Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Tombstones of Old Leyton: St Mary the Virgin churchyard, Leyton

THOUGH the Churchyard is by no means a large one, it is yet much larger than it was, having been added to from time to time. It is doubtless this necessity for enlargement that has robbed it of any really old tomb stones, all that remain being comparatively modern, and not of any remarkable interest…..The earliest date seems to be 1705.
John Kennedy ‘A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex’ 1894

Although considerable efforts have gone into cleaning it up over the last few years St Mary’s still has one of the untidiest churchyards I’ve seen in London. Until relatively recently the place was overgrown with shrubs, brambles and ivy to the point of being almost impenetrable in places. Drug addicts used the undergrowth as a screen from prying eyes and thorns and spines on the brambles were much less of a hazard than broken glass and discarded needles to anyone braving the scrub to try and find a grave. The rampant flora also toppled graves and pulled down memorials, often aided and abetted by local gangs of youths with nothing better to do. But the Friends of St Mary’s churchyard and the Leyton History Society cleaned the burial ground up, clearing out much of the undergrowth and hopefully stacking the parts of toppled memorials together as though one day someone might go to the bother of reconstructing them. Although the mounds of carefully sorted rubble do give the unfortunate impression of a bomb site the churchyard is now a relatively pleasant place to spend time in, a secluded oasis in the centre of Leyton. So pleasant in fact that the street drinkers have now abandoned their former refuge in the park and now congregate with their cans of cheap yet potent Polish lager at the back of the church.
John Kennedy, the author of ‘A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex’ was the vicar of St Catherine’s in Leytonstone, opened in 1893 on Hainault Road.  His own church had no burial ground and his dismissive account of St Mary’s churchyard may be coloured by the tinge of envy. As London churchyards go it is relatively large and there are currently two listed monuments, the Tench and Moyer memorials; at the time Kennedy was writing Sir John Soane’s memorial for Samuel Bosanquet hadn’t succumbed to hooliganism and Sir Thomas Bladen’s sarcophagus was still standing on the path behind the alms houses….. ‘not of any remarkable interest’ indeed! Even his earliest dated tombstone is wrong – set in the outside wall of the church is what must have once been a freestanding headstone embellished with a skull belonging to 70 year old Mr Gilbert Kennedy (not a relation of the vicar of St Catherine’s as far as we know)) who had died on February the 20th 1693.

On Saturday 27 May 1905 the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser carried an intriguing article on another lost monument:
THE STRANGE MONUMENT. The Strange vault in Leyton Pariah Churchyard has been opened, and many have had the opportunity of going inside to see the twelve coffins there, including that of Sir John Srange, Master of the Rolls, who died in 1754. The woodwork of this coffin has entirely disappeared. The names of the deceased are being engraved on the outside of the tomb. A gentleman in the City, interested in Leyton, has contributed E2O towards the expense.
Sir John Strange who, according to John T. Page in his ‘Epitaphs, curious, notable and historical” (which, as far as I can tell, remains unpublished except as excerpts in newspapers of the early 1900’s) “started his career as a solicitor’s clerk carrying his master’s bag to Westminster - and finished as Master of the Rolls.” Strange’s supposed epitaph is still well known and frequently makes the sort of lists and collections of unusual arcana that find so welcoming a home on the internet (‘Funny Epitaphs From History’ ’10 Most Hilarious Tombstone Epitaphs’ Examples of Funny and Bizarre Epitaphs’ etc). Sir John’s ‘most hilarious’ epitaph is:
“Here lies an honest lawyer, that is Strange.”
The fact that this is still in the top ten of most amusing epitaphs almost 300 years after it was written underlines the generally low standard of graveyard humour. When they bother to mention where he is buried most accounts claim that Sir John is buried in the Rolls Chapel. This is not true, he is most definitely buried in Leyton. Neither the inscription on his grave in the churchyard nor his memorial inside the church (which is written in Latin) bears the famous epitaph, which seems to be an early example of an urban myth.     

There has been a church on the site of St Mary’s since at least 1200 when it was granted along with the rest of the manorial holdings to Stratford Abbey. For many years it was a poor Essex parish with the vicarage worth a mere 40 shillings a year in 1254, rising to £7 12s in 1535 and just £30 in 1604. The value of the living then didn’t rise at all for the best part of 60 years, making it difficult for the parish to recruit a clergyman. By 1669 the parishioners had to raid their own pockets to find £69 a year to add to the £30 living to secure the services of the parish’s most famous incumbent, the antiquary  John Strype, who died at the age of 94 in Hackney in 1724 but being brought back to Leyton to be buried.  In the 18th century Leyton’s combination of bucolic charm and proximity to London made it a favoured location for country seats amongst the merchants and bankers of the city; the population of the village and the relative wealth of its clergyman exponentially expanded as a result. By the 1760’s the existing churchyard was too small to comfortably accommodate the increased number of burials produced by a burgeoning population. 

The vestry minutes of 1762 record an approach to Colonel Gansell to see whether he would be willing to sell the freehold of “a piece of the garden ground belonging to the Workhouse, not less than 80 feet in length, & the whole width for the enlargement of the Churchyard,” to which Colonel Gansell’s response was, yes. (This may well have been the same piece of ground, adjacent to the churchyard on which Colonel Gansell’s father, in 1718, “on the occasion of enlarging his garden… dug up two acres of ground, and found under the whole very large and strong foundations : in one place all of stone with considerable arches, and an arched doorway (about ten feet high and six feet wide) ornamented with mouldings, with steps down to it: in many of the foundations there were great quantities of Roman tiles and bricks.” Gansell senior on ordering a pond to be dug also discovered “some old timber morticed together like a floor was discovered, with several Roman coins, Consular and Imperial, and some silver Saxon coins.” Some time previously, John Kennedy tells us, “a large urn of coarse red earth had been found” in the churchyard itself.). Over the next fifty years the vestry acquired further parcels of land including a row of cottages and the gardens of the alms houses, which were incorporated into the churchyard. There were no further opportunities for enlarging the churchyard but the local population continued to grow exponentially as the former village was gradually absorbed by the monstrously swelling capital. The vestry made the best use it could of every square inch of ground but the churchyard inevitably soon became filled to capacity. By 1896 the Borough council passed a closure order prohibiting ‘forthwith and entirely’ any further burials within the parish church and the churchyard.

In February 1928 the Reverend James Glass and Stewart Wilkins, the sexton of St Mary’s, were summonsed by Leyton Borough Council for carrying out an illegal burial in the churchyard. The case was unusual enough to attract national attention when the startled vicar found himself in the dock at Stratford Police Court accused under the Burial Act 1855 of permitting a burial in unauthorised ground. The court was told that it had come to the notice of the council that burials were going on at the churchyard and in July the previous year they had written to the vicar who had replied with a promise that it would not happen again. On September 30 a Corporation superintendent had carried an impromptu inspection and “saw in the churchyard an open grave, and part of coffin exposed. He saw a pick or fork sticking into it, the lid was off, and the contents were covered with mould” (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 23 February 1928). The grave had been dug to accommodate a Mr Frank Fox, late of High Road Leyton, who was originally from Sheffield but had relative already buried in the churchyard. His widow had begged the sexton to find a place for her husband and the ever helpful Mr Wilkins had done just that. The Reverend Glass’s lawyer claimed that the vicar had been away for the three days during which the burial had been arranged and had only arrived home when the funeral was about to take place. He said the vicar had not accepted any fee for carrying out the burial service. When the sexton was called to the witness box he admitted to having received £10 1 shilling from Mrs Fox of which 1 guinea was paid to the vicar for his burial fee and the rest paid out to the gravediggers or on other disbursements. The Police Magistrate fined the vicar and the sexton £5 each and 10 guineas costs. As neither of them committed any further offences against the Burial Act 1855 Frank Fox became the last person to be interred in the churchyard.    

