It’s a pleasure to contribute to the Cemetery Club’s blog! For my first post, I’m not going to venture into the history of London’s cemeteries and the ever-growing need for burial space. I don’t need to, as this topic has already been covered in the excellent existing posts by Sheldon, Christina and Caroline.
Instead I’m going to offer up two interesting characters I came across whilst researching Streatham Cemetery (located in Tooting and not to be confused with Streatham Park Cemetery, which I’ll be covering in my next blog). Sheldon and I only located one grave of the two people I’ll be writing about but we still enjoyed an excellent outing to a thoroughly lovely and well-maintained cemetery.
A rather unconventional entertainer was interred at Streatham Cemetery on a dry and mild New Year’s Eve day in 1936. A special platform was erected at the edge of the 4ft wide grave, the largest ever dug at the cemetery, and an additional six cemetery staff members were needed to help ease the huge coffin onto the pall. Surrounded by her fellow circus performers who came to pay their respects, this was the final resting spot of Mrs Hilda Wilson, 1936’s self-proclaimed “World’s Fattest Woman”.
Tod Browning’s film “Freaks” had provoked such public revulsion four years earlier but, even before that, the British and American public had already bought into question the morality of these once hugely popular ‘freak shows’. By the 1920s and 30s, the silver screen began eclipsing the allure of the circus with its featured human oddities and freak show audiences dwindled.
Could this downturn in popularity have prompted 63-year old Hilda Brown to relocate from Berlin to try her luck at the Fun Fair in London’s Haymarket in mid-December 1936? A living exhibit, she was 5’3” but weighed in at 46 stone with a waist that was 3 yards in circumference. The widow of fellow carnival attraction John Wilson (a.k.a. “The English Giant”), Hilda had arrived in England only a fortnight earlier – no doubt she considered her fellow performers the closest thing she had to friends and family.
Travelling around London was problematic for Hilda, as the standard English rail carriages simply couldn’t accommodate her and she was forced to commute in the guard’s van. While appearing at the Fun Fair on that fateful December day, Hilda collapsed and never awoke.
In death it reportedly took eight men to carry her body to the mortuary where it was determined that a pituitary gland disorder was responsible for her size, putting such strain on her 23oz heart that it could no longer support her frame. The cause of death was recorded as “myocardial degeneration and adeposis”. Rather dramatically, the funeral very nearly didn’t take place as Hilda’s financial interests were still tied up in Germany, but luckily Hilda’s circus family generously chipped in to defray the cost of her burial.
Gilbert “Gibb” William Roger Mapplebeck’s only calling was to be a pilot. Even before the devastating outbreak of WWI Gibb had already learned to fly, earning his Royal Aero Club’s flying certificate at the tender age of 19. Following his father’s career path as a Liverpool dentist was not on the cards for Gibb who, at 6’3″, was “possessed of a personal charm that endeared him to many”. Within the next two years, Gibb’s skill and courage made him a real life ‘Top Gun’ who enjoyed such distinctions of flying in the RFC’s seminal reconnaissance mission in August 1914, and later becoming the first pilot to bomb enemy lines in Flanders.
Not long afterwards, Gibb had the dubious honour of being the first British pilot to be injured in aerial combat. During a 6,000ft dog fight, he was hit by the rifle bullet of a German plane which sliced through the back of his right thigh, exiting the inner thigh and grazing his groin. Against all odds, Gibb managed to reach British lines before lapsing into unconsciousness as the plane slowly filled up with his own blood. Excellent medical care (involving multiple surgeries) and sheer force of will ensured his survival and 22-year old Gibb was awarded a DSO in the New Year’s Honours.
In March 1915 he spearheaded the first ever nocturnal air raid ever undertaken but things didn’t go according to plan. Shot down over Lille and ensuring his survival only by burning what remained of his plane, Gibb laid low in a wood for three days before finding sanctuary in an abandoned house, sustaining himself only with the chocolate he carried with him.
Once again though, Lady Luck was on Gibb’s side – he happened to speak fluent French and charming the locals, he disguised himself a peasant as he made his way through France back to England, all while tearing up his own Wanted posters issued by the enemy. Eventually passing through Holland to return to London, Captain Mapplebeck arrived on 4th April, presenting himself at Farnborough later the same day. The man was unstoppable!
Gibb’s reputation as a daredevil preceded him and he performed mid-air tricks and stunts which sometimes got him into a spot of bother with his superiors (on one occasion he was disciplined for looping the loop in his plane. As one does). Whether or not this ‘devil may care’ attitude contributed to his death, we’ll never know. On Tuesday 24th August 1915, Gibb was stationed in Kent testing a Morane Saulnier Type N “Bullet” fighter plane when, to the horror of witnesses, the aircraft banked, made a sharp right turn and then nose-dived straight into the ground.
Captain Gibb Mapplebeck was killed on impact, two days short of his 23rd birthday. The Board of Inquiry found that “the accident was due to the machine ‘spinning’ on a heavily banked turn, the pilot not having sufficient height to regain control before hitting the earth.” Gibb’s possessions were returned to his family and he was buried with full military honours in Streatham Cemetery at 11h45 on Saturday 28th August 1915.
So highly regarded were her son’s heroics that his mother received personal condolences from Lord Stamfordham on behalf of King George V himself. The message read, “His Majesty knows what gallant and distinguished services he has rendered during the war, and deeply regrets that a young life of such promise should have been thus cut short.”
Hilda and Gilbert – we salute you.