Friday, 22 September 2017

'East End Jewish Cemeteries' by Louis Berk (Amberley Books) £14.99

The often tiny Jewish cemeteries dotted around the east end are exotic vestiges of a London’s lost Mitteleuropan past.  Surrounded by high plain brick walls and tucked away on odd scraps of land, the rows of weathered headstones inscribed with Hebrew script are often completely hemmed in by blocks of flats, warehouses, schools, factories and other utilitarian buildings. Fear of vandalism ensures their doors and gates remain locked and visiting discouraged by the need to make appointments with impossible to locate officials from the synagogue.  With no burials and few visitors they quickly revert to nature; trees and shrubs grow from windblown seeds, grass and weeds flourish and foxes, birds take up residence in the hidden piece of countryside in the centre of the city. In a celebrated and evocative passage in Austerlitz W.G. Sebald describes perfectly the slightly otherworldly atmosphere of these cemeteries when the eponymous hero offers the narrator the use of his house and insists that he;
...should not omit.. to ring the bell at the gateway in the brick wall adjoining his house for behind the wall, although he had never been able to see it from any of his windows, there was a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried ever since the eighteenth century, including Rabbi David Tevele Schiff and Rabbi Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London. He had discovered the cemetery, from which, as he now suspected, the moths used to fly into his house.…only a few days before he left London, when the gate in the wall stood open for the first time in all the years he had lived in Alderney Street. Inside, a very small, almost dwarf-like woman of perhaps seventy years old – the cemetery caretaker, as it turned out – was walking along the paths in her slippers. Beside her, almost as tall as she was, walked a Belgian sheepdog now grey with age who answered to the name of Billie and was very timid. In the bright spring light, shining through the newly opened leaves of the lime trees, you might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time…..
Austerlitz would have approved of Louis Berk’s five year project to document the changing seasons in the Brady Street and Alderney Road burial grounds. The photographer is also a secondary school teacher who has worked in Whitechapel, on Brady Street, since 2004. He was unaware of the existence of the burial ground until he was idly staring out of a second storey window at work one afternoon and realised that he was looking into a cemetery. As the place was always locked he expected never to get inside but then one day he heard contractors at work in the cemetery he knocked on the door and asked if he could look around.  The workman allowed him in and from that moment he was smitten “It was as though I had entered a country forest in the middle of Whitechapel, complete with a fox which loped down a path ahead of me. Grabbing my camera I took snapshots of headstones with intricate carvings as I wandered beneath the cool green canopy overhead.” He approached the cemetery owners, the United Synagogue of Great Britain, and asked them to allow him regular access to carry out a project to capture the graveyard over the course of a year, photographing it in every season.  His first winter on the project failed to provide weather cold enough to produce snowfall. He had to wait almost three years in fact for a suitably photogenic dusting of ice and snow. He was eventually asked by the Synagogue to photograph their older burial plot in Alderney Road.
Berk’s photographs are mainly taken on film using a medium format camera. In the spring and summer shots the graves are enclosed in a world of green; grass and flowers carpet the ground and a canopy of leaves occludes sun and sky.  In one of my favourite images across almost half the photo sycamore leaves hang like a diagonal swag of heavy curtain parting to allow a view of a row of chest tombs in the foreground and trees in the distance, evoking a closed, secret world. The trees keep the outside world at bay, the buildings that surround the cemetery are effectively invisible and although photographs are silent, the silence feels like part of the image, the trees are muffling the noise of trains and traffic in the surrounding streets.  In other pictures the trees stand like sentinels, huddling over the fragile headstones, protecting them from the elements. In the winter shots the denuded trees open up the photographic space and the cemetery becomes resolutely urban. In the backgrounds of the pictures we can blocks of council flats or the concrete towers of the Crossrail station being built a few hundred yards away. If the urban invades, so does the sky, the hemmed in space finally opening up to the sun. There is a beautiful shot of the sun rising into a sky that is a network of skeletal trees, flaring above a collection of grey headstones that look as monumental as Stonehenge from the low angle the shot is taken from. The natural world is everywhere in these images; trees, flowers, berries, a thrush perched on a headstone, fox tracks in the snow.  But they are also a matchless documentary record of the lost world of the Jewish east end, the physical traces of which continue to be eroded and destroyed and will eventually disappear altogether. If the anyone needed reminding of this one the photographs shows two Hebrew inscribed headstones, the russet coloured stone green with lichen with a block of late Victorian workers  dwellings in the background. The stones are no more; shortly after Berk photographed them a falling tree smashed both into irreparable fragments.      

East End Jewish Cemeteries by Louis Berk (with an introduction to the history of the cemeteries by Rachel Kolsky) is available from Amazon and directly from the author      

All photography copyright 2017 Louis Berk 

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Archaeologists and the Archbishop's teeth; Arthur Richard Dillon (1721 - 1806) Old St Pancras Burial Ground

The entry in the St Pancras burial register for Arthur Richard Dillon
It is odd that a French Catholic Archbishop fleeing from anti-clerical persecution in revolutionary France took up residence in Protestant England. Even odder that he came from a notorious family of Jacobites who were close to the exiled Old and Young Pretenders. In 1806 The London Review reported the death on 5 July  “at his house in George Street, Portman Square, [of] Arthur Richard Dillon, archbishop and duke of Narbonne, primate of the Gauls, president of the states of Languedoc, and commander of the order of the Holy Ghost.”  Archbishop Dillon had been living in exile for 15 years. With no official Catholic cemetery to bury him in he was interred in St Pancras burial ground which had become the favoured final resting place for the dead émigré community.

