butterflies flew about on the heat of a late summer afternoon.
I saw my favourites; Jeremy Beadle, Malcolm McLaren, Karl Marx and Patrick Caulfield. There was also the grand piano dedicated surprisingly enough to a pianist, Henry Thornton, who died in 1918 during the ’flu epidemic.
The East side isn’t as overgrown as the West side and as I explored further I found a memorial which highlighted a dog. This was dedicated to Ann Jewson Crisp and her faithful dog Emperor.
But as I left the East side I spotted another of its more celebrated residents settling down for a siesta behind the Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds’, memorial. It was a cemetery cat who was soon hidden deep in the grass and I didn’t want to disturb him or her. What a playground!
As I left the East Cemetery and walked down Swain’s Lane to Archway tube station I still had time to admire my ideal des res – Holly Village – which was built by Victorian philanthropist, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. It is said that she planned it with Charles Dickens. She built the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial in St Pancras Old Burying ground.
When out exploring large Victorian cemeteries you may see the welcome sight of an empty chair on top of a grave. However, please don’t give into the urge to perch yourself on it for a quick rest but instead, ponder on its meaning.
An empty chair is intended as a reminder of loss, absence and a memory of someone dear who has now gone.
It’s one of the most poignant symbols of loss and is a staple of old Hollywood movies and also some soap operas. There’s a large family gathering, preferably at Christmas, and everyone’s round the table. Then, in the middle of all of the jollity, the camera pans down to an empty space set with cutlery and china and a vacant chair. Then it all grows quiet as everyone looks at it and remembers the absent family member.
Douglas Keister has suggested that these memorials can often be found on childrens graves with a tiny pair of shoes attached and one usually on its side. He considers that they are obviously associated with the death of a child or young person and, in his book, Stories in Stone, he cites a poem by Richard Coe, Jr that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in January 1850.
THE VACANT CHAIR
by Richard Coe, Jr.
When we gather round our hearth,
Consecrated by the birth
Of our eldest, darling boy,
Only one thing mars our joy:
‘Tis the dreary corner, where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair!
Little Mary, bright and blest,
Early sought her heavenly rest.
Oft we see her in our dreams
Then an angel one she seems!
But we oftener see her, where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair.
But ’twere sinful to repine;
Much of joy to me and mine
Has the gentle Shepherd given.
Little Mary is in heaven!
Blessed thought! while gazing where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair.
Many parents, kind and good,
Lost to them their little brood,
Bless their Maker night and day,
Though he took their all away!
Shall we, therefore, murmur, where
Stands, unfilled, one vacant chair!
Little Mary! angel blest ‘
From thy blissful place of rest,
Look upon us! angel child,
Fill us with thy spirit mild.
Keep o’er us thy watchful care;
Often fill the vacant chair.
There is also a famous Civil War ballad dedicated to an 18 year old, John William ‘Willie’ Grant who was killed at Balls Bluff, Virginia in October 1861. This also mentions ‘the empty chair’ in the context of a departed loved one.
I haven’t yet seen one dedicated to a child or young person in my explorations of UK cemeteries. Instead, the examples that I have seen are dedicated to adults both men and women. But I’m sure that I will see one dedicated to a child sooner or later.
This is in Highgate West Cemetery in London and is dedicated to Mary Emden (1853-1872). She was a 19 year old soprano who died young of TB. Mary’s real name was Marie and she and her husband, Walter, had only been married a year and a glittering career would have lain ahead of her. He was a successful architect of theatres and these include the Royal Court, the Garrick and the Duke of York’s theatres which are still standing today. Mary’s chair sits under a Gothic canopy with a sculpted stole draped across it as if she had just got up out of the chair and left it there intending to return. To read more about Mary’s life please visit: https://misssamperrin.blogspot.com/search?q=mary+emden
These come from Kensal Green Cemetery in London and are on the graves of two distinguished men.
This is almost a magnificent throne it’s so large! Sadly the epitaph is long gone although there appears to be a coat of arms at the top. I have been told by the Friends of Kensal Green that it’s dedicated to Charles Middleton MP. However the only Charles Middleton MP that I have found so far died in 1813 which is long before Kensal Green Cemetery was created. But it is so imposing and dramatic. When things are easier I will go back and see if I can get a better picture of the coat of arms as that may help.
