Death in Bayswater

by Sheldon

I was supposed to be researching a tour along a canal the following day, yet there I was, making a bee-line for Kensal Green Cemetery, walking a mile off course to find the grave of a man whose life (and horrific death) had been preoccupying my thoughts for weeks and weeks.

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During a reunion walk between my fellow course mates on the City of Westminster Guiding course, I heard the life story of a brilliant man who single-handedly built an empire. He was one of those men who litter the Victorian era: starting off with nothing and then reaping the successes of hard work. Becoming a household name, he held a reputation that stretched to all four corners of the globe.

His story was destined to end unhappily.

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Bayswater was the epicentre of William Whiteley’s success. Described by some as a cross between Sir Alan Sugar and Willy Wonka, it was his visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851 that fired his imagination and passion for retail: marvellous goods and wares from all four corners of the empire and yet none of it was for sale. He wanted his own Crystal Palace where everything on show was for sale and to be a world renowned retailer. The decision was made: as soon as he was to complete his apprenticeship in Yorkshire, he would come to London to find his fortune.

In 1863, after saving £700 from a job he’d taken at a Drapers in Ludgate Hill, he owned one shop. By 1867, he owned the entire parade. Founding his own version of Harrods in the west of London, his services were recognised by Queen Victoria who gave him a Royal Warrant in 1896 – an unprecedented move.

On January 24th 1907, a young man entered the shop wishing to speak with Whiteley, claiming that he was on business from a solicitor. The chief cashier showed him to Whiteley’s Office where business was to continue as usual.

Half an hour had passed and the shop assistants had begun to worry. He was known for the speed with which he dealt with meetings and when shouting began to bellow from the office, a number of them became concerned. Very soon, Whiteley thundered out of his office and asked for a Policeman to be called immediately. The visitor, clearly aggrieved, then draws a pistol and shoots Whiteley twice, the second shot spreading his brains all over the floor. The visitor then turns the gun on himself, falling into a position that mirrors the final position of his victim.pic-8-william-whiteley

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The glass dome of Whiteley’s Department Store, Queensway

The visitor, called Horace Rayner survived, but where he failed in killing himself, he succeeded in losing an eye. He’d come to the store asking for a job from the man who he believed he was the illegitimate son of, to which Whiteley point blank refused any assistance to him. A motive had been found: public opinion actually sided with Rayner after the less salubrious details of Whiteley’s nature came to light at the inquest – making his staff work sixteen hour days, his terrible womanising and demeaning punishments for the most minor of offences. Rayner’s sentence was commuted from hanging to twenty years imprisonment after public support demanded clemency, supported by articles in newspapers of the time.

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Whiteley’s grave

As someone who works in retail, the whole affair had me intruiged. It certainly sounded better than anything I’d heard of that blasted Mr. Selfridge programme, and I was surprised to learn the story was made into a radio play in the 80’s, which is well worth a listen from the title alone – Willy’s Wild Oats. And there I was, at the grave of a multi-millionaire (surprisingly in a very regular part of the Cemetery – a spend-thrift even in death?) with people walking past, completely unaware of the events the man ten feet below me had experienced.

My thanks to the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery and Sandy Rhodes for assisting me in the research for this post.

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Outside London: Stumbling on a Medieval Church in Kent

Oast Houses, Kent

Oast Houses, Kent

by Christina 

Last week, on an uncharacteristically sunny day in February, I came across a brown sign with a picture of a church on it. It was pointing down a dirt track that led up a hill and then disappeared into the trees. I was in Kent, looking for Oast Houses to photograph (I love an Oast House and Kent is littered with them – many converted into other things – hotels, pubs, houses…but that’s for another day) and I don’t know what led me to go pursuing brown signs depicting churches instead but clearly something did, because before I knew it, I was driving up the dirt track and into the middle of deepest darkest nowhere (in real terms: about 5 miles from Tonbridge) in search of who knew what?

Brown Sign

I came to another sign that said ‘Norman church’. Now I was really interested. I imagined picturesque ruins and maybe a ghost or two.

