I met Carole Tyrrell years ago, when I discovered her blog Shadows Fly Away. She wonder a wonderfully in-depth feature where she examines one symbol that appears on gravestones, usually in England, and provides history, analysis, and beautiful photos to illustrate it.
Always attracted to the dark side of life as it’s much more entertaining, Carole has been involved with cemeteries for over 30 years. They are an oasis of peace and history. Carole’s fascination with cemetery symbols and their meaning has led to her blog, leading symbolism tours, and a forthcoming book. I can’t wait to read it.
Carole’s essay in Death’s Garden Revisited is about falling in love with London’s Nunhead Cemetery — and how the cemetery changed her life.
What’s your favorite thing to do in a cemetery?
Appreciate the calm.
One of Carole’s lovely photos from Nunhead Cemetery.
Tell me about your favorite cemetery.
Very overgrown, very Gothic, great view from the top of the hill.
Is there a cemetery or gravesite you’ve always wanted to visit?
Too many to mention! One is Arnos Vale in Bristol.
If you have anything to say about it, what would your epitaph be?
See you soon.
Do you have a favorite song about cemeteries or graveyards?
“Cemeteries of London” by Coldplay.
That’s perfect! You can check out Carole’s contributor to the Death’s Garden Revisited playlist on Spotify.
London is basically built on layer upon layer of graves. The book opens with the Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill, which the author calls one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, predating Highgate Cemetery by over 4000 years. I would have liked to hear much more about the earliest burials in the area.
And I would have liked to read more about the Roman-era graves as well. I was thoroughly fascinated by the earliest chapters of this book, since those are the times I am the least familiar with.
The book really grabbed me when it explored the plague pits of the medieval Black Death. I hadn’t realized that the Danse Macabre (or Machabray) had ever come to England from the continent. I could have read much more about those centuries, although so little seems to be left above ground to mark them.
The Tudor chapters were fascinating, but things started to slow down for me after that, as the author got into material I knew better. If you are newer to the study of all things dead in London, you might find this crucial material. For me, the pace dragged.
There were highlights, though. I loved to read about Shelley and Keats in Highgate Village, before the cemetery was built. I’m fascinated by the work of Isabella Holmes, previously unknown to me. She visited every surviving graveyard in London, in hopes of closing them down and converting them to parks. I’m going to have to track down her reports. And the chapter about the fight to legalize cremation gave me insight into another subject I don’t know enough about.
All in all, this is a very readable book, full of intriguing tidbits and lots of food for thought. However, I wish each chapter had a map to display the locations of the places she talks about — or better yet, transparent maps so you could overlay them as see how deep the bodies go.
Cemetery of the Week #175: Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula Address: The Tower of London EC3N, England Phone: 0870 756 6060 Founded: 12th century? Number interred: approximately 1500 Open: Currently 9 AM – 5:30 daily. Last admission: 5 PM Admission: Adult: £29.90 Child: £14.90 Website:https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/
When the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings, some kind of chapel was probably also built on this site, according to London Cemeteries. It may even be the oldest church in London, if Who Lies Where can be believed. Either way, the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula — St. Peter in Chains — was officially founded during the 12th-century reign of Henry I. The crypt is all that remains of that original church. The building that survives today was built by Henry VIII between 1519 and 1529.
Of the 1500 people buried at the Chapel Royal, some were executed on Tower Hill or on the Tower Green just outside the chapel’s door. Among them lies Bishop John Fisher (1467-1535), who was accused of treason after opposing Henry VIII’s decision to secede from the Catholic Church. As a reward for Fisher’s faith, the Pope created him a cardinal and sealed his fate in May 1535. Fisher declared, “The King was not, nor could be, by the law of God, Supreme Head of the Church of England.” He was executed on June 22.
While his body was buried beneath the floor at St. Peter ad Vincula, Fisher’s head was parboiled and placed on a spike on London Bridge. A folktale says that his head looked healthier and healthier as the summer heat wore on. Eventually, the crowds who came to see the miracle were so disruptive that the head was thrown into the Thames.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the author of Utopia and a friend of Henry VIII’s, served as Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor. More, who believed that “no temporal man may be head of the spirituality,” was summoned alongside Fisher to swear allegiance to the Parliamentary Act of Succession on April 13, 1534. Neither man would do so.