Arthur Richard Dillon, a portrait in the Narbonne archives

The Archbishop was the youngest of the five sons of Arthur Dillon of Roscommon and Catherine Sheldon who was from a prominent English Jacobite family. Arthur the father was a Jacobite General who had been forced into French exile at the age of 21 following the defeat of the Irish Jacobites at Limerick by William of Orange. In France he became a Maréchal de camp in the French army and encouraged his sons to follow him into the military. Arthur Richard, as the youngest, was the token clergymen. He became Bishop of Evreux by the age of 32 and Archbishop of Toulouse by 37. He was what is euphemistically known as a ‘worldly prelate’. In public terms this meant he was far more interested in temporal matters like public works than spiritual ones. He was keen on engineering and sponsored various bridges, canals, and harbours within his diocese as well as creating chairs of chemistry and physics at Montpellier and Toulouse Universities.

In his private life the Archbishop was devoted to the hunt, financially extravagant and, by all accounts, the lover of his widowed niece Madame de Roche (his sister’s daughter). The celebrated memoirist of the ancient regime, Lucie de La Tour du Pin, was the granddaughter of Madame de Roche and great niece of the Archbishop. Her memoirs paint a vivid portrait of life in her grandmother’s houses; the hotel de Roche in the Faubourg St-Germain and the Château Hautefontaine. Lucie noted that her great uncle had lived with her grandmother “for twenty years without paying a sou of rent to his niece” and commented that “the archbishopric of Narbonne, which paid him 250,000 francs a year, he had an abbey which was worth 110,000; still another which was worth 90,000; and he received an allowance of more than 50,000 francs for giving dinners every day during the meetings of the States. It would seem that with such an income he should have been able to live honourably and at his ease, but nevertheless he was always in financial difficulties.” She also remarked that he spent as little time as possible on his official duties in the provinces, preferring to return as quickly as possible to the Faubourg St-Germain “in order to live en grand seigneur at Paris and as a courtier at Versailles.” Lucie passed discretely over the exact state of relations between the Archbishop and her grandmother but did say that he was “dominated and influenced” by her and even that he “feared my grandmother too much.”

The Archbishop's teeth

Following the revolution the Archbishop fled France and the guillotine with his niece and in 1792 took up residence in London in a series of relatively modest rented houses until his death in 1806. His body lay undisturbed through the first set of exhumations from St Pancras when a large part of the burial ground was taken over by the Midland Railway Company for the mainline into St Pancras. He was not so lucky in 2006 when a team of archaeologists working for the firms Giffords and Pre-Construct were given a year to exhume 1,500 bodies that were buried in the way of a proposed Channel Tunnel Rail Link platform. The Archbishop was discovered inside a lead lined and lavishly engraved coffin. Sitting securely in his skull was a pair of almost perfectly preserved Sèvres porcelain false teeth complete with gold springs. The dentures were of exceptional quality and are believed to be the work of the Parisian dentist Nicolas Dubois de Chémant. The Archbishop’s remains were sent briefly to East Finchley Cemetery before arrangements were made to repatriate them to France. In 2007 the Archbishop was reinterred, with great ceremony, in the Narbonne Cathedral. His dentures however remained in England. They were put on public display on World Smile Day in October 2006 at the Museum of London. In 2008 they found a permanent home in the Cobbe Museum. 
Archbishop Dillon  is one of the 'illustrious dead' commemorated on the Burdett Coutts sundial in St Pancras Gardens.  

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Preserving God's Acre - the Burdett Coutts Memorial Sundial, St Pancras Gardens

The Burdett Coutts Memorial sundial with St Pancras Hospital (the old workhouse) in the background

The Baroness Burdett Coutts and the St. Pancras-gardens. — The special committee for the laying-out of the old St. Pancras and St. Giles-in-the- fields burying grounds as gardens have reported to the vestry that the Baroness Burdett Coutts had evinced her great interest by erecting a marble monument to preserve the head stone originally standing over the grave of John Walker, author of ‘Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary’; also that they had approved of a very handsome design for a memorial sundial to be erected by her ladyship to the memory of the illustrious dead lying in the grounds, at a cost probably exceeding £3,000. The committee reported further that the sum of £1,000, presented by the baroness, had been expended in the erection of a green- house, in accordance with the suggestion of her ladyship. The report was approved on the motion of Mr Westacott, chairman of the committee.
Morning Post - Friday 21 December 1877

