Whenever I start researching a cemetery, I always start by looking for a name.
Hopefully that won’t be interpreted by you as arrogance. My forename isn’t very common – I’ve only met two other Sheldon’s in my time: one a distant cousin and the other at a party donkey’s years ago.
I am omitting that blasted TV series.
I’m always curious to see other examples of it, be it in archives, books or for the purposes of illustration here – cemeteries. So when I crack my knuckles and start sitting down to see who is who at X or Y cemetery – I try my luck and see if there are any of my fellow Sheldoniums on site.
I tried it on my favourite database to peruse – the burial records of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. London’s most densely packed cemetery, with over 350,000 people buried there between 1841 and 1966. And what do you know, there’s a Sheldon. Only one, mind. And his journey didn’t start locally, like many of the people buried around him. He came from across the pond and he is cut off from the rest of his family.
The Son of a Sea Captain
Sheldon Morse was buried in the City of London & Tower Hamlets Cemetery on July 13th 1857. Contemporary events which occurred around this time include the opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum a month beforehand and the Indian Uprising, where future Tower Hamlets resident John Buckley, at this point fighting for Queen and empire, was exacting revenge on the rebels who dared question British rule – prior to his own burial close to Sheldon’s grave in 1876.
He was barely 9 months old – one of the many infants buried here, succumbing to the horrifically high mortality rate of the time when as many as 150 children per 1000 did not live to see their fifth birthday. The death of a child was seen as especially tragic and I feel for his parents, Caroline and William Morse, as they laid their baby to rest in square 60 of the cemetery at 3pm.
There were 23 other burials that day (it was a busy cemetery, as I’ve researched before) and whereas the large majority of people buried there were locals hailing from Poplar, Stepney and Mile End Old town, Sheldon came from much farther away. From across the Atlantic in Bath, Maine, in the United States.
This is something headstones don’t often tell us about those beneath and indeed his death, so far from home, must have had a terrible impact on his parents. What brought Caroline and William to London? Where did they stay? How did they feel burying their child in a land so far away from home?
Meet the Parents
The cemetery register shows that his father, Warren Morse, bought the private plot for £3, 3s 0d (which is roughly £180 in 2021 money). A tidy sum considering the poverty of the local area and that most ended up in cheaper, common graves.
Sheldon’s father, Captain Warren Morse, was a sailor and latterly a captain of the America: a trading ship that would make journeys to Shanghai and Manila which sold goods (and occasional contraband weaponry) which was discreetly sold to other expats who’d made the move abroad. The risk of being found out by port authorities must have been significant and is business not without risk. Assumedly, he was on business in London when his infant son died – the cemetery was the closest one to the docks.
Caroline, Sheldon’s mother, gave birth to Sheldon on the 10th October 1856 in New York and was Warren’s second wife. Ancestrally a Rideout, her family came