Present at the Death

The value of the 19th century cemeteries today as open spaces in the metropolis is enormous. The trees are now mature; the graves and monuments have taken on the patina of age, and often, as in Highgate, an Arcadian quality exists which would be ruined by conversion to a pure park.

Jeremy Bentham advised that one’s ancestors should be embalmed and kept around the house and gardens, and although his suggestion has practical difficulties, he certainly grasps the point that without a connection with our ancestors’ past we become loose and unsettled, and drift, with no roots and no tribal memory.

The Victorian Celebration of Death,  James Stevens Curl (1972)

The arrival of an ancestor’s death certificate from the General Register Office (GRO) is always an eagerly anticipated moment for a family historian – especially if the death in question seems an unusual or untimely one. This is not just due to morbid curiosity (although admittedly that does play a role), but because the way our ancestors died can tell us so much about how they lived. In the case of both my paternal great-great-grandparents, James Skelton and Mary-Ann Hawkins, bronchitis was stated as the official cause of death, something which does not surprise me, given the time and place where they lived (industrial Victorian Southwark). This fact puts me in mind of the rather macabre rhyme my father used to be fond of quoting: It’s not the cough that carries you off, but the coffin they carries you off in. Created as a humorous quip by the music hall star George Formby snr. in order to make light of his on-stage bronchial cough while suffering from tuberculosis, it illustrates just how pervasive such illnesses once were, even in the first half of the twentieth century.

As I later found out, it was that very same disease which ‘carried off’ James Skelton’s oldest daughter by his first marriage, Margaret Sarah, in December 1848, at the age of twenty-four. The Cause of Death stated on the certificate makes grim reading: Phthisis 7 years, Ascites, Anasarca. A quick internet search brought me to the rather gruesome medicine.net website where you are only a click away from thinking you have most afflictions known to man. Here Phthisis is rather blithely defined as: A good trivia or crossword item. An over-consonanted Greek word meaning “a dwindling or wasting away.” Pronounced TIE-sis. Phthisis is an archaic name for tuberculosis. A person afflicted with tuberculosis in the old days was destined to dwindle and waste away like Mimi, the heroine of Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme.” I switched to a different website to determine the meaning of the other two medical terms, their Greek-sounding authority making me fear the worst. I discovered that Ascites means ‘bag-like’- based on the description of the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. Its sister term Anasacra also refers to fluid retention (or Oedema), this time in the tissues, and like Ascites is another secondary effect of advanced tuberculosis (amongst other illnesses).

It is hard not to feel moved at the thought of James, officially named as present at the death, watching his oldest daughter suffer in her sickroom in such a grotesque way, only two years after his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, also died at home of what was most likely cancer of the womb (Diseased womb of long-standing, repeated haemorrhage and exhaustion). The family had moved into their relatively grand new house in Brixton two years prior to Sarah’s death, and this makes me wonder whether it was the bad health of his wife and daughter which may have precipitated the move to what was then still partially countryside.

From 1844 to 1847 James is to be found in the trade directories, carrying on his tailoring business, but now at 15 Cheapside, in the City, and sharing professional rooms with a Miss Margaret Sarah Skelton, Professor of Music. I can imagine father and daughter (perhaps his favourite child, as she was his first-born, and named after his mother and wife) travelling into the city each day, delighting in each other’s company in that special way of fathers and daughters. So it is not so surprising that only a year after Margaret Sarah’s demise he is in the arms (and bed) of the nineteen year old Mary Ann Hawkins, diluting his pain with some very living flesh.

An on-line burial record search revealed that both Sarah and Margaret Sarah were interred at the relatively new Nunhead Cemetry of All Saints – a piece of information which in Sarah’s case (in 1846) had been inserted into the parish register in cribbed handwriting, illustrating just how novel the idea of an out of parish burial was at the time. As is well-documented elsewhere – most notably in Catharine Arnold’s well-researched book Necropolis: London and its Dead – finding where to bury the dead in the capital’s unsanitary and over-crowded parish churchyards had become a prescient issue by the beginning of the 19th century. As a result of this, seven private cemeteries were established on large areas of open land on the outskirts of London between 1833 and 1841. These monster burial grounds were positioned in a ring around the city, in areas which would themselves eventually be swallowed up by the growth of the metropolis. The most well-known of these is Highgate, mainly to its location and the number of famous people buried there, including Karl Marx. But all of these private Victorian cemeteries – sometimes referred to as ‘the Magnificent Seven’ – were designed to provide not just burial grounds but also ‘health-improving’ parkland and walkways for visitors and the local population, and their construction included elaborate neo-gothic chapels and landscaped driveways for funeral cortèges.

