Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Legend of Long Bill Jenkins - William Daniel Jenkins (1767-1798), Nunhead Cemetery

William Jenkins' burial in the bank as recorded in the burial register of St Mary Lothbury.

On the 24th inst. died, at Edinburgh, in the 31st year of his age, Mr. William Jenkins, one of the Tellers in the Bank. His corpse measured seven feet three inches.
Staffordshire Advertiser - Saturday 07 April 1798

Mr. Jenkins the Bank Clerk, remarkable for his height, died last week of a decline, the age of 31.  He was buried very early on Sunday morning, by permission of the Governors of the Bank, in the ground inside of that Building, which formerly was the burial-ground of St. Christopher's church. The outer coffin measured more than 8 feet length. Upwards of 200 guineas had been offered for his corpse by the surgeons.
Hereford Journal - Wednesday 11 April 1798

William Daniel Jenkins is a legend at the Bank of England. We know very little of his life except that he was tall, worked at the bank, apparently died in Edinburgh and was frightened enough of falling into the hands of the anatomists after his death to ask for special permission to be buried in the Garden Court (formerly the churchyard of St Christopher-le-Stocks) at the bank, where he thought his corpse would rest in relative safety.  Although he was tall for an era when the average male was about 5 foot six, William was no giant. Newspaper stories of him being 7 foot 3 and his coffin being 8 feet long are typical press hyperbole; his true height was probably about 6 foot 7. Comparisons were inevitably made between William and that other elevated individual who was so terrified of falling into the hands of the surgeons that he asked to be buried at sea, Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant. William could never have lit his pipe at the street lamps on the North Bridge in Edinburgh without even standing on tiptoe, as the Irish Giant did, but he must have spent his life equally inconvenienced by low doors and ceilings, small chairs and short beds.  Their difference in stature can be gauged from the price offered for their skeletons by the surgeons, a mere 200 guineas for the bank teller in 1798 whilst John Hunter has paid a £500 bribe to secure the corpse of the Irish Giant in 1783. William’s corpse rested in its lead coffin in Garden Court until the 1930’s when he was unearthed during building works.

William Jenkin's coffin in situ, uncovered during building works at the bank
A GIANT'S COFFIN. It Is suggested by a correspondent of "The Times" that the remarkably large lead coffin found 40 feet below the surface during the recent rebuilding of the Bank of England may that of the giant William Jenkins, who recorded have been 7ft. height. He was clerk in the Bank of England. It was the era when surgeons paid high prices for stolen corpses and the relatives, fearing the attentions the body-snatchers, obtained the directors' permission to bury Jenkins In the disused churchyard of St. Christopher-le-Stock, which then served as the Garden Court of the Bank.
Yorkshire Evening Post - Thursday 10 August 1933

A 1923 Act of Parliament provided that any human remains removed from the former churchyard of St Christopher-le-Stocks should be reburied at Nunhead Cemetery.  The initial plan was to place the outsize lead coffin in the vaults but when it proved to be too large it was removed to the eastern catacombs. The fate that William tried so hard to avoid finally came to pass in the 1970’s when thieves stole the coffin from the abandoned cemetery for its scrap value, and scattered his remains on the floor of the catacombs from where they were presumably cleared up and disposed of, quite where no one knows. Before his removal from Garden Court William’s ghost was said to haunt the Bank of England where he would startle the armed guards at night by rattling their rifles.  Rumour has it that his ghost has also been seen at Nunhead fleeing from the catacombs in the form of a tall (of course) man dressed in black carrying an open ledger; no less a luminary than the chair of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, Ron Woollacott,  tentatively identified the ghost as being that of William Jenkins.   