A devout Roman Catholic, More refused to speak at all during his trial. Others (some in service of Thomas Cromwell) testified that More refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the Church of England and denied Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legitimate. The court, which included Anne’s father, uncle, and brother, took only 15 minutes to find More guilty. He was sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but the king amended that to beheading.
After his execution in July 1535, More’s body was buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. His head was set on a spike on London Bridge, where his daughter rescued it, possibly by bribery. His skull is believed to rest alongside her in the Roper vault at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, but More’s cenotaph stands in Chelsea Old Church, where he’d had the chapel rebuilt. A shrine was eventually constructed for him in the vault below St. Peter ad Vincula.
Both Fisher and More were beatified in 1886, before being canonized in 1935.
Their antagonist Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s assistant in the dissolution of the monasteries and Protestantization of England, fell from grace when he arranged the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was accused of heresy and treason and was executed on Tower Hill before being buried here in 1540.
Anne Boleyn’s birth year is uncertain (variously 1500, 1501, or 1507), but her death date is clear: May 19, 1536. After less than three years of marriage to Henry VIII, she’d given birth to a daughter (who would become Elizabeth I) and miscarried three more children, including a son in 1535. By March of 1536, Henry was courting Anne’s replacement, Jane Seymour.
The following month, one of Anne’s musicians was arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being Anne’s lover, then went on to implicate four other men. Anne’s brother George was arrested and charged with incest. Anne was accused of witchcraft and adultery, which amounted to treason since she was queen.
She was arrested on May 2. A barge took her from the palace at Greenwich to the Traitor’s Gate at the Tower. As she was escorted to a 14×8-foot cell in the Lieutenant’s lodgings, Anne became hysterical, laughing and crying so much that she frightened those in attendance.
Her show trial on May 15 was attended by 200 people. Anne was acquitted of incest, for which she could have been burned at the stake, but was found guilty of treason. From her room in the Tower, she watched the scaffold being built on Tower Green. An expert executioner was imported from Calais.
Four days later, Anne wore a dark gray gown with a crimson petticoat to her beheading. She knelt upright, after the French fashion of execution, and was blindfolded. The executioner removed her head with a single stroke of his double-edged sword.
No arrangements had been made for her burial, so her corpse lay on the platform until someone retrieved an arrow chest to serve as her coffin. Her ladies waited beside it until someone was found who could open the chapel’s floor so she could be laid to rest. As was the custom for those who were executed, her grave wasn’t marked but its location was recorded.
During Queen Victoria’s renovations to the chapel in 1876, Anne’s body was identified (or not—experts differ) and reburied on the left side of the altar under a marble plaque that bears her name.
The five men accused of adultery with Anne were executed publicly on Tower Hill on May 17, 1536. Without ceremony or memorial, their headless bodies were buried under the nave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. They were buried with quicklime, which dehydrates the flesh and prevented the smell of decay from disrupting services in the chapel.
Catherine Howard became Henry’s fifth wife at age 19, when he was in his fifties and running out of time to father a healthy male heir. They married on July 28, 1540, the day of Cromwell’s execution. The following year, desperate to bear the king a son and save her own life, Catherine began a relationship with Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry’s favorite courtiers. She also hired Francis Derehem, to whom she’d been betrothed before marrying Henry, as her secretary. The two men confessed, under heavy torture, to adultery with the queen.
After only 18 months of marriage, Catherine was executed on February 13, 1542. Afraid that the executioner would botch it, Catherine called for a rehearsal the night before her death. In the morning, she needed assistance to climb the steps to the scaffold. Her last words, according to legend, were, “I die as a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpepper.” She was beheaded with a single stroke of an axe and buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. Her body was not identified during the Victorian renovation.
The third queen at rest (or not) inside the Chapel Royal was a teenager when she died. Lady Jane Grey was born sometime around 1537, the granddaughter of Mary Tudor. When she was 10, she was sent to live in the household of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow, who had remarried after Henry’s death.
