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

MARY HASELTON

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.

 

 https://bradspurgeon.com/brads-rejected-writings/impeccable-intuition-robertson-davies-on-henry-cockton/

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cockton

https://www.buryfreepress.co.uk/news/hidden-treasures-brought-into-view-1-399134

 

Symbol of the Month – Laugh now, Cry Later or the Masks of Comedy and Tragedy

 

Coemdy and Tragedy at the base of the Augustus Henry Glossop Harris monument. ©Carole Tyrrell
Coemdy and Tragedy at the base of the Augustus Henry Glossop Harris monument.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Tragedy

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.

Roman statue of Melpomene 2nd century DA - not tragic mask in hand and the wreath of vines and grapes on her head refers to Dionysus, god of theatre. ©Wolfgang Sauber Licensed under wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
Roman statue of Melpomene 2nd century DA – not tragic mask in hand and the wreath of vines and grapes on her head refers to Dionysus, god of theatre.
©Wolfgang Sauber
Licensed under wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Comedy:

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.

Tragic Comic masks Hadrian's Wall mosiac 2nd  Century  AD. Domain USA . Located in Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy. Licenced  under wikipedia Creative Commons 2.0
Tragic Comic masks Hadrian’s Wall mosiac 2nd Century AD. Domain USA . Located in Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy. Licenced under wikipedia Creative Commons 2.0

Masks:

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)

Augustus  Harris By Henri Brauer (1858-1936) - Joseph Uzanne, Figures contemporaines tirées de l’Album Mariani, Librairie Henri Floury, Paris, vol II, 1896, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3181870
Augustus Harris By Henri Brauer (1858-1936) – Joseph Uzanne, Figures contemporaines tirées de l’Album Mariani, Librairie Henri Floury, Paris, vol II, 1896, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3181870

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.

Andrew Ducrow(1793-1842)

Andrew Ducrow engraving by T C Wageman  ©Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection, London
Andrew Ducrow engraving by T C Wageman
©Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection, London

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.

Relief on Durcow monument depicting weeping woman in Grecian dress with Comedy and Tragedy beside her. http://www.victorianweb.org/art/parks/kensalgreen/13.html ©Robert Friedus 2012
Relief on Durcow monument depicting weeping woman in Grecian dress with Comedy and Tragedy beside her as well as urn and downturned torch.
http://www.victorianweb.org/art/parks/kensalgreen/13.html
©Robert Friedus 2012

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.

Andrew Ducrow monument in Kensal Green. ©Stephencdickson Licenced under Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0 International
Andrew Ducrow monument in Kensal Green. ©Stephencdickson
Licenced under Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0 International

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.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

 

http://symbolsproject.eu/explore/human/profession/civil/mask-sock-and-buskin-/-comedy-and-tragedy.aspx https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Kitchen_(entertainer)

http://www.victorianweb.org/art/parks/kensalgreen/13.html

http://peopleof.oureverydaylife.com/meaning-comedy-tragedy-masks-10924.html

http://breakofdawntheater.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/story-behind-comedy-and-tragedy-masks.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_ancient_Greece

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Ducrow

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Andrew-Ducrow

https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/gilbert-laye-463851

www.independent.co.uk/incoming/obituary-evelyn-laye-5628073.html

http://www.themusichallguild.com/news.php

Walk Like an Egyptian in Kensal Green Cemetery, Cathie Bryant, FOKGC publications, 2012