A Factfile for a Taphophile: Grizzly Victorian Fun Facts Part 1

by Christina

I learned a new word this week. My friend Patrick taught it to me. Taphophile means ‘someone who is interested in gravestones, funerals, epitaphs and cemeteries’ and I think that describes us here at Cemetery Club quite well. Sheldon doesn’t really like the term, preferring ‘Cemetery Enthusiast’ but I’m enjoying using the new word. I might have some ‘taphophile’ badges made up…I also like the phrase ‘Tombstone Tourist’.

The Bible
Also this week I got lent a book about everything we love here at Cemetery Club – the gore and grime of ye olde London and the dead rubbing shoulders with the living to an impossible and un-liveable extent. All of this is explored in glorious, graphic detail in Necropolis – London and It’s Dead by Catherine Arnold. I excitedly told Sheldon that I was reading it and with a raised eyebrow, he told me he had used it as his Bible when we began the blog and he was surprised I hadn’t read it yet. I replied that my Bible back when we started Cemetery Club was The Twilight Series. But in truth, yes, I am newly discovering this book and enjoying learning new facts about grim London in the 19th Century. I thought I would share some with you and together we can bask in the joys of knowing that it is now possible to traverse London from north to south, west to east without breathing in the stench of a thousand bodies spilling out of overcrowded churchyards. We’ve come a long way since the 1840’s…..

By 1842, the life expectancy of a professional man in London was 30…

…For a labourer, it was 17.

In the early 1800’s, one duty of a church sexton was to ‘tap’ coffins to let gases escape, otherwise they would build up to a dangerous extent and ‘detonate’ from their confinement. Coffins were known to explode due to the build up of noxious gases emitting from the deceased.


There was an outbreak of Asiatic Cholera in London in 1831, having reached our shores from the far east. By the autumn of that year, 5,000 people in London had already died. The Government response to the epidemic was to call a national day of prayer and fasting. Clerics declared the epidemic a vengeance from God for London’s wickedness. Such was the strength of the illness that it could take hold and kill you in a matter of hours.

Dr John Snow was the first person to establish the link between water and cholera, in 1854. He noted that the disease seemed to affect the alimentary canal (digestive tract) before the patient even began to feel ill, concluding that it must be caught through swallowing in some way. When he died in 1858, John Snow was buried in Brompton Cemetery, one of the Magnificent 7 garden cemeteries to be opened as a response to burial overcrowding.

Graves leaning on one another for support. Beckenham Cemetery and Crematorium, May 2015

Gravediggers’ jobs became unbearable during this time, as part of their workload involved opening coffins to disinter bodies or to make room for the more recently deceased. The more experiences of these would immediately retreat backwards after opening a coffin, to escape the corpse gases until they dispersed. Gravediggers suffered bad health and alcoholism – it was claimed they could not perform their duties without heavy spirits.

Part of London’s sanitary reform was to close inner city burial grounds, and this began to happen in the 1850’s. So great had the problem been that the city continued to stink of death for another decade after that. During ‘The Great Stink‘ of June 1858, a smell rose up from the Thames that was so strong that it forced the House of Commons to adjourn. All the curtains in the Commons were soaked in chloride of lime to try to reduce the smell. Tons of lime were dumped in the river every day, and this was the start of the sewer system that we know today – 83 miles of pipes were built across London to stop raw sewage from being pumped into the Thames – the end of the pipe line emerged far to the east of London and dumped it in the river at a point where the majority of the population would not be affected by it.

Bunhill June 2014

Sheldon and I are by now very well acquainted with the seven grand garden cemeteries that were built on the outskirts of London in the mid 19th century, but you may not be, so here is the complete list of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries, which, that time, all stood within a 6 mile radius of the city of London, surrounding it in a circle, like the figures on a clock:

Kensal Green Cemetery (1833)

Norwood Cemetery (1837)

Highgate Cemetery (1839)


Abney Park Cemetery (1840)

Brompton Cemetery (1840)


Nunhead Cemetery (1840)

Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841)

Tower Hamlets August 2013

Tower Hamlets August 2013

Stay tuned for more grizzly facts about Victorian London in future posts. I have several more books about the era on order, so have no doubt that I’ll be sharing all my new found knowledge of all things dark and decaying in the 19th Century with you as I find it out. Sheldon is our resident expert on Victorian history, and all death-related things from that time, but I’m still learning, and I’m sure many of you are as well. It’s fascinating to know about all of the subjects we cover on the blog. I’m looking forward to discovering more, and making more Cemetery Club visits to places all over London. Please leave a comment and tell me your suggestions for places to go and things to see!