And then I came upon my apparently destination. Here, on the side of a hill, stood a little church, surrounded by a very old churchyard and beyond that, a slightly newer, more gleaming one, with gravestones that were readable and obviously tended to. Beyond that was grass and mud and beyond that was a stile, which I evidently must climb in order to reach the Norman curiosity that lay beyond. I parked my trusty Nissan Micra up on a grass verge and set off. The sun was hanging low in the sky (it was about 3.30pm) and burning orange – a beautiful pre-spring, late afternoon colour. The sky was a deafening blue. A more beautiful time to find this hidden church I could not have picked.

Over the stile and up the hill

Over the stile and up the hill

I trudged up the hill and came alongside the church. Yew trees that had clearly seen better days were dotted all around, and wonky old gravestones that were now unreadable stood between them, partially moss covered and long neglected. I found a plaque on the wall of the church near the hulking wooden door (ajar) that declared it to be the Church of Thomas a Becket, Capel, and no longer in regular use.

Capel Church

 

Capel Church

The sign also told me that I could go inside and, taking this as an invitation, I pulled the door open and stepped into a foyer (a glossary of church terms tells me it should be called a narthex) that was at least 10 degrees colder than outside. I could see the chapel through the open door straight ahead of me and I could see that it was deserted. It might have been a little creepy if the sun had not have been pouring in through the windows to my right (substantially more contemporary than the windows on my left, which looked to have been carved into the stone walls very deeply and a very long time ago) but instead it was – and I know I say this a lot about various churches and churchyards so bear with me – peaceful. A tiny oasis of calm in an ocean of 21st Century hubbub that I knew lay just outside and down the road a bit. I didn’t even have 4G in here. The Universe was determined to get me off my phone and into the discovery of something historic.

Inside Capel Church

Inside Capel Church

And there was a lot of history here. The walls of the nave were covered with what looked like cave paintings, faded and brown, as if they had been drawn in wet clay. An information sheet on a table at the back of the church informed me that these were medieval church wall paintings, uncovered in 1927. Presumably until then, they had been hiding, just waiting to be discovered.

Medieval wall paintings

Medieval wall paintings

I tried to imagine what the church would have been like back in 1300. There was what looked like a bricked up doorway on one wall which I later learned was exactly that and had probably been part of the original architecture of the building. The church had been partially rebuilt after 1639, when it was damaged by fire, and the roof had been replaced in the 14th century, so this was a church that had seen some change. But some of the oldest parts still remain.

Capel Church

Back outside, I found daffodils sprouting up through the damp earth and beginning to flower. The very old and the very new, existing together. In the distance I could see Oast Houses – their pointed roofs gleaming in the setting sun, and across the valley I could hear cows mooing chickens clucking. Possibly the landscape hasn’t changed all that much in this part of the world since 1086, when this church was listed in the Domesday book (one of only five churches to have been so). Sir Thomas a Becket himself was thought to have preached here once upon a very long ago – perhaps not in the church but instead nearby, under a yew tree.

An information sheet for my information

An information sheet for my information

An enchanting accidental find on a rare good day in February.

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Lovelocks London

by Christina

This Valentine’s Day we thought we’d celebrate a now world famous memorial to life and to love…

As you walk around London (or any big city), you’ll notice an ever growing abundance of padlocks with names scrawled on them in Sharpie (or sometimes even engraved) swinging from railings on bridges and chainlink fences. They are colourful and beautiful and touching, and a little bit tacky (but we can overlook that), and unless you have no eyes, you’ll have seen at least one nestled somewhere in The Big Smoke.

A colourful Lovelock against a grey day on the Millennium Bridge, Nov 2014

A colourful Lovelock against a grey day on the Millennium Bridge, Nov 2014

The history of Lovelocks is unclear, with different sources claiming different origins for these symbols for everlasting love and commitment. Did they originate in Serbia during WW1, bourne out of heartbreak and sadness, or in China, where lovers would throw away the key to celebrate a love that could never be undone?

They are sometimes loved and sometimes despised but they exist now on bridges and fences all over the world and despite the implications and the controversies involved, the innocence and purity of the message behind each one is clear. These padlock covered areas of our fair city aren’t really cemeteries because they aren’t dead spaces – if anything they are screaming with life and with love – but the messages left behind by the people who left them join together to make huge memorials to humanity – to hope and to devotion and to the connections forged between us as human beings.