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Lost Memorials of London; Sir Thomas Bladen (1698-1780) , St Mary's, Leyton

According to David Ian Chapman’s “The Grange” published by the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society, Sir Thomas Bladen’s tomb stood just off the main path in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Leyton, just behind the alms houses.  This substantial tomb with a black stone sarcophagus, possibly basalt or granite, resting on four lions paws (coade stone?) and mounted on a pedestal, has completely disappeared. Not a trace of it remains. When it disappeared, no one knows. It was certainly still around in 1894 when the Reverend John Kennedy wrote his ‘History of the Parish of Leyton’ and mentioned it and luckily around 1820 someone pained a water colour of it which is now in the Wakefield Collection at the London Metropolitan Archive.  
Sir Thomas Bladen was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on the 23rd February 1698, the son of William Bladen, originally from Yorkshire who had settled in the new world in 1690. William became fabulously wealthy and sent his eldest son back to England to be educated in 1712. When William died in 1718 Thomas inherited 16,000 acres of land and 26 slaves, which he immediately sold off. He probably engaged in trade (his uncle was a director of the Royal African Company) and in 1727 he became a member of parliament for Steyning. He married Barbara Janssen at St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London in 1731 and was by then wealthy enough to buy the Glastonbury Abbey estate from the Duke of Devonshire for a cool £12,700. In 1743 he returned to Maryland as the Governor of the province, appointed by Lord Baltimore (who just happened to be his brother in law). His governorship lasted just four years because the colonists found him “tactless and quarrelsome”. He is best remembered for introducing ice cream (in particular strawberry ice cream) to the colony, serving it at state functions, and for Bladen’s Folly, a palatial governor’s residence which was started in 1744 with a grant of £4000. When Sir Thomas ran out of money to complete the project he returned to the Maryland Assembly to request additional funds. They took great pleasure in refusing the request and censuring him for his extravagance. The almost completed mansion stood empty for the next 50 years, becoming derelict and only being saved when it was gifted to the newly founded college of St John’s who restored and extended the building which today stands as the centrepiece of their Annapolis campus.

Sir Thomas returned to England in 1747 and from the mid 1750’s lived at his Leyton mansion, the Grange, dying quietly in 1780 and being buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s. 
Birds Eye View of the City of Annapolis

Friday, 13 April 2018

A slaver's memorial; Sir Fisher Tench (1673-1736) St Mary the Virgin, Leyton

The Tench memorial commemorates an era when human trafficking was a respectable career choice

On Tuesday the 9th November 1736 the immensely wealthy London merchant Sir Fisher Tench was buried with great ceremony in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Leyton. The popular almanac The Political State of Great Britain printed for T Cooper at the Globe in Paternoster Row gives a unusually detailed account of the obsequies:

The late Sir Fisher Tench, Bart, having given very particular Funeral directions for his Interment on Tuesday the 9th of November.  About Three in the Afternoon his Corpse was carried through his fine Gardens and Grounds adjoining (as directed in his Will) to Low Layton Church in the following Manner First Six Conductors in Black Gowns and Scarves with Staffs. Then six poor Boys leading as many poor Girls all cloathed in dark Grey with Black Hatbands and Gloves; these had five shillings a Piece given them, also a Bible with a Common-Prayer Book which they carried under their Arms. Then six old Men leading as many old Women who were cloathed as the Boys and Girls; to each of these were given ten Shillings and a Book entitled The Whole Duty of Man which they carried under their Arms.  Then the Clerk and two Clergymen. Then came the Corpse of the Deceased in a Coffin with Black Velvet with a gilt Plate (expressing that he died October 31 Aged 63) borne by six poor Men, covered with a Pall of Black Velvet.  Sir Nathaniel Tench Bart, his only son followed as chief Mourner.  Then fourteen Servants of the Deceased seven Men and seven Women walked two and two in deep Mourning. Then ten Tradesmen who served the Deceased walked two and two in Black Cloaks, Hatbands and Gloves, and they closed the Procession;  and the Corpse was interred a little after Four in the Family Vault on the west Side of the Church yard and Tomorrow a Funeral Sermon will be preached at Low Leyton Church.

18th century funeral procession

Sir Fisher left instructions and 10 Guineas in his will for the preaching of a funeral sermon based on Ecclesiastes 2.4; ‘I made me great Works, I builded me Houses, I planted me Vineyards, I made me Gardens and Orchards and I planted Trees…’ (The London Magazine of November 1736 commented "Words exceedingly applicable to the house and gardens of that gentleman at Low Layton, which are reckoned among the most elegant in the country; & at the same time most beautifully set forth the vanity of all sublunary enjoyments.") As well as the day after the funeral, the sermon was to be preached on the following Sunday ‘by the Rev Mr Capoon but he not coming down as was expected a Clergyman in the Neighbourhood did the Duty of the Day but the Sermon was not then preached though there was a very numerous Congregation assembled to hear the same…’ observed The Political State.  In the months following the funeral his son raised the now grade II listed Portland stone memorial over the family vault that dominates the view of the churchyard from the street.
Sir Fisher was a hugely successful city merchant who transformed himself into a country gentleman. He was born in 1673, the son of Nathaniel Tench, Governor of the Bank of England from 1699 to 1701. Sir Fisher was an Assistant in the Royal African Company (prime movers in the triangular trade of shipping manufactured goods to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean and sugar to Europe), a Director of the South Sea Company (again heavily involved in slaving as well as causing the speculative mania known as the South Sea Bubble which ruined hundreds of investors in 1720) and owned a plantation in Virginia (worked, of course, by slaves). He had political as well as business interests and was High Sheriff of Essex in 1711 and became an MP for Southwark in 1713. In 1715 he was made a Baronet. He built the most magnificent mansion in Leyton in the 1700’s, known simply as the Great House. The Reverend John Stype, vicar of Leyton, a friend of Sir Fisher’s and probably the clergyman who directed his funeral, described The Great House in his updated edition of John Stow’s Survey as a “modern erection is the magnificent and beautiful seat of Sir Fisher Tench, Bart., adorned with large and most delightful gardens, plantations, walks, groves, mounts, summerhouses, and pleasant canals, stored with fish and fowl, and curious vistoes for prospect." Edwin Gunn wrote a more detailed description in his monograph on the property for the Survey of London in 1904, ironically just a year or so before it was finally demolished. Gunn gently disparages the idea that the house was designed by Sir Christopher Wren; “In common with most other buildings of the period not assigned by direct documentary evidence to other authorship, the design of the Great House has been attributed to Sir Christopher Wren…… In the present instance….while many admirable points are displayed in the treatment, a certain lack of the dominant "idea" with which Wren was able to infuse even the least important of his works, militates strongly against the assumption of direct connection between that great designer and the building as executed.” He also notes that “tradition has been very active in relation to the Great House. It is useless to repeat all the idle stories in local circulation, most of which are too absurd to need refutation, as for example one which jointly attributes the authorship to Inigo Jones and the ownership to Queen Elizabeth's Earl of Essex.” One tradition which he does not pooh-pooh is the claim that the cupola on the bell tower of St Mary’s “may indeed well have come from the Great House, since it is unusual to find a house of this type without some feature of the kind.”