All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2015



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Movement, Migration and Place: Shuffle Festival 2015

by Sheldon

Amongst the dappled shade of the only woodland in Zone 2 are once key-characters in the fabric of the East End. Beneath a pink granite monument is White Hat Willie, builder of Cutty Sark and on Millionaire’s Row – royalty itself – the uncrowned King of Limehouse. From drunk coachmen, Jack the Ripper to the terrible realisation of the First World War, in this dense woodland are some of the nation’s most notable and notorious characters.


We’re very pleased to announce our continued involvement with the Shuffle Festival this year, a community event that celebrates and brings together the cultural diversity found within Tower Hamlets. Due to the runaway success of the walk (over 60 people listening to me talk about a man who strapped people to Cannons and Dr. Barnado last year), I’ve enlisted the help of my fellow Westminster guides Emmanuel, Susie, Dan and Highgate/Abney Park guide Sam Perrin to assist me in running the tour.


The schedule is as follows:

Sunday 26th July – Tours at 1, 3 & 5pm

Saturday 1st August – Tours on the hour between 12 and 5pm

Other events such as films, comedy, cheese tastings and music – provided by headliners British Sea Power can be viewed here.

Tickets for the tours available here! Come along and see us in action!

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Premiers, Luvvies and Angels: A Touch of Class In Hampstead

by Sheldon

Hampstead Intro

Hampstead Cemetery has always been the preserve of the rich and famous, catering for the prosperous locals that have and continue to live in the surrounding area. After a short walk from West Hampstead tube and cutting through Fortune Green, my first experience of this garden of the dead was through a narrow alleyway with densely packed graves on both sides. A short walk on leads you to a very Victorian and very pretty set up: a long avenue with impressive monuments leading up to a twin Chapel designed by Charles Bell.


Hampstead is the first Cemetery I’ve been to which *feels* like it did back in its Victorian heyday. Opened in 1876 as one of the new wave of burial places after the likes of Brompton and Nunhead, a team of thirty gardeners kept the march of nature to a tidy, ordered, pleasant place to tale a stroll. Although that number has been significantly reduced, its a very ordered place to be which probably explains the sheer amount of people using it on the Saturday I paid a visit.


It’s a good reminder that grand monuments didn’t necessarily come from the reign of Victoria. Charles Barritt, despite his monument suggesting he was musically gifted or involved in Church music was a humourist and known for ‘being funny without being vulgar’. Nearby and more recently, fellow humourist Alan Coren has a simple grave.

AngelBianchiThe memorial to Martha Bianchi is one of the finest I’ve ever seen. An angel looks down on her tomb, with two marble reliefs flanking either side. Martha was an Opera singer who died in childbirth: her husband was so distraught he had this magnificent piece built in her memory. Sadly, the beauty of this piece has been marred by being the target of scrap metal thieves and the knowledge that in death the couple were not reunited: The London Dead has a superb piece on what became of her devastated husband.

Perhaps reflecting the fact that Highgate was approaching capacity, a number of stars from the early 20th century are buried here. Fred Terry, noted actor-manager, known for his portrayal of Charles II, who had three full coaches full of flowers at his funeral has an impressive tomb-cum-colambarium, however where ashes are to be kept, the door is gone and instead a large bag of pebbles and a watering can occupy the niche where he sat for many years. Also here is, bizarrely, Andrew Fisher, who was for three terms the Prime Minister of Australia.


Fisher at the state opening/naming of Canberra

Fisher, in the rather marvellous black jacket on the left, at the state opening/naming of Canberra. Public domain

One of the biggest funerals that the Cemetery saw was that of music-hall superstar Marie Lloyd. Despite dying exhausted and penniless, her passing was felt across the nation. It was interesting to see her grave as I was already acquainted with her husband, the comedian Alec Hurley, who she met whilst she was married to someone else. Beginning to feel sidelined by his wife’s meteoric career, he began drinking and gambling to cope. She began an affair and went off with the jockey Bernard Dillon, leaving Alec heartbroken and dying in Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead. He was laid to rest in Tower Hamlets in his mother’s grave.