This elegant chair is on the grave of Henry Russell and his wife Hannah. He was a prolific composer and one of his most celebrated works is still performed today. He was born in Sheerness on Sea in Kent which seems appropriate for the composer of ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’. Henry grew up in the Anglo-Jewish community of Blue Town and he started his musical carer early at the age of 3. However, at 10 he was working in a local apothecary’s shop. This didn’t last long as it’s rumoured that he
‘gave a customer sufficient Epsom Salts to bring down an elephant’ www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/henry-russell-and-life-on-the-ocean-wave-at-sheerness
Clearly the apothecary shop wasn’t his calling in life. But music was in his blood and, after his voice broke, he travelled to Italy to study under Rossini. On his return to England he took up the post of chorus master at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
But America was tempting him and it was there that he would discover his songwriting talent. He would also be able to collaborate with the songwriters and poets who would provide him with the lyrics that he set to music. He arrived in Rochester, New York and became an organist and choirmaster at the First Presbyterian Church.
In total he composed 800 songs and another of his most well-known ones is ‘Woodman Spare That Tree’ which was based on an incident in the lyricist, Charles Wood’s life. Russell also collaborated with such luminaries as Longfellow, Tennyson, Dickens and Thackeray. However it was Dickens who re-arranged another of Russell’s well known compositions ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’ into a parody and satire based on the Tory government at the time. You can read it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/charles-dickens-gentlemen-poem-week
But with no copyright protection Henry didn’t reap the rewards of his success and instead it was the publishers that made the money. He had already lost the £10,000 that he had made in America by investing in the United States Bank which collapsed and took all its investors’ money with it. However t was Henry’s performing that brought in the money as he was immensely popular.
Many of his works deal with social issues of the day such as slavery or private mental asylums and he raised over £7000 for victims of the Irish Famine. He returned to England in 1844, married twice and gave his final performance in 1891 when he sang at a concert given in his honour. Henry had 5 sons, two of whom followed him into the musical profession. Sir Landon Ronald Russell (1873-1938) became a conductor, pianist and composer and Henry Russell (1871-1937) who was an opera impresario.
Is it a coincidence that two of the empty chairs are on the graves of theatrical people? The throne would have suited Macbeth! I found Mary Emden’s memorial to be the most poignant with the air of someone who had just left.
However there is a sinister side to the empty chair. They often appear in urban explorer photos of derelict hospitals and asylums. In these, for some reason, the chair looks menacing and if it’s lying in wait……….these two photos again come from Kensal Green and were taken by cemetery photographer, Jeane Mary. An elegant chair in the middle of decay and dereliction why is it there? A prop for a photo shoot? A discarded piece of furniture?
As I was writing this post I saw a series of photos by a photographer on the Folk Horror Revival Facebook page. She had been out walking on a lonely moor and found a recliner style armchair sitting in the middle of nowhere. It could have just been just dumped there but it seemed a long way to go to do that. The photographer emphasised that she had decided not to sit in it and it did look very creepy in her photos.
Next time I visit Kensal Green I may well be tempted to sit in the throne. I only hope that it’s not already occupied……
However there is a sinister side to the empty chair. They often appear in urban explorer photos of derelict hospitals and asylums. In these, for some reason, the chair looks menacing and if it’s lying in wait……….these two photos again come from Kensal Green and were taken by cemetery photographer, Jeane Mary. An elegant chair in the middle of decay and dereliction why is it there?
A prop for a photo shoot? A discarded piece of furniture?
As I was writing this post I saw a series of photos by a photographer on the Folk Horror Revival Facebook page. She had been out walking on a lonely moor and found a recliner style armchair
sitting there in the middle of nowhere. It could have just been just dumped there but it seemed a long way to go to do that. The photographer said that she had decided not to sit in it and it did look very creepy in her photos.
Next time I visit Kensal Green I may well be tempted to sit in the throne. I only hope that it’s not already occupied……
There is a clearing along Ship Path in West Norwood Cemetery where, if you pause for a moment, you could almost swear that you can smell the sea. For a moment you can hear the ceaseless ebb and flow of the tides, the relentless cries of seagulls and the smell of ozone.
Then you’ll probably be standing in front of the exuberant and flamboyant monument to Captain Wimble (1797-1851) and his indomitable wife. He was an employee of the East India Company and, Mary Ann, his wife, accompanied him on his many voyages which demonstrates that Captain Wimble didn’t subscribe to the old seafaring tradition that it’s unlucky to have a woman on board. However, as sea voyages at the time could take over a year perhaps it was the only way that they could see each other. He was born in 1797 and baptised at All Saints parish church, Maidstone in March of that year. Capt Wimble would have probably first gone to sea aged 12 or 13 and he was obviously ambitious. The East India Company who were extremely powerful and held a monopoly on the trade with India in importing items such as cotton and opium. They were a precursor of the British administration in India. At 23, he became a ship’s captain with the Company by fulfilling their criteria and so his seafaring career began.