In 1866 when the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles sold portions of their burial ground to the Midland Railway Company it caused a huge controversy (see ‘Horrible Desecration of the Dead at St Pancras’). Eight years, in 1874, the controversy flared up again when the Railway Company approached the St Pancras vestry and enquired if they were willing to sell the reminder of the cemetery. The resulting public outcry was so great that the vestries of St Pancras and St Giles decided not to proceed with the sale but instead to turn the land into a public garden. They even voted on spending £1000 of the vestry’s own money to lay out the grounds. But when it was decided that to properly enclose the proposed garden some residential property adjoining the burial grounds consisting of 4 houses and 5 cottages belonging to the St Giles vestry needed to be included in the plans the vicar of St Giles withdrew the vestry’s permission; he felt that the property was worth at least £5000 but the committee was only proposing to pay a £1500 in compensation.  When the matter ended up in the courts the Midland Railway Company spotted a chance to get its bid for the burial ground back onto the negotiating table and also started proceedings questioning the legality of the decision taken to open a public garden. The Railway Company used its political influence to get the Government to propose a Midland Bill, granting the company use of the land. At a fraught meeting of the ratepayers of the two vestries, supporters and detractors of the bill argued ferociously about what should happen to the remainder of the burial ground. Many resident ratepayers were in favour of selling to the railway company because the grounds would no longer be their financial responsibility. Others, many with family members buried in the churchyard, demanded that the desecration of the dead at the hands of the railway company stop. The Government finally settled the question by convening a public enquiry chaired by Philip Holland, Medical Inspector of Burials at the Home Office. After duly hearing the evidence Holland determined in favour of the public garden. 

One of those who took a fervent interest in the future of the disused burial grounds was the philanthropist Baroness Burdett Coutts who felt that as they were “no longer used for their original purpose, they have lost the protection of the living, without securing the sanctity that should protect the dead.” In a letter she later wrote to the vestry of St Pancras she goes into some detail about her motivation for involving herself in the preservation of London’s old burial grounds, explaining that “the feelings and reflections which even an unnamed tombstone is calculated to excite …. would be lost if the graves of the dead were obliterated from the land, for a number of stones huddled together, possibly as carefully as circumstances permitted, cannot convey the same feelings as does a grave, even to the least reflective mind. The mere fact of closing over and stamping out of remembrance the dead renders them lifeless indeed and denies to their memory those tender and salutary lessons so often given in the quiet of ' God's acres.'” The Baroness was determined that the garden should be a memorial to the dead interred there and that it should preserve the principal tombstones and key features of the burial ground. She funded works to conserve headstones and to landscape the gardens but her most lasting contribution to the project was the enormous sundial dedicated to the memory of the illustrious dead placed at the heart of the garden.

St Pancras Gardens were opened to the public by Sir James McFarel-Hogg, chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works on the 28th June 1877, at a ceremony during which Baroness Burdett Coutts laid the foundation stone of the planned memorial sundial. It wasn’t until two years later, on the 8th November 1879, that the Morning Post were able to report, at length on the elaborate unveiling ceremony for the sundial itself, held the previous day: “Yesterday afternoon, in the presence of an immense concourse of persons, consisting of the local authorities and the inhabitants of the surrounding district, a very interesting ceremony took place at what is known as the St. Pancras-gardens, formerly the burial grounds of Old St. Pancras and St. Giles's-in- the- Fields, situated in the St. Pancras-road. The occasion was the presentation to the vicar, churchwardens and vestry of St. Pancras of what is termed a memorial sundial, an exceedingly chaste and beautiful, as well as novel -structure, standing upwards of 30 feet in height, and erected at the expense of the Baroness Burdett Coutts at a cost of upwards of two thousand pounds.” The Baroness and her party of ten arrived at the entrance to the gardens at 3.10 to be met by the vicar of St Pancras, the reverend Canon Spence, Sir Thomas Chambers the recorder of London, and the churchwardens, vestry members and board members of St Pancras.  The two parties made their way to the front of the memorial enclosure where the Baroness produced a key to the gates and ‘ventured to offer a few observations’ before handing them over. She offered sincere congratulations to all present for having rescued “the ancient resting for the dead…from the dilapidation and the desecration which at one time threatened it.” She said that the churchyard of St Pancras deserved particular consideration “for it contained the remains of some of the most eminent men of the age in which they lived, and if it were only for the fact that it contained the bones of that great man, Flaxman, who had done so much to impress upon the human mind all that was beautiful, it would have been worth preserving. That burial spot was an evidence at once of the history of religious toleration in this country, as exhibited in the fact that not only Christians of every creed and of every faith, but even those who did not profess themselves to be within the pale of Christianity, could be laid to rest side by side in their mother earth.” As the English like nothing better than to be told how tolerant they are this last remark was greeted with cries of “hear, hear.” This only encourage the Baroness to further remarks which I won’t go into except to say that she did tell her audience that she thought the memorial, which she was seeing for the first time, was “exceedingly beautiful.” To loud applause from her restive audience she finally handed over the keys to the enclosure to the Rev. Canon Spence who immediately tried their patience by launching into a eulogy of his own. He told the Baroness that he wished she had had an opportunity to see “the happy children and the anxious mothers lining the paths of that God's Acre enjoying the fresh air of the previous evening.” He told the Baroness how indebted the poor of the parish were to the vestry for the chance to enjoy a green space and to the Baroness for taking an interest in their welfare (more cries of ‘hear, hear’ but probably not from the parish poor). The Baroness and principal company then inspected the memorial, the architect George Highton being on hand to point out the key features. Inspection over the Rev. Canon Spence offered up a prayer and the outdoor part of the ceremony was concluded with the children of local schools singing ‘God Save the Queen’. The ‘immense concourse’ of local (poor) persons were then dismissed while the quality adjourned to the vestry hall for a


