Tag Archives: Nunhead Cemetery

A Riverside Rest

South London is almost crippled by these monstrous growths, unrealized by the traveller tearing along in his daily train. Whole areas have been choked by overhead rail-tracks on these wasteful brick arches, and to get a true appreciation of the sort of thing that can happen, one should pay a visit to Loughborough junction, where three of these monsters meet, or to Southwark Cathedral, where the main line track seems to hold down an area of a small country town.

South London, Harry Williams, 1949

 aerial-view-01693-750London Bridge (with Southwark Cathedral) c1920 (c) Ideal Homes

It’s mid-September and I’m back in London again. I haven’t visited the capital for a year now, although it doesn’t feel like that. Perhaps because I’m surrounded with my research it often seems as if the city is coming to me through my books and papers. But of course that is no substitute for the real thing, so it was good last month to stride out along the South Bank towards Greenwich, with the first scent of early autumn in the air.

And just as the seasons are edging towards the end of the year, I sense my story drawing to its natural conclusion. I’m moving closer to the centre now – soon out of London (again) and up, up to North Yorkshire. But before I do that I would like to pause at the Thames for a while; catch my breath after all those recent excursions to the far ends of the Victorian Empire. To Australia, to Hong Kong, to Belize, and of course last month, by means of Charles Skelton Tyler’s delightful photographs, to Earls Colne in Essex.

I stop at the old watermen’s stairs at the bottom of Horsleydown Lane, the place where my ancestors would have crossed the river a whole lifetime before the iconic bridge would link the Surrey-side to the Middlesex-side at the Pool of London. And while it is clear to me that Tower Bridge is the odd man out – a fancy-pants of a crossing in amongst all the more functional ones – I still find it a struggle to imagine the great river as my great-great grandfather first saw it when he arrived in London from Yorkshire sometime around 1820. 

P1040281 (2)Horsleydown Old Stairs and foreshore today

Horsleydown Foreshore c1850

Horsleydown foreshore, c1850 (c) Guildhall Library & Art Gallery etc.

Not only would the Thames have been heaving with boats, including those of the watermen and lightermen, but none of the bridges which span the river today would have been there two hundred years ago – at least not in their current incarnations. At that time the crossings closest to Central London were limited to London Bridge, Old Blackfriars Bridge, and Waterloo Bridge, along with the lesser-known iron Queen Street Bridge (replaced by Southwark Bridge) and the iron Regent’s Bridge (soon after renamed Vauxhall Bridge). In fact, depending on when he actually arrived in the capital, James Skelton may have even been witness to the opening of these latter three toll bridges at Southwark (1819), Waterloo (1817), and Vauxhall (1816).

Although I cannot determine exactly when my great-great grandfather made that all-important move to London, I do know he was born in 1799 in Darlington and grew up in North Yorkshire. As a young man he obviously undertook an apprenticeship in tailoring, and by the time he was in his twenties had settled down in the riverside parish of St John’s Horsleydown, now in Bermondsey (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). London Bridge would therefore have been his closest crossing, had he needed to go to the City by road. And he would certainly have witnessed the ‘new’ London Bridge in the process of being constructed next to the old one in the 1820s, and not completed until 1831 when he was already a father of four young children (with another on the way).

Would my great-great grandfather have been excited at this idea of progress? Was it the opening of this improved bridge which helped him decide to move much farther out to leafy Brixton over a decade later, commuting to his new tailor’s shop in East Cheap, near St Paul’s? Or was it the coming of the railways in 1836, spreading out over South London throughout the 19th century, like a spider spinning a slow and stealthy web, which caused him to flee his adopted parish?

The_Construction_of_New_London_Bridge_alongside_the_old_bridge_by_Gideon_Yates,_1828.png‘New’ and Old London Bridge, by Gideon Yates, 1828

I have always been fascinated by the history of London’s first railway line, the London and Greenwich Railway, which opened in 1836 (but did not reach Greenwich until 1838) and ran on a viaduct consisting of 878 brick arches, due to the number of streets that it had to cross. Walking through Bermondsey today, it is hard to ignore this structure, which appears to dominate the neighbourhoods through which it passes. If you add in the noise and pollution the early locomotives would have generated – not to mention the carriages on the rudimentary rail system – it must have been a traumatic change to the area for the residents, particularly those in the more outer-lying parts that were still in open countryside.