Whilst always claiming never to believe them Gunn deigns to repeat every scrap of local lore relating to the Great House. This includes stories of Sir Fisher imprisoning highwaymen in the cellars of the mansion and hanging them from the trees in his magnificent garden (“probably….an elaborated traditional version descriptive of his shrieval duties” he speculates). If lifelong involvement in slave trading and slave owning, helping to create the South Sea bubble and gossip of hanging highwaymen wasn’t enough, his sullied reputation suffered further blows as one of the managers of the Charitable Corporation, a semi-philanthropic concern, which lent small sums to poor persons on pledges at legal interest to avoid them turning to pawn brokers and money lenders. Sir Fisher’s second son William became the Corporation’s cashier and was implicated when a scandal broke involving the broker George Robinson. The crooked broker extracted money from the three directors of the company, ostensibly to lend to the worthy poor but in reality to cover the director’s heavy losses on the stock market (said losses all having been incurred following the advice of George Robinson, of course). William died unexpectedly in 1731 and so escaped having to account for his actions to the select committee to investigate the scandal set up by Parliament in 1732 and chaired by Samuel Sandys. Sandys, to the surprise of many, exonerated Sir Fisher of all blame saying that he was ‘not justly to be censured’ for his dealings with the Corporation.  John Perceval, the Earl of Egmont, probably reflected widely held opinion when he  commented in his diaries that although Sir Fisher left the Corporation when he found evidence of irregularities he ‘suffered his son to remain cashier till his death who was guilty of frauds’, and that he must have known ‘of his son’s roguery, because he affirmed in a gentleman’s hearing that his son’s employment as cashier was worth him £600 a year, though his salary was but £150; and further that Robinson gave his son £100 a year, which could not be but that he might abet Robinson in his rogueries’. Following the scandal and William’s death Sir Fisher retired from public life and was dead himself after just four years of retirement at Leyton. He was succeeded as Baronet by his surviving son Nathaniel but not for long; within a year bachelor Nathaniel was dead himself and with him the short lived baronetage of Low Leyton.

Standing close by the Tench family vault was once a simple headstone with black lettering commemorating the death of an early member of Leyton’s black community. The burial register records the bare facts relating to “George Pompey a Black Servant to Sir Fisher Tench” including the date of his burial September 3 1735. The headstone has either been lost or the inscription weathered away to invisibility but The Political State’s article on Sir Fisher’s funeral records his servant’s epitaph:
     Here lyeth interred the Body of
George Pompey
Late Negro Servant to
Sir Fisher Tench, of this Parish, Bart
During upwards of 20 Years Service,
Was most diligent and faithful
And though born a Heathen
Lived and died truly a Christian
Conscious of Innocence of Life
Met Death with an undaunted Courage
And if concerned
‘Twas only to part with so good a Master
An Example worthy of all Servants to imitate
He departed this Life the 31st of August 1735
In the 32d Year of his Age

Household slaves started their careers young

The epitaph contains the only details we have of George Pompey’s short life. Whether he was born into slavery or a kidnapped African we don’t know. He may have come from the Virginia plantation but equally he may have been acquired by the family in some other way – black servants were fashionable signifiers of wealth in Georgian London. To have been a house servant almost certainly meant that he had been chosen for the role as a child as we can see here, George can only have been 12 when he came to work for the Tenchs if he was to fit in 20 years of service in a lifespan of just 32 years. The position of black servants in England was ambiguous; they were politely referred to as servants implying that they were free agents but most of them were slaves in reality, unable to live as free men and totally dependent upon their masters. Household slaves in England and in the colonies were often give classical names drawn from Shakespeare or other sources, and Pompey was a particularly popular choice. Like the family hound, the most prized quality of a black, was their loyalty. Piety was another prized quality. Could Sir Fisher really have believed that the dying black man’s only concern was the prospect of death parting him from his master? And that he really was ‘so good a master’?   

Friday, 6 April 2018

The Lost Memorials of London: The Bosanquet memorial, St Mary the Virgin, Leyton

Remarkably little of the work of the celebrated architect and collector Sir John Soane remains intact. The memorial he built for friend and patron Samuel Bosanquet in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin in Leyton survived 150 years, far longer than much of his work. In my 1965 copy of “The Buildings of Essex”, Nikolas Pevsner, who describes the memorial as being “of typically Soanian Neo-Greek detail”, seems apparently unaware that it had been demolished 8 years previously. Ptolemy Dean in Sir John Soane in London rates the lost memorial as better than the De Loutherbourg monument in St Nicholas’ Chiswick and ‘second only to Soane’s own tomb’ in St Pancras Gardens. He describes the fate of the monument as ‘one of the saddest of any of Soane’s works’ and notes that the ‘minutes of the Churchyard Committee, although incomplete, record the renovation and levelling of a number of the tombs during 1957… A photograph of the Bosanquet tomb is annotated “tomb demolished 1957-1958 as a result of damage by Hooligans.”  The work was carried out by the local firm T.R. Hurry & Sons. Soane’s Portland stone base survives, along with the original stone railing plinth. Above this a new granite slab was cut with the original inscription wording by Messers Hurry. The fate of Soane’s substantial displaced stone copings and scroll stones remains unknown.’  A grainy monochrome photograph taken in 1953 by Dorothy Stroud, one time assistant curator of the John Soane Museum, and a clay model of the memorial by Soane is all that is left of the once impressive tomb.    
In this old postcard of St Mary's the Bosanquet monument can just about be made out to the left of the tower
Clay model of the memorial by Sir John
and now in the museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields
Samuel Bosanquet (1744-1806) lived in Forest House in Leyton and came from a Huguenot family with strong trading links to the Middle East.  He was Deputy Governor of the Levant Company and was also a Director of the Bank of England and eventually its Governor during the period 1791-1793. Sir John Soane had first become acquainted with a Bosanquet in Naples during his 1778-1780 Grand Tour of Europe. There he stayed with Richard ‘the rake’ Bosanquet, a first cousin of Samuels, who had been a Director of the East India Compnay before giving it up to lead a life of leisure and pleasure in Southern Europe. Richard eventually squandered his fortune in luxurious living and rash speculation in stocks. He died in 1809 having never married but having fathered, according to his will “Captain Johnson my reputed son” who in turn had “by the child of a convict of Botany Bay, the mother already mistress to another man, two children. To my executors £2,000 to be laid out in the Equitable Insurance Office for paying to each of those children at age 21 the sum that they think equivalent for £1,000.a child.” Sir John remained on friendly terms with Richard the rake until his death in Falmouth and through him came to know the rest of the family. He carried out various commissions for Samuel, including work at Forest House, and after his death seemed, as Dean outs it, 'genuinely moved to produce something worthy' of his friend whose portrait still hangs in the breakfast room at Lincoln's Inn Fields.   