The epitaph on the front records his deeds and as you walk around you will see a sailing ship on each side. They are still impressive and dramatic and the still crisp carving emphasises the sea scenes. You almost feel that they could sail away at any moment. These were all ships that Capt Wimble commanded. A sculptured length of rope decorates the base of the monument as a frieze.
On the east side is a 3 masted ship, the Maidstone, with furled topsails on a clam sea and is dated 24 June 1840. He captained this ship on a round the world voyage in 1840. It travelled to Calcutta, then New Zealand, onto New Jersey and then finally New York. The Maidstone, all 818 tons of her, was built in 1839 at the Blackwall Yard in London and owned by Green and Wigram. She was intended for the London – Bengal and London-Calcutta routes and was last recorded in 1860 when she was abandoned on the way to Australia. There is a painting of her in the National Maritime Museum.
The Florentia is depicted on the south side in stormy weather off the Cape on 24 June 1825 and to the west is the London, dramatically and perilously sailing in heavy seas with a broken mast off Gangam and this is dated 6th October 1832. Gangam is a coastal district of Orissa in India which East India Company ships would have passed through on their way to Calcutta. The Florentia was the first ship that he captained and he would have sailed to the island of Madeira near Tenerife, turned towards Brazil for supplies, then onto South Africa and onto India.
The three scenes emphasise the unpredictable ups and downs of a sea captain’s life which was completely at the mercy of the weather at that time. There is a fulsome epitaph to the Wimbles on the north side of the monument:
‘Sacred to the memory of Mr John Wimble,
34 years of whose life was passed on the
seas. Died, 23rd July 1851, aged 54 years. ‘They
that go down to the seas in ships and occupy
their business in great waters; these men see the works
of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.’
Also of Mary Ann his wife who shared in some
of his perils. Died Exeter, 22nd March 1886
aged 94 years.’
Capt Wimble was clearly a man of substance as this unique and imposing monument demonstrates. It may be more than coincidence that Capt Wimble’s first ship as Master was called the Maidstone. He was born in the town of that name and when he retired he named his house in Upper Tulse Hill Maidstone Cottage. In the first Census taken in 1851 he was recorded as living at that address with Mary Ann, then aged 54, and two servants, Mary Iles and Elizabeth Sheffield, both aged 26. He died at Maidstone Cottage in 1851 with the cause stated as ‘heart disease’.
As you might have guessed by the size of the tomb and the quality of the bas-reliefs Capt Wimble was a man of means as it was the custom for wealthy travellers to give the captain of their ship expensive gifts at the end of the voyage.
I am indebted to Eloise Akpan’s 2005 article in The Norwood Review for the details of his will and also the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery’s newsletter, September 2020 for the details on his will and ships. Capt Wimble’s will was signed 9 months prior to his death and in it he specified the intended destination of ‘every bit of his clothing, jewellery and furniture’, as well as the money. The debts of the relatives to which he lent money are all erased. As a result of the generosity of his well-heeled passengers there was an impressive collection of gold and silver items including 6 silver candlesticks. These came down to a descendant of John’s brother, Charles. This was Derek Wimble who lived in Herne Hill until his death roughly 36 years ago. The candlesticks with an accompanying candle snuffer were subsequently sold by his widow with an engraved inscription that stated they had been
‘given by the grateful passengers on a homeward voyage from Calcutta to London in 1840.’
Sadly, Derek had no idea that his illustrious ancestor was buried nearby which is sad.
Mary Ann was a woman of her own mind. The will also stipulated that ‘
‘I direct that my body may be decently and plainly interred at the discretion of my beloved wife. She alone shall have the ordering and regulation.’
Perhaps she had her own interpretation of this and so she created a magnificent monument to her husband and herself which is one of the most attractive and imposing within West Norwood.
An interesting postscript to this was in the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery’s 2010 newsletter in which the headstone and grave of a William Wimble had been located close to Capt Wimble’s. William had also been born in Maidstone – a possible relative?
Sadly, I have been unable to find an image of either Captain Wimble or Mary-Ann which would have enabled me to put faces to them. The monument is due to restoration this year and I am looking forward to seeing the results.