At the age of 16, Jane married Lord Guilford Dudley. As Edward VI lay dying in Summer 1553, he drafted a document to forbid the crown from passing to a Catholic. Encouraged by Jane’s father-in-law, Edward specifically named Jane as his successor. The first British monarch raised a Protestant, Edward was the only surviving male heir of Henry VIII, the son of Jane Seymour.
Three days after Edward’s death, Jane was informed she was now queen. Reluctantly, she accepted the crown on July 10, 1553 and took residence in the Tower of London. Nine days later, the Privy Council switched their allegiance to Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Jane became a prisoner in the Tower and was convicted of usurping the throne.
Guilford Dudley was executed on Tower Hill on February 12, 1554. Queen Mary allowed her cousin Jane to be executed privately on Tower Green. Jane ritually washed her hands of the throne and blindfolded herself, but when she couldn’t find the executioner’s block, she began to panic. Someone helped her to the block, where she commended her spirit to God. A single axe stroke ended her life.
Lady Jane Grey was buried on the lower step of the altar with her husband, Guilford Dudley. A marble plaque, placed during the Victorian renovation, marks their grave.
When the chapel was restored in 1876, most of the remains and some intact coffins buried under the chapel’s floor were re-interred in the medieval crypt. In all, some 1500 people are buried in the crypt: prisoners (some with their heads), soldiers who had been stationed at the Tower, the Tower’s administrators, and other Tower denizens.
No photos are allowed in the chapel, which is still a working church. It’s possible to attend a communion service or a choral Matins. Otherwise, tourists are allowed inside only by joining a Yeoman Warder’s tour, which is free with an admission ticket to the Tower. Tours begin every 30 minutes at the entrance to the Tower.
Books I Consulted – the highlighted ones I’ve reviewed on Cemetery Travel:
No one agrees where this story started or rather, there are as many beginnings as there are storytellers.
In the early days, Hampstead Heath was the only thing sinister about the area. Highwaymen flourished there, like Dick Turpin, whose ghost still loiters ’round the pub. The village of Highgate stood on a tall hill overlooking the city of London, sprawled across the river plain below. Highgate’s name described its function: it served as point of entry for farm goods coming from the countryside to feed and clothe the metropolis.
Following the nondenominational fashion set by Pere-Lachaise in Paris, Highgate Cemetery was founded in 1839. The “garden cemetery” was envisioned as a place of beauty where Londoners could escape the smoke and dirt of their city. It offered controlled nature — serene, park-like, and safe — beside the wilderness of Hampstead Heath.
The cemetery made the area fashionable. While it was no Kensal Green — final home of a Prince of England, William Makepeace Thackery, Wilkie Collins, Lady Byron, and friends of Shelley’s — Highgate managed to land Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, the family of Charles Dickens, as well as various balloonists, menagerists, scientists, and philosophers like Karl Marx.
Among the artistic souls buried in the western half of the graveyard was Elizabeth Siddal, muse, mistress, and eventually wife to Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A hat-maker’s assistant, beautiful Lizzie had been wooed by the dashing Italian immigrant, who refused to settle down after he’d won her heart. Increasingly depressed after a stillborn child, Lizzie took her own life with an overdose of laudanum in 1862. At the graveside service, distraught Rossetti placed a handwritten volume of poems on the pillow just before the coffin lid was sealed.
Rossetti’s fortunes faltered after his muse removed herself from the mortal plane. He became convinced that he was going blind and losing his painterly skill, that he was destined to be remembered as a poet rather than as a painter. His questionably scrupulous agent persuaded Rossetti that he could cement his reputation if only he’d publish the poems consigned to Lizzie’s grave. In October 1869, permission was granted to exhume the coffin, as long as it was done by night and did not upset the neighbors or patrons of the cemetery. By flickering torchlight, workmen peeled back the damp rich dirt of England.
This is perhaps where our story begins in earnest: When Lizzie’s coffin was forced open, all that remained of her beauty was the silken mass of her auburn mane. The grave robbers brushed tendrils of hair from the silk-bound manuscript, which was fumigated, then published by the profligate poet. Lizzie’s sad remains were returned to the cold autumn ground.