Samuel Bosanquet

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

'The Worm at the Core; On the Role of Death in Life' Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski (Penguin £9.99)

And yesterday I saw you kissing tiny flowers,
But all that lives is born to die
And so I say to you that nothing really matters,
And all you do is stand and cry
Led Zeppelin ‘That’s the way’

‘Live every day as though it will be your last,’ always struck me as an absurd piece of advice. If today was your last day of life would you bother going to work? Pay the mortgage or the gas bill? Clean the house? Feed the kids? Change your underpants? Or would you spend the day getting drunk, having sex, revenging yourself on your enemies (without fear of the consequences) or blubbing inconsolably about your imminent demise? All that 'live for the moment' stuff is just nonsense - if we took it seriously we would find ourselves jobless, divorced and broke in a matter of days. If everybody lived for the moment civilisation would fall down around our ears within a week.  The only way we, humanity, can bring stability and predictability to our world is by contriving to ignore the fact that we are going to die and carrying on as though we are going to live, if not for ever, then at least for a century or two.  American psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski are fascinated by the human ability to stare death in the face and simply not see it, though they seem, on the whole, to think that our capacity to ignore our inevitable demise is rather a bad thing and something we should strive to get over.

The three psychologists shared a common passion for Ernest Becker the American social anthropologist who, when dying of colon cancer, had observed that most other people seemed blithely unaware that one day their precarious existence would be snuffed out by death. He theorised that society, civilisation, is an elaborate defence mechanism to shield us from the devastating knowledge that we are mortal. Only by pretending that we live forever are we able to get up in the morning and face the day. Becker’s views were not so different the Greek philosopher Epicurus who had come to similar conclusions two thousand years ago, so there is nothing new in these ideas. Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski have spent their careers building on the notions of Epicurus and Becker and have come up with a scientifically testable hypothesis they call ‘Terror Management Theory’ which states the basic psychological conflict between our instinct for self preservation and our knowledge of the inevitability of death results in a state of terror which is then managed by embracing cultural values that provide life with enduring meaning and value.  The sudden revelation that ‘all that lives is born to die’ threatened our burgeoning consciousness and even the survival of the species:  
The awareness of death arose as a byproduct of early humans' burgeoning self-awareness, and it would have undermined consciousness as a viable form of mental organization—hurling our terrified and demoralized ancestors into the psychological abyss and onto the evolutionary scrap heap of extinct lifeforms— in the absence of simultaneous adaptations to transcend death. But our ancestors ingeniously conspired to “Just Say No” to reality by creating a supernatural universe that afforded a sense of control over life and death, enabling them to bound over the “yawning chasm” and cross the cognitive Rubicon that triggered humankind’s evolutionary explosion.

Consciousness of the ephemerality of human existence came early to the species - Neandertal's bury their dead

Having posited an awareness of death as an early feature of developing human consciousness the authors discuss how social and cultural norms protect us from the full implications of that knowledge. They cite research which shows that judges were prompted to set a bail figure nine times higher for an alleged prostitute after being made to think about their own deaths.  Even subtle reminders about death make us more likely to be patriotic – in one study Germans interviewed in front of a shop showed no particular preference for things German, but those interviewed in front of a cemetery preferred German food, German cars, and even German holidays to foreign alternatives. As well as making us more judgemental towards those who do not share our values and more patriotic the authors argue that “over the course of human history, the terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.”  

This is an interesting and readable book. I don’t have any argument with the contention that our mortality underpins every aspect of our existence or dispute that humans are very good at ignoring the prospect of their own demise. It also seems self evident that the fear of death plays a significant part in religion and that art, at least for the artist, represents an opportunity for a type of ersatz immortality if their work proves popular enough. All this seems self evident and not particularly contentious. The authors go much further than this though and see the repressed fear of death as being the driving force behind much of our psychology and our social and cultural life. Death looms as large in their view of human motivation as sex does to orthodox Freudians, and for the same reasons is, in the final analysis, not completely convincing.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Cemetery in the snow - St Patrick's Catholic Cemetery, Leyton

The weatherman said ‘thaw today’ and so, after several days of snow, I had to make a mad dash to capture some of the white stuff on film before it melted away for good. Snow always looks its best when it is new laid and virginal but I was at work during the days when the blizzards struck  and only had any free time at the tail end of what is getting to be (because of global warming?) an increasingly rare phenomenon; London snowfall. I wanted some cemetery pictures and couldn’t make my mind up between Brompton in Earls Court and St Patrick’s in Leyton. I plumped for St Patrick’s because it is closer (just a few stops down the Central Line from me) and because I thought it would have had fewer visitors during the cold snap and therefore be more likely to have undisturbed snow.  
St Patrick’s is an interesting cemetery; it opened in 1868 and is one of only two Roman Catholic cemeteries in London. It is unique in being the only London cemetery of any note without its own Wikipedia page, despite it probably being the capitals most visible cemetery. Its visibility is the result of the Central Line running along its entire northern boundary so that every day thousands of commuters watch it flash by on the run into Leyton or Leytonstone stations (depending on which direction they are coming from). There is a pedestrian bridge over the tube line from where it was once possible to get an excellent view of the cemetery. The wonderful Marc Atkins took the justly famous photo below from the bridge before the pedestrian bridge was encased in a clear plastic tunnel. The plastic swiftly became opaque through scratches and the effects of inclement weather and the view of the cemetery was apparently lost for ever. The plastic has now gone but only to be replaced by a thick metal mesh (those inconsiderate suicides who end it all by lobbing themselves in front of tube trains have a lot to answer for) which does allow a broken view but it is impossible to get the wide angled view that Atkins took – as you can see from my miserable attempt at the same shot above.  
Marc Atkins' shot of the cemetery from the old pedestrian bridge over the central line

St Patrick’s is intensively worked– 170,000 burials in its 43 acres by the 1980’s and still very much in use today.  The graves are tightly packed together with seeminly every square inch of land within the walls used; new areas for burial are being created by piling six feet of earth over areas of old graves. Some oft quoted research by online estate agents discovered that houses near cemeteries are often worth up to 25% less than comparable properties in the same area that don’t have a view of the local burial ground. It claimed that house prices near St Patrick’s were particularly affected by this phenomenon; in fact it claimed the ‘grave effect’ was the worst in the country “the average property price overlooking St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leytonstone is £258,400, compared to the postcode average of £511,311. That’s half the average property price in the E11 postcode” despairing home owners were told. I am not convinced; E11 is a sharply divided postcode, with house prices in deprived Leyton and Leytonstone being a fraction of those in affluent Wanstead. What is there to object to in overlooking a cemetery? Peace and quiet and neighbours that never bother you; I’m surprised it doesn’t attract a house price premium.