nunhead-cemetery-00585-640-2Gravedigger at Nunhead Cemetery, circa 1850

Nunhead is one of the lesser-known of these huge cemeteries. It was the penultimate one (of the seven) to be laid out, and was consecrated by The Lord Bishop of Winchester in 1840. Perhaps because of the cemetery’s tricky location – on a hilltop, still surrounded by countryside in those days, near what were the distant villages of Nunhead and Peckham, but now a part of the South London metropolis which is not on an underground line – it was and is less visited by those outwith the area. Today it is included on the final section of the 40 mile Green Chain Walk through south-east London (originating in Thamesmead). This section of the walk (numbered 11) starts from Crystal Palace, taking in Sydenham Hill Woods, One Tree Hill, and Camberwell Old and New Cemetery along the way. Nunhead Cemetry makes a marvellous end point to the walk, but the fifty-two acre plot is also a worthwhile destination itself, being now partly a nature reserve run by Southwark Council and The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery (FONC)

nunhead_plotNunhead Cemetery and Environs, 1860s (showing proposed local railway lines)

However, until fairly recently the cemetery and its buildings had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and it was not until a lottery heritage grant in the late 1990s that restoration was begun by the above-mentioned groups. But a visit to the cemetery in the early 1970s, shortly after it was officially closed, would have been a very different sight from that which greets visitors today. James Stevens Curl describes it thus: Nunhead forms a huge wedge of open space, well planted with fine mature trees, in a particularly dismal part of London. Unfortunately many will regard this cemetery as an eyesore, for at the time of writing it is prone to savage attacks by vandals. The Dissenters’ Chapel has been demolished, and the charming, light, and feathery Anglican Chapel is daily being reduced to a ruin. The catacombs have been broken into and coffins have been thrown to the ground. Monuments have been smashed. Both gate lodges have been reduced to dereliction. Similar damage is reported from Highgate.

If this does not sound bad enough, Curl goes on to state: The registers for Nunhead and several items concerning Highgate were found abandoned in the cemetery. This astonishing callousness towards valuable historical records and the dereliction of the cemetery itself are only possible to understand when we remember that privately owned cemeteries are a residue of an extraordinary boom in early Victorian times which came to a sudden end. What was not realised is that, since land is sold with rights in perpetuity, cemeteries must be a wasting asset. There can be no hope of profit, since local-authority cemeteries have the upper hand.

These wonderful old leather-bound registers of which Curl speaks are now stored at Southwark Council’s office in Camberwell New Cemetery and contain detailed information about each grave, including the depth of the plot and materials used. It was to this office that I turned when I decided to seek out the possibility of finding a gravestone for either Sarah Skelton (née Vaughan) or her daughter, Margaret Sarah. What I could never have imagined is that this enquiry would then lead me to the discovery of a family plot which contained, not only James’ wife and oldest daughter, but also James himself, as well as his son and daughter-in-law, and even a grandchild (who died in 1921). However, this was a plot exclusively reserved for the first family: the one which called their father a ‘gentleman’ (even when he was living in sin with Mary Ann and squiring all those Cockney bastards), and which seemed to want to deny the existence of little Arthur and his siblings.

Until that winter’s day in 2012, I had never visited a family grave. Both sets of my grandparents were cremated and their ashes spread in anodyne crematoria rose gardens. To avoid my father ending up with this fate, his ashes are still in the plastic urn the crematorium supplied us with in 1995, currently at the back of my mother’s garage. I have never dared to even open the lid on the toolbox where the urn is stashed, but have assured my mother that one day his ashes will be co-mingled with her own and placed somewhere both of them loved (a tall order that anyone who knows/knew them can attest to). Although the idea of holding on to a relative’s ashes for so long may seem slightly unusual, I have since discovered that in actual fact a large proportion of the ashes of the deceased currently reside in attics and sheds up and down the land, while relatives remain undecided as to where this final resting place should be. But oh, for a grave! As mentioned in my first post, I am quite envious of the Waugh family, who have headstones to visit which seem to give them some kind of comfort, even if only to avenge themselves upon certain family members (see Begin Again).

