A Working Man for Working People

by Sheldon

To say people mourned was an understatement. As the carriage passed through the gates of Bow Cemetery, thousands of mourners gazed upon the handsome horse-drawn carriage that contained the remains of a fighter. His coffin was barely visible beneath the floral tributes which only barely expressed the sentiment so many felt at his death. A fighter for social justice, the rights of workers and the personal nemesis of poverty. The year was 1921 and Will Crooks was dead.


© Andymag 2014

Crooks was born in Poplar in 1852, the third son of George Crooks, a Ship’s stoker who’d lost his arm when Will was aged 3. This left their mother with the responsibility of bringing money into the household, which was no easy feat for a woman in Victorian England. Consequently, five of the seven Crooks children ended up in the Workhouse – an experience which coloured Will’s outlook on inequality and poverty for the rest of his life, like another famous Londoner from the generation before.

There was no time to enjoy youth in such circumstances: aged 14 Crooks became an Errand boy, Blacksmith’s labourer and then an apprentice Cooper. A bright lad, his mind was ablaze with ideas after hearing of reformers such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, to the point where his passion for better workplace conditions led to the encouragement of his colleagues to speak up against his employers about their ridiculously long working hours. This he did with such tenacity that they fired him for being a ‘political agitator’.

His dismissal did not silence his voice. Working briefly in Liverpool and then on the London docks, his oratory skills soon had him holding ‘sermons’ to hundreds of dockers in what became known as ‘Crooks’ College’ which helped raise money for the 1889 London Docker’s strike. His oratory skills were superb – he mixed evangelism with humour on a variety of subjects, with good sense and refreshing honesty – which made people listen to him.

Crooks, caricature din Vanity Fair Magazine in 1905.  © The City College of New York 2014

Crooks, caricature din Vanity Fair Magazine in 1905. © The City College of New York 2014

Earlier that year he became the first Labour member for the London County Council. His career and empathy with the voters secured his ascension to more prominent political roles, such as overseeing changes in the operation of the Poplar Board of Guardians, which oversaw Workhouse operations from 1835 until 1930. A popular local politician, he ‘warmly endorsed’ a cap on immigration and opened Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs. 

His career continued upwardly, First Labour Mayor of Poplar and then two years later became the MP for North Woolwich, defeating a previously Tory stronghold. Despite his rise to power, he never forgot his background and the needs of his fellow men. He supported plans for a workers’ Pension as well as limiting the powers of the House of Lords.


Crooks featured on my tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery as part of the Shuffle Festival. As I gave the tour, I wondered why he wasn’t interred in somewhere more prestigious, such as Westminster Abbey – and this was indeed offered to his family, who declined the honour stating that he was born, married, lived and died in Poplar, and his death would not remove him from the area he loved so much. However, further research reveals that some of his opinions sat uncomfortably with his opinion on equality and prejudice – through modern eyes, at least. 

He supported the ‘Feeble Minds Act‘ which suggested putting those with mental illnesses into Labour Camps – an idea suggested by Winston Churchill in 1911 and supported Eugenics, seeing the disabled as ‘human vermin…who corrupt everything they touch’. A peculiar standpoint considering that his father was disabled – I wonder if their relationship informed his standpoint on the subject. At the outbreak of the First World War, he led the chamber in singing the National Anthem and supported the action of going to War, including being a member of a committee that included the Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral which would break up pacifist meetings.

Upon his death, the East End shut for business. Cinemas and pubs were deserted. People lined the funerary route to say goodbye to a man who’d touched the lives of countless Eastenders. Floods of memorials came in, one claiming:

‘Listening to Will Crooks was like listening to the very soul of East London’

I wonder how many politicians today could get such a compliment.