I had the cemetery to myself as it was bitterly cold with the sub zero wind still carrying the tang of Siberian tundra gusting between the graves. The cemetery wall provided some protection from the icy blast. I was lucky it was still there as at least twice in the last year thieves had attempted to steal it; John Sears the cemetery superintendant, told the Daily Telegraph “the last thing in the world you think is going to get stolen is your wall." It is not the wall per se that is attractive to thieves but what it is made of – yellow London Stock bricks. This classic London brick was made from the late seventeenth century until the close of the Victorian era and is now in high demand because some local authorities insist on them being used as a condition for granting planning permission to build extensions in conservation areas or if the property is listed. The glut of wealthy home owners wanting to expand their living space has pushed up the price of salvaged stock bricks to giddy heights – there have been reports of bricks going for as much as £15 though £1.50 seems a more normal price to pay. The market in black market yellow bricks had led to a wave of attempted brick thefts across East London. Garden walls (and cemetery walls) are particularly vulnerable as they can be easily demolished by anyone with a SUV who doesn’t worry about scratching their paintwork – a good push in first gear is often all it takes to reduce a wall to rubble which can be stowed in the back of the car and hauled off to an architectural salvage yard.

After half an hour wandering the graves, trying to find decent angles for my shots, I was joined by a woman walking her dog, a ferocious looking Rottweiler/Timber Wolf cross that prowled around the place as though he owned it. I was busy minding my own business, trying to set up a decent shot and avoiding frostbite. There was just the two us and the dog in 43 acres but the two of them circled around me as though they were drawing in for the kill. Every time she passed me the woman glared at me, making sure she caught my eye and that I was aware of her hostility. It can’t have been that she was intimidated by a lone (ageing) male, skulking suspiciously amongst the tombstones; she had the Hound of the Baskervilles chaperoning her ready to rip open the throat of anyone who gave her so much as a crossed look. The only possible thing she could have objected to was my taking photographs. She seemed mortally offended though didn’t actually say anything to me. St Patrick’s doesn’t have a no photography rule as far as I know. It does have a no dogs policy though – I noticed it on the prominently displayed bye-laws as I went in. For me using a cemetery as a dog toilet is far more disrespectful that taking photos of graves. Not that I would say that though to an irate woman leading a slavering one headed Cerberus around on a flimsy leash. 

Despite several visits I have never been able to locate any of St Patrick’s notable graves – Mary Jane Kelly the final ripper victim, Timothy Evans who was mistakenly hanged for the murders at 10 Rillington Place, or the Nun’s who died on the wreck of the Deutschland in 1875. I was keeping my eyes open for the Hitchcock family graves (relatives of famous one time Leytonstone resident Alfred) and for anyone with the surname Aley, as it was likely to be the site where inept James Aley of Ilford, tried to kill himself in 1904, by drinking Oxalic Acid (several pints of the cleaning agent would have been required but he only had one bottle on him):   

ATTEMPTED SUICIDE HIS MOTHER’S GRAVE. At Stratford Monday James Aley, a weak looking lad of Granville-terrace, Ilford was charged with attempted suicide by drinking a quantity of oxalic acid in the Leyton Catholic Cemetery. PC. Davis said on Saturday morning the prisoner was brought to him by the Superintendent of the Leyton Catholic Cemetery. On being  charged, he said;— Yes, I took the poison. I am tired of life. Mother and sister are buried there. Leave me alone; I took some to kill myself. Father and step-mother keep jawing me because I can get no work; I left home at eight o’clock Thursday morning, and slept at night on the Wansted Flats. I tried for work on Friday, and walked about all night.
Prisoner; It’s all through my step-mother. Mr. Carter JP: Haven’t you any brothers or sisters?—Yes; but they don’t live at home. Step-mother drove my sister away. Mr. Carter; You will be remanded; and we will see if we can get you work. The  prisoner was found by the Superintendent lying on his mother’s grave, and by his side was a bottle of oxalic acid, some of which he had drunk.
Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser, Upton Park and Dagenham Gazette - Saturday 09 July 1904

When Sheldon Goodman of the Cemetery Club visited St Patrick’s he found the Nun’s grave and Mary Kelly’s with little apparent effort. His ability to home in notable graves is legendary, according to him anyway. He doesn’t seem to spend hours aimlessly circling cemetery paths or working his way methodically up and down endless rows of seemingly identical tombstones only to not find the grave he is after. He just whips in, sniffs the air a couple of time and sets off in hot pursuit of the scent of whichever dead person he is tracking down. After a couple of hours in St Patrick’s my fingers were too numb to press the camera shutter and I was in danger of losing my toes to frostbite. I decided to call it a day and return in more temperate weather to make a last attempt to find the Nun’s at least.  

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Lost Memorials of London; The Raymond Mausoleum, Ilford

What was once Ilford’s best known monument was unceremoniously demolished in 1923 by the Port of London Authority because it was inconveniently sited in the middle of a large plot of land they had acquired for use as playing fields.  The triangular castle (very similar to Severndroog in Oxleas Wood on Shooters Hill) was built in 1765 at a cost of £420 by Sir Charles Raymond of Valentines House in Ilford. Sir Charles, a ship owner, banker and a member of the East India Company, intended what became known as Raymond’s Folly to be a mausoleum complete with a crypt containing fourteen loculi to hold the family coffins, a ground floor chapel and an upper floor refreshment room for use during interments. According to local antiquarian George Tasker in his 1901 volume ‘Ilford Past and Present’, a descendant of Sir Charles stumbled across family documents which revealed that his ancestor had failed to see eye to eye with the Bishop of London, Richard Terrick, over the finer points of the consecration ceremony for the mausoleum. The Bishop put his foot down and refused to consecrate the building which meant that it was never used for the purpose for which it had been built. It survived as a farm outbuilding, tenant farmer accommodation and even as an Admiralty observation tower during the Great War, until the fateful day when the land on which it stood was sold to the Port of London Authority.   

Sir Charles Raymond
Sir Charles was born into a family of seafarers in Devon, at Withycombe Raleigh near Exmouth, in 1713. He made his maiden voyage to Bengal and Madras as a 16 year old on an East Indiaman captained by his uncle.  He came into his first command as a callow youth of 21 when the East India Company promoted him to the captaincy of the Wager. Trading on his own behalf as well as for the Company, Sir Charles became a powerful and wealthy man, retiring from the sea relatively early to concentrate on a career as an East India merchant, banker, manager of the Sun Life Insurance Office, a director of the South Sea Company and High Sheriff of Essex. He was made a baronet in 1774. He married Sarah Webster, the illegitimate daughter of John Webster of Bromley in 1743 who bore him five children. The family originally lived in Wellclose Square (one of London’s semi mythical locations where they would have been neighbours of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Hayyim Falk, the Baal Shem Tov of London, and poet Thomas Day who was born there in 1748) but moved to Upton in West Ham in 1750 and to Ilford in 1754 where he bought Valentines House and the neighbouring manor of Highlands where the mausoleum was later to be built. Sir Charles kept a menagerie of exotic animals at Valentines, including peacocks and a pair of secretary birds from South Africa, and laid out new gardens. From one of his vines Capability Brown took a cutting in 1768 from which the great vine of Hampton Court was propagated, now the longest vine in the world and a venerable 250 years old.      Sir Charles also collected curios and objet d’art and crammed the mansion at Valentines with them so thoroughly that one contemporary said the whole house could “be called a Cabinet of Curiosities”. Among his prize items were a dark marble statue from the island of Elephanta, a unique leather bound folio containing 814 Chinese paintings of oriental plants and insects with their medicinal uses described in Chinese and English, Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair  and quantities of Chinese porcelain, some of it painted with his own coat of arms.    