Another tragedy happened on Tuesday 13th December 1892, when Robert Dickens, no relation to Charles, was walking through the cemetery with his head full of anticipation at the upcoming Christmas celebrations.  The delight turned to dread as he found the body of Edward Cornelius Scanes draped across a grave, with a gunshot wound to his chest. Scanes, of 77 North Street, Marylebone, had been suffering from depression and in one of the three suicide notes found on him, one rued ‘the poor state of my head’.


The tomb of architectural historian Sir Banister Fletcher, designed by his son, Sir Banister Flight Fletcher. Etched into the bottom are the names of at least a dozen descendants who share the grave with him.



 With the sun slowly cooking me to a crisp, it was difficult not to really enjoy the atmosphere here. It’s interesting to see that it’s still a valuable asset to the community: despite being close to places such as Hampstead Heath and Highgate. The locals are spoilt for choice with green spaces but I recommend paying a visit if you want to experience what one of London’s finest Cemeteries has always done: providing a little oasis of calm from the world that lies just outside its iron railings.

All photos (bar public domain) © Sheldon K Goodman 2015.

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Westminster Meets Kensal Green – My First Tourguiding Experience

by Christina

Kensal Green: Victorian grandeur

Kensal Green: Victorian grandeur

It is a Saturday morning at the end of June, it is about a million degrees, and Kensal Green Cemetery looks green and alive. I am standing in front of the gravestone of Dickensian author Wilkie Collins, trying to make 10 people I only met an hour ago (and Sheldon) believe it is 1889 and foggy. It’s hard to set the scene given that it’s obviously 2015 and puffy white clouds are lazily floating across a vivid blue sky above us. It’s also hard to set the scene because I have never attempted this particular feat before: I am hosting a stop on a tour of the cemetery arranged by and for a group of qualified Westminster Guides. What on Earth am I doing here? I feel like a fraud as I deliver my (perhaps over-rehearsed) opening line: ‘I’m now going to take you back in time…’ and 11 sets of eyes blink at me like they’ve heard this cliché a gazillion times before. I struggle on. But then I get so involved in painting the portrait of Wilkie Collins’ funeral that I utter the words ‘if you look behind you, you’ll see a line of horse drawn carriages coming down the driveway…’

And they ALL turn around and look.

How did I end up blagging my way on to a tourguides’ Walkshop? It all started a few months ago, when Sheldon told me that he and his fellow Westminster Guide alumni from the class of 2014 met up occasionally and picked a spot in London in which to hold a collaborative tour. They would each pick a stop on the tour to research and give a talk on. He told me that the next one was Kensal Green Cemetery – I got overexcited and said ‘ooh, can I do a stop?’ (I believe these were my exact words). And he agreed, the foolish man.

Dan talking about Harold Pinter

Dan talking about Harold Pinter

I found out weeks in advance that I would be in charge of the Wilkie Collins stop. I immediately borrowed The Woman in White and The Moonstone from my Dad, who owns every book in the WORLD (except The Fault in Our Stars and the Twilight series) and then put them on a shelf and failed to do anything with them. Fast forward to 2 days before the tour and it occurred to me that I hadn’t done any research, beyond asking for my Dad’s verdict on the man in question (which, for those interested, was ‘he wasn’t as good as Dickens at writing and he visited a lot of brothels’). A lot of frantic Googling followed.  I also found a detailed biography of Collins in the front my Dad’s 1974 edition of The Woman in White. This was the point at which Wilkie Collins started to come to life for me. The biography included a graphic description of Collins’ appearance (he wasn’t a looker) and ventured an opinion on the kind of man he was. I began to fall in love with my subject. Later on, Eileen, a lady on the tour, would tell me that the best stops are delivered by people who have clearly fallen in love in this way. Because if you don’t love what you’re talking about, then you’re just reciting. But if you’re passionate about your subject matter, it shows through.

Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins

This was apparent when the tour began. We took turns delivering stops and it was fascinating to watch everyone – each person had an individual style and unique way of bringing their piece of history to life. We walked around the first of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries and learned about the lives of William Makepeace Thackeray, Isembard Kingdom Brunel, Harold Pinter (master of the Long Pause…) and more. I got lost in watching these highly trained and highly capable tour guides and then realised with an unpleasant jolt that it was my turn. Sheldon had scheduled my stop as the last one, and the nerves built up inside me as we made our way through the lush green cemetery in the sunlight. On any other day I would have been enjoying this. But thanks to my big mouth, instead I was quaking. What would they think of me? Would they be bored? Insulted? Expecting more from the co-creator of  cemetery blog? As Sheldon led us closer to my certain Doom, I covertly checked out my egress routes.