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Zinkers, Graving and a Sarcophagus – Cemetery Facts, Customs and Trivia

by Christina

Abney Park Cemetery, London, November 2013

Abney Park Cemetery, London, November 2013

‘To the solemn graves, near a lonely cemetery,

my heart like a muffled drum is beating funeral marches’

- Charles Baudelaire

Sleeping Angel - Mary Nichols tomb in Highgate

Sleeping Angel – Mary Nichols tomb at Highgate

I found a Cemetery trivia quiz during a Google search for something else. It is called Cemeteries Can Be Fun. Sheldon – did we miss a trick? Should we have come up with a quiz ages ago? I took it (it turns out to have quite a sense of humour) and scored 80% which is quite respectable given that most of my answers were guesses. My favourite new facts are that Cemetery visiting is apparently called ‘graving’ (who knew? Sheldon, did you??) and that if you find a ‘Zinker’, you have found a gravestone made from zinc. The quiz is clearly American – it states that Zinkers were manufactured between 1873 and 1920, largely in Connecticut. They were designed to look like expensive granite and marble, but had a bluish colour.

Take the quiz! Let us know your score. 


Nunhead Cemetery, March 2013

Nunhead Cemetery, March 2013

There’s more things that are used to store a corpse in for interment than just coffins. While a coffin is a receptacle that is wider at the shoulders and narrower at the feet, a casket is completely rectangular and a sarcophagus is molded to the shape of the human body and often has a portrait of the deceased on the lid. Think: Ancient Egyptians. The word ‘sarcophagus’ comes from two Greek words: ‘sarx’ meaning flesh and ‘phagein’ meaning to eat. Yummy.

Sepia tinted Kensal Green Cemetery - January 2013

Sepia tinted Kensal Green Cemetery – January 2013


There was once a belief that ghosts and spirits could be weighed down. I never gave much thought to why tombstones are made out of heavy stone materials, assuming it was an endurance sort of thing. But actually, the idea that a spirit may rise up from the dead and follow you home is something that goes back a long way – mazes were sometimes constructed at the entrance to ancient tombs as it was believed that spirits could only travel in a straight line.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, August 2013

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, August 2013

Victorians, led by Queen Victoria when she was grieving for Prince Albert, took the idea of mourning to a whole new, macabre level. The Victorians truly were the Kings and Queens of bizarre death customs. Here are a couple:

There were several stages of mourning, and each one called for a different fashion statement. During the first stage, a woman was to wear jewellery made only of jet, a fossilized form of coal. During the second stage she would progress to wearing lockets containing hair from the deceased, or sometimes jewellery MADE OUT OF hair from the deceased. Restrictive widow’s dress, known as ‘widows weeds’ would then be worn for 2 years in total. Some women never wore colour again once their husband had died.

West Norwood Cemetery in Spring, 2013

West Norwood Cemetery in Spring, 2013

Postmortem Portraits were a thing. Especially after 1839, and once the daguerreotype photograph had been invented, because it became more affordable, so every man and his dog could have a picture of his loved one, taken AFTER their death (or indeed a picture of their dog). Many were posed and sometimes open eyes were painted onto the faces of the deceased.

‘The fence around a cemetery is foolish, for those inside can’t get out and those inside don’t want to get in’ 

- Arthur Brisbane

Brompton Cemetery  June 2014

Brompton Cemetery June 2014


All photographs taken by Christina Owen, Copyright 2014


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Outrage! A Disturbing Find

by Sheldon

A month or two back I left the comfortable surroundings of London and ventured up north to Newcastle to. Newcastle is a place I knew very little about, and what I did know was largely influenced from Auf Weidersehen Pet, which my father watched as I was growing up from battered old VHS recordings. I’d also recently seen a moving documentary on Ian Nairn, where his pronunciation of it (‘NewCASSLE’) furthered my inquisitiveness. Accompanied by Steve, I made a bee-line to the nearest Cemetery to see what was what. That happened to be the churchyard of St Nicholas in Gosforth.


The Church is strikingly severe, built out of beautiful sandstone – which has partially blackened from all the years of soot from the coal-mining industry that once proliferated locally. It was built, like most of Newcastle, by an architect by the name of John Dobson: Dobson was a local man who had honed his flair for design in London. After qualifying as an architect, he soon returned to  Newcastle to build all manner of things, from Churches to municipal buildings. He later went on to build Newcastle Central Station which, had the scheme not been subjected to financial pressures, would have been the most impressive train station outside of London.