Several months prior to the railway line’s opening, The Times of September 3rd, 1835 stated: This enormous mass of brickwork, of which the first stone was laid in last April twelvemonth, is advancing rapidly to its completion . . . It is expected that the railroad to Greenwich will be finished in the course of another twelvemonth, and that the passage of steam omnibuses, &c., will then commence; that they will carry passengers from London-bridge to Greenwich in 12 minutes, and that the charge of conveyance will be only 6d. Whether or not this rapidity of transport will be pleasurable or otherwise, must depend on the tastes of those who ride on the railway. It will no doubt be advantageous to the inhabitants of the metropolis to enjoy rural scenery at a cheap rate and without much loss of time.

London-and-greenwich-railway-1837London and Greenwich Railway, 1837 The Illustrated London News

Three years later, the new London and Croydon Railway opened, sharing the initial section of the line for two miles, the high-level pedestrian boulevards which ran alongside the tracks being utilised for this expansion. On Sundays (when trains did not run) these walkways had been a popular one-penny stroll, and perhaps my great-great grandfather and some of his family had dressed up in their smart Sunday best clothes to perambulate along them, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. I also think they would have taken an early train journey, even just to experience this novel form of transport, especially as the family remained in the area until 1844.

In those days of relatively low-rise buildings, the long railway viaduct would have been an impressive sight. A few days after The Times article in 1835, the Mechanics Magazine stated that: The London and Greenwich Railway viaduct is now fast approaching completion, and presents a very imposing appearance. It forms a highly interesting object from the summit of Nunhead Hill, at the back of Peckham, from which the whole range of arches, seen in nearly its entire length, appears like the “counterfeit presentment” of a Roman aqueduct. Nunhead Hill is decidedly the best point from which to obtain a general view of this magnificent work, which there forms a part of the foreground to an exquisite and comprehensive panorama of the metropolis, in its whole enormous length from Chelsea to Greenwich, with all its “domes and spires and pinnacles”, amongst which those of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s are of course the most conspicuous.

Several years later, Nunhead Hill would become the site of the new ‘monster’ cemetery of All Saints – one of the ‘magnificent seven’ that were constructed in a ring around the capital in an effort to prevent the overcrowding in the London parish churchyards, and intended as a Victorian capitalist venture (albeit an unsustainable one). Today Nunhead Cemetery makes for a pleasant wooded stroll, as well a place of historical interest. And eventually James Skelton was himself laid to rest here in the ‘new’ family grave, situated at the highest point of the hill, the closest spot both to God and the fabulous views of the London skyline.

nunhead-cemetery-00585-640Nunhead Cemetery c1850

When the burial site was initially chosen for his oldest daughter in 1844 (see Present at the Death), the vista of London with which the family would have been confronted was obviously very different from that of today. But St Paul’s would have still been the dominant feature. Somehow this feels very comforting to me, as the cathedral has come to symbolise my times in London. This is because I usually stay at the YHA hostel in the old choir boys’ accommodation in Carter Lane, and from every dorm room the bells can be heard chiming the hours throughout night. Despite what some of the guests say in the morning, for me it is nothing but a soothing sound which seems to be saying that all is right with the world.

FROM NUNHEADSt Paul’s Cathedral from Nunhead today

St Paul’s also symbolises family holidays in London as a child in the 1970s (all Londoners who have experienced the blitz seem to be forever drawn to this special place). I think, too, of my great-great grandfather, who eventually moved out of Bermondsey and set up his tailoring business just a stone’s throw away at 15 East Cheap; of my paternal great-great grandmother who was born in one of the slum courts in the shadow of the great cathedral. She would have grown up with the sound of the bells, while her future husband would have heard them as he travelled into the City each day. And if it hadn’t been for those two bodies lying cold under the earth up on Nunhead Hill (James Skelton’s oldest daughter and his first wife), this young poverty-stricken teenager would never have been able to set up home in South London with my fifty year old grieving great-great grandfather. Such is the way the world turns!