The story was leaked, possibly by one of the horrified torchbearers, to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. Elizabeth Miller in her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense theorizes that Bram Stoker read the news while working on Dracula, since the paper also reviewed the Lyceum’s production of King Lear, with which Stoker was involved. If that’s the case, Lizzie Siddal served in death as another man’s muse, transmuted into Lucy Westenra and given life beyond the grave. David J. Skal reports in V is for Vampire that Stoker was once a neighbor of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s.
Whether Highgate Cemetery was the churchyard described by Stoker remains a matter of debate. In Dracula, Van Helsing says, “Lucy lies in the tomb of her kin, a lordly death-house in a lonely churchyard, away from teeming London; where the air is fresh, and the sun rises over Hampstead Hill, and where wild flowers grow of their own accord.” The fictional newspaper reports of Lucy’s postmortem attacks on children are headlined Hampstead, the town west of the heath. Highgate lies on its eastern edge.
Whatever the true inspiration, the century turned. England endured World War I, in which one of every three soldiers perished. At the war’s end, the influenza pandemic swept the country, killing thousands. The young and vigorous, plucked in their prime, glutted the nation’s graveyards.
World War II finished the job, wiping out most of a generation of men. In the first decades of the century, whole families had ceased to exist. No one survived to tend the graves; no money came from new burials to pay the army of gardeners. In the 1940s, Highgate was abandoned to nature. And Nature ran rampant.
By the end of the 1960s, Highgate Cemetery was choked with weeds, shadowed by a dense forest of ornamental trees, and colonized by wildlife from the Heath that included foxes, hedgehogs, rabbits, songbirds, and hundreds of insect varieties.
In 1968, the cemetery featured in Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of Hammer Studio’s costume thrillers starring Christopher Lee as the immortal count. In the film, three bored businessmen contact a lord whose family cut him off for practicing Satanism in the family chapel. The men acquire a vial of dried blood and Dracula’s cape, then travel by carriage to Highgate. They climb over a fallen tree, fight through the underbrush, and find themselves at the creaking gate of the Egyptian Avenue. They navigate the sunken catacombs, then enter a towering mausoleum (whose interior existed only on a soundstage) to reconstitute the eponymous count. So, perhaps, our story begins.
In March 1969, the British Psychic and Occult Society heard tales of a tall black apparition amidst the graves at sunset or after dark. The original sighting was traced to an accountant referred to as Thornton in the Society’s report, Beyond the Highgate Vampire. Thornton had been exploring the cemetery. At dusk, as he attempted to leave, he became hopelessly lost. A sudden sense of dread caused him to turn. Over him loomed a dark specter that transfixed him with its glare. He lost all sense of time and felt drained of energy when it finally released him.
The Society investigated the cemetery. Mostly, it discovered widespread vandalism: “vaults broken open and coffins literally smashed apart.” A vault on the main pathway had been forced open and the coffins inside set afire.
Highgate Cemetery, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.
Though this clearly had a human origin, sightings of the dark figure continued. The Society decided to perform a séance in the cemetery at midnight on August 17, 1970. They cast a protective circle on the ground, sealing it with consecrated water and salt. After the séance began, they heard muffled voices coming toward them. The police had decided belatedly to patrol the cemetery. Despite the dangers of leaving the circle before the spirits were banished, Society members scattered. Society president David Farrant was arrested as he tried to slip past the police. Among the paraphernalia he carried was a short wooden stake with a string for measuring out the magic circle. This was taken as evidence that he had been hunting vampires.
Farrant was acquitted, since legally Highgate was open to the public, even at midnight. The magistrate likened the hunt for vampires to the search for the Loch Ness Monster: foolish, but harmless.
In his book, Farrant meanders off on a justification of his Wiccan faith and the evils of Christianity. This is at odds with the photo of him included in the booklet (published 1997) “hunting a vampire” clutching a crucifix and “Holy Bible.” Apparently his beliefs about the efficacy of the crucifix have evolved over the last three decades. He posits a ley line that runs from a haunted pub in Highgate Village called Ye Olde Gatehouse under the old “yew” tree in the center of the cemetery’s columbarium. (In all other references, the tree is a cedar — hence, the area’s designation as the Circle of Lebanon.)