The headstones of Gosforth are gorgeous. I suspect that many a mason cut their teeth working these stones into suitable memorials, and it’s strange that many of the London ones we’ve seen don’t have the same kind of vitality and flourish. Steve was impressed with a table tomb which had now found use as a garden feature, surrounded by pots of various shrubs. It was also good to see the Daffodils this far north were still in bloom, representing new life in the shadow of those who’ve had theirs extinguished.

Gosforth4 GosforthDaffs

A number of those buried here died in accidents at the local colliery – this is recorded on their tombstones, from John Dees who was ‘killed in an explosion of Gas in Gosforth Colliery June 14 1849’ to John Ord who, at seventy-four years of age, was still working and met his end after being crushed by Coal Tubs. The danger these men must have faced seems alien to a resident from down south, where industrial accidents such as this never really receive much prominence on headstones.


As we walked around the Victorian section, admiring the gargantuan tomb of the Brandling Family (who were a wealthy land owning merchant dynasty who helped employ Dobson in the improvements of the Church), Steve noticed something. “What is that?”


I’ve seen this in old Churchyards before and it is to be expected in a place that claims to have been in existence since 650AD. Steve’s foot had scuffed the top part of a human hip bone. It had been cleanly cut just below the ball joint – presumably as a grave was being dug for another burial and had been dislodged. Stupidly, I exclaimed ‘Oh Jesus, who’s is this?’ almost expecting several hundred people to emerge out of the dirt in a Pythonesque manner saying ‘ooh that’s mine actually, chuck it over here would you?’ How old it was and how long it had been separated from its owner is anyone’s guess, and I gently nudged it towards a big granite obelisk so that it was no longer on the main pathway.

We had to leave shortly afterwards: I was having to be physically restrained from instigating my own Time Team expedition to see if I could find its owner. The beauty of this little corner of Newcastle shouldn’t be overlooked, and neither should the heritage that took the lives of many of its former occupants.

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Remembering Land and Sea on Tower Hill

by Christina

I decided that a month dedicated to World War One remembrance would not be complete without a trip to the Tower of London to view the incredible Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red progressive exhibit that’s down in the famous grassy moat until 11 November. By now I’m sure that you’ve seen it, or pictures of it, but if not then click this link. 

It’s an art installation created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, and aims to fill the moat gradually, between August 5th (100 years since the first full day of fighting) and 11 November with over 800,000 delicate ceramic poppies – each one representing a British and colonial military fatality during WW1.

You can buy a poppy for £25 – with part of the proceeds split between 6 different military charities. And every night at sunset the Last Post is played, and a roll call of 180 names of military troops is read out.

It’s a startling sight – a normally green and tranquil looking place in the middle of a bustling city suddenly spilling over with bright, violent red.

Tower of London


Tower Hill


Tower Hill is full of people stopping to take photographs, or just to stand and stare quietly at the vast display in front of them. It’s right in the heart of London, in the City and surrounded by tourist attractions (the bridge, the Tower, the river, that large building that looks like a walkie talkie) and yet somehow, the pace slows a little up here. It’s quieter and more respectful. It’s peaceful. A proper memorial – and people don’t just walk on by. They stop and pay attention.


Tower Hill


There are even little, more personal memorials left for family members long gone.

Tower of London


Across the road is something a little less iconic that you might not even realise is there. I certainly didn’t until I nearly walked right on past it.

Trinity Square Gardens sits quietly next to Tower Hill Tube station, a tranquil place where people meander, sit, eat their lunch. It used to play home to the infamous Scaffold where many took their last breath – the last in 1747. Now it is home to something much better and less murderous – although sadly also death themed. The Edwin Lutyens’ Tower Hill Memorial (1928) sits here, split into two parts – one for each World War. It is dedicated to the 24,000 merchant sailors who died in both world wars and have no known grave. The World War One part of the memorial sits alongside the road, unassuming yet hulking in the form of a sheltered passageway, the walls covered with names of lost seamen from 1914-1918. It is majestic yet also blends somehow into the background – which is how I nearly came to miss it altogether.