It turns out that tour guiding is really blimmin’ tricky. You have to capture the attention of your audience and you have to hold it. You have to stand somewhere where everyone can see and hear you. And you also have to make sure there are no safety issues for your audience and the people around you. For example – is one of your number about to fall into an open grave? Having checked that everyone was still above ground, I started talking…

Here's me in action.

Here’s me in action.

I don’t remember what I said, or if it made sense.  Afterwards, people came up to me and told me it was good and began discussing Wilkie Collins with me (I realised that most of them knew more about him that I did). A couple of people told me I should take the Westminster Guides course. Sheldon said ‘for a beginner you knocked that one out of the park’ and then exclaimed that now he knew I could tour guide, I could help with future Cemetery Club tours (argh). I was relieved. I had done it! And I had learned a lot about the famous residents of Kensal Green Cemetery. A Saturday well spent.

More proof that I actually did it.

More proof that I actually did it.

Later on I wondered if perhaps I could do it…watch this space.

Have YOU ever thought about becoming a tour guide? Go here and have a look at the Westminster Tour Guides course. I know I will be.

I'm just not shutting up am I?

I’m just not shutting up am I?

Photographs by Sheldon K. Goodman (7), Tanya Bloomfield (5), Mark Lubienski (2, 4 & 6) and Christina Owen (1 & 3)


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The Ghosts of Hammersmith Palais

by Caroline

Still visible from the platforms of the Hammersmith & City line terminus at Hammersmith is the last, sad remnant of what was once one of West London’s most popular entertainment venues.

20140808_082425First opened in 1919, the Hammersmith Palais was for most of its life primarily a dance venue.  The building was actually a tram shed when it was first built, but in the early 20th Century trams were becoming less popular as motor cars and buses became more widely used.  After it stopped being used as a tram shed, the site was home to a roller skating rink for a few years before it was converted into a dance hall.  Roller skating was hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the early years of the 20th Century, with many indoor and outdoor skating rinks being set up – it’s estimated that by 1909 around 500 rinks had been set up in Britain.  The old tram shed in Hammersmith would have made an ideal site for skating due to its size and the fact that it was sheltered from the elements.

French advertisement for roller skates, 1908 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

French advertisement for roller skates, 1908 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Like so many other crazes, roller skating’s popularity declined after a few years and the rink in the old tram shed at Hammersmith was closed and converted into a dance venue.  The newly-opened Hammersmith Palais played host to ballroom dancing and also went on to be a pioneering supporter of early jazz bands, with its first resident band being the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1919, and the Jazz Kings, featuring Sidney Bechet, played regularly at the venue between 1920 and 1922.

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

From New Orleans to Hammersmith with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band 1919

1919 newspaper cutting about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (Source: Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University)

The Palais returned to its skating roots for a spell between 1929 and 1934, with the worn floor of the venue being replaced and transformed into an ice rink.  Ice skating had become popular at the end of the 19th Century and the first indoor artificial ice rinks began to appear in the 1870s.  At Hammersmith, the new ice rink was used for ice dancing as well as conventional skating and ice hockey.  The London Lions ice hockey team were based at the Palais until 1934, when the venue was once again converted into a dance hall and the Lions found a new base in Wembley.  The Hammersmith Palais once again became a popular dance hall, accommodating up to 5,000 dancers at a time.

(Creative Commons image from [] on Flickr)

(Creative Commons image from STML on Flickr)

During the Second World War, and in spite of the Blitz, the Palais continued to play host to jazz bands and dances.  It was popular with servicemen on leave and women working in London. Glenn Miller, one of the iconic artists of the period, was among the performers here.  The BBC also broadcast Services Spotlight from the venue, featuring the popular artists of the time.

A dance event at the Hammersmith Palais, 1941 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

A dance event at the Hammersmith Palais, 1941 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

After the war, the Palais continued to be a popular jazz and ballroom dancing venue.  After the Second World War, London was home to a “Modern Jazz” movement that included famous names such as Ronnie Scott.  Jazz nights at the Palais continued to be incredibly popular.  An article about the Palais in 1951 commented that “Jazz as they play it at the Hammersmith Palais, is a serious matter. Youth goes mad about it – one way or the other. It’s the music of an unsafe, unsure, age.”

