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)
These last few weeks I’ve been busy looking back through all my blog posts as I attempt to turn the story of my quest into a readable memoir. Understandably I have my favourite chapters; and unsurprisingly they often overlap with the ones that have been most popular with readers. These posts seem to fall into two categories: ones that are about universal issues or topics (such as death or photography), and those which are linked to a famous event or person. It stands to reason that when following any family history the reader will want to find things to relate to on a personal level – it is not enough for the writer to describe the life of an ancestor but to use that story to shed light on the human condition. At least that is the goal!
One post that I particularly enjoyed researching and writing in an odd sort of way is an early chapter on family deaths, which I have reproduced below. Perhaps a macabre one to chose to revisit currently, but also very pertinent. At the time I wrote about the topic I was intrigued by the number of older family members who had died from bronchitis, or related illnesses, as well as the young (and not so young) ancestors who’d succumbed to tuberculosis (TB) – or phthisis as it was written on their death certificates. It made me realise how many of these deaths would have been avoidable today, even although at the time they were an accepted part of life. No wonder Victorian children used to recite at bedtime: If I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take. This line was removed from our nightly prayers* as children because it was deemed no longer relevant. In a similar vein, my father never repeated the morbid stanza in one of his favourite poems, I Remember, I Remember . . . by Thomas Hood, even though the lines But now I often wish the night / Had borne my breath away! make sense in the context of the verse.
*The fact we even said prayers before going to sleep makes me feel like some sort of relic, although admittedly we were allowed to recite them in bed rather than kneeling on the floor as the children in our picture books did.
Living in industrialised cities was clearly not good for the lungs, particularly when coupled with the dangers of damp, substandard accommodation, thus it is no wonder that bronchitis was so prevalent in London. Along with other scourges of the time, TB lurked around every corner, much like Coronavirus today, with up to one in four Londoners contracting the disease. However, the fact that for many years there was no hope of a cure for what was often deemed an illness of poverty must have put a great psychological strain on the 18th and 19th century populace (the period when tuberculosis was most rampant). The eventual discovery of antibiotics and the BCG vaccine, along with improvements in living conditions, meant that by the second half of the 20th century – at least for those in developed countries – TB already seemed like something from the past. In fact, many people today are surprised to discover the disease has never been eradicated and is actually rising again in some parts of the globe, particularly due to the emergence of drug-resistant cases.
Sadly TB often affects younger people, and it is heart breaking to think of those like Margaret Sarah Skelton (mentioned below) dying such terrible deaths in their early twenties before their adulthood had properly begun. The hopelessness of their cases must have been particularly difficult for their families to accept and yet it was was not such an unusual situation for the times. Fast forward a hundred years or more and their lives would have taken very different turns.
While our current pandemic is something I could not previously have imagined, despite having worked as a virologist myself at University College Hospital, London, in the 1980s, after my short-lived career as an heir-hunter, it is heartening to know that our scientific understanding is so much further advanced. Not only have safe vaccines been created in less than a year, but our understanding of the way such viruses operate has also improved, with the knock-on effect that we now have even better insight into how to tackle cancer.
Thus I dedicate this post to those who lived in less medically advanced times and stoically lived life to the full, despite the omnipresent threat of death amongst them. However, I am aware that this is also how a great number of the world’s population still live, and that there is much to do to ensure there is equality in health provisions across the globe.
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 simply 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 both his mother and wife) travelling into the city each day, delighting in each other’s company in that special way of fathers and daughters. Therefore 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 Cemetery 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 eventually be swallowed up by the growth of the metropolis. The most well-known of these is Highgate, mainly due to its location and the number of famous people buried there, including Karl Marx. 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.
Gravedigger 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 long Green Chain Walk through south-east London (originating in Thamesmead). That 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 terminus to the hike, 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 Cemetery, 1860s (showing proposed local railway lines)
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.
As 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 middle-aged 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).
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 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? 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.
The 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 (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall). But when Stanley himself died a quarter of a century later, neither he nor his older sister had any children 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. 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.
Fortunately, 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.
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 accept the offer to be met by a volunteer from FONC who would help me to find the grave. I wanted this to be a private experience.
Approach to the Anglican Chapel (now a ruin) from the Linden Grove Gates
Side 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 (right 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 expensive) 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.
View 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.
My 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’d died in the Australian outback in 1860 at the age of twenty-nine, also from tuberculosis (see Three Sisters: Ann).
Grave inscription to Margaret Sarah Skelton and her sister Ann
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 research 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 more convinced that the gravestone dated from James Skelton’s death in 1867.
Stonemason’s details on the gravestone
In an uncanny twist of fate (of the kind which seems to haunt my 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 the 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’s grave was just a stone’s throw away from where he was currently living with his young family.
Arthur himself is buried in Croydon, alongside his second wife Harriet and Harriet jnr. (Arthur junior’s wife). The tombstone 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 childhoods. There is now no-one living who knew any of the Skeltons in the family plot at Nunhead. I can safely say that, with all due respect to those who are interred there, I feel no strong desire to revisit the grave 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 cycle 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.
The Incidental Genealogist, February 2021