Merchant Navy Memorial Aug 2014



Trinity Square Gardens




An excerpt from the information board that’s found in the Gardens, next to the memorial:

‘More than 17,000 men lost their lives while serving with the mercantile marine during the First World War. After the Armistice, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was determined to find an appropriate way to commemorate merchant seamen who had lost their lives through enemy action and had no grave but the sea. In consultation with several organisations representing merchant mariners, the Commission decided that a memorial bearing the names of the lost should be constructed on the Embankment, near the heart of maritime Britain – the Thames and the Port of London. The First World War Monument, a vaulted corridor of Portland stone, was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens and unveiled by Her Majesty Queen Mary on 12 December 1928. The bronze panels commemorate over 11,900 merchant navel personnel of the First World War. ‘

This memorial is by no means the only thing to see at Trinity Square Gardens. The World War Two memorial to merchant seamen takes the form of a sunken garden with a large compass in the centre. At the other end of the gardens, near the exit for the Tube station, there’s an anchor statue that serves as memorial to those lost in the Falklands War.


There’s a stretch of medieval wall also on that side of the gardens, built on Roman foundations. On the far side, at the end furthest from the embankment, there’s the towering white presence of the old Port of London Authority building (1922) with Father Thames gazing down on all his London subjects. Next to that, you can find Trinity House (1795) which houses the General Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales. The gardens themselves are green and full of flowers. There’s a lot to see here. And it’s the perfect place for a memorial. Much like the poppy installation across the road, this place is quiet and respectful and peaceful and beautiful in it’s remembrance.


Unlike the poppy installation across the road, people do walk on by or through without stopping to take a look around. I get the feeling it’s firmly filed under the heading Things in London You’ll Miss Through Not Paying Attention. In fact, the gardens were ranked #1531 of 2018 things to do in London by Lonely Planet travelers in 2013. Meaning – it’s pretty far down the list. Especially because it’s so near so many much more famous tourist attractions that screech out for your attention. But go and have a look -at the gardens themselves and at the beautiful, underrated war memorials that it holds.



All photographs Copyright Christina Owen (2014)




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A Selection of World War One Words and Pictures

by Christina

We’ve been thinking a lot about World War One this month, and looking at all the different ways there are to remember and commemorate. Sheldon has looked at the lives of some notable people that lived, worked and fought during WW1, as well as some striking cenotaphs and war memorials that can be found in the UK. We’ve also seen some examples of propaganda posters that were used at the time and read some letters from men who went to the front, who wrote to their families back home. Some died and some survived. I’ve been talking to people about WW1 a lot this month, as well as reading what I can and collecting anything that might be interesting for Cemetery Club.

Below is a collection of all the things that haven’t fit into any of our posts this month, but that are too interesting to discard. I hope you find something interesting. Leave us a comment and let us know how you’ve been remember World War One this month.


I spoke to my Dad after he read my review of the newly opened Imperial War Museum and it’s exhibitions of WW1. He said ‘your Grandpa was born during World War One you know’ and I said that I had vaguely known that.

‘He was born in 1917. He claimed it was in the middle of a zeppelin raid, but he liked to embellish things’.







An example of a field service postcard from 1914-1918, collected at The Imperial War Museum, July 2014.

A Field Service Postcard was a short letter that allowed soldiers to delete as appropriate from a set of pre-printed messages and proved a quick and effective way of letting their families back home know that they were safe, and the state of their health.

In 1916, 7.5 million items of mail were received by British soldiers per week, and 5 million sent home. Many of these items would have been Field Service Postcards.



Cross stitch

Cross stitch 2


A slightly wonky cross stitch memorial, by me. August 2014



My Dad lent me a book. It’s an old book and so I handled it with care (in fact, it’s a 1929 edition and it smells great! I handled it with a lot of care). It’s the diary of a writer who was called up for military service in 1916. It’s a compelling read that is often beautiful and sometimes shocking. Below is an extract that I found particularly poignant.

‘I decided to go for a solitary walk. I left the camp and strolled up a hill from where I could get a fine view of the surrounding country. 