So I see and I feel connections as I walk the streets and parks of London. I feel privileged to know about my ancestors’ lives through technology they could never have imagined, yet despite this knowledge I’m aware that as I tread in their faded footsteps I can never truly recreate their world. Sometimes, however, the city allows me a brief glimpse of a timeless space. The smell of roasting chestnuts on a winter’s day; a windy bridge crossing in early spring, grit stinging my eyes, while the brown-grey waters of the Thames roil and churn below; ghost signs on a wall advertising an obsolete product that was once regarded as commonplace. And for a brief moment I feel my ancestors calling to me over the years.

On that Saturday when I sat on the steps at Horsleydown, watching two separate sets of wedding photographs taking place on the ‘beach’ below me, I thought about the bridges and the railway lines – which had marched on step-by-step alongside the speculative building ventures. And it was inevitable that one day it would all eventually reach sleepy Brixton, far away from the bustle of the river, where my great-great grandfather had moved in respectable middle age. (The new family home on Coldharbour Lane – near present-day Loughborough Junction – was constructed when the street was surrounded by trees and market gardens).

What would James Skelton make of his old riverside neighbourhood of now? There is the fancy-pants bridge on his doorstep, looking like it has been there for hundreds of years; yet the family home no longer exists, bombed along with Horsleydown parish church in some unimaginable future-past war from the sky. Even the Victorian warehouses which tourists come to view would be regarded as  modern interlopers, having replaced  the original timber ones from earlier in the century with which my great-great grandfather would have been familiar. And if he did venture down the old watermen’s stairs to the foreshore and gaze out across the river, would he regard the current City skyline as progess?

Then if he continued to follow the riverside path beyond London Bridge and the Shard, past the hemmed-in but spruced-up Southwark Cathedral – which he’d have known as a simple parish church, and to whose long-demolished grammar school he’d sent his only son, what would his impressions be? The industry has all gone, and the resulting space opened up to pedestrians in pure pursuit of pleasure, as it once was, centuries ago. No doubt he would marvel at the new-old Globe Theatre, looking like something transported from the past to the future, missing out all the generations in between.

He might then wonder who and what had shaped this strange modern London which perplexed him so.

TOWER BRIDGETower Bridge c1971 (Horsleydown is on the right) (c) Skelton family

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2018

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The Living and The Dead

I have plunged into the eighteenth century and can see I may get involved with many other contemporary enthusiasts. But I am using (or trying to) this century as a means of living more fully in the twentieth century. This is what I want to remember: don’t run away from your problems here and now, however well you write and see the past.

Jean Lucey Pratt (in 1949), A Notable Woman, ed. Simon Garfield (2015)

Last month I described my visit to the old Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in Surrey – the institution where my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton, spent his final terrible 18 months (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall). But what I did not mention was that, on that icy February day, I was not the only visitor taking advantage of the ex-asylum’s relatively infrequent open days.

While I was upstairs mooching around the gloomy Great Hall, with its hammerbeam roof, searching for the light switch, an unexpected group of visitors entered the room. With gasps of Oh, it’s just as I remembered! and I’d clean forgotten about that!, the three women were obviously familiar with their surroundings (including the whereabouts of the old fashioned light switches). Thrillingly, I realised that I was possibly about to come face to face with some of the people who had actually worked in the building while it still played an active role in mental health care, rather than simply housing the wealthy.

1355 (3)The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Anyone who is particularly interested in the recent history of Holloway Sanatorium will soon discover that there is one relatively famous ex-employee who wrote about his time there in a very funny and irreverent way. In his book Notes From a Small Island, the British-American humourist Bill Bryson briefly mentions the period in 1973 when he worked as a janitor at the asylum, a job he obtained through knowing some of the student nurses (and where he eventually met his future wife).

He describes the institution as such: The hospital, I came to discover, was its own little universe, virtually complete unto itself. It had its own joinery shop and electricians, plumbers and painters, its own coach and coach driver. It had a snooker room, a badminton court and swimming-pool, a tuck shop and a chapel, a cricket pitch and social club, a podiatrist and hairdresser, kitchens, sewing room and laundry. Once a week they showed movies in a kind of ballroom. It even had its own mortuary. The patients did all the gardening that didn’t involve sharp tools and kept the grounds immaculate. It was a bit like a country club for crazy people. I liked it very much.

