In 1846, a young man travelled from the Richmond Buildings in Soho to Bromley Parish church to have a ‘look about the town and afterwards the churchyard, and took down a few inscriptions most remarkable‘. The man in question was a diarist called Nathaniel Bryceson, a 19 year old clerk . A few years ago the City of Westminster published one of his diaries online: updating each entry on the same day he’d have written it in correspondence.
He regularly walked twenty miles and more on Sundays, dated a woman who was many years older than himself and had an unhealthy obsession with death, stalking various cemeteries and graveyards of London, writing down inscriptions and his thoughts on various churchyards in his notebook. If he were alive today I’d have asked him for a blog post.
Places such as Edgware, Harrow and a location detailed in this entry – Bromley – were some of the locations he ended up visiting each week. As a Bromley resident, and long term Cemetery aficionado, I was interested to see what this historical figure found when visiting the Churchyard of St Peter and St Pauls.
This tied into the rediscovery of an image I’d found a few years ago of the old Church, as it would have looked when he visited. Although the photo was taken later than Nathaniel’s visit, the structure was essentially the same and probably untouched for hundreds of years. How different was the building and Churchyard to the one than the visited in the 1840’s?
On the 10th September he writes:
‘Breakfasted and started quarter before 8 o’clock for Bromley in Kent, through Lewisham and that way. Arrived there half past 11 and looked about the town and afterwards the churchyard, and took down a few inscriptions most remarkable…sallied back to burial ground and fortunately met with the sexton, who let me in the church and very obligingly turned up some of the matting to show me the flat stone with the inscription on Dr Johnson’s wife, composed by himself.’
The Church today is constructed out of the rubble of its predecessor: it was bombed in enemy action in 1941, leaving nothing but the 15th century tower. By looking closely you can see fragments of carved stone scattered hither and yon in the fabric of the building. A more interesting note is that from the wreckage of the old church survives the flat stone which covered the remains of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s wife Elizabeth Porter, affectionately known by Johnson as Tetty, who was buried here after convalescing in the country to overcome an addiction to opiates. It was this stone that Bryceson mentions in his entry for the 10th September and despite what happened in the war, (some of) it remains, the exact stone that Nathaniel himself clapped eyes on all those years ago.
Nathaniel today upon walking through the lych-gate would only recognise the tower. Headstones have largely been cleared, leaving green open space where previously the old inhabitants of Bromley once resided. Several Bishops of Rochester lay here, as do many generations of the Dunn family, a prosperous clan who started as a removals firm in 1710, diverging into undertaking and home furnishings. The firm was also being one of the first British outlets to sell Swedish furniture to consumers. John Hawkesworth, a writer and former friend of Johnson, is also buried here.
There are many places in London and nationally I’d like to be able to turn back time and see how they looked in years gone by, be it Highgate or the West Norwood or Kensal Green, but what of their forerunners, the conventional parish Churchyard? Like Bromley itself, the Parish Church has succumbed to modernity and the markers of those who lived here centuries ago are now being used for paving; their memory literally being walked all over. The clearance has made way for lush expanses of green grass that look prettier than old wonky headstones.
I wonder what Nathaniel would have made of that.