A fence full of hearts and lovelocks next to Shoreditch High Street station in September 2012

A fence full of hearts and lovelocks next to Shoreditch High Street station in September 2012

This Valentine’s Day weekend, keep an eye out for Lovelocks in London and tweet us your favourites (@cemeteryclub)

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Outside London: Capel Mynydd Seion – The Gothic Chapel On The Hill

by Christina 

I went on a recent road trip in my trusty battered Nissan Micra to see friends, and at some point during this trip I found myself standing on a hill in Abergele, North Wales, staring up at a grand old chapel made out of dark brick with a dark slate roof, unable to take my eyes off it. It didn’t look like the other churches in the area. In a way it more resembled the great many castles dotted around the landscape (North Wales is full of castles. You can barely move for castles) than it did a church. It looked majestic, and imposing, and historic. It looked like this:
Capel Mynydd Seion

This is Capel Mynydd Seion. It was designed by Richard Owens (the second most prolific chapel architect in Wales) and built in 1869 from brick and dark granite that came from Penmaenmawr, a nearby quarrying town, which accounts for it’s rather macabre appearance.

I came across it by accident, while I was walking by on the way to a wedding dress shop, of all places (important to note: I was not shopping for myself). It drew my eye and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I needed to go and explore. The next day I found an opportunity to go and do just that. It was a grey and drizzly day (as it so often is in Wales) and I wrapped myself up in coat and scarf to protect against the wind coming in off the Irish sea, before setting out to walk around the chapel. It turned out to have a somewhat sprawling and beautiful graveyard behind it – picturesque against a backdrop of hills, fields and nearby Gwrych Castle spilling out from halfway up a nearby valley.

Capel Mynydd Seion

Capel Mynydd Seion

Capel Mynydd Seion

Abergele

 

I wandered around for a while, reading the gravestones. This being North Wales, there were a lot of Davids and Owens and Jones’s and Gwenyths to be found. The graveyard, in contrast to the sombre looking church, was light and airy and peaceful. I certainly wouldn’t mind being buried with a sweeping view of the tree covered valleys of North Wales.

It was a short visit, and I didn’t go into the chapel, but I couldn’t resist photographing it from all angles, and made a mental note to research its history when I got back to London.

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As I circled the building, I imagined the commentary Sheldon would give if he were there. ‘Early Gothic style…’ he’d begin, and then he’d probably look up the architect of the place using Google on his phone – that is, if he didn’t correctly guess the architect purely from looking at the chapel (which has been known). He’d teach me some facts about Richard Owens and then tell me about Calvinist Methodists (at some point during this impromptu lesson, I would learn that they are the only one of the nonconformist denominations that is indigenous to Wales, without any English equivalent).

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He’d then do some more research and discover that this chapel was rebuilt in 1868-9 to replace the earlier Calvinist Methodist chapel that had stood on the site since 1791. We’d take a moment to try to imagine what the original chapel would have looked like. Then we’d discover that this grand old building was Grade II Listed in May 1997, and we’d be impressed. As it was, Sheldon wasn’t there, so I did a moderate-to-good job of finding all these things out on my own.

I love finding churches and chapels and historical buildings in general that stand out from their surroundings. You can tell immediately that there’s an interesting history to the place. I wonder what things this particular chapel has seen, and what it thought as it watched the quiet market town of Abergele grow bigger around it over the years, partially obscuring it’s view across the valley of the nearby castle, also standing tall watching the landscape change.

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All photography by Christina Owen, Copyright 2015

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Breakfast at Night – Our First AGM at the Cereal Killer Cafe

by Christina

Sheldon and I decided we should have an AGM to discuss Cemetery Club and where the future will take us and the blog. A couple of days after this discussion I got an official looking Google Calender invite in my inbox, inviting me to the Cereal Killer Cafe in Shoreditch – a cafe selling bowls of cereal and other breakfast products, devised and run by two bearded brothers. It seemed very hipster. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be associated with something so obviously ridiculous, but I do like breakfast. And the concept of eating breakfast after dark seemed very ‘Cemetery Club’. I was in – but it took me several hours to work out how to reply to the Google invitation.

Sheldon set about making pie charts, because he decided that a good AGM needs pie charts. I set about thinking about which cereal to have first.