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Owling in Barking; Captain John Bennett (1670-1716), St Margaret's Churchyard, Barking

Captain John Bennett's tomb in Barking churchyard
‘HERE LYETH INTERR’D YE BODY OF CAP. JOHN BENNETT COMMANDER OF HIS MAJESTY SHIP LENOX & WHO DIED THE 30TH OF JANUARY 1716 AGED 46 YEAR’, says the still legible inscription carved into the black limestone slab that tops the Captain’s impressive chest tomb in Barking Churchyard.  The chest is made from limestone and has suffered from the ravages of acid rain but the acanthus leaf decoration, the family crest and the carving of the Captain’s ultimate command, the Lennox, are weathered but still clearly visible. Inside the church there is an even more impressive memorial to the Captain, its size and quality rivalling any of the memorials for the wealthy landed gentry that line both sides of the nave.  Captain Bennett  was born in Poole, Dorset in 1670, his father, also John, was a Royal Navy captain but not one of any great distinction or wealth.  John Bennett the younger became a captain in 1695 at the age of 25 and sailed to Virginia, Hamburg, Archangel in Russia, Cape Town and the West Indies but seems not to have seen action or otherwise distinguished himself in the service.  Although the family were not by any means poor, Captain Bennett seems to have become an extremely wealthy man during his lifetime, far wealthier than his modest navy career would allow for.  In his will he left £500 for his funeral, tomb and memorial with strict instructions for his executor, London haberdasher Abraham Edlin, to have a vault excavated in the churchyard, a ‘grave with iron railes’ erected over it, and a memorial in the church to be commissioned from Thomas Stayner, a master mason who had recently moved from London to East Ham. £500 was a vast sum in 1716, worth at least £200,000 today.  His will contained unusual clauses requiring secrecy from his legatees;   "I give and bequeath unto the said Abraham Edlin all the furniture in the Room called my Chamber together with the Chest of Drawers and the Iron Chest with all that is therein contained upon this Condition that he do not disclose or make known the Contents thereof or any part thereof to any person and in case he do make the same known contrary to this my desire my will and meaning is that he forfeits this my devise to him and in that case I give the same unto my Cousin Mary Masters."

Michael Wand in his intriguing “Captain Bennett Investigated,” makes a convincing, if circumstantial, case for the source of the Captain’s wealth.  In 1682 a report was produced by Thomas Culliford, a customs official “who named and shamed the merchants of Poole who were not paying duty.” These merchants were clandestinely bringing foreign goods into the country, particularly brandy, without paying import duties, in other words they were professional smugglers. Culliford’s attempts to catch the smugglers either failed or resulted in the capture of low ranking employees. He was unable to arrest the ring leaders despite their identities being common knowledge.  He vented his frustration by naming the leading merchants engaging in ‘owling’ (smuggling wool out of England and luxury goods back in), in print. Wand points out that many of the names in Culliford’s report were linked to the legatees in Captain Bennett’s will; “none of the surnames he recorded in other Dorset ports appeared in Bennett's will, but many of his legatees seem to have been the next generation of the men fingered by Thomas Culliford thirty four years earlier: notably Lewin, Bennett, Stevens, Martin, Lewis, Weston.” The same names crop up in Barking Parish records and it seems that many Dorset owlers moved to Essex.  The county had its own tradition of smuggling and its major advantage over Dorset was its proximity to London.  Captain Bennett’s navy career may well been cover for the far more lucrative business of smuggling.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The parched ground shall become a pool and the thirsty land springs of water; Ernest Schwarz of the Kalahari (1873-1928), Willesden New Cemetery

“A most extraordinary story was told me by the late Professor Ernest Schwarz of the Rhodes University College. Many years ago, he said, he was engaged in survey work between the headwaters of the Orange and Zambezi Rivers. With him was a half-breed Cape Bushman guide and interpreter. Through this man’s efforts Schwarz managed to make friends with a wandering remnant of a tribe of Cape Bushmen in that region and pitched his camp near theirs.
One day he noticed the strange little people flocking to a dry hollow in the ground near their camp. Following them he saw they were gathering about the remains of a gemsbuck. At a given signal they all began to eat, pausing occasionally to dance madly around the hollow.  Presently the feasting stopped, but the dancing continued with unabated vigour, men and women occasionally dropping out exhausted. When they had rested and recovered they again joined the madly dancing horde.
After some time of this Schwarz noticed a strange figure in the midst of the little people. It was a man loaded down with enormous strings of ostrich shell beads. He was given food and joined in the dance. Everyone treated him with the utmost respect. The festivities continued until sunset, when a sinister and expectant hush fell over the weird assembly of little figures who had stopped their dance. In the darkness two figures crept up behind the stranger, threw a thong of softened animal hide over his neck, braced their knees in the small of his back and strangled him! Schwarz had just witnessed a Bushman’s execution.”
F.W. Fitzsimons “Century Old Man is only Survivor of Stone Age Race.” Popular Science August 1931