But I’m sure that when I next visit that I will still hear and feel sea breezes as I walk towards it along Ship Path.
Where do you go to grieve when there’s no memorial with which to remember them?
I can’t recall exactly when I first spotted the floral tribute in a jam jar placed on a ledge of the Howard monument in West Norwood Cemetery. The memorial is near the columbarium and over the last 2 or 3 years I began to make a habit of looking to see what flowers would be in the jam jar this time. There were never any accompanying cards or identification, just the flowers and sometimes a tea light. They were always fresh.
The bright colours of the flowers always stood out against the pale plaster on the monument behind them and often provided a wonderful photo opportunity.
The Howard monument is a handsome and large one with two magnificent downturned torches on each of its four sides and a fulsome epitaph above the flowers.
But who put them there? A mysterious mourner like the black clad visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave? A descendant of the family marking a special day?
It was at the West Norwood Open Day in July 2018 I finally met the mystery mourner. As I walked past on my way to the columbarium, she was arranging a new bunch of flowers in their jam jar and we got chatting.
She was a local woman, let’s call her Mary, and was nothing to do with the Howards at all. Instead her flowers and tea lights commemorated a loved one who’d been cremated a long way away. We talked about where do you go to grieve if you have no permanent memorial or your deceased loved one is too faraway to visit.
She mentioned the mourning process and said that she used to come everyday but now it was less often. ‘It doesn’t mean that you don’t think about them but it’s not quite so raw. You start to move on.’ she said and added ‘You can get caught up in it.’ I mentioned Queen Victoria’s extended mourning period after Prince Albert died. At some point, at which only the mourning would know, they will become a cherished memory and the outward mourning begins to fade. I didn’t ask her why she’d chosen that particular monument but maybe she had her own reasons.
When my father unexpectedly died, it had been difficult for me to grieve as I had nowhere tangible to go and so, like Mary, I did adopt an angel in a nearby Victorian cemetery as my mourning place. There was something about being in a place where the outpouring of grief was unashamed and open with the need to have a permanent memorial that said I was here. It felt more appropriate that the neatly trimmed municipal cemeteries. I felt drawn to it although he’d never been there.
But the old cliché is true in that time is a great healer, life does go on and the dead live in our hearts in the ways in which we choose to remember them. With me I became a blood donor in my father’s memory as he had also been one.
One day Mary may no longer feel the need to leave a floral tribute to her departed friend and it will have served its purpose. I will miss passing the Howard monument to see what flowers are in the jamjar this time.
RIP Mary’s friend whoever and wherever you were. I hope you know that Mary always remembered you and that you were not forgotten.
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.
Five child angels, their faces turned to each other, framed by small wings, except for one that was staring out at me, I wanted to reach out and touch them but didn’t want to damage them. They formed a roundel at the centre of a tall cross with the phrase ‘And with the morn those angel faces smile’ inscribed at the base of its stem. I was on a tour of Beckenham Cemetery when I first saw them.
Our guide didn’t comment on them but the monument is in a prominent place on the main road through the cemetery and I often wondered about this pretty and poignant memorial.
On a visit to Highgate East in 2014 I found another example but on a smaller scale on a tombstone in the name of Alfred Hack and dated 1956. There is a distinctly 1930’s look about the angels from their hairstyles.
I also found another version which featured cherubs faces instead of childrens on a visit to Knebworth this summer.
Then , on a more recent visit to Beckenham Cemetery, I found another similar one which was only a short distance away from the first. In this the child angels seem to have more definite, individual faces and the one that has her head towards the viewer is looking down instead of outwards. Now I wanted to find out more about the quotation and the angels and my research led me to a Victorian hymn that was sung on the Titanic at its final service on board and by the inmates of Ravensbruck concentration camp as the S.S led them in. The ‘angel faces’ is a quotation from ‘Lead, kindly Light’, in fact it’s the penultimate line and like ‘Rock of Ages’ it caught the mood of its time.
These are the lyrics:
‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not for ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on,
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.’
However, the writer John Henry Newman (1801-90), always refused to reveal the meaning of the ‘angels faces’ or what the ‘kindly light’ actually was.
Originally a poem, it was written by Newman in 1833. He was then a young theologian and Anglican vicar and was going through a challenging time in his life. Struck down by a fever which nearly killed him while travelling in the Mediterranean, Newman’s servant was so convinced that he would die that he asked him for his last orders. But in his autobiography, Newman told him ‘I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light’.