As trends in music changed, the Hammersmith Palais played host to some of the biggest and most popular bands of the day.  Legendary acts such as the Beatles, the Who, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones all played at the Palais, and it also became a popular venue for reggae and punk acts.  The Palais was immortalised by The Clash, in their 1978 release “White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)”, a song inspired by Joe Strummer’s visit to a reggae night at the Palais.

The Clash (image by Helge Øverås on Wikimedia Commons)

The Clash (image by Helge Øverås on Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1990s, the Palais began to fall into decline, increasingly hosting discos and club nights rather than live music and the venue began to be associated with drugs and violent crime.  The venue changed hands a number of times, and was even named Po Po Na for a while before an outcry caused its name to be changed back to the Hammersmith Palais.  However, even in its final months the Palais was still able to attract big-name acts and news of its closure was met with dismay by fans.  The Fall was the last band to play at the Palais, in a rather controversial last evening which had been scheduled before the venue’s closure was announced.  Mark E. Smith, lead singer of The Fall, didn’t reference the venue’s closure during the show and an angry fan invaded the stage to show his displeasure.

After its closure, the Palais stood derelict for a number of years, looking increasingly shabby and forlorn.  As the venue had been refitted so many times over the years, none of the original features had been left intact and therefore getting the building listed was not an option.

Hammersmith Palais looking in a sorry state in 2008 (image by Philip Perry, sourced via Wikimedia Commons)

Hammersmith Palais looking in a sorry state in 2008 (image by Philip Perry, sourced via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2013, demolition work finally commenced on the site and within a matter of months the Palais was gone, replaced by a block of smart (and eye-wateringly expensive) student flats.  No trace of Hammersmith Palais is now visible from Shepherd’s Bush Road.  Today the Palais lives on only in the ghost sign that overlooks the tube platforms, and in the memories of those who danced, drank, and performed there.

Further reading:

Farewell and RIP to the Hammersmith Palais – Ghost Signs, 11th May 2012 http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/2012/05/farewell-and-rip-to-the-hammersmith-palais-2.html

Exclusive Photos of the Hammersmith Palais being demolished – The Clash Blog, 23rd May 2012 http://www.theclashblog.com/exclusive-photos-of-the-hammersmith-palais-being-demolished/

The 1951 Hammersmith Palais Jazz Ball (Jiving is forbidden!) – Independent R’s Review, 9th June 2014 http://www.indyrs.co.uk/2014/06/the-1951-hammersmith-palais-jazz-band-ball-jiving-is-forbidden/

Hammersmith Palais Theatre – Guerilla Exploring, 27th March 2011 http://www.guerrillaexploring.com/gesite/public_html/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=98:ges019-hammersmith-p-theatre&catid=4:industry&Itemid=5

A look back, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, February 2007, http://www.lbhf.gov.uk/Images/A_look_back_tcm21-76037.pdf

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William Hogarth and his neighbours in a Chiswick churchyard

by Caroline

One suspects that William Hogarth would chuckle bitterly at the irony – his home in Chiswick, once his peaceful country retreat, now backs onto a hellishly busy road and a concrete road junction named the “Hogarth Roundabout”.  It’s an incongruous backdrop to the quiet elegance of Hogarth’s house, which today is home to a lovely museum about the great artist’s life.  Skilled as he was at portraying the vices, double standards and corruption of Georgian London, Hogarth would undoubtedly have found something to lampoon about the concrete hell of the modern, traffic-choked city.  (Incidentally, cartoonist Martin Rowson did produce a homage to Hogarth using the roundabout as a centrepiece.)

The Hogarth Roundabout, by Patche99z on Wikimedia Commons

The Hogarth Roundabout, by Patche99z on Wikimedia Commons

However, just south of the Hogarth Roundabout the scene changes dramatically.  The concrete gives way to a cluster of pretty Georgian houses, and the historic brewery of Fuller, Smith and Turner.  It is against this rather quaint backdrop that you’ll find Hogarth’s eternal resting place, in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Chiswick.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time of his death in 1764, Hogarth was a well-respected artist – a satirist, painter, printmaker, engraver and cartoonist – and patron of many charities.  Although he and his wife Jane never had any children, they fostered foundling children and were patrons of the Foundling Hospital in London.  Starting life in Clerkenwell, Hogarth had a tough childhood.  His father was imprisoned for debt.  After beginning an apprenticeship as an engraver, Hogarth also turned his hand to painting and book illustrations.  He produced many satirical images, most famously Gin Lane and Beer Street, and the “moral works” such as The Rake’s Progress and Marriage a-la-mode.  His sharp eye for the ridiculous, the grotesque and the cruel made him famous and his images are those which we associate most closely with Georgian London even today.