The sundial was designed by the architect George Highton of Elm Park, Brixton and built by Messrs H. Daniel & Co. of Highgate. Cast iron railings enclose. According to Building News of 07 November 1877 “the superstructure, which is in the Early Decorated style, consists mainly of Portland stone with four marble tablets, and clustered granite columns at the angles. The tablets are surmounted with reliefs representing St. Pancras and St. Giles, also Night and Morning, by Signer Fucigna. On the tablet under the dial are inscribed the Beatitudes…. The terraces, which are constructed to form flower-beds, are mainly of red Mansfield stone, worked at the quarries. The panels of the two upper terrace tiers contain flowers — with butterflies as the emblem of immortality — in mosaics; the top one has panels in relief, representing the four seasons, by Messrs. Wills, of Euston-road. The bottom tier panels are also in mosaics. The whole of the mosaics have been executed by Messrs. Simpson and Sons, of St. Martin’s-lane. The whole is in-closed by kerb and iron railing and gates; the latter by the St. Pancras Iron Works Company.” Standing at the corners of the enclosure are Portland stone statues, two dogs and two lions. The four faces of the central shaft contain panels listing the names of the illustrious dead who were interred in the two old burial grounds. There are some omissions; William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, quite possibly the two most famous people buried here do not rate a mention, almost certainly because they were radicals and freethinkers. The panel of the south west side, facing the entrance to the gardens, contains a lengthy verse dedication which starts:
Here in Christ’s acre where this dial stands,
With pious care and borne by reverent hands,
Lone wanderers garnered in from east and west
Among the home-loved lie in solemn rest;
Severed in life by lineage, race, faith, clime
They bide alike the last soft stroke of time

The sundial is in the gable above this panel with an inscription which reads TEMPUS EDAX RERUM; time devours all things. The other panels list the eminent dead whose graves had been disturbed by the railway company, 86 names in total including Sir John Soane, Baroness Burdett Coutts’ favourite sculptor John Flaxman, Pasquale Paoli the liberator of Corsica, Sidly Effendi the Turkish Ambassador, the crossdressing swordsman the Chevalier D’Eon, John Walker author of the Pronouncing Dictionary, and Tiberius Cavallo the Italian natural philosopher.      

Contemporary illustration of the memorial from the 'Building News' of 7 November 1877

Controversies over the routing of train lines through cemeteries did not end in the era of Victorian railway expansion. The issue has flared up again in the 21st century because of the Channel Tunnel rail link, Crossrail, HS1 and HS2. Both HS projects as well as the Channel Tunnel rail link have affected the disused burial grounds lying just to the north of King Cross, St Pancras and Euston stations. In 2002 the Channel Tunnel rail link cut through land containing, according to English Heritage, around 4000 graves from the Old St Pancras burial ground, the bodies were to be reinterred in a mass grave in the new St Pancras cemetery in Finchley.  Archaeologists were given a relatively short period of time to examine the graves and remove what humans remains were left and protested vociferously when they were unceremoniously kicked off site when they overran their allotted time. They accused the rail company of coming in with bulldozers to dig up old graves. Amongst the archaeologists finds were the Archbishop of Narbonne’s false teeth. This indignity had nothing to do with the 2012 Archbishops Council petition to parliament against the HS2 bill to include a cause allowing for the dignified removal of human remains from cemeteries lying on the route of the new line. In London St James’ Gardens, the site of the former disused burial ground of St James in Piccadilly, lie directly on the new route and was scheduled to be cleared. The old burial ground lies in St Pancras Parish and the latest incumbent, the Reverend Anne Stevens, who feels she still has a duty to care for the souls of the 35,000 people she believes are buried there, led a protest against the proposals in November 2015. All to no avail, the old burial ground was cleared by the railway company in the months that followed.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

That obscure object of desire - a miniature replica of Lord Nelson's coffin by Lucy Askew

