I was making full use of my recent membership of the British Library and delving into their archives to explore ye olde books on Cemeteries. I came across one such book that was written in the 1860’s for the Brighton Extra Mural Cemetery; imagine Bradshaw’s Guide, which was written as a timetable and guide to the railways, but for graveyards. Armed with my new Nikon D3300 which my Dad got me for my 30th, down I toddled to the south coast to visit this seaside golgotha for a chance to be death’s answer to Michael Portillo.
John George Bishop was the author of the aforementioned tome and like me, took great pleasure in
being incredibly geeky about something chronicling the lives of the people buried in Brighton’s answer to Highgate. Over a period of three years he saw the Cemetery grow and develop and on a rare day off, I went back to this little valley in the South Downs to see what was left from his initial visit in 1864.
I originally called Brighton Extras Mural ‘Highgate on Sea’ – it’s obvious as to why. Impressive vaults, catacombs and tombs nestled into precariously hilly terrain, a cluster of well to do monuments right at the front of the Cemetery boasting old financiers from London and an impressive gothic number which was ‘erected by Mr. Field, of 13, Parliament Street, London’ in the memory of J Collingwood Esquire. A number of tombs (bar one) were still where he said they were, all those years ago.
Bishop is a bloody good writer. Books like this you would expect to be a simpering, pious tome about how wonderful the cemetery is – let’s not forget that death was big business at the time of its writing but refreshingly, Bishop isn’t always convinced by what he sees. Take the Ray family Mausoleum next to the Anglican chapel.
For reasons best known to him, Mr Ray, a barrister from London, decided to build a tomb that could hold up to 42 people. I’ve not yet checked the size of his family, or whether he was trying to compensate for something, but it’s a beast of a building and all it seems to house now are some fairly chuffed Pigeons. Never mind as a house of the dead, and Bishop muses:
‘Though on too large a scale for this Cemetery, and in a position which detracts from its general appearance, this Mausoleum is a handsome piece of work’.
In the upper reaches of the Cemetery, lies the grave of Frances de Val. Time has swept away most of the graves that were once here but Bishop does his best even then to keep this guy’s story alive – de Val had the unenviable job of keeping George IV’s Pavilion tidy and furnished, a job he got after George heard he’d knocked a Frenchman out after a quarrel.
He was also in charge of paying a pension to Phoebe Hessel, the highly decorated and revered soldier who was eventually revealed to be a woman. When her exploits permitted her to receive a pension, George IV asked how much would allow her to live comfortably. ‘Half your income’, she dryly replied. George saw the funny side and through de Val received half-a-sovereign a week for the remainder of her life.
Then there’s the gigantic tomb of John Urpeth Rastrick. Rastrick was one of the first engineers to build a steam locomotive – in fact he was a judge at the Rainhill Trials which saw Stephenson’s Rocket pant and hiss to victory. Rastrick was also a key player in the building and construction of the London to Brighton Railway. How many Londoners must have secretly have thanked him for its construction, having a cheeky Caffe Nero down the Lanes every time the sun seems to promise a nice day out . His death in Addlestone, Surrey in 1856 posed something of a problem for the cemetery – his tomb was to be a massive block of granite resembling a locomotive turning circle, and it was to be situated on a steep hill on the cemetery.
The entrance gate had to be partially demolished to get it into the cemetery and then twenty horses had to try and lift the damned thing into position – that must have been a stressful day for all concerned. Now, it overlooks the cemetery yet despite its size, Bishop brings us back to reality with an observation he made whilst standing by it when it was new:
‘As we were standing beside the tomb, a child ran up to a gentlemen, and, in the simplicity of its innocence, asked-“How many men are buried here, Papa?” – “One, dear”. The little thing looked up – half incredulous with wonder – into the speakers face. “Human vanity” thought we, as we passed on, “might learn a lesson from this child”.
Realising it was nearing closing time and that I hadn’t even made a significant dent in the writings of Mr. Bishop, I made my way to the seafront to have something one or two of the people here would have had as they strolled along the promenade – good old fashioned fish and chips.
Another stroll in the Extra Mural awaits.
All photos © Sheldon K Goodman 2016.