So to find out that there was a Skelton family grave of sorts was a moment that was fraught with apprehension. I was worried by the thought that in the intervening years the headstone might have been removed or have toppled to the ground and be covered in impenetrable vegetation (both of these scenarios considered a distinct possibility, according to the Nunhead Cemetery factsheet). And also at the thought that I would now have some responsibility towards this grave. Would I always feel the need to return to visit the headstone with flowers on certain days or times of the year? Would I now be honour-bound to weed and care for the spot for the rest of my life? And who would be interested in carrying on such a tradition once I was no longer around to continue the task? But I was also comforted at the knowledge that so many of those ancestors whose records I’d perused for years were all together – in there. I imagined their bones jumbled up beneath the earth, perhaps coloured scraps of silk and wool from their burial clothes clinging to a femur or a collarbone. I thought about all sorts of slightly gruesome things that I perhaps should not have and which made my heart race.

1341.JPGThe type of grave I expected (and hoped) to find

In the end, the actual event of visiting the grave was a mixture of both elation and disappointment. Having scrutinised the records which Southwark Council sent me ahead of my visit, I could see that Sarah (who was the first to be buried in the plot) had been interred in a private, brick-lined grave to a depth of 10 feet, at a cost of 30 shillings, an amount which was commensurate with contemporary records of the day (the cost of the grave itself would have been several pounds). Two years later she was joined by her daughter, and finally her husband James in 1867 (never mind that he had already married someone else by then), during which time ownership of the grave was then transferred to their only son, James William Skelton, who buried his own wife (Emma Sleath-Skelton) in the plot in 1898, before ending up alongside her two years later.

Thus the responsibility for the grave then moved to James William’s oldest son, Stanley Sleath-Skelton, who laid his younger brother to rest there in 1921 –  the Edwardian actor Herbert Sleath (more on this raffish character in a later post). But when Stanley himself died a quarter of a century later, neither he nor his older sister had any children of their own and there was no close living relative to bury them in the family plot. As James Stevens Curl so rightly pointed out above, there can be no financial sustainability in the business of private graveyards, as it stands to reason that only a handful of families would continue to use a family plot beyond a few decades. However, during the early years of Victoria’s reign, at the time of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, the belief in the resurrection of the intact body was strong, and the Cremation Act of 1902 coupled with the decline of 19th century religious ideals and the resulting changes to burial rituals could not have been foreseen.

As luck would have it, it was a crisp and clear February morning when I first set out from Central London to Nunhead on my grave search, walking a route from the eponymous train station along Linden Grove towards the main entrance of the cemetery. Due to a rare overnight snowfall, dog walkers and nature photographers were out in full force, and I felt like an obvious outsider, standing at the imposing set of gates, mouth agape, clutching my A4 print-out of the cemetery map, while locals exchanged greetings, buoyed up by the beauty of the snow-covered cemetery under a bright blue sky.

nunhead-gatesPedestrian entrance to Nunhead Cemetery on the left of the Linden Grove Gates

The gargantuan Gothic gates with their inverted iron torches and snakes eating their own tails (ancient signs to symbolise both life being extinguished and eternal life, respectively) were an impressive spectacle, letting everyone who entered through them know that this was a place that took the business of death seriously. The huge stone piers solemnly framed my first sight of the Anglican chapel, and as I walked up the snow-covered driveway I thought about how James must have felt when the horse-drawn hearse carrying Sarah – and later Margaret – had slowly made its way up to the gothic chapel. It was an unsettling feeling, and I was glad that I had decided not to take up the offer to arrange to be met  by a volunteer from FONC who would help me to find the grave. I wanted this to be a private experience.

p1030874-2Approach to the Anglican Chapel (now a ruin) from the Linden Grove Gates

p1030867-2Side view of the Anglican Chapel from the west

When Southwark Council sent me the map of Nunhead Cemetery, showing me where the Skelton grave was, I was surprised to see that it was one of the larger plots, situated at the edge of a main walkway at the western edge of the graveyard (just on the current border of the wildlife reserve). I was hoping that the size and location would be a good sign – and that there would indeed be some kind of headstone which had survived the intervening years. I also knew that plots in this area of the graveyard were considered to be much sought after (and more exensive) because they were at the highest point of the  of the cemetery (thus deemed to be closer to heaven), with the added advantage of spectacular views of St Paul’s and the City.

p1030852-2View of St Paul’s Cathedral from the highest point of Nunhead Cemetery.

But as I passed meandering footpaths which enticed me away from the main walkway with their abundant vegetation and weathered graves topped with stone angels and urns, I could not help but hope that the Skelton grave might also tick all the required ‘Victorian gothic’ boxes, having from a young age dreamt of one day finding a crumbling family grave onto which I could bestow bunches of wildflowers and tears. So when I rounded the corner at the top of the walkway and saw what had been erected in the plot which was marked on my map (number 706), I felt both a thrill and shudder of disappointment.