The British Psychic and Occult Society officially closed its examination in 1973 due, Farrant writes, to the “concern of the cemetery authorities and the police who saw the Society investigation as being responsible for a marked increase in damage and desecration at the cemetery.” He neglects to mention that he was in court again in June 1974. The prosecution contended that “Farrant was the vampire of Highgate,” according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her book Vampires Among Us. Farrant was charged with maliciously damaging a memorial to the dead, interfering with a dead body, tampering with witnesses by sending them poppets, and possession of a firearm. The last charge earned him several years in prison.
Perhaps this was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. Sean Manchester, then president of the British Occult Society (no relation to the British Psychic and Occult Society), claims to have begun investigating phenomena at Highgate Cemetery in 1967. Manchester interviewed two 16-year-old schoolgirls who reported seeing graves inside Highgate yawn open and corpses rise. Afterward, one of the girls, Elizabeth Wojdyla, suffered nightmares where a corpse-faced man tried to get into her bedroom.
When Manchester caught up with Elizabeth again in 1969, “her features had grown cadaverous.” Her neck had two “highly inflamed swellings” with holes in their centers. Manchester vowed to rescue her from the vampire obviously feeding on her.
In his quest, Manchester encountered another young woman whom he believed was under vampiric attack. In his book The Highgate Vampire, he refers to her as Lusia. Like Lucy Westenra, Lusia walked in her sleep. Manchester followed her from her apartment into Highgate Cemetery, up the “haunted icy path” through the Egyptian Avenue to the catacombs in the Circle of Lebanon. Lusia paused before one of the tombs and struggled to open it. Manchester flung a crucifix between her and the door. The girl collapsed and had to be carried home. Her parents must have been thrilled when Manchester showed up with her.
Manchester went to the press in February 1970. He told the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “We would like to exorcise the vampire by the traditional and approved manner — drive a stake through its heart with one blow just after dawn, chop off its head with a gravedigger’s shovel, and burn what remains.”
When no volunteers stepped forward to help, Manchester approached the media again in March, intruding while David Farrant was being interviewed by a television crew about the “hauntings” inside Highgate. Farrant stresses that he took great care to avoid the term vampire, but a “theatrical character” announced that he intended to lead a vampire hunt the following night.
Hundreds of people showed up to assist. The police arrived with spotlights. Despite the carnival atmosphere, Manchester and an assistant chopped a hole through the roof of the tomb in the catacombs. Manchester was lowered by rope into the vault, where he found three empty coffins. He sprinkled each with garlic and holy water, then encircled each with salt, according to Carol Page’s Bloodlust: Conversations with Real Vampires.
The exorcism didn’t halt the desecration of graves, the mutilation of corpses, or the slaughter of foxes and other small animals found drained of blood in the cemetery. In fact, after the exorcism, someone dragged a woman’s corpse from her grave, chopped off her head, drove a stake her through the heart, and left her body lying in the middle of a pathway.
In the winter of 1973, Manchester eventually traced the King Vampire to an abandoned mansion in north London (already investigated by Farrant’s BPOS as haunted), where he discovered an enormous black casket. Manchester and his assistant Arthur dragged it outside. Manchester kicked the coffin lid off and … Well, perhaps it’s best to let him tell the story: “Burning, fierce eyes beneath black furrowed brows stared with hellish reflection. Yellow at the edges with blood-red centres, they were unlike any other beast of prey.”
Manchester staked the corpse through its heart, shielding his ears “as a terrible roar emitted from the bowels of hell.” The corpse turned to brown slime. The stench was so awful, Arthur forgot to work his camera and the event passed unrecorded.
The two men built a pyre, tossed the coffin on, doused it with gasoline, and set it ablaze. Incredibly, no one in London noticed the explosion, the smell, or the smoke.
While he’s never been officially charged with vandalism or “interfering with a corpse,” Manchester remains persona non grata at Highgate Cemetery.
