There was no denying it: it was soaking wet and the rain was penetrating our clothing, giving us an uncomfortable chill. It was overcast, boggy and damp. I, along with Christina, have visited many cemeteries before but on this occasion, it was verging on the downright unpleasant. There wasn’t a flicker of blue in the sky. It was just a miserable summer’s day.
But this did not hinder our purpose. Here I was with Ben, walking along the main avenue of Brompton Cemetery in the pouring rain. A cemetery I’d been to countless times before – in fact, it’s the one I’ve visited most out of all the Magnificent Seven. It was the ‘final’ part in a saga that had been rumbling on for nearly two years; we were both filled with excitement which was shaded with a little bit of sadness. We were about to visit someone whom we’d grown very close to. It was only fair that we would pay our respects to them for the sheer enjoyment they’d given us. And after a few false starts, we’d found it at last.
The grave of the Reverend Sir Montague Fowler.
Let us rewind slightly. Readers of the blog may be aware of an old document we’d found in the stable block of Ben’s old place in Sussex. A document written by a boy called Montague Fowler. Dated 1869. Why was this document in an old tin chest, seemingly belonging to no-one? We’d made it our personal mission to see what we could find about him (which you can find in part 1, part 2 and part 3) and became immersed in the life of a man who was described by Charles Dant, author of ‘Distinguished Churchmen and Phases of Church Work (1905) as ‘one of the busiest men in Orders.’ The Rector of All Hallows-on-the-Wall, founder of the Imperial Club (a private members club for the clergy) and an extensive writer and author, who also happened to be the third son of Sir John Fowler, the man who designed the Forth Bridge.
After a visit to his house where he lived (and died) in 1933, we wanted to find his last resting place to pay our respects. After a heart-stopping moment when the stewards of Bushey Museum gave us a guide that may help us find him in St. James’ Church, what would have been Montague’s ‘local’, we were disappointed to find he wasn’t interred there. There was nothing. An old Victorian MP for Sheffield and a very famous Painter, but not our beloved Sir. We were both at a loss on how we should proceed with the search: there was a very worrying feeling that we’d reached the end of the line and that after all this pain-staking research, we’d never be able to find him.
Enter Joseph Burne.
Joseph had followed us on Twitter a few months earlier, and had worked on the BBC show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ as a genealogist. I originally messaged him to see if I could wangle a guest post out of him about his career and interests, and we exchanged a few DM’s on the matter. He seemed like a nice guy, so I e-mailed him for some pointers on how we could go about fixing the conundrum of where Montague was buried. We exchanged a flurry of emails, and, perhaps catching the Montague fever, Joe went offline briefly saying he’d be bringing me some news shortly.
What followed was beyond expectation.
He asked me if he had a brother called Evelyn Phillip. I hadn’t the foggiest idea. He then wanted confirmation that Montague lived at Merry Hill House in Bushey. Joseph replies saying that he’d found him – and that he was in Brompton Cemetery, slap bang in the middle, in the part referred to as ‘the open air cathedral’, at a depth of eleven feet. He was in Brompton. A cemetery I’ve been to countless times before. His father and brother were here, of course! The times I must’ve walked right past him and never knew.
At this point it was clear that we owed Joseph a great deal of gratitude in aiding our search. We invited him for brunch down Kings Road and with fuller bellies we followed up our chat with a jaunt to Brompton. Armed with a map to locate the block he was in, bearing in mind it was bucketing it down, we explored a rectangular block around 90ft long and 20ft wide, delicately peeling back the Ivy and bushes to see if any of the old stones had Montague’s name on them.
We searched twice unsuccessfully. It was soon apparent that my exceptional map reading skills had us looking at the wrong area and that we should actually be looking at the next bit that was within the ‘Cathedral’. We begun again, getting wetter and wetter. Poor Joseph looked like he’d just got our of the bath fully clothed. I was feeling a bit crestfallen as a number of the graves had weathered so badly that whoever was beneath them were unidentifiable. I feared the Baronet of Braemore would be one of them. There were many other Reverends, in a part of the cemetery where people weren’t short of money. I wasn’t interested in them. I was interested in him.
Four syllables then cut through the air. “Sheldon, he’s here.”
I can only compare what it felt as I jogged towards his grave as going partially deaf after a loud bang. Everything around you seems transient with time slowing down around you. I navigated my way through tightly packed graves to the spot where Ben was standing. It came into view.
A fine, fine cross that gleamed amongst the others, mainly because it was constructed of a more durable material than its neighbouring monuments. There were very few words to be said. All three of us were standing feet above where he’d been laid to rest on April 6th, 1933. We wondered who were the last people to come here to pay their respects to him, at his grave which was covered in freshly cut grass from the keepers of the park. Here he was, his life resurrected by two peculiar men who took a strange interest in man they’d never met, or knew anything about. His life never having encountered the internet, yet echoes of it are there in hidden pages and websites.
And so the ‘Mystery of Montague Fowler’ has reached its conclusion. The schoolboy who wrote of apothecary measures had gone onto Harrow and Cambridge, served in numerous positions in Kensington, France, Lambeth and finally, the City, where became a respected Rector in a parish church. The husband of his beloved Ada, who was with him as he experienced the loss of most of the male members of his family from the First World War. This grave was more than a grave for the Reverend Sir, it was a grave for the thrilling journey that we’d found ourselves in. And we didn’t want it to end.
And happily, it didn’t. Because something wasn’t quite right. The monument listed three people who were interred here, despite Joseph’s protestations that the official records show only two. Montague’s brother Evelyn (a member of the Black Watch who died in 1917), himself, and his wife. Denise. Denise Marcelle Fowler, nee Chailley. Born 23rd August 1892, died 25th February 1993.
Denise? Who the ruddy hell was Denise! He was married to Ada! She was HOW old when he passed away?! Montague! What’s all this!
They mystery of Montague may have drawn to a close, but the intrigue into his life hasn’t, powered by this perplexing bit of information on the stone. I hand over the baton: there shall be no more ‘Mysteries of’ as we’ve solved the riddle of the man from the tin chest. Next week, Ben, my accomplice in all this, has volunteered to chronicle his own personal crusade to detangle who this woman was and what happened to Ada.
Thank you Montague. You’ve been brought back, if even only for a short while.
Our sincerest gratitude to Joseph.
- The Mystery of Montague Fowler, Part One (cemeteryclub.co.uk)
- The Mystery of Montague Fowler, Part Two (cemeteryclub.co.uk)
- The Mystery of Montague Fowler, Part Three (cemeteryclub.co.uk)