Over the years, Bryson, whose parents-in-law lived in the area, sadly watched the decline of the old sanatorium after it closed its doors in 1981. From being initially used as a set to film crime drama or rock videos (including the spooky Charlotte Sometimes, by The Cure), the buildings eventually fell into total disrepair and were repeatedly vandalised, as well as being looted for remaining ‘artefacts’, including some of the old casebooks.

In the late 1990s when Bryson returned to Virginia Water from America, fully expecting to see the old sanatorium further degraded, he was unprepared for the scene which awaited him and described it thus: So imagine my surprise when I crested a gentle slope and found a spanking new entrance knocked into the perimeter wall, a big sign welcoming me to Virginia Park and, flanking a previously unknown vista of the sanatorium building, a generous clutch of smart new executive homes behind. With mouth agape, I stumbled up a freshly asphalted road lined with houses so new that there were still stickers on the windows and the yards were seas of mud. One of the houses had been done up as a show home and, as it was a Sunday, it was busy with people having a look. Inside, I found a glossy brochure full of architects’ drawings of happy, slender people strolling around among handsome houses, listening to a chamber orchestra in the room where I formerly watched movies in the company of twitching lunatics, or swimming in an indoor pool sunk into the floor of the great Gothic hall (this was originally the dining hall, similar to the Great Hall, upstairs) where I had once played badminton and falteringly asked the young nurse from Florence Nightingale (a ward name) for a date, with a distant view, if she could possibly spare the time, of marrying me.

SWIMMING POOLThe (New) Swimming Pool at Virginia Park

According to the rather sumptuous accompanying prose, residents of Virginia Park could choose between several dozen detached executive homes, a scattering of townhouses and flats, or one of twenty-three grand apartments carved out of the restored san, now mysteriously renamed Crossland House (this was after Thomas Crossland, the architect). The map of the site was dotted with strange names – Connolly Mews, Chapel Square, The Piazza – that owed little to its previous existence. How much more appropriate, I thought, if they had given them names like Lobotomy Square and Electroconvulsive Court. Prices started a £350,000 (twenty years ago).

For the locally-based ex-nurses I met that day (none of whom had known Bryson or his wife), the external changes to the estate had been gradual. However, they were still unprepared for both the grandness of the interior and the coldness the place exuded, now that it was devoid of the staff and patients. And as is the nature of such encounters, we rapidly fell into conversation; while I showed them my photographs of Herbert and told them his story, they furnished me with their memories of the place – all of which seemed very positive. This was curiously very reassuring, even though they had worked there half a century after Herbert’s death. He would have been well cared for they said. It was very much a happy place.

I wanted to believe them, but had a feeling that Herbert’s condition wouldn’t have been an easy one to deal with. One of the ex-nurses later explained that during her medical training she’d once had the opportunity to discreetly observe an old lady suffering from advanced tertiary syphilis (very few of these cases existed by then due to the widespread use of penicillin from the 1940s), and she described the rather shocking limb tremors she witnessed in the patient.

I was touched at my new friends’ interest in my research, and felt quite emotional when I brought out some of the old Rotary postcards of Herbert, and they mentioned how he looked slightly like me (there is indeed a Skelton resemblance – my cousin’s oldest son could almost double for Herbert).

HERBERT SLEATH (2)Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1906

Of course I pumped Nina, Beth and Helen (by now we were one first name terms) for any relevant information about their time at the hospital, and was impressed at how little they gave away about their individual patients. When we were later joined briefly by a retired male nurse from the subcontinent, the three women were rather disconcerted when he inadvertently blurted out the name of a famous actor-comedien who had once been treated at the asylum.  We would never give names they said. Even now.