1336-2My first sight of the Skelton Family Grave

I was surprised to see how large and relatively undamaged the grave was – something I had certainly not expected. And I was also taken aback by the ostentatiousness of the structure – a large block of pink and grey polished granite, which looked like it had come from a more recent era. As I  circled the gravestone, reading the various inscriptions, I noted how easy it was to make out the names of the family members carved into the granite, as if it had only been a few years since they had been laid to rest. It was a curious feeling to think I might have been the first Skelton to visit the grave for almost a century, and I sat quietly for a while in the sunshine, contemplating this idea, while a  colony of bright-green feral parakeets  shrieked and chattered exotically in the trees above me. It was almost as if they were trying to alert me to the fact that there was an unexpected inscription on part of the headstone – one of James Skelton’s other daughters (and Margaret Sarah’s younger sister), who had died in the Australian outback in 1860 at the age of twenty-nine, also from tuberculosis.

skelton-graveGrave inscription to Margaret Sarah Skelton and her sister Ann

Much, much later (on a summer visit to the grave) it struck me that this rather ugly granite gravestone might have been a fancy replacement for an older one, originally erected in the 1840s. It would not surprise me if the wealthy (and probable social-climber) James William had ordered the gaudy replacement on the death of his father – another way to prove that James Skelton was actually a ‘gentleman’ (a rather nebulous Victorian expression which meant different things throughout the 19th century). And on that summer’s day I noticed something I had overlooked on my first visit – the details of the stone mason carved into a corner of the grave. Further reasearch showed that the A. Nicholson inscribed was  credited with building the Great Eastern Street Fountain, and was active in Mark Lane in the City around the time that James William was working as a merchant in nearby Mincing Lane. This made me even more convinced that the gravestone dated from James Skelton’s death in 1867.

p1030846-2Stonemason’s details on the gravestone

And in an uncanny twist of fate (of the kind which seems to haunt this genealogical quest), I later discovered that James’ son Arthur – my great-grandfather – was actually living opposite Nunhead Cemetery (in Daniels Rd), in 1895 at the terrible time when both his wife and youngest child were dying at St Thomas’ Hospital (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers). Contemporary reports of the area attest to the fact that local children would meet up by the cemetery wall in Linden Grove as the rather gloomy Victorian hearses passed by with their black-plumed horses, so no doubt Arthur’s children, including perhaps my three-year-old grandfather, also played unsupervised there. The original houses on Daniels Road no longer exist, having been bombed in the Blitz, but they were built as simple terraced houses for manual workers, and a number of  cemetery labourers and stonemasons lived in their street. The cemetery would certainly have been omnipresent for those who lived in the surrounding streets, although sadly my great-grandfather Arthur probably never knew that his father was buried just a stone’s throw away from where he was currently living with his young family.

Arthur himself is buried in Croydon – his grave is no longer there but there are only one or two people still alive who knew him, and he is all but a shadowy memory of their early childhood. There is now no-one still alive who knew any of the Skeltons buried in the family plot at Nunhead. And I can safely say that, with all due respect to those who are interred there, I feel no strong desire to visit the grave again any time soon. If I return to Nunhead it will be to walk in the peaceful surroundings of the wildlife reserve and take consolation from the endless birth and decay cyle of nature, of which the cemetery is but one part.

I’ll leave you with the words of the writer Charlotte Mew, and the final evocative verse of her poem In Nunhead Cemetery, published in 1916:

I shall stay here: here you can see the sky;

The houses in the street are much too high;

There is no one left to speak to there;

Here they are everywhere,

And just above them fields and fields of roses lie –

If he would dig it all up again they would not die.

1343

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2016

 

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4 thoughts on “Present at the Death

  1. Marion M

    Excellent, you sum up so much of the Family Historian’s voyage of discovery. The very first thing I did when I started my research, thirty years ago , was to visit the newspaper office of the provincial newspaper that would have reported my families’ deaths, to search for the deaths of my grandfather’s two wives – and was faced with a whole page with the huge headline “Scaife House Poisoning” which related the whole account of my grandfather’s first wife’s demise. I have been gripped ever since ! She was indeed poisoned (which was always spoken of in hushed tones), but the rather (dodgy) evidence given at the inquest put it down to food poisoning.

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    1. The Incidental Genealogist Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Marion. The story you discovered about your grandfather’s wives is intriguing, to say the least. Family history often seems to unearth tales that appear to have come straight from the realms of fiction!

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