William Hogarth, "Gin Lane", 1750 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

William Hogarth, “Gin Lane”, 1750 (image from Wikimedia Commons)


William Hogarth, "The Painter and his Pug", 1745 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

William Hogarth, “The Painter and his Pug”, 1745 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

But enough of his life, I hear you say.  This is Cemetery Club, after all.  So we will return to Hogarth’s final resting place, beneath a handsome memorial that befits a famous artist.  Look a little closer at the tombstone, and you’ll find symbols relating to Hogarth’s life – the artist’s palette and paintbrushes, the oak leaves which often symbolise endurance and long life (Hogarth lived to be 66, not a bad innings at the time), the book which can be interpreted as showing someone’s accomplishments in life, and the mask which symbolises drama.  The laurel wreath represents the “evergreen” memory of the deceased.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHogarth’s friend, the actor David Garrick, provided an eloquent inscription for his tomb:

Farewell great Painter of Mankind
Who reach’d the noblest point of Art
Whose pictur’d Morals charm the Mind
And through the Eye correct the Heart.
If Genius fire thee, Reader, stay,
If Nature touch thee, drop a Tear:
If neither move thee, turn away,
For Hogarth’s honour’d dust lies here.

View from Hogarth's tomb in 1823 (source)

View from Hogarth’s tomb in 1823 (source)

Hogarth’s tomb was restored in 2010.  The stone was cleaned and the worn inscriptions were renewed, allowing visitors to the grave to once again be able to read Garrick’s tribute to his illustrious friend.  An information panel was also installed nearby with details of Hogarth’s life and work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHogarth’s tomb isn’t the only one in St Nicholas’ churchyard that’s grand enough to warrant being fenced off with railings.  An intricately-carved chest tomb stands nearby, remarkably well-preserved despite being over two hundred years old.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARichard Wright, the man commemorated by this superb memorial, was a bricklayer.  Not any old brickie, though – he was the bricklayer to Lord Burlington, owner of the nearby Chiswick House.  Chiswick House, designed by William Kent and completed in 1729, was an early example of Palladian architecture in Britain.  William Hogarth was a scathing critic of the Palladian style, seeing it as unpatriotic.

Wright’s tomb showcases some symbols commonly seen on 18th Century tombstones.  Cherubs were an extremely popular motif in this period, and can be seen in a great deal of art and decoration as well as gravestones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then there’s the skull and crossbones.  The hollow eyes of the twin skulls, one on each side of the monument, still stare out from the tomb in a sinister manner.  To our modern sensibilities, it seems dreadfully morbid to feature skulls on the grave of a loved one, but in the 17th and 18th Centuries memento mori images were very popular.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother common memento mori symbol found on Georgian graves is the hourglass – a symbol of the inevitability of passing time.  Again, rather an ominous choice, which reflects the gloom and austerity often present in Protestant thought at the time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou’ll notice that none of these symbols are really the kind of symbols one associates with Christianity.  Crosses and crucifixes are a common sight in Victorian cemeteries, but not on older graves.  In the 17th and 18th Centuries, when anti-Catholic sentiment was still widespread, symbols such as crosses, crucifixes and images of Christ were seen as popish, so the symbolism we see on Anglican and Nonconformist graves in this period tends to be more secular, associated more closely with death than it is with Christianity.

The 19th Century, on the other hand, saw the legal emancipation of Catholics, and the emergence of the Oxford Movement within the Anglican Church, which embraced many ideas inspired by Catholic symbolism and rites.  The Gothic revival was also inspired by this resurgence in Catholic imagery and ideas, and many Victorian graves reflect this with angels, pinnacles, and crosses, as well as depictions of Christ and the Lamb of God.