Ernest Hubert Lewis Schwarz was born in Lewisham on February 27 1873 the youngest of 12 children. His, father Frederick Maximilian Phillip Hubert Schwarz, was 60 at the time of his birth, his mother Johanna, 34. The couple were both from Germany, Frederick from Dusseldorf, Johanna from Schleswig-Holstein, but they married in London, at St Giles, in 1853 when he was an established South America merchant of 40 and she just a girl of 15. No doubt worn out by childbirth, she had her 12 children in just 18 years, Johanna died in April 1874 when Ernest would have barely been weaned. The motherless family were living on College Road in Dulwich at the time of the 1881 census and had moved to 80 Philbeach Gardens in what then known as Brompton but is now Earls Court by 1891. Ernest studied at the Royal College of Science in London and the School of Mines in Cambourne, Cornwall but despite being an excellent student he failed to gain a degree. In 1895, at the age of 22, Ernest moved to South Africa where he first worked as an editor on a short lived journal The Scientific African (it folded after just 5 issues)  before being appointed as a field geologist to the Geological Commission of the Cape of Good Hope, a post he kept for most of the following decade.  In 1899 his father died at the age of 86 leaving an estate of £18712 8s 6d to be shared amongst his brood. On 30 April 1904 in St George Anglican Cathedral, Cape Town Ernest married Daisy Murray Bowne Halloran and the following year he became the first professor of geology at Rhodes University College, Grahamstown, and simultaneously as keeper of geology and mineralogy at the Albany Museum.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari; Schwarz witnessed a bushman execution during his travels in the region

According to the S2A3 “Schwarz was a tall, gentle and introspective man who found it difficult to accept disappointments. He was always full of ideas and explanatory hypotheses, and though these were not always fully worked out his suggestions were usually of value. He was inclined to draw quick conclusions, and his interests were wide, rather than intensive.”  Ernest liked to engage in speculation untrammelled by the harsh restriction of facts. In his last published book ‘The Kalahari and its Native Races’, published in 1929 shortly after his death, he suggests that Hottentot modulations of speech are derived from Chinese and eventually even convinces himself that the race itself is Asiatic in origin. And he felt that the Makalaka people were descendants of Malays who had sailed across the Indian Ocean. As his gravestone shows he was (and remains) most well known for his proposed Kalahari irrigation scheme first proposed in a newspaper in 1918, then in a scientific  paper ‘The dessication of Africa: The cause and the remedy’ and finally in a full length book ‘The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption’ published in 1920. Schwarz said that large permanent lakes that had existed at Etosha Pan, the Makgadikgadi Pans and Lake Ngami and which had dried up  during the last few centuries. The loss of these lakes, he claimed, decreased rainfall over the Kalahari basin from about 1860 onwards. He was sure that restoring the lakes by damning  the Kunene River and  Chobe Rivers would increase rainfall by up to 250 mm a year and turn the desert into a green savannah.  The proposal aroused such popular support that the South African government launched a scientific expedition in 1925 to survey the Kalahari and to report on the possibility of practically implementing the scheme.  The official report alleged that Schwarz had many of his key facts wrong and that there was little or no chance of the scheme working. Schwarz continued to argue that he was right and after his death his widow continued to publish articles on the now discredited scheme. In 1927 he  visited Senegal on six month's leave to study the upper drainage system of the Niger River. He was not able to complete his survey and  so returned the following year, dying in the old colonial town of St Louis of a heart attack before he begin his work again. On his table was a letter to the editor of the Geographical Journal which outlined a solution to the problem of the route followed by Hanno the Carthaginian along the Senegal coast in his famous 5th century BC African expedition.  Schwarz’s body was returned to England for burial and Willesden chosen by his widow to be his final resting place. Probate lists is estate as being worth £1162 12s 8d, the sole beneficiary being his Daisy Murray Bowne Schwarz, widow, of 4 Burgess Park Mansions, West Hampstead.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