Afterwards, when I re-read Bill Bryson’s account of the months he spent at Holloway San, it tallied with the stories the nurses had told me of upper-crust patients (there was still a proportion of fee-paying patients up until 1974 to offset costs, some even from the pre-NHS days) wandering the estate and neighbouring town of Virginia Water in plus fours and dinner jackets, their cut glass accents allowing them to get away with a lot of mischief both in and out of the asylum. Bryson describes this scenario more generally in his book as follows:

Virginia Water is an interesting place. It was built mostly in the twenties and thirties, with two small parades of shops and, surrounding them, a dense network of private roads winding through and around the famous Wentworth Golf Course. Scattered among the trees are rambling houses, often occupied by celebrities and built in a style that might be called Ostentatious English Vernacular or perhaps Game Stab at Lutyens, with busy rooflines crowded with gables and fussy chimneypots, spacious and multiple verandas, odd-sized windows, at least one emphatic chimney breast and acres of trailing roses over a trim little porch. It felt, when I first saw it, rather like walking into the pages of a 1937 House and Garden. But what lent Virginia Water a particular charm back then, and I mean this quite seriously, was that it was full of wandering lunatics. Because most of the patients had been resident at the sanatorium for years, and often decades, no matter how addled their thoughts or hesitant their gait, no matter how much they mumbled and muttered, adopted sudden postures of submission or demonstrated any of a hundred other indications of someone comfortably out to lunch, most of them could be trusted to wander down to the village and find their way back again.

Each day you could count on finding a refreshing sprinkling of lunatics buying fags or sweets, having a cup of tea or just quietly remonstrating with thin air. The result was one of the most extraordinary communities in England, one in which wealthy people and lunatics mingled on equal terms. The shopkeepers and locals were quite wonderful about it, and didn’t act as if anything was odd because a man with wild hair wearing a pyjama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker’s declaiming to a spot on the wall or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swivelling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone. It was, and I’m still serious, a thoroughly heartwarming sight.

While this doesn’t detract from the gravity of some of the inmates’ conditions, it does seem to demonstrate that the ethos of the place – likened by many to a prolonged stay in a country hotel – had remained throughout the years. Patients appear to have been treated with kindness and respect, and the fact that the asylum had been built in what was originally open countryside meant that there had always been little restrictions on the patients’ movements (at least those not deemed to be a danger to themselves and others, such as Herbert).

With our new-found solidarity, the ex-nurses and I approached the administrator’s office on the ground floor to enquire about access to other parts of the building – and were rather perfunctorily told that most of the old sanatorium was out of bounds, including the chapel (a badminton match was taking place there). What we had seen that day seemed like a tease, and just as I have often found with genealogical research, it felt as if the curtain was being slowly lifted on an interesting and unknown aspect of my ancestor’s life, only for it to fall abruptly back down before the entire scene could be fully absorbed. Again, it felt like moving closer to – yet simultaneously further from – the truth.

Over lunch at a local overpriced bistro full of the American wives of bankers (many who lived at Virginia Park), I got to know the three women better. They had kindly invited me to join them for their reunion meal, and after parting we agreed to keep in touch. And so it was that a year later I returned to Virginia Water with my mother in tow. This time the nurses had arranged for us all to have a guided tour with Joy Whitfield – an expert in the history of the sanatorium – from the nearby Egham museum. By then (2013), the open days had shrunk to once a year, and on the 15th of September a small group of us gathered in front of the lodge gates to meet Joy. This time we were able to visit the chapel (where Joy had incidentally been married) and learn more of the historic details of the building – such as the elaborately painted TH, JH, and TC initials on the ceiling of the grand entrance hall, standing respectively for Thomas Holloway (the Victorian benefactor), his wife Jane, and Thomas Crossland (the architect).

1387 (2)Ceiling in the entrance hall (initials of Jane and Thomas Holloway)

1413 (2)The Chapel, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Joy had also thoughtfully brought along some of the photographs and brochures of the original fee-paying asylum from the turn of the century for us to browse through after our tour. A video (below) shows the contents of an Edwardian advertising booklet for Holloway Sanatorium. It certainly does look like it is emulating the style of a country house hotel. And in fact a contemporary account of the sanatorium states that: Dominated by the idea that a cultivated person whose mind is affected will never be cured if surrounded by vulgar idiots or grim accessories, Mr George Martin (Thomas Holloway’s brother-in-law, who later became Martin-Holloway) has endeavoured to introduce as many objects as possible to awake and stimulate the trained intelligence for the moment over-strained. In the smaller but still ample parlours and living rooms the same idea of cheerfulness and suggestiveness is carried out. It is endeavoured above all things to avoid leaving a dimmed intelligence opposite to a blank wall.