Memorial Tablet to Sir Charles in St Margaret's Barking
As well as the mausoleum Sir Charles built a new house at Highlands which he leased to his sister in law and her husband, Captain Webber. When Captain Webber died his widow stayed on in the property. In 1778 Sir Charles wife died and was buried at St Margaret’s Church in Barking. Soon after her death Sir Charles moved out of Valentines and into Highlands with his sister in law. Sir Charles died on 24 August 1788 and was buried with Sarah in the Raymond vault at St Margaret’s.  The unused mausoleum quickly became Ilford's premier tourist attraction and innumerable postcard depictions of it exist from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Severndroog Castle on Shooters Hill built on 1785 to commemorate Commodore Sir William James the destroyer of the island fortress of Suvarnadurg (unpronounceable to southeast Londoners, hence Severndroog) on the western coast of India

Saturday, 10 March 2018

The Man who would be Cheops Part Three: Thomas Willson 1780-1866 St Mary's Acton

The Donkin Memorial in Port Elizabeth with Fort Frederick in the background, before the building of the lighthouse
Thomas Willson, his wife Mary Ann and his three male children returned to England on the Nautilus, a military transport which set sail from Port Elizabeth on 16 February 1822. The family settled out of town at Belmont Cottage, Stockwell, from where Thomas busied himself writing to Lord Bathurst setting out the grounds for his complaint against the British government and demanding restitution of the money he had lost in his ill conceived colonial adventure;

“I have escaped the chains of perpetual exile in the most horrible prison in the world, fell Africa! And, what have I received in return for my rash confidence? Nothing, but obloquy, ingratitude, and maltreatment, from my numerous followers, and from His Majesty’s Government the most vexatious and mortifying neglect, a want of due support, and I am grieved to speak the truth (for it will be scarcely credited) I have not received its pledge! I have in fact received nothing, I am not benefited by this lamentable and ruinous enterprise the least in the world, I have not derived the value of a straw! Under the most trying difficulties.” (Willson to Lord Bathurst 27 March 1823)

He claimed to have lost “upwards of two thousand pounds sterling, and the enormous waste of nearly six years of the very prime of my life,” but the Government was not sympathetic. Whilst in South Africa and as a result of the huge pressure he was put under by his group of settlers (which included threats to his life) Willson seems to have refunded many of their deposits from his own capital in the belief that “I was to be reimbursed in Money on my arrival at the Cape! It was the money only that could afford me the means of protecting myself from the petty debts of numerous Individuals, whose chief aim was to incur debt, and to rob me: and the money was the only means of reimbursing myself for monies advanced, in anticipation of such repayment! This is a serious loss to me.” (Willson to Bathurst 03 April 1823). The Government’s position was that the deposit money was used to pay for the rations supplied to the party by the colonial authorities and neither Willson nor the settlers had any right to have it refunded. Willson felt sorely treated because he had “incontestible proof that in other instances, to persons similarly circumstanced with myself, …. supplies were issued gratuitously, and that by the express Command of General Donkin.” Willson was making himself such a nuisance that K. Wilmot, a civil servant, wrote from Downing Street to the Governor of Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, setting out the essence of his complaint and, in order to refute it, “as Lord Bathurst has not conceded to Mr. Willson’s demands on the presumption that the Balance in Question would have been paid by the Colonial Authorities if the full value of it had not been received in Rations from the public Stores, He begs Your Lordship would be pleased to give directions that an Account may be immediately prepared, and transmitted to this Office, shewing the value of the Provisions so drawn by Mr Willson as compared with the amount of his deposit.” Almost as an afterthought K. Wilmot also enquired about Willson’s “proceedings as Head of a Party during the time he remained in the Colony,” perhaps hoping something prejudicial would emerge that would help them shut him up.

A dream of Pyramids; Atanasius Kircher imagines the pyramids of Nubia

Incredibly by 1825 Willson was considering emigrating back to Cape Colony and was writing to Lord Bathhurst and others requesting work as a surveyor and a grant of land to compensate him for his financial losses. “It can never be worth my while to hazard a second voyage to the Cape for a trifling consideration,” he wrote to a Government who must by now have been heartily sick of hearing his complaints, “I possess still (Heaven be thanked) a moderate independence in England, which could be employed to much greater advantage in France than at the Cape; notwithstanding this, if I could have a reasonable proportion of land, and a suitable employment, it would be an inducement to return to that colony.” It was that ‘moderate independence’, inherited income of one sort or another, that allowed Willson the time to both continue to brood over his perceived mistreatment in South Africa and to dream of some immense project that would astonish and confound his detractors. What emerged as the pyramids of Meroe and of Caius Cestius melded in his mind with the memorial to Lady Donkin, the “Colossal Monument of our beloved Sovereign King George the fourth” that he had planned for Angloville and the lively contemporary debate about burial reform was the grandiose and bizarre notion of the Pyramid Cemetery. According to HM Colvin in A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects 1600–1840 the idea of the Metropolitan Sepulchre was first launched onto an unsuspecting public in 1824, at an exhibition of the Royal Academy. If Willson did exhibit a pyramid design at the RA it must have been an early and relatively unimpressive version of the metropolitan sepulchre, one that did not attract any press attention as I can find nothing mentioning it in any of the newspapers. Willson himself, in 1829, claimed that he had conceived “the plan of the pyramid to contain millions of the dead” just two years earlier.

The Kings Mews, Charing Cross at the time of the National Depository

The plan for the Metropolitan Sepulchre seems to have first seen the light of day at the National Repository, was opened in the Kings Mews on Charing Cross in 1828 by a group of educationalists for the “Purpose of Annually exhibiting to the public the New and Improved Production of the Artisans and Manufacturers of the United Kingdom”. It was, according to Richard Daniel Altick in his Shows of London effectively the capitals first trade show. The National Repository shared its accommodation with Edward Cross’s menagerie and visitors to the exhibition were accompanied by a soundtrack of monkeys screeching and lions roaring. The exhibits included silk looms, kaleidoscopes, rain gauges, musical glasses, models of improved steam engines, a multipurpose whalebone walking stick containing a mariners compass, telescopes, opera glasses, and models of proposed urban improvements including an iron bridge to be erected over the Thames at Charing Cross or Lambeth and a forty acre “pyramidal metropolitan sepulchre” which Altick says was “suggestive of John Martin’s more bizarre architecture.” The model of the pyramid ‘to accommodate hundreds of thousands of bodies’ was probably the most attention grabbing exhibit.  The Kentish Weekly Post republished, on 20 October 1829, an article from the London University Magazine:

Grand Metropolitan Cemetery.— We have seen the plans of the Pyramid which is to form the principal feature of this novel undertaking. It is intended to be a progressive work, proportionate to the annual demand for burial. When finished it will be capable of receiving no less than five millions of individuals;  being somewhat larger in dimensions than the celebrated Pyramid of Egypt. Simple in form, sublime in effect, and curious in its arrangement; its area will be surrounded by a terrace-walk, an enclosed wall 13 feet high, and the ground within this enclosure is to be tastefully laid out for private tombs and monuments, in the style of the famous cemetery of Pere la Chaise, near Paris. It will present an object of extraordinary grandeur to the Metropolis.