A few months ago I had an hour to kill waiting for my daughter who had an interview at Westminster College on the Grays Inn Road. With nothing better to do I wandered aimlessly around the nondescript side streets bounded to the south by Theobalds Road and to the North by Guildford Street. There was little to attract my attention until on Lambs Conduit Street I spotted the premises of A. France & Son, funeral directors.  The shop fronts of undertakers are generally rather disappointing – the art of window dressing has passed the profession by and for the most part funeral directors premises try to look as professional and non descript as a solicitors or accountants office.  A. France & Son have been in business since the late 18th century and have been at their current premises since 1898.  Their window display draws on their rather distinguished history and features a dusty model of HM Victory, some old prints of Nelson’s funeral and a miniature model of the admiral’s state coffin which was produced by the firm in 1805. A note, dated 2005, attached to the replica of the coffin told me that it was one of a limited edition made from oak from HMS Victory produced by the model maker Lucy Askew. 
For some reason I immediately wanted one of those replica coffins and was furious with myself for only stumbling across it years after it had probably been sold out. Still, that is what ebay is for and at the first opportunity I googled ‘replica Nelson’s coffin’ hoping to find a second hand one for sale. The search brought up Lucy Askew’s website which still had details of the coffin and said they were  for sale at £100 a piece. I emailed Lucy hoping she still had one or two coffins left as she hadn’t removed the details from her website.  The next day Lucy confirmed “Yes I do have a Nelson's coffin for you. I still have some of the Victory oak I bought back in 2005 and I occasionally make up a small batch of coffins as and when people want them. I wonder if you are the same David Bingham who bought one from me some time ago? I am now up to number 228, though numbers 94-98 were never taken up for some reason so you could choose one of these if you prefer. I never thought I'd make so many!”  I immediately placed an order and told Lucy that “intriguingly I am not the same David Bingham who has already bought a coffin from you. It’s not that common a name and so quite surprising that two of them would go for a niche item like a model coffin.”

It only took a few days for my 8cm black and gold coffin to arrive in its tasteful presentation box lined with satin, along with a certificate of authentication for the Victory oak and an In Memoriam booklet containing a ‘collection of newspaper reports, eye-witness accounts and contemporary images of Nelson's extraordinary state funeral, and captures the astonishing outpouring of public grief which followed the news of Nelson's victory and death at Trafalgar two hundred years ago.’ I had had it sent to the office and was so thrilled with it that I reinforced my reputation amongst my colleagues for being slightly odd by showing it to anyone I thought might take even a passing interest in it. Someone produced a magnifying glass to allow us to read the minutely worded inscription on the coffin plate – engraving in writing far too tiny for my naked eyes to decipher even if I held it just a few inches from my face.  Lucy Askew politely emailed to ask if I had received my coffin and mentioned that ‘strangely I had another order for a coffin yesterday from an American professor (not called David Bingham) who had also spotted it in Messrs. France, Lamb's Conduit street. They have had it in their window since I gave it to them in 2005, but I haven't had an order for ages. There must be something in the air!’
Nelson's funeral cortege approaches his final resting place at St Paul's.

I am drawn to the coffin because it is a coffin rather than because of any association with Lord Nelson but the old Sealord has found himself in the news again in the last couple of weeks.  The journalist Afua Hirsch wrote a comment piece in the Guardian of 22 August arguing, in the wake of the controversy in the US over Confederate statues, that we need a similar purge of proslavery and white supremacist icons in the UK and suggested that we start with Nelson’s column.  She claimed that Nelson “used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.” She says that “the enormous contribution of black people in Britain at the time – especially activists and writers who were slaves themselves – has no equivalent site of glory, in London or anywhere in the country” but that “the colonial and pro-slavery titans of British history are still memorialised: despite student protests, Oxford University’s statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes has not been taken down; and Bristol still celebrates its notorious slaver Edward Colston.” Hirsch is a seasoned controversialist – she will be under no illusions about the chances of toppling Nelson from his pedestal in Trafalgar Square but the UK’s refusal “in our inertia, arrogance and intellectual laziness” to face up to the legacy of its colonial past infuriates here and she points out that in the US at least these matters are being debated.
Hirsch had already allowed the ‘topple Nelson’ proposal a dry run on Twitter and so would have been aware of how much heat her possibly tongue in cheek proposition could  potentially generate. Even so she must have been surprised and gratified at the scale of it; the piece appeared Guardian on-line published her piece at 06.00 BST on 22 August, opened it for comments at 08.00 and closed it again at 9.20 after 1070 separate comments had been made. When the Guardian readers stopped talking the newspapers took over with the usual suspects, the Mail, Express, Sun, Mirror etc all weighing in to condemn the ‘revisionist’ Hirsch for daring to contemplate meddling with British history. There is not much of a debate going on in all this discussion – the commentary is all pretty much one sided and Hirsch’s proposal is uniformly ridiculed. The strength of the reaction to Hirsch’s suggestion makes it abundantly clear that the past is integral to the British view of the present and the dead crucial to our understanding of the living. Would anyone seriously argue that the  material legacy of our imperial past, the statues, buildings, street names and so on do not represent imperial propaganda? Was not glorification of the empire was the whole point in putting them up in the first place? And if that is the case how should we approach these relics of the past in the Britain of today? 
Nelson toppled - illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck for Afua Hirsch's article in the Guardian

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

"Horrible Desecration of the Dead at St Pancras" 1866

St Pancras Gardens on Pancras Road once formed part of two separate burial grounds – one for the parishioners of St Pancras itself and the other as an extension to the churchyard of St Gile’s-in-the fields (which is a couple of miles away on the other side of Covent Garden).  The site was not popular with residents of St Giles, one of them complained to the Churchwarden “I object to the burying-ground that is offered to this parish, for this reason, Mr Churchwarden, that I am sure that no man in his senses would go so far to be buried: In the next place, Mr Church-warden, I am told (for I know nothing but what I am told) that it is so improper a place for a burying-ground, that before a man can lay his head down in the ground, Mr Church-warden, he will certainly be drowned with water.' (The Times, March 8th 1780). Despite the objectors and the boggy ground 26,676 interments took place in the two burial grounds between 1827 and 1847. By 1850 a local resident was complaining to the Times of chronic overcrowding in the grave yard “more than 25 corpses have been deposited every week for the last 20 years in an already overcrowded space; and at this very time they are burying in it at nearly twice that rate….teeth, bones, fragments of coffin wood are seen lying in quantities around these pits.”