In 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed after the cemetery’s owner shut down the Western Cemetery for economic reasons. FOHC volunteers worked on Saturday afternoons to clear brambles, fell invasive trees, and reopen access to gravesites. Eventually, FOHC bought the entire cemetery. They now sell guidebooks and offer tours to raise money for their work.
Which is where I come into the story. I visited Highgate for the second time in June 1995. I was determined to see the western side of the graveyard, where the Rossettis and Lizzie Siddal are buried. Outside the large “undertaker’s gothic” chapel, I paid three pounds to join a guided tour. Our guide explained that a tunnel runs from the Anglican chapel under Swain’s Lane to the “newer” eastern side of the cemetery (where the first burial occurred in 1860) so that a coffin never leaves consecrated ground once the body has been blessed.
The Friends of Highgate treat the western side of the cemetery as “managed wilderness.” Simply cutting back the ivy would be a full-time job, so they only trim enough of the brush to keep some paths open and remove trees whose roots threaten monuments. The British National Trust and British Heritage have both funded conservation efforts. For the most part, the Friends maintain the cemetery in its romantic decay. Only in the most extreme cases, like the Circle of Lebanon, do they resort to restoration.
Highgate’s Egyptian Avenue, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.
One of the highlights of the tour was finally seeing the Egyptian Avenue for myself. It was originally painted red, blue, and yellow, to lure tourists to the cemetery. Now it is simple gray. An Egyptian arch with obelisks on either side leads to a sunken avenue open to the sky. Family tombs, carved into the hillside, line the avenue. Each is set apart from the next by columns with lotus bud capitals. The valley was wonderfully cool in the humid June afternoon.
We followed the avenue to its end in the ring of catacombs called the Circle of Lebanon. The old cedar in the center survives from the original Ashurst estate, predating the cemetery by at least 150 years. Its spreading branches curtained our tour group 20 feet below the surface of the ground. FOHC is concerned for the tree because of its age and having had the ground around cut away beneath it.
We passed Radclyffe Hall’s tomb without remark from the guide. I happened to turn at the right moment to read, “And if God choose, I shall but love thee better after Death,” the epitaph chosen by Hall’s surviving girlfriend. Una Troubridge had hoped to be buried beside the love of her life, but died in Rome and was never returned home. I snapped a quick murky photo as the tour group moved on without me.
The tour climbed up to the mausoleum of Julius Beer. It is the “largest and grandest of all the privately owned buildings in the Cemetery,” according to the FOHC guidebook. Its design was inspired by the tomb of King Mausolus (from whom we draw the word mausoleum) at Halicarnassus, Turkey — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Beer’s mausoleum has a stunning blue and gold mosaic ceiling. After it was broken into and its residents dragged out of their coffins, the mausoleum has been converted to a tool shed by the Friends of Highgate.
The Beer family mausoleum, Highgate, June 2016. Photo by Loren Rhoads.
In the Victorian era, the Jewish Beer family migrated to London from Frankfurt. Julius Beer owned the London Observer, but society shunned him because of his religion. In order to be buried in Highgate, he converted to the Church of England in the 1880s. Previous to that, people came to Highgate on weekends to picnic on the land above the Circle of Lebanon. Beer’s revenge on society was to construct his mausoleum to obstruct their view. Rumor insinuated that he had killed his family. His wife died first, followed by their eight-year-old consumptive daughter. Inside the mausoleum, a marble angel stoops to kiss a life-sized child — whose face was modeled on the death mask of Beer’s little girl. Beer himself died of apoplexy in his early 40s. His son Frederick took over the Observer and slid into madness.
Although he spent 5000 pounds on his mausoleum and owned a major newspaper, Beer did not receive an obituary in the London Times. If ever anyone deserved to come back as a vampire, I nominate Julius Beer. Persecuted for his religion in life, hounded by ugly rumors after his death, he seems most justified to be the demonic figure in black which inhabited Highgate Cemetery.
If you’ve ever loved the roar of traffic and the screaming engines of passenger aircraft, there is one cemetery that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Located near the idyllic Chiswick House and the beautiful A136 dual carriageway, behind the stout iron railings and red brick pillars, is probably one of London’s least tranquil and restful cemeteries, next to a train line and directly under the Heathrow flight path.