London's Dead: A guided tour of the capital's dead - Ed Glinert (Harper Collins 2008, out of print)

The thing about social media is that when you are talking you can never be sure who is listening.  A few years ago I wrote about Elias Ashmole on a photo I’d posted on Flickr of the Tradescant’s tomb in St Mary’s Churchyard, Lambeth:

In “London’s Dead” author Ed Glinert claims that there is a tradition that Elias Ashmole offered himself up for execution in place of Charles I “as those that ordered Charles’s execution were all Freemasons and no Mason could execute his Grand Master, Charles I, the two men swapped over and Ashmole allowed himself to be executed while Charles I lived out the rest of his days as Ashmole.” As I can’t find any trace of this rather outlandish theory on the web I can’t help wondering if Glinert isn’t pulling our leg here.

I was taken to task by Ed Glinert himself (who presumably had been googling himself):
Ed Glinert here. Of course there's nothing about Elias Ashmole swapping with Charles I on the Internet! This is a Masonic legend and the Masons, being a secret society, don't spread their secrets over the Web. I'm not saying it's true, just that it’s a well-known legend within Masonic circles. The Web is not the be-all and end-all of history.

That was me told. In actual fact the hypothesis, legend or whatever it is that Charles I was spared execution by switching places with Ashmole doesn’t seem to have been a masonic secret at all, or not one that they were keen to keep to themselves;  The Worshipful Brother Vice-Admiral Bertram Mordaunt Chambers CBE went public with the story in January 1929 with an article in the Daily Express headlined ‘Was Charles I Beheaded’.

Abney Park Cemetery by Marc Atkins
‘London’s Dead: a tour of the capital’s dead’ was originally published by Harper Collins in 2008 but never seems to have been reprinted or put out as a paperback or. It is a compendium of material relating to death in London; stories of public executions, plagues, bizarre deaths, terrorist attacks, accounts of graveyards and cemeteries, myths and legends, the deaths of famous people and much more. Because it is supposedly a tour Glinert’s material is arranged geographically rather than chronologically or thematically which makes for a rather disjointed read.  The print is large and well spaced which means that there are rather fewer words than you would expect in a book of 320 pages and it never does more than skim he surface of its subject. In fact the whole thing has a rather perfunctory feel to it, as though the author has no real enthusiasm for the project. Or perhaps it was just rushed.  ‘London’s Dead’ isn’t bad; the subject is interesting and Glinert couldn’t write a truly dull book even if he tried. But this should have been a great book, not only is Ed Glinert a better writer than he shows himself here (‘East End Chronicles’ or ‘The London Compendium’) but the photographs in it were taken by the great Marc Atkins. 

The Isaac Watts Memorial at Abney Park Cemetery by Marc Atkins
Atkin’s was an inspired choice as photographer – his wonderful photos of London taken wandering the streets with Iain Sinclair on the journeys that went into ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ were later published in the superb ‘Liquid City’ (just republished by Reaktion Press – buy it).  Atkin’s photos, taken in Bunhill Fields, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton, Mortlake and Kensal Green, are little  masterpieces with muted, autumnal colours and striking compositions that are both true to the spirit of the locations they were taken in but somehow more austerely beautiful.  What a huge disappointment that these wonderful pictures only appear in the book as small, smudged, dark, monochrome illustrations punctuating the text. What a wasted opportunity! It’s lucky that you can see the originals on Marc Atkin’s website, check out the whole set there. 

Ninhead Cemetery by Marc Atkins