As I mentioned last month, one of the things that puzzled me about Herbert’s time as a patient at the sanatorium was the absence of his wife, Ellis Jeffreys, in his life. She is not even mentioned in the contested will of 1915, in which Herbert leaves almost everything to his wealthy sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, who would go on to be the beneficiary of three more wills before her own death in 1953 (see The Fortunate Widow). This fact has led me to surmise that the relationship had become strained several years previous to Herbert’s final illness. In addition, it would appear that neither she nor any other family member organised a funeral or an obituary for Herbert, who only twenty years earlier had been described by The Penny Illustrated Paper so: Mr Sleath is popular wherever he goes, for he has a very artistic and yet a genial and buoyant personality; he is a thorough Englishman, a splendid horseman, and a good all-round sportsman.

There is, however, plenty of evidence as to how Ellis lived out her remaining decades as a widow. After writing (or rewriting) her own will a month after Herbert died (in which she left everything to her daughter, Evelyn), she continued to live at both Dormy Cottage with Evelyn and at an address in town (30, Hill Street, S.W.7), acting on the London stage. By the 1930s, Ellis had even entered the exciting new world of cinema. So it is now possible to view Ellis as a celluloid creation, something which was denied us in the case of Herbert. And stills and promotion material from these films clearly show her aging well – a good-looking, fashionably dressed older woman, often playing the part of a mother or grandmother figure to the younger, rising stars of the period.

s-l1600Ellis Jeffreys in 1936 (at age 67)

But was it galling for Ellis to be re-imagined in these roles, having once been the attractive ingénue herself, or was she just grateful to still be able to work at a job she clearly loved, and continue to be active in society at a time when most older women became invisible? Somehow I think it was most likely the latter. Ellis always comes across to me as a survivor – a strong woman who did not allow herself to be the puppet of any one man. And yet I also have this feeling that she was perhaps manipulative in her own way, using her looks and connections to create the aristocratic lifestyle she wanted for herself.

In 1933, Ellis and Evelyn finally moved out of Dormy Cottage and into a large Jacobean farmhouse in the village of Chobham in Surrey. It seems a strange move for two women who were often up in London, as the house and grounds were even bigger and the village more remote (it did not even have a train station) than their previous residence. But perhaps the property was seen as an investment opportunity for ‘little’ Evelyn: she inherited the house* on her mother’s death in 1943 (from pneumonia and heart disease), and continued to live there alone for over half a century, until her own death in 1987.

*Ellis states in her 1921 will: My two children are aware that my love for them is equal and in making this my Will I desire to leave on record that I am solely influenced by the fact that my son is now old enough and able to earn his own living. I accordingly GIVE all my property to my daughter Ellis Evelyn Isabella Curzon and APPOINT her my Executor.

Shipping records also show that throughout the 1930s Ellis and Evelyn took several trips and cruises to exotic destinations together, so perhaps Ellis was making good money through her frequent film appearances. Between 1930 and 1938 (when she retired) she appeared in no less than a dozen British films, none of which appear to have stood the test of time. And while I have enjoyed watching full-length performances of her son, the actor George Curzon (who was famous for playing the role of Sexton Blake, as well as appearing in numerous Hitchcock films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much), I have not yet had the opportunity to see his mother spring to life before me. But like many of the actors and actresses of the period, who made the transition from the stage to film later in their career, I somehow imagine that she might come across as rather shrill and hammy. Even George does not exactly seem very natural and authentic today (usually playing the same cool, aristocratic part), although this may be more due to changing fashions in acting style.

George Curzon in The Scotland Yard Mystery, 1934 (man on right)

And so the dead rise up before us again through the magic of new technology, and we can only wonder at what those who first saw these moving pictures thought of such a spectacle!

Over coffee in the now busy local bistro, I explained to the ex-nurses that my next plan was to go out to the village of Chobham and try to see Chobham Farm (where Ellis and Evelyn lived). I had printed out a map of the area from the internet and had rather naively worked out that I could walk over there (and back) before darkness set in. But my new friends sensibly thought otherwise, and Nina eventually persuaded me to let her husband drive me to Chobham – she had a service appointment with her own car at the local garage that afternoon, but knew her husband would be free, and more importantly would be on board with the plan. Nina assured me that, as a newly-retired lecturer, he was interested in a plethora of different subjects, and local and social history was one of the things he wanted to delve into further, now he had more time on his hands.