Cereal Killer Cafe

The Cereal Killer Cafe opened in December 2014 on Brick Lane in Shoreditch, a street famous for it’s plethora of curry houses at one end and overpriced boutiques masquerading as thrift shops at the other. Selling 120 different types of cereal, 30 different types of milk and 12 varieties of Pop Tart (my mouth is watering just writing this sentence), it immediately caused controversy because despite the horrendous and completely obvious gentrification of this, one of the poorer boroughs in London that’s already been going on for years, noone could quite get their head around bowls of cereal being sold for £2.50. And so there were a lot of articles about it in The Guardian and lo, a fad was born. Fast forward to the 21st January 2015 and Sheldon and I are now queuing for half an hour to place our breakfast order. It is half past seven at night. But I guess it’s always breakfast time somewhere.

Lots of breakfast

Lots of breakfast

Whilst in the queue, I decide to Tweet our location and immediately receive a reply from one of my favourite London based Twitter feeds – @SkintLondon: ‘so you keep cemetery hours? #Dracula’.

It’s a novelty venue and I’m not immediately sure how it fits in with the theme of our particular project, aside from the eating at night, Dracula stuff. But as I look around it becomes clear that this place is sort of a graveyard for another era – a time where Lucky Charms were still sold in the UK and big film franchises needed commercial tie-ins with breakfast products in order to promote themselves (there is a box of Jurassic Park themed cereal from the early 90’s on a shelf above our table). There are Russ Trolls along the walls and I spy several different cereals that I remember from my days cherry picking the best out of the Kelloggs Variety Packs as a kid. Even the music is tailored to the nostalgic theme of the place – there are television show theme songs from the 80’s and 90’s and amid these I catch the sound of Tori Amos singing ‘Never was a Cornflake girl…’

Commerical tie-ins

Commerical tie-ins

We commence our meeting once we have a suitable amount of chocoflakes and apple Pop Tarts on the table. I drink a Capri Sun and then, in the spirit of slipping seamlessly back into my childhood, a carton of Ribena. Sheldon drinks root beer and then tries a Pop Tart for the first time in his life. His response is classic Sheldon – the old at heart meets the newfangled and odd. His face contorts and it’s clear that he likes the rainbow coloured pocket full of sugar he has just put in his mouth, but doesn’t want to admit it.

 

Our meal

Our meal

Sheldon has breakfast at night

Sheldon has breakfast at night

We cover a lot of ground during the meeting and then, right at the end, before we leave the world of Sugar Puffs and strawberry milk behind us, Sheldon remembers his pie chart and proudly displays it. It shows the percentage of alive people we have featured on the blog vs the percentage of dead people. It’s a 1:99 split.

My verdict on the Cereal Killer Cafe is that it’s worth visiting purely for it’s nostalgia value. It’s a cemetery of retro foodstuffs and the walls are covered with tack from another era. If, like Sheldon and me, you were born in the mid 80’s, you’ll feel right at home. Plus, I don’t think £2.50 is a lot to ask for a bowl of cereal that you can tailor to your specific tastes with your preferred milk and topping. You’d pay that much for a coffee in Starbucks after all, and this place has personality. It may not be Victorian London but we like it.

Retro

Retro

At some point during the evening, I ask Sheldon what a Cemetery Club cafe would look like. I’ll leave the answer to your imagination (hint: it involves a lot of taxidermy).

All photographs by Christina Owen, copyright 2015

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Our First Day Out in London

by Christina

Two idiots go for a walk in 2010

Two idiots go for a walk in 2010

The day I met Sheldon, I thought he was a bit of a weirdo. By the next day, I thought he was one of the coolest people ever to have crossed my path. We were temping at HMV in Bromley and during busy times he would serve each customer using a different accent from around the world. Australian, then Indian, then Scottish and it would go on and on. Each one sounded truly authentic. By the time our days as The Kids From Empire were up, we had become firm friends, although due to the transient nature of temping and of life, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again. It was a new year and a new start for both of us – I was off to Paramedic school and Sheldon was off, like a feather blowing in the wind, to see what opportunities life had to offer him now. As a talented artist, singer and history buff, the world was his oyster. I waved goodbye to him after our last day and thought, sadly, that we might have had our day.

Two days later we went to London Zoo. As you do.

