Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Archbishop of Narbonne's Teeth; Arthur Richard Dillon, 1721 - 1806, St Pancras burial ground

It is odd that a French Catholic Archbishop fled from anti-clerical persecution in revolutionary France to take 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.”

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.      

The Archbishop's teeth


Lucie de la Tour du Pin "Recollections of the revolution and the empire, from the French of the "Journal d'une femme de cinquante ans"

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

"Horrible Desecration of the Dead at St Pancras" - 1866

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

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 donbt 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

Working on the new mainline into St Pancras - a view of the church and churchyard from the southwest 

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 probably 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 coffin 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?'"

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

General György Kmety, 1813-1865, Kensal Green Cemetery

The Kmety Obelisk in Kensal Green Cemetery

Hungarian General György Kmety's funeral took place in Kensal Green on Monday 1st May 1865. The newspapers reported that the General was buried in the morning “in the presence of a numerous assemblage of private and personal friends. The procession consisted of two mutes in silk robes, state lid of feathers, hearse surmounted feathers, drawn by four horses with feathers and velvet trappings, ten mourning coaches, each drawn by two horses with feathers and velvet trappings. The private carriages of his Excellency the Turkish Ambassador, the Earl of Ducie, Lord Dufferin, Count Svtaray, and a number of carriages of the ambassador's suite and the friends of the late general, followed…… The brass engraved plate on the lid of the coffin bore the following inscription: —'General George Kmety (Ismail Pacha), of the Imperial Turkish and the late Hungarian Armies. Born May, 1813, in Hungary; died in London April 25, 1865.'" (Dublin Evening Mail 03 May 1865).

General Kmety with his troops during the Crimean War

The General was born in 1813 in Pokoragy, a village now on the Hungarian-Slovack border. His father, a protestant clergyman, died when he was four and his mother took him to live with her uncle, also a clergyman. He was a bright youngster who did well enough at school to be sent to the Protestant Lyceum in Pressburg and to win a scholarship to a German University. Unfortunately a clerical error awarded his place to another student with the same name. “This disappointment so much chagrined the youth that he went to Vienna and turned soldier,” said the General’s obituary in the London Standard. In 1848 Kmety joined the Hungarian revolution as a Captain and ended it as a General after distinguishing himself in several engagements. With the failure of the revolution and under sentence of death he fled to the Ottoman empire and joined the army as Ismail Pasha (though he never converted to Islam). He was instrumental in modernising the Ottoman Army and served with his old comrade Józef Bem (one of the leaders of the 1848 revolution in Hungary) who had become a Muslim and been rewarded by being made the Governor of Aleppo. When Bem died in 1850 Kmety moved to London where he kicked his heels for a couple of years and relieved the tedium of civilian life by entering into a public squabble with another Hungarian General, Artúr Görgey who had published a book trying to justify his controversial leadership during the revolution. When the Crimean War broke out Kmety raced back to Constantinople and rejoined the Ottoman Army. He became famous serving under the British commander, General William Fenwick Williams, at the heroic siege of Kars where only cholera and starvation eventually forced the gallant garrison to surrender to the Russians. He retired in 1861 and returned to London where he died four years later.    

Kmety by Károly Brocky (or Charles Brocky as he became known), a fellow Hungarian exile and member of the Royal Academy