I gazed in an eastward direction. All the snow had melted, the fields, the bare trees and hedges, were steeped in warm sunlight. In the distance there was a gentle slope crowned by a long line of poplars. 

Beyond the poplars, about eight miles away, there was something I did not see, although I knew it was there – a stupid, terrible, and uncouth monster that stretched in a zigzag winding course from the North Sea to the Alps. It was strangely silent at that hour, but I was fascinated by it and thought about it harder and harder, in spite of myself. I became increasingly conscious of it, and it grew upon me until it seemed to crush and darken everything beneath it’s intolerable weight.’

- from Combed Out by F. A. Voigt

combed out

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‘Incomparably Grave, Severe and Beautiful…’

by Sheldon

I’ll never forget the sight of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s son swinging on a Union flag on the Cenotaph in 2011, as part of the student demonstrations. The outrage that it caused, and the excuse that he wasn’t aware what the Cenotaph was, despite being an undergraduate history student at the University of Cambridge, revealed the nation’s fierce protective nature over its ancestors sacrifices in the War.

© Steve Parkinson 2010

© Steve Parkinson 2010

Families who had lost sons, brothers, husbands and fathers between 1914 – 1918 received little consolation that they had been buried where they fell, miles away from home. It wasn’t enough for the grieving general public to have war graves so far away. Memorials which typified the national loss represented a contemplative place where people could gather and mourn the fallen.

War memorials up and down the country were constructed as reminders of ‘the War to end all Wars’.

via the Imperial War Museum

via the Imperial War Museum

The most famous of these is Edwin Lutyens Cenotaph, or ‘Empty Tomb’. Constructed of Portland stone like many other London landmarks, notably St Paul’s Cathedral and the façade of Buckingham Palace. Erected in 1920 as part of the ceremony that welcomed the Unknown Warrior into his grave in Westminster Abbey, it replaced an earlier structure (made of wood and plaster) which was unveiled  on 19 July 1919, for the Peace Parade which celebrated the formal end to the War after the signature of the Treaty of Versailles. Its popularity led to the creation of the stone version, which was unveiled as the Warrior went past.

The Times described it as ‘incomparably grave, severe and beautiful’. If you look closely, the sides of the Cenotaph aren’t parallel. If you were to extend them they would meet at a point 980 feet above ground. The horizontal surfaces are in fact arcs of a circle whose centre would be 900 feet above ground. This clever bit of design was missing in the wooden predecessor, but Lutyens, who’d designed things ranging from Country houses to parts of Delhi, included this genius feature, as well as waiving his fee for his involvement.

The Bristol Cenotaph ©Sheldon K. Goodman 2014

The Bristol Cenotaph ©Sheldon K. Goodman 2014

The Cenotaph inspired many other memorials, some designed by Lutyens himself. An exact replica stands in Ontario, Canada, as well as smaller reproductions in Maidstone and Reading. I was in Bristol recently and saw the Bristol Cenotaph there, which although made from a different stone clearly has visual influences from the memorial Lutyens built to the dead of our armed forces.

Although the official ceremony marking the centenary was based in Westminster Abbey on the night of the 4th August, a small band of people met at the Cenotaph and held their own vigils to remember the fallen in their own way. In many ways I thought that was just as powerful as the official service.


If you ever find yourself walking down Whitehall, take a moment to venture into Horse Guards Parade where you can see another memorial Lutyens designed, this time honouring the lives lost in the Royal Navy – conveniently attached to the Admiralty buildings. It was installed in memory of 45,000 members of the Royal Naval Division (formed by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, from surplus naval troops) who died during World War I. It was removed to the Royal Naval College in the 1950’s but restored to its original position in 2003.

This post only covers a small portion of the public remembrances that were built to mark a conflict that changed the course of history. Why not share your photos of your favourite war memorials with us via Twitter and Facebook?

My thanks to Emmanuel Lebaut in assisting the research of this post. 

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Letters from the Front






Collated by Christina

007 (2)


004 (2)


005 (2)


All produced by St George’s Parish Church Beckenham and displayed on 4/8/2014


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