And two weeks later, Sheldon asked me if I would like to go on a walk through the City of London with him. He would show me all the hidden churches and alleyways and facets of long forgotten history that he found so fascinating, and I decided that as the City was right next to Shoreditch, which was full of facets of hidden graffiti that I found interesting, we would combine our interests. Which is what we did. And I guess we both decided that our blend of the old and the new worked well together, because a year later, Cemetery Club was born.

Old and new.

Old and new.

I recently found the photographs I took that day. They had been long banished to a dusty external hard drive and ignored, mostly because the day was so gloomy and grey that it never really got light or stopped raining and all the photos are dreadful – blurry and sludgy and to my perfectionists eye, not worthy of note at all. Looking back on them, displeasing to look at as they are, I find a certain charm in them. They remind me of early photography, where everything was sludgy and grey because colour hadn’t been invented yet and shutter speeds were typically half an hour long.

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They are somewhat Victorian in nature and could have been taken 20 years ago or 70, or 200 – except every so often a blaze of colour is injected and lo and behold, you have the combination of Sheldon and me perfectly juxtaposed and summed up in pictorial form. The past and the present, history and geography, ancestors and futurists.

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And then there is Sheldon’s starry blue shirt – a beacon of colour on a grey London day that stands out against the sepia brickwork of the centuries old churches lodged between the cold grey steel of the city skyscrapers and an image that splashes across my mind every time I visit that part of the world in the middle of winter.

 

Sheldon

Sheldon

 

 

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What A Year It’s Been

by Sheldon (and Christina…..a little bit)

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And so we close another year of intrepid Cemetery exploration. It’s been a busy year which has seen a lot of positive things happen – myself becoming a qualified tour guide and Christina running a Craft fair as well as the marathon itself. What’s both struck us is the response the blog has received this year. We now have a steady readership and we like to think people enjoy reading about gallivanting around the City of London Cemetery or reading about the loss of an online diary network.

It’s got to the stage where people are connecting us with the blog – I’ve lost count of the people who’ve met me and gone ‘oh, you’re the Cemetery guy!’ and so on. Especially with the links we’ve built with the many guides, cemeteries and people who’ve come on the  tours, we both feel the ‘brand’ is achieving what we want it to: to celebrate these wonderful places of the dead.

Kensal Green/Atlantis, Feb 2014 -Nick Richards Photography

Kensal Green/Atlantis, Feb 2014 -Nick Richards Photography

As Christmas comes with its tidings of goodwill, both me and Christina have sat down to see where the blog can go next. We have many exciting things planned in the New Year but also, need a bit of time to get things ready and more importantly, recharge our batteries. For the time being I’d like to do a few more cartoons and non-cemetery related walks, and Christina has a career to focus on.

That’s not to say the blog is dead – it’s not! But we’ve both agreed we need to step back for a while and work on the next stage of Cemetery Club without worrying about making sure a post is ready every week – quality rather than quantity is one of the lessons we’ve learnt this year.

We’ve been on some wonderful and often surprising Cemetery Club visits this year, both separately and together – in London and further afield. Here’s a round up of our favourites from 2014:-

In October, we trekked up to East London/Essex to visit the Muslim Gardens of Peace in Ilford, and see a type of resting place that vastly differed from our Victorian forebears and their grand/intricate stonework. The Gardens of Peace were just what the name describes – beautiful, simple and tranquil.

Sheldon and his cousin Nick, together with camera, visited the City of London Cemetery in July, and took some haunting photographs.

Christina drove Route 66 in September, and in the deserts of New Mexico she came across Fort Sumner, home to the final resting place of Billy the Kid. 

In June, Sheldon, fresh from his Tour Guiding course and with a new qualification under his belt, gave a spectacular tour of Brompton for the first time. The sun shone down as Sheldon, perhaps slightly overdressed in a shirt and tie, shed any nerves he might have had at the start of the day and gave a confident, relaxed and informative tour of the first Magnificent 7 cemetery we ever visited as a twosome.

We dedicated August to remembering those who fought and died during WW1, and Christina went to visit the Poppies at the Tower of London right at the start of their residency there – and found a war memorial across the road that she didn’t know existed…

January saw us discover the grisly fate of famed author Laurence Sterne…

We wish all our readers a very merry festive season and a successful 2015, where we shall rejoin you in our mission to demystify these repositories of the dead.

© Laura Pursey 2

© Laura Pursey 2

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Photograph of Christina and Rainbow by Laura Pursey 2014

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