Willson's design for the Metropolitan Sepulchre

In November 1829 Willson was startled to read a newspaper account of a French proposal to build a pyramid in Paris and rushed to write to the London Evening Standard to claim precedent:

Sir, — There appears in a Sunday paper the following paragraph: — "A project is on foot at Paris to construct a cemetery after the plan of the ancient pyramids, to contain five millions of bodies." I am not very desirous of obtruding myself upon the notice of the public; but, when such a glaring plagiarism occurs on the part of our continental neighbours, I feel confident that the English press will be liberal enough to do justice, and protect the interests of a British subject. It will, doubtless, be in your recollection that "the plan of the pyramid to contain millions of the dead" originated with myself above two years ago, and has been exhibited ever since at the National Repository at Charing-cross ; and, now that it is upon the eve of adoption in the vicinity of London, this Parisian plagiarism is not to be tolerated. I therefore appeal to the liberal spirit of your journal to claim the invention on behalf of, Sir, your very humble servant, T. Willson, Architect. No. 11, New Cavendish-street, Portland place, London, Nov 24. 1829

Perhaps rattled by the prospect of being usurped by the French Willson finally published his plans for the Metropolitan Sepulchre in 1830 under the title “The Pyramid, a general metropolitan cemetery to be erected in the vicinity of Primrose Hill”, a publication which included drawings of his proposed design. In March Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle reported that Lord Nugent in Parliament had “presented a Petition from Mr. Thomas Wilson, architect, praying to be heard at the bar of the House in favour of a plan he had completed for the erection of an immense pyramid, calculated hold live millions of bodies. This building would, as he alleged, prove both ornamental and useful, and afford occupation to the living, as well as a place of secure interment for the dead.”

The burial reform movement had become attracted to Willson’s proposal, perhaps more for its publicity value than for any practical hope it held out as a solution to overcrowded and unsanitary churchyards. John Claudius Loudon shared his thoughts on the Pyramid with the Morning Advertiser in January 1830. As with other members of the cemetery movement, Loudon applauded Willson’s desire to abolish burials in churchyards but objected to the pyramid proposal “first, because I think the risk of mephitic exhalations would be greatly increased; secondly, because the expenses of burial of the poor would be greatly increased by such agglomeration of corruption; and, thirdly, and in this perhaps I am peculiar, because I hate the idea of interment in a vault, or in any way which prevents the body from speedily returning to its primitive elements, and becoming useful by entering into new combinations—vegetable, mineral, or even animal, in aquatic burial.” Willson also attracted the attention of barrister George Frederick Carden who enrolled him into the burgeoning burial reform movement. He became one of the early members of Carden’s General Cemetery Company and attended the historic meetings held in the Freemason’s Tavern in June and July 1830, chaired by Andrew Spottiswoode MP. After Carden had opened the meeting by outlining his vision for a London garden cemetery along the lines of Père Lachaise, open to all denominations and all religions, Willson was the first person to respond. According to the Oxford Journal of 10 July 1830, “Mr. Wilson (sic) coincided generally in the sentiments expressed by the last speaker, but he did not think the plan of Pere-la-Chaise suitable for a general cemetery in this country. He had a plan by which he should be able to make 50 or 100 acres of land as available for the purpose of burial as 1,000 could be by any other method.”

But after the initial flurry of interest in the Metropolitan Sepulchre, public attention moved onto other matters and the leaders of the burial reform movement became more firmly focussed on the plan to open a garden cemetery at Kensal Green. During the rest of the 1830’s Willson drifted inexorably into obscurity. We know that by 1835 he was living at Hotwells in Bristol as he was once again in correspondence with the Government about reparations for his African losses, penning the “humble petition of Thomas WILLSON, Gentleman, formerly Head of a Party of Settlers at the Cape of Good Hope, and now residing at the Hotwells, Bristol.” The petition rehearses once again the woeful story of the African adventure, the language being more emotive than ever, the disputes with the settlers in his party had left him “feeling deeply degraded and oppressed in his feelings to find that his influence over his followers was entirely annihilated, his hopes blasted, and his occupation gone, was literally heart broken!” The party “assailed with every kind of Treachery, violence, ingratitude and deadly threats, he was perfectly overturned from his position as the Head of the party, and degraded to the very Slave of the Settlers.” With his “prospects destroyed, his heart pierced and his spirit crushed, for truly "the iron entered his Soul", found it impossible to exist under such a state of oppression” and had been forced to quit his position. He refers to his fortunes after his return to England:

Petitioner on his return home had the mortification to find the former walk of his pursuits in other hands, he nevertheless endeavoured to render himself useful in improving the state of the Metropolis, particularly in the mode of interring the dead, and his plans received the approbation of the most scientific persons in Your Majesty's Kingdom, but he has been again thwarted in this useful work by the Treachery of a false friend, and has had to sustain, singly, the entire expences incurred by this project, and is again wholly thrown out of employment, which makes this appeal to the benevolent breast of Your Majesty the more needful.

After the recital of his woes Willson asks “to be usefully employed and he prays to be admitted into the service of Your Majesty,” before also going on, once again to request the granting of freehold lands in the cape as compensation. The official response to the petition came in February 1836 (the delay having being caused by the first copy of the petition somehow going astray in the Colonial Office):

Lord GLENELG has directed me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 6th instant, with the copy therein enclosed of a Petition which has been by you presented to His majesty praying compensation for a Grant, to which you consider yourself entitled, of 10,000 acres of land at the cape of Good Hope.
 Upon a review of the voluminous correspondence which has already passed between you and this Department upon the subject matter of your Petition to His Majesty, and by which it appears that your claim to the Grant has been repeatedly and decidedly declared to be inadmissible, Lord GLENELG regrets to find himself placed under the necessity of referring you to that correspondence & of informing you that he is unable to arrive at a different conclusion regarding your case than that which was adopted by his predecessor in this Department.

Ninhead Cemetery in the 1840's

The response would have been crushing. Things picked up for Willson in the 1840’s. He was employed by the Nunhead Cemetery Company between 1842-1843, at a salary of £100 a year, though in what capacity we do not know. In 1845 his youngest son and namesake Thomas married Margaret Prosser daughter of the Rev William Prosser at her fathers church in Leicestershire. Willson himself seems to have moved to Leicester sometime in the 1840’s. His presence in Leicester may explain why he did not attend the November meeting of the Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns, held at the society’s rooms in Bridge Street, Blackfriars. The chairman of the society was George Alfred Walker, the celebrated author of ‘Gatherings From Graveyards.’ According to  Illustrated London News of 1 December 1849 “several communications were read and discussed” at the meeting “including a letter from Mr. Wilson (sic), respecting his proposed scheme for a national cemeterial pyramid, and a voluminous report from the chairman, embodying his views on the subject of urban burials.” Suddenly Willson resumed his attempts to get his Metropolitan Sepulchre noticed by the public and backed by the powers that be. In February 1851 the Leicester Mercury published an article under the title of “A Gigantic Mauseoleum”.