By 1854 the burial grounds had been closed and a decade later they were being eyed up by the Midland Railway Company as a possible site for a goods shed or to cut through for a planned mainline route into St Pancras station. By 1866 the plans had become a reality and work started on removing headstones and monuments and exhuming the countless corpses so that construction of railway arches and the laying of track could commence. In June the Morning Post reported that a ‘gentleman’ had attended Clerkenwell Magistrates to complain on behalf of the inhabitants of St Pancras Road of the stench arising from the work of exhumation:  

[It] appears that within the past few days excavations have been going on at the east corner the St. Giles's Cemetery, which, it is stated, is the pauper portion of the burial-ground, for the formation of the Midland Railway, and that several coffins and a large quantity of bones have been exposed to public view. In some cases the coffins were perfectly sound, and on one of them being taken out it was broken, and it was stated that the body of a female was almost perfect and sound when it was first buried. In many cases decayed bones and skulls have been thrown up and about the ground, and in other instances they have been placed in a large box, but not buried. As there was doubt that this was a desecration of the dead, and such an act ought not to be tolerated, it was considered by the inhabitants of district that the matter should be made public. The stench was such that it was likely to be injurious to health. The applicant was referred to the sanitary department of St. Pancras

View of the railway works in Old St Pancras churchyard
The story of the ‘horrible desecration of the dead’ at St Pancras made the pages of other newspapers during the following weeks. A journalist from the Maidstone Chronicle visited the works and reported to his readers “I saw many graves broken up, and their human contents—dead men's shanks, and yellow chapless skulls—packed higgledy-piggledy into a large wooden box. As one coffin was stove in by the blow the navvy's spade a, fair bright tress of hair was seen, and pronounced by the foreman of the gang to have belonged to a good-looking person, while another observed that the teeth scattered about would be a helpful ornament to many a living head. This ghastly merriment, speculation, and moralising may no doubt quite the delver’s own, but it forms a hideous marginal comment on the text of the burial service, whether as it stands now or according to the proposed alteration of my Lord Ebury; for such resurrection is not contemplated in either.”

The architect in charge of the exhumation works was Arthur Blomfield of Covent Garden. One of the architecture students working in his office was a certain Thomas Hardy, a young man from Dorset who later abandoned architecture for literature. Young Thomas Hardy was given the job of supervising the exhumations and the removal of gravestones from that part of the burial ground earmarked for the mainline into St Pancras. Person or persons unknown arranged some of the removed headstones into an interesting self supporting pattern surrounding an ash tree which stood close to the church. That person was unlikely to be Hardy himself but nevertheless the tree and its surrounding gravestones have been known as the Hardy Tree ever since. The experience almost certainly did influence the composition of one of Hardy’s poems, ‘The Levelled Churchyard”, written in 1882:

O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!

We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!’

Hardy later recalled watching a coffin being exhumed with his mentor Arthur Blomfield. As it was lifted out of the grave the rotten casket broke apart letting a skeleton and two skulls tumble out into the mud. Years later when he ran across Arthur Blomfield again by chance "among the latter's first words were: 'Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St. Pancras?'"

The Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard, a relic of the 1866 exhumations by the Midland Railway Company

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Very Ingenious Mechanick - John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) St Mary's Paddington Green

The ‘very ingenious mechanick’ John Joseph Merlin’s adored all unconventional forms of transport, no matter how hazardous; his most celebrated mishap is related in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1825;

One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skates … Supplied with a pair of these and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs. Corneily's masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square; when, not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely.

Not much is known of Merlin’s early life; he was born or baptised on 17 September 1735 at Huy in the Walloon province of Liege in Belgium, the third child of Maximilien Joseph Merlin and Marie-Anne Levasseur. By the age of 19 young Merlin was working as a mechanic in Paris and by the age of 25 he was in London as part of the entourage of the Spanish Ambassador, the Conde de Fuentes. He soon left the service of the count and after a short stint working for a goldsmith in Covent Garden he took a position at James Cox’s newly founded Museum in Spring Gardens, becoming the principal mechanic. Cox was a jeweller and goldsmith who specialised in the production of exquisite clockwork automata and mechanical clocks; Merlin worked with him on what became his most famous creation, the silver swan automata, now in the Bowes Museum in County Durham. Mark Twain saw it at the Paris exhibition in 1867 and described it in Innocents Abroad; ‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...'