We found ‘Geoff’ (I cannot recall if this really was his name, but in my mind he is a Geoff!) at Nina’s cottage-style, book-filled home, seated by a roaring fire, reading the Guardian. Outside the large back window which overlooked the secluded garden, birds screeched and flew from bush to tree to well-stocked feeders and back again. I was fascinated at the number of feral parakeets visiting their small but wild space, and it reminded me of my experience in the ‘rewilded’ area of Nunhead Cemetry in search of the family grave (see Present at the Death). I then remembered the sad sight of Herbert’s name on the Skelton tombstone, carved into a small area  on the granite (almost like an afterthought), and immediately I felt a brief connection between one area of my research and another.

When I later explained this feeling to Nina and her husband, they considered it a very apt description of the way social history can create unexpected links between people, places and events. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us opportunities to connect with living people with whom we might not otherwise come into contact. I thought about the new friends I’d made at East Coker, five years previously, when I’d started out on my quest (see In my Beginning is my End). And how all those encounters – including the ones that day in Virginia Water – had enriched me in some way, and had also (hopefully) touched the lives of others, too.

This was why I included the introductory quote from the biographer and diarist, Jean Lucey Pratt (in relation to the research for her biography into the 18th century actress, Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington). Pratt, whose edited journals were published recently as A Notable Woman, was the one of the Mass Observation diarists to be featured in all three of Simon Garfield’s edited collections featuring the cream of the archive material (namely: Our Hidden Lives, We are at War, Private Battles). It was through reading these books to discover more about wartime Britain that I fell in love with the writing of this remarkable woman, which naturally led me on to read her own diaries once they were published (see a Guardian book review here). Such is the nature of social history research!

Rather disappointingly, the trip to Chobham did not let me see much of Chobham Farm. Like many of the old country lanes around the village (which were now busy with cars), Sandpit Hall Road had no footpath or stopping place, which made it hell for pedestrians. And as most of the ex-farms* were set back from the road and hidden behind hedges, it was difficult to see much.

*Chobham Farm’s adjoining farmland was sold for 1920s housing before Ellis bought the property, although it still retained a huge garden.

geograph-4255333-by-Shazz (1)Junction of Sandpit Hall Road, Chobham

We drove by the dark wooden house a couple of times, slowing down to attempt a closer look. But I soon realised I did not have to see the place: I was getting tired of ogling all the ‘porn’ properties that my wealthier ancestors had inhabited. It felt like a replacement for real world activities – for chatting with Nina, Beth and Helen about their time at Holloway Sanatorium and their views on current mental health provisions, or discussing the south-east’s parakeet invasion with ‘Geoff’. I felt as if I had a psychological thermostat (for want of a better expression) which whenever I was in danger of going too far into the land of the dead would bring me partway back to the present. I realised more than ever that I wanted to be with the living, talking about the things that matter to us now. And perhaps it was at that point when I had the intimations that I should not get too carried away with this project, but try to combine it with the things that currently interested me.

I decided then and there that I would go the following winter to Australia. I would seek out the details of the life of Ann  Haydon (née Skelton), Herbert’s paternal aunt, who died of TB on the goldfields of Victoria before Herbert or his siblings were even born. This adventurous young sister of Herbert’s father (James William Skelton) is linked to the fate of her nephew by dint of sharing a ‘space’ with him on the family tombstone at Nunhead. They were the only two members of the family not be buried in the grave, yet their names were also engraved in the ugly pink granite. And in the canopy above the absurd block of stone which carried the memory of them and their immediate family, I knew that there would still be the raucous squawks  of the green feral parakeets. A sound like Australia in London. Like Nunhead in Virginia Water.

P1030838 (2)

P1030847 (2)The gravestone enscriptions of Ann (above) and Herbert (below)

To be continued soon in Three Sisters: Ann

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2018

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 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.

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 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.

1343

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2016