We had the pleasure the other day of inspecting, at Messrs. Cox and Collingbourn's, painters, &c, St. Martin's, (opposite Pares's Bank,) large model of an immense Pyramidal Cemetery designed by Mr. Thomas Willson, architect, of this town, and which is to be sent up to the Great Exhibition, where, we doubt not, it will attract great attention in these days of sanitary improvement. Mr. W illson's idea is that even the present suburban cemeteries the neighbourhood of London will in the course of a few years become very much crowded, and that it will be found very difficult to obtain additional tracts of land of sufficient size to prevent the necessity of recurrence to the evils of intramural interment. To this end he proposes the construction of National Metropolitan Cemetery Woking Common, Surrey, of from 100 to 200 acres in extent. In the centre of this, he proposes to erect his great Pyramid-Mauseoleum, occupying an area of from 18 to 20 acres, and rising in successive stages of catacombs (10 feet high and arched) to the height of 900 feet—each stage of course gradually diminishing—until the apex reached ; and on the top of that, Mr. Willson's plan further embraces the elevation of an astronomical observatory in the shape of an obelisk. This Pyramid would hold above 5,000,000 bodies; great economy in ground would thus effected ; and, large as the cost would be, that need not be an insuperable objection, since the erection of the vast edifice would proceed stage upon stage, as one became filled—and the money paid for catacombs would probably defray the cost of each stage. How much more useful such an application the pyramidal form of mauseoleum, than reserving the structure for the reception some one " mighty Cheops, lying alone his glory." On a smaller scale, the Pyramid might be usefully adopted in provincial cemeteries ; while, as heard shrewd member of the legal profession observe, " It would be just the thing, with its fire-proof catacombs, for a national register of wills and deeds!'

In June The Builder noticed “a model of the ‘Great Victoria Pyramid,' connected with a projected national cemetery on Woking Common” at the Industrial Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. This was probably the same model that was presented by Willson the following year to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society as an exhibit for the Town Museum. Willson’s latest attempt to grip the public imagination was successful enough for him to start a business venture and in November 1851 the following advertisement appeared in the Morning Advertiser:

British pyramid national necropolis, designed by Mr. Willson (registered according to the 7th and 8th Victoria.) —The sanctity, economy, and durability of this novel and capacious plan, which gives the option of Earthly Burial,” or Entombment,” being well known to the public by the Model of the Pyramid in the Great Exhibition, intended for the Centre of the General Cemetery—the interests and feelings of families being deeply concerned in suppressing the violation of their tombs, it is resolved to carry this most requisite NATIONAL WORK into effect granting debentures of 10lb. each, bearing 4 per cent interest, payable at the Bank of England. Application for shares, &e, at the Necropolis Office, No. 81, Charing-cross. HENRY TOWNSEND, Secretary.

The business was not a success. In July 1853 Willson found himself standing before Commissioner Phillips at the Insolvent Debtors Court accused by a young man named James Sykes of defrauding him of £200. Sykes told the court that he had advertised for a job in the press and “offered a douceur of £200 to anyone who would procure him a permanent situation.” His bait landed him Thomas Willson who presented himself to Sykes as an architect with offices in Charing Cross and “an extensive practice as a patent agent and architect. He also said he was the principal of the British Pyramid National Necropolis Company, and that he would offer him a permanent situation in his office, at a salary of £100 a year”. Sykes accepted the offer of work and paid over his £200 to Willson, who signed a document promising to repay it in 12 months time. In the office Sykes “found he had little to do — chiefly in copying circulars for a monument to the Duke of Wellington and the Necropolis Company”. By November Willson told him he “must dispense with his services, from the stagnation of business, and would pay him up, and return the money deposited at the proper time.” He handed him £23 as salary but there were no signs of the return of his £200. Sykes took the matter to Bow Street, summoning Willson to appear before the magistrates, who declined to deal with the matter as presumably they judged it to be a civil rather than a criminal case. Sykes then sued Willson in the civil courts and obtained a judgement, but still no money was forthcoming and as a last resort he summonsed Willson to the Insolvent Debtors Court. Willson was called to give evidence – he confessed to having already been declared insolvent in 1817 and admitted that the only gainful employment he had ever had was with the Nunhead Cemetery Company for a year in 1842. He told Commissioner Phillips that he had an outstanding claim against the Lords of the Treasury for £785 being the balance of the £1177 he had deposited with the Colonial Office when taking his party out to Cape Colony. He said that he was still in correspondence with the Treasury about this but still had not received his money. In giving judgement Commissioner Phillips expressed “felt great anxiety about the case on account of the insolvent, who was now in the decline of life, and who was possessed of considerable talent in his profession, and who was capable of gigantic achievements.”  Despite his obvious sympathy for Willson he felt he had no choice but to find him guilty of obtaining the £200 from “a very weak minded young man” by fraud. Willson “who had been harassed and disappointed, fell into the temptation which the advertisement of Sykes offered” when it “was quite clear there was nothing for him to do in his office but copying circulars and drawing diagrams.” Commissioner Phillips said “he would consider the period for which it was his duty to pronounce a judgment for the fraud committed on Sykes. At the rising of the Court (half-past five o'clock), the insolvent was called upon, but the learned commissioner deferred stating the period of imprisonment at that late hour.” (All quotes from London Evening Standard - Wednesday 20 July 1853). Did Willson serve a prison sentence for this fraud as the newspaper implies? I have not been able to trace any record confirming this.

Willson's entry in the burial register at St Mary's Acton
The next records date from 1861 when the census confirms he was living at 6 Mill Hill Terrace, Acton with his wife and daughter (now aged 50) and one servant. In July he placed in the press a notice entitled An Extraordinary Persecution. In 250 words Willson recounts his grievances against the Colonial Office and claims that King William and the Earl of Aberdeen both promised to recompense him for the loss of his deposit money. “He has petitioned in vain for redress but who can contend with the gigantic power of our Government?” he asks. He appeals to the Senate “and also to his compatriots, the British Nation, to prevent this singular injustice, this cruel persecution which is causing him and his aged crippled wife (who has honorably shared in all his perils abroad) to be threatened by an ejectment from the present habitation.” No doubt the appeal fell on deaf ears.

In July 1862 ‘his aged crippled wife’, Mary Ann, died. He placed a notice in the newspaper to commemorate the fact and buried her in the Churchyard of St Mary’s Acton. In 1865 he was living at Cambridge Terrace in Hammersmith where he was declared bankrupt on 4th May. The 86 year old insolvent finally died in Islington, at the house of his son Thomas, in October 1866. His body was buried beside that of his wife in the churchyard at Acton.

Post Script  Willson’s youngest son, named Thomas after his father also became an architect though with rather more success as he built several buildings including the St Enoch Station Hotel in Glasgow for the City of Glasgow Union Railway Company. Thomas never had any children, his wife died in 1856 in her early thirties and he seems to have never remarried. He lived in Hampstead and interestingly he was also a Pyramid dreamer. In 1882, at the age of 68, he produced a design for a pyramid mausoleum in honour of the assassinated US President Garfield “to give expression...for all the profound grief,” caused by the “dastardly assassin”. Garfield’s widow chose another design for his final resting place.