In 1773 he parted company with Cox and set up on his own as maker of mathematical and musical instruments. He continued to apply his mind to the invention of novelties and developed ingenious hybrid musical instruments such as an adaptation for a harpsichord which allowed to played as a piano and a combination of the square piano and the organ called the claviorganum.  In an advertisement dated 1779 he boasted of “the various instruments and pieces of mechanism, which he has constructed, such as his great collection of Patent Piano Forte, double Bass harpsichords, and portable instruments called Celestinetts, and his new Violins, Tenor and Bass, and improves violins, tenor, and bass, tho’ ever so bad, makes them equal to the best Cremonea.” We know that Merlin’s novel instruments found a commercial market because by the late 1770’s he took a former employee to court for making and selling combined harpsichord piano’s without his permission. He also found himself in court for having reneged on a deal with a builder to construct a large new house on the corner of Duchess Street and Portland Place. The house was to be built to Merlin’s own design with large show rooms to display his inventions; it was the first hint that he was harbouring ambitions to open his own museum.

John Joseph Merlin - a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough
Merlin’s Museum of Musical Instruments and Mechanical Inventions opened for the delight and education of the nobility, gentry and public in Princes Street, Hanover Square in April 1783. For the twenty years Merlin was the proprietor he filled with it with mechanical marvels designed to please the novelty hungry London public. Morning admission, between 11 and 3 cost 2s 6d and evening admission (from 7 until 9, and including tea or coffee) was 3 shillings  For this modest fee patrons could admire perpetual motion clocks that required no winding up, watch The Grand Turk or Stone eater consuming artificial stones, marvel at the rotating table which enabled a hostess to fill up to twelve cups of tea without leaving her place or the device to enable blind persons to play cards, be horrified at the Steel Tarantula, view two antique busts by means of which ‘ any person may converse with another without being heard by the company’, see mobile bird cages, listen to musical boxes, try out his patented chair to relieve the pain of gout, and view his automata. These included, according to Charles Babbage who saw them as a young man, 'two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high' one of which “used an eye-glass occasionally and bowed frequently as if recognizing her acquaintances' and the other ‘an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak.' Merlin was often at hand in person to show off his exhibits and explain how they worked.

“ln what he calls his unrivalled mechanical chariot he was to be seen for many years past very frequently riding about Hyde Park and various parts of the town particularly on Sundays In the front of this carriage something resembling a dial was placed By a mechanical communication from the left wheel to this dial c which which he called way wise he was informed by the hand and figures thereupon how far he had travelled His general course unless on particular business was about eight miles in and out In this carriage he never had the trouble to open the doors or windows and even the horse was whipped if necessary by his pulling a string to which a whip was attached by a spring From this curious carriage and his portrait we have presented our readers with an exact engraving To have this carriage painted with various emblematical figures of Merlin the ancient British Magician it cost Mr Merlin last summer the sum of eighty guineas.” Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters London 1803
The mechanic was also something of an exhibitionist. He made regular appearances at Ranelagh Gardens and at the Masquerades held at the Pantheon gliding through the crowds on his roller skates, dressed as the Goddess of Fortune with his own wheel, or posing as an electrotherapeutic physician, shocking the dancers as he moved among them. In March 1778 ‘Mr. Merlin, the Mechanic,’ appeared at the Pantheon ‘as a Gouty Gentleman, in a Chair of his own Construction, which, by a Transverse Direction of two Winches, he wheeled about himself with great Facility to any Part of the Room.’ In May be was back; according to the Norfolk Chronicle “Merlin the mechanic also worked a boat around the room and occasionally freighted his vessel with a Harlequin, a Columbine, a witch, a wizard or one of those charm bearing fair ladies whose looks serve to bewitch the beholder be he ever so grave, cold or phlegmatic. The chair which Merlin appeared in at the last masquerade was also filled by one of his disciples who moves in circles through the company.” After an appearance as a Vestal in 1789 he appeared the following year as ‘a Cupid, in his chariot, which moved by some ingenious mechanism round the rooms, pointed his arrows at several ladies, who seemed to be willing votaries to his power.’


Merlin was generally thought to have been a life long bachelor but Margaret Debenham in a recent study has shown that this is untrue. In her research into the dispute between Merlin and the builder of the house on the corner of Duchesse Street and Portland Place she discovered that ‘in the early summer of 1777 they [Merlin and the builder Nicholl] had taken a ride out into the countryside together and chatted about Merlin's forthcoming marriage. According to Nicholl, Merlin had been doubtful that the marriage would take place in time for him to move into the new house that winter. Merlin, on the contrary, protested in his own testimony that he had wanted the house completed as soon as possible in readiness for him and his intended wife.’ Debenham also uncovered marriage records which show that the mechanic married Anne Goulding on 17 September 1783 at St Saviours in Southwark and that the couple had two children, Ann and Joseph.  Merlin was left a widower with two relatively young children when Ann died in 1793 and was buried at Christchurch in Southwark.


