My Local in Lockdown

Famous for being the creative cradles of David Bowie, Bob Monkhouse and Julie Andrews, the ancient heart of the town of Beckenham has always been the church of St. George.

Originally built in the 1100s, the grandiose church we see today is the result of a rebuild under the supervision of William Gibbs Barfleet, who rammed Victorian gothic into every stone of the new building. The sleepy parish church was transformed into a magnificent, imposing place of worship and stands out from his other works.

But never mind the building! The churchyard, full of graves! That’s what I’m interested in. This was where many local people saw their stories eventually archived until the closure of parish churchyards and the eventual opening of Beckenham Cemetery gave a larger, alternative place to bury the local dead. Utilising Lockdown Mk 3 and keeping my explorations local, who do we have beneath the ground here…?

The Corpsegate

Firstly we have the lychgate, which is the oldest in England. ‘Lych’ is descended from the Old English word for corpse, and this is where the minister would received the shrouded body ahead of its internment in the churchyard. The painting below, completed in the 1850s by Andrew McCullum, shows us the gate as it was over a century ago, and it has changed little since then.

Auktion - 19th Century Paintings am 15.11.2005 - LotSearch

Seated at the right hand beam is a lady, who it is said to be was …

The Queen of the Gypsies

Somewhere in the churchyard are the bones of Margaret Finch, an 18th century leader of the travelling community that was based in West Norwood, equidistant between Croydon and London. This community lent its name to the present day area of Gypsy Hill, although thankfully nowadays we refer to members of this community as travellers, rather than gypsies. Most of her life had Margaret telling fortunes (crystals are occasional left at the gate as a sign of respect) and leading the Roma community in everyday decision making.

Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies, at Norwood | London drawing, Medieval  france, My family history
Finch, from the Surrey History Centre.

What is also of note regarding Margaret is how she was buried. She spent most of the day with her head resting on her knees and consequently her posture froze due to inactivity. A large box instead of a coffin was built for her remains.

The exact location as to where she is in the churchyard has been lost to antiquity. It has been said when they were enlarging the church in the late 19th century they kept an eye out for any large box shaped coffins, but didn’t manage to find her remains. She’s here though, somewhere.

James MacDonell

When you’ve been cemetery-bothering as long as I have, you get a hunch for people. I saw this headstone and thought ‘Scottish’. And I was, happily, right, although the name does give the game away. The cross and the use of granite was a popular choice of memorial for the Scots, particularly in Hampstead Cemetery, so I figured it would apply here.

The stone’s scant details betrays James’ connection to the local area: although he was born in Dyce, a ‘bleak little village’ in 1842, his parents are buried nearby and he was also married here, watched over of ancient yews that still grow by the lychgate. As a journalist he worked for the Times and was also their correspondent based in Paris: he lived in Brunswick Square and latterly Finsborough Road bordering Brompton Cemetery. He would regularly visit the Beckenham area for walks to nearby West Wickham, Keston, Hayes and then Bromley with which was recorded in an extensive, well-written biography of his life that you can read for free on Google.

His death was sudden as it was bizarre: en route to an engagement with friends in Bradford he was struck down with a cold that turned into something nastier. A week later, he was dead. Many from the journalism profession came to this pretty little churchyard to pay their last respects and from what I can see, he remains here on his own.

John Dudin-Brown

Dudin-Brown, Dudin brown…I knew that name. I’d seen it before, but I couldn’t think where. Ha! Why, yes, I encountered it at Hampstead Cemetery because that is where his daughter Ann is buried!

Image by IanAWood.

There’s a weird thrill you get when you inadvertently visit the graves of people who were related to each other: you’re acting as a bridge between two historical people. I have stood at Ann’s grave many times, and to stand, unexpectedly, in a spot she would probably have done in her own lifetime brought the years gone-by just a little more closely into view.

Untitled (Alms Houses at Penge) | Watercolour World
The Almshouses as painted by Joseph Nash, from the collections of the British Museum.

John was a wharf owner on the River Thames and was hugely important in setting up almshouses in Penge where the retired watermen of the profession could go to spend their old age in relative comfort, by donating two acres of land. Ann would also go on to own accommodation of her own but is best known for her role in providing education to women by founding Westfield College, one of the ancestor establishments to the present Queen Mary University of London.

The Candlesticks & Ink-Stand Man

There are, of course, lots of proud graves of the nobility who would have loved the quick commute to central London to have tea with Queen Victoria whilst living in the splendid rurality of Beckenham. Sir John Kirkland, who was a banker to soldiers and military agent to Prince Albert, who counted the Queen as a friend: she gifted him some candlesticks and an ink stand in 1852. He lived in Beckenham Place, an architectural hodge-podge set in impressive grounds that once boasted a phesantry, on top of his properties in Pall Mall and Portman Square.

I always cross reference men of the 19th century to the UCL Slavery Index to see how much, if any, of their fortune they owe to slavery and and sadly, Kirkland was one of the men who profited from its abolition. As slavery was abolished the government provided compensation to those that lost labour and plantations, with Kirkland receiving roughly £18,800 in 2020 money as a trustee from the original plantation owner.

Slavery as a legacy in cemeteries has barely been looked at and Kirkland here illuminated the lightbulb in terms of the potential this has in unearthing cemetery and social history in our places of rest. Undoubtedly the money received would have been used to build expensive mausolea and buy shares in new garden cemeteries such as Highgate and Kensal Green, that were opening up at the same time as abolition. The London Dead wrote a very good piece about the Adderley family in regards to this: John and indeed others in this churchyard were no different and underlines the importance of understanding and knowing this legacy.

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