Loren very kindly invited me to write about a Cemetery which is special to me. I have a choice of two. Out of the hat, I’ve decided to go for Chiswick New Cemetery.
Chiswick. Where’s that? If you’re a Doctor Who aficionado, you may be aware it’s where Donna Noble, companion of the Tenth Doctor, lives. Chiswick New Cemetery opened in response to Chiswick Old becoming full – the likes of William Hogarth and Whistler are buried there – so in 1933, a former water meadow was redeveloped into a municipal cemetery to serve a borough facing the prospect of war.
Chiswick New is not in the same league as Highgate or Brompton, which, you may be aware, are part of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London (a ring of death that circled the Capital and receive its dead to the present day, to varying degrees). The Magnificent Seven’s success spawned further places of burial. By the time Chiswick opened, mourning had changed from the pomp and grandeur of those original Seven and it was all a much quieter affair.
Despite this, there are some things to look out for, such as the striking chapel built out of the same stone as St. Paul’s Cathedral, interspersed with red brick for good measure and echoing the Art Deco style that was so popular at the time. There are also a good number of Russian crosses, reflecting the Russian community that settled in Chiswick over the years, as well as the large Irish Catholic contingent, who drape many graves with rosary beads and images of Our Lady.
One of the things I learnt when visiting Chiswick New was that John Sullivan wrote something other than hit UK TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Here, beneath an intricately crafted iron floral cross and a vast mass of lavender swarming with honey bees, is the actor Ralph Bates, best known for his role in Sullivan’s short-lived Dear John sitcom. Born in Bristol in 1940, he was the great-great nephew of vaccination and microbiologist Louis Pasteur and became a key actor in the later Hammer Horror films.
Another actor of stage and screen is here: Bonar Colleano, who hailed from an Australian circus family but was himself born in New York in the mid-1920s. Moving to London to tour the music halls and work in stage and radio, his decision, when war was declared in 1939, to entertain the troops meant that he was not called up for active service by either British or American forces.
His best-known work was appearing opposite actress Vivien Leigh in the London run of A Streetcar Named Desire. A car crash in 1958 cut short a promising career.
Then there’s also the Car Lady of Chiswick, Anne Naysmith, who made the headlines a few years ago for living in a shelter behind Stamford Brook station after being evicted from her house. A formidable concert pianist in her youth, she experienced heartbreak in the 1970s, which pushed her to willingly living on the street. She accepted no charity and lived on £10 ($14.50) a week. Her clothing was a mixture of different materials and her shoes were made of supermarket carrier bags, pigeon feathers, and elastic bands. Despite her poverty, she had a stockbroker in the City and an investment portfolio. Her story bears a strong resemblance to Alan Bennett’s Lady in the Van, featuring the marvellous Dame Maggie Smith.
Toward the back of the cemetery, by a very tall Leylandii hedge, is the grave of Havildar Lachhiman Gurung VC of the Gurkha Rifles, who won the army’s highest accolade in World War II by repeatedly throwing grenades out of the trench he was sharing with his comrades. The third grenade exploded as he held it, blasting off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding his face, body, and right leg. Despite this, he kept on fighting, singlehandedly repelling an attack by the German forces, killing 31 of them by firing a machine gun with one hand.
I met a delightful cat at his grave.
Chiswick New has a particular interest for me because one of my grandmothers is buried there. The grave she’s in has been a place of pilgrimage ever since I was born; it’s where my grandfather and great grandparents are buried. This was the only grave that I was allowed to see when we visited. Whilst people such as Ralph Bates and Anne Naysmith were nearby, I never got the chance to see or explore their lives, as I was far too young to be wandering around on my own.
Now, the blog I co-write with Christina and others seeks to open up these places of the dead and show you the lives once lived. And it partly started from here.
Sheldon K. Goodman is a City of Westminster guide with a passion for exploring the environment around us. He has an extensive and deep interest in cemeteries and the people buried within them, which he shares at www.cemeteryclub.co.uk. Sheldon also leads tours around London: regularly around Tower Hamlets and Brompton Cemeteries, as well as upcoming walks around Soho and Bloomsbury in Summer 2016.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.