Merlin’s own health began to decline in the late 1790’s. He was last seen in public in January 1803 in Hyde Park in a carriage without horses.  Ion 8 February he placed a notice in the newspapers lamenting that ill health had kept him the museum for three weeks and apologising that during which time one his people had had the temerity to exhibit his ‘unparalleled Magical Moving Pictures’ and being ‘unacquainted with the management of that grand machine…exhibited it in so slovenly and improper a manner that has nearly obscured the intrinsic merit of the magical illusion.’ He promised to attend himself in person to remedy the situation. On 24 February another notice informed the public that after ten years of ill health he intended to retire to the continent and was therefore compelled to sell his collection. He professed himself ‘highly grateful to a nation which has so long protected and encouraged him.’ The retirement to the continent had been left too late; he died on 04 May and was buried at St Mary’s Church, Paddington Green. His final instruction? According to Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters ‘he had his favourite horse thirty years and to prevent any ill usage of this animal after his death he ordered him to be shot which was done accordingly.’ 

Excerpt from the burial register at St Mary's Paddington Green showing Merlin's burial on May 8th

Monday, 17 July 2017

How the Dead Live - Will Self (Penguin £9.99)

“It was a phone directory. North London Book of the Dead, ran the title; and then underneath: A-Z. The cover was the usual yellow flimsy card and there was also the usual vaguely arty line drawing – in this case of Kensal Green Cemetery. I started to leaf through the pages.”

The North London Book of the Dead, a short story in the 1991 collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity was Will Self’s first foray into imagining the world of the London dead.  The narrator loses his mother to cancer, has her cremated at Golders Green, suffers a profound depression but only when he starts to come to terms with his grief finds himself encountering her again firstly in vivid dreams, then in brief sightings on the street which always turn out to be cases of mistaken identity. Until one bleak, drizzly, Tuesday afternoon  ‘walking down Crouch Hill towards Crouch End’ he spots, on the other side of the road his mother ‘wearing a sort of bluish, tweedish long jacket and black slacks and carrying a Barnes & Noble book bag, as well as a large handbag and a carrier bag from Waitrose. She had a CND badge in her lapel and was observing the world with a familiar "there will be tears before bedtime" sort of expression.’ His dead mother invites him to tea to her new flat in Rosemont Avenue and half suspecting he has lost his mind, he goes to visit her two days later.  During that visit his mother explains what death is like:

“Well, it’s like this,” began Mother. “When you die you go and live in another part of London. And that’s it.”

“Whaddya mean, that’s it?” I could already see all sorts of difficulties with this radical new view of death, even if I was sitting inside an example of it. “Whaddya mean, that’s it? Who decides which part of London? How is that no one’s heard of this before? How come people don’t notice all the dead people clogging up the transport system? What about paying bills? What about this phone book? You can’t tell me this lists all the people who have ever died in North London, it isn’t think enough.  And what about the dead estate agents, who do they work for? A Supreme Estate Agent?  And why Crouch End? You hate Crouch End.”

“It could have been worse. Some dead people live in Wanstead.”

The author in his native south London habitat
Almost ten years later, Self marked the millennium with the publication of How the Dead Live, (the title filched, quite openly, from a Derek Raymond thriller) the 15 pages of The North London Book of the Dead, had swollen monstrously into a 416 page opus narrated by the equally engorged character of mother, one Lily Bloom, an American born Londoner who dies in the opening pages but never shuts up, manically ranting until the exhausted Self ran out of printer ink or paper or his typewriter fell to pieces because if death won’t shut you up, little else will. After Lily dies in the London Ear Hospital she unexpectedly finds herself naked on Gower Street being accosted by an Aborigine spirit guide called Phar Lap Jones and then driven by a dead Greek Cypriot taxi driver to a new home in Dulston in North London  (if she had been slightly more respectable in life she would have probably found herself in Dulburb in South London).  Whilst her living daughters are left in the hospital to deal with the formalities of death certificates, burial arrangements and probate Lily finds herself joined in a squalid flat by the fossilised remains of a pregnancy she never knew she had, a pop obsessed lithopedion, (she is lucky, other woman who have suffered still births or miscarriages are united with their long lost foetuses which float around their heads still attached by the umbilical chord), three brainless blubbery beings formed from  the fat she has gained and lost over her life time and, eventually, by the ghost of her 9 year old son, who takes his time getting to Dulston because he has to find his way there from the States and once he is there sets about making his mother suffer for causing the accident which killed him in the early 60’s. In Dulston Lily finds an undemanding  job in a public relations company where no one minds that she is dead, attends night classes on being dead in the community centre,  and takes to haunting her still living daughters,  Natasha, a drug addled loser, and the haute bourgeoisie Charlotte.       
The critics were not kind to How The Dead Live when it appeared. Tom Shone in piece in the New York Times called Something to Offend Everyone said ‘we get wave after wave of viscous imagery (''congealed reality . . . blubbery blancmange of an evidence''). Throw this book at a wall and it will stick.’  In the Observer Adam Mars Jones was even more cutting; ‘It may seem a perverse criticism of a book like How the Dead Live to say that it lacks vitality. But a book about fish doesn't have scales and a book about death needs a pulse as much as any other, perhaps more than most.’  I like Will Self, I don’t mind his many faults because, like Byron’s cup formed from a human cranium, one can “behold the only skull from which, unlike a living head, whatever flows is never dull.” I like Self’s crazed and very un-English ambition, his scribomania, his pretensions, the learning paraded for our admiration, the endless streams of jokes, puns and tortured sentences, his unwillingness to shut up. I find his vision of dead London horribly plausible and very funny.