DSC_1709Beyond the churchyard is another burial ground, Chiswick Old Cemetery, which was opened in 1871, after the churchyard was closed to new burials.  To walk through the churchyard and then the cemetery really is to take a walk through time – you begin with the Georgian tombs close to the church, with their skulls and cherubs, through the Victorian angels and Gothic pinnacles, to the black marble and colourful windmills of modern gravestones.

St Nicholas’ Churchyard and Chiswick Old Cemetery are open to visitors every day during daylight hours.

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Keep your wits about you: Looking for Dracula in Whitby

by Christina

I stole the title from the Whatsapp message Sheldon sent me when he found out where I’d been.

‘I hope you kept your wits about you in Whitby.’

 QuickDraw Shelly they call him – always ready with a pun.

In fact, you do need to keep your wits about you when you visit this coastal town in Yorkshire – or at least a sharp eye on the weather and a strong hold on your footing – otherwise you may just get blown off the cliff top…or pushed off by a naughty ghost.

I have been staying in Teeside this past week for work – and I had always wanted to go to Whitby, ever since I read the children’s classic Room 13 by Robert Swindells as a pre-teen. It tells the story of a young girl on a class trip, who becomes possessed by Dracula. Pretty creepy. I was confused. I thought Dracula lived in Transylvania? Maybe you did too. 

Those of you up on your literature will know that part of Bram Stoker’s famous novel was set in Whitby – Dracula came ashore there when the London-bound ship he was on – The Dementer – ran aground off the North Yorkshire coast. He set about terrorising the locals. Bram Stoker himself came to Whitby in 1890, looking for a holiday home. He was inspired by the atmosphere of the cliff side town – the spooky Abbey ruins steeped in religious history, bats flapping round church belfries and the red roofs of the little houses that looked out on an angry North Sea. He created Dracula, and many tourists today forget he isn’t real. They are sometimes even heard to ask the locals where Dracula is buried…

… And so on a sunny but VERY windy day in June, Dan and I ascended the cliff top to search the Abbey ruins and the churchyard next door, to find the anti-hero of this tale.

There was a certain amount of Messing About.

We had read on t’Internet that if you come across a grave marked with a skull and cross bones in the churchyard next to the Abbey – you may have found Dracula.

In practice, it’s pretty difficult to find anything in said churchyard because of the interesting effects coastal weathering has had on the centuries old residents of this cliff top resting place.

It’s almost as if the stones were made of plastic and someone had gone at them with a blowtorch. Many are unreadable.

  Some have been literally blown to pieces.


 The ones that are  readable demonstrate that these graves are EXTREMELY old. I’d seen old graves before, but only usually ever one or two in isolation. And given that the first of the Magnificent 7 (Kensal Green) didn’t open until 1832, and that we’ve been focusing mainly on those cemeteries and their peers, I was fascinated to see gravestones that were THIS old. And so many together! Some of the dates on the stones were in the 1700s. And the fashion for headstones during this time period seemed to include a penchant for disembodied cherub heads looking grief-stricken. The passing of time and the effects of being exposed to angry northern winds has resulted in many of the cherubs sporting something of a menacing death-metal style glow (of darkness).   If it hadn’t been such a sunny day and if I wasn’t being kept company by approximately two dozen Japanese tourists and their selfie sticks, I would have been rather freaked out.

In fact, this particular churchyard (St Mary’s) was closed for burials in 1858. Amazing when you consider the last of the Magnificent 7 (Tower Hamlets) was opened only 17 years previously. These old graves have been sitting up here, gaining no new friends, for a LONG old time. 

Whitby is an old whaling town, and a lot of graves here remember sailors. I was struck by the amount of headstones that read ‘in memory of’ rather than ‘here lies…’ The list of people remembered here who were lost at sea must be sizeable.

The legend goes that Count Dracula fled Whitby by ascending the 199 stairs to the churchyard and the Abbey on the East cliff and hid in a suicide victim’s grave after drinking the blood of a young girl. The story then goes on to say that you can find the graves of both the girl and the suicide victim in the churchyard to this day – they are very simply marked with a skull & crossbones.

We found this gravestone after a lot of searching. Is it related to Dracula?! More likely it’s the tomb of a pirate. In any case, we only found one. It was getting too windy to carry on looking and we wanted to climb back down to Earth & eat lunch with the holidaying mortals. 
So we did. We made sure to take some myths and legends away with us too. Stay tuned for more ghostly cliff top tales another time…


All photos by Christina Owen Copyright June 2015 

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