Newman recovered but that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Desperate to return to England he then took a boat from Palermo to Marseilles only to end up stranded and becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio. Exhausted and frustrated Newman wrote the poem, ‘The Pillar of the Cloud’ that, in 1845, became ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. Newman was not happy about this as by then he’d converted to Catholicism and hymn singing wasn’t included as part of divine service. He went onto become Cardinal Newman, one of the most important figures in English Catholicism, and also an important writer. In 1900 Elgar set Newman’s poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to music.
‘Lead, Kindly Light’ has struck a chord with those in danger or about to enter the endless dark realm and needed the comfort of a light leading their way through it. Miners awaiting rescue from deep underground during the 1909 Durham mining disaster sang it as did the passengers on one of Titanic’s lifeboats when the rescue ship, Carpathia, was sighted the morning after. It caught the Victorian mood perfectly as did ‘Rock of Ages’ and Queen Victoria asked for it to be read as she lay dying. It also inspired a celebrated painting by the Scottish artist, Sir Joseph Noel Paton in 1894 in which the angels are pensive young woman.
But why did one line from this song inspire two monuments in Beckenham Cemetery and one in Highgate East? I noticed that both of the Beckenham monuments were on children’s graves and that the carved angels were also children. Perhaps the mourning relatives left behind may have wanted the consolation that their beloved children would be waiting for them when their time came.
The first one is the Foster family monument. The epitaph is now virtually unreadable but I could make out the name ‘Francis Frederick’ carved along the base. There are two inscribed ‘Books of Life’ placed on top of the grave. One is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Gladys Alice Chapman and the other is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Emma Foster.
The second one is the Pace family monument and is to the two daughters of Henry William and Elizabeth Pace. These were Lilian Alice who died in 1888 and Grace Irene who died in 1903. Strangely enough they both died at the same age and Elizabeth herself is commemorated here as she died at 33 in 1912.
This is the one in Highgate East dedicated to Alfred Hack and dated 1956.
So, a line from a hymn that even its writer was unsure of its meaning, became a symbol of comfort to sorrowing families.
However the symbol has been adapted to feature cherubs as in St Mary’s, Knebworth’s churchyard. These are on the tombstone of the Lutyens family’s nanny, Alice Sleath.
But I am indebted to Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone for the possible origins on the image of the angels.
The composition of the five heads may have been adapted from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA entitled ‘Heads of Angels Miss Frances Gordon’ which was painted during July 1786 – March 1787. The sitter was the then 5 year old Frances Isabella Keir Gordon (1782-1831) who was the only daughter of illustrious parents. They were Lord William Gordon (1744-1823) and his wife Frances Ingram (1761-1841), second daughter of Charles, 9th Viscount Irvine (1727-78), who were married on 6 March 1781. Her uncle was Lord George Gordon (1751-93), whose political activities had sparked the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.
Frances’ mother outlived her by 10 years and the painting was then presented to the National Gallery. It was enormously popular and was reproduced on numerous decorative items and photographic reproductions such as ‘The Cherub Choir.’
And so a poignant and powerful symbol was created from the combination of a great painting, an inspirational hymn and Victorian taste and led to these three lovely memorials to much missed children.
Everywhere I looked, as I stood in the Lytton Chapel, a well-upholstered, well dressed 18th century gentleman stared impassively back at me. They seemed to jostle for space in the small chapel and, although these past members of the Lytton family, couldn’t take it with them, you certainly knew that they’d had it when they were alive. These were powerful men and there’s plenty of beautifully sculpted marble on show in the Chapel. Nowadays, people would ask an artist or sculptor to make them look slimmer but here the subjects are unashamedly larger than life.
All three of the memorials are in the baroque style which was made fashionable by the Italian sculptor, Bernini. It was a technique that achieved effects in carving such as flesh, hair and textures that were remarkably realistic as well as other pictorial effects that had previously only been attempted in 2D paintings . And yet English Baroque was dismissed as mundane. However the three tombs in the chapel seem anything but that.
Both Pevsner and Simon Jenkins in ‘1000 Best Churches’ mention the Chapel. Indeed the latter describes it as having ‘the best of 17th and 18th century monumental art (is) on parade and ‘three of the Knebworth tombs are among the finest 18th century monuments In England.’ It was originally built in 1520 and then rebuilt 200 years later.
The first one as you enter is Lytton Strode Lytton who stands perfectly posed in his shell niche dressed fashionably in his coat and shoes with some of his coat buttons undone to display the buttoned up waistcoat beneath, Too many power lunches perhaps? He died young at 21 as his epitaph reveals but he looks older with an almost feminine face and full lips. Lytton is guarded on either side by winged cherubs, or Cupids, as Historic England describes them.. One is copiously weeping and the other is in prayer and the whole memorial has been attributed to Thomas Green of Camberwell.here is a helpful English translation of the Latin epitaph:
‘Here lies Lytton Strode Lytton Esq., sole son and heir of Sir George Strode (of Etchinham in the County of Sussex_ and also heir of Sir William Lytton of this parish, his great-uncle. He married Bridget Mostyn, the eldest daughter of Richard Mostyn, Eds., of Pembedwinthe county of Flint. He died without issue at the age of 21 in 1710. He left the ancient patrimony of the Lytton family to his dearly beloved relative William Robinson, who erected this monument at his own expense as a pledge of his own affection.’
Then you turn and are almost crowded out by the other two: Sir William Lytton to the left and Sir George Strode on your right. Their heads are both inclined towards Lytton Lytton as they lie semi-recumbent on marble beds, sheets rumpled and you almost feel as if you’ve disturbed them in conversation. Sir George Strode was Lytton’s father and Sir William was his maternal great-uncle so it’s not surprising that they both look to their cherished heir and once the bearer of the Lytton dynasty hopes.
Both of these memorials are credited to Edward Stanton. (1681-1718). He was a very successful mason who carved 40 monuments between 1699-1718 and in 1720 became a mason to Westminster Abbey where he remained until his death. Stanton was married 3 times and one wondered where he found the energy. He has his name prominently displayed at the base of one of the pillars on Sir William Lytton’s huge monument.
The carving on Sir William’s cravat, cuffs and wig as well as the delicate lacing of the Grecian style boots on two life size allegorical female figures or Virtues on either side of him is beautifully detailed. However, his opposite neighbour, Sir George Strode, has a wig that reminds me of waves of whipped cream. Both men face each other and lie in the fashion of old style glamorous Hollywood stars with their rumpled marble sheets and supporting cushions. But, perhaps in a feat of one-upmanship, William’s shrine is bigger than George’s as it’s laden down with figures and decoration such as the two Virtues dressed in flowing robes and showing a fair bit of leg. There are also 3 winged cherubs heads under the cartouche decorated roof with swags of fruit and flowers. But if you look up still further there are two small female figures, possibly children, perched on top of the roof and one appears to be playing an accordion. The English translation of the Latin epitaph is:
‘Here lies Sir William Lytton, Knight, son and heir of Sir Rowland Lytton, Knight of the ancient family of the Lyttons de Lytton in the County of Derby (which has flourished happily in this neighbourhood since the time of King VII) in the direct line of descent. He married first Mary the daughter of Sir John Harrison of Balls in the county of Hertford, then Philippa the daughter of Sir John Keyling of Southill in the county of Bedford; he died without issue, his second wife surviving him. 14th Jan AD 1704-5’
By contrast, his neighbour, Sir George Strode, Lytton Lytton’s father, is far more restrained as there wouldn’t have been enough room in the chapel for another tomb as large as William’s. George appears to be in mid-conversation with his hands making a gesture and one thumb indicating the epitaph above him. This translates in English as:
‘Sacred to the memory of Sir George Strode of the ancient family of the Strodes, the eldest son of Sir Nicholas Strode of Etchinham in the county of Sussex, and his wife Judithe the oldest daughter of Sir Rowland Lytton of Knebworth in the county of Hertfordshire, who piously and peacefully fell asleep in the Lord on the 9th of June, 1707, whose remains repose at his own wish in the Church at Etchinham aforesaid, who married Margaret Robinson (the daughter of John Robinson Esq., of Geursylt in the county of Denbigh). She survived him and from this union was born one son with the Christian name of Lytton, who by the will of Sir William Lytton his maternal great-uncle changed his family name from Strode to Lytton, and this became styled Lytton Lytton to whom the aforesaid Sir William Lytton bequeathed the ancient patrimony of his family. He has dedicated this monument at his own expense as a tribute of piety and affection.’
The motto underneath George’s figure reads:
‘Life is the gateway to death, and death in turn the gate of a new life and learn to die to the world, and live for God.’
Comforting words for a man who lost his only son at an early age.
And so I left them, perhaps in an eternal interrupted, silent conversation, after marvelling at the skill of the mason’s work. They are all behind iron railings, presumably to stop visitors touching them, but I also felt that the figures were so realistic that it might also be to stop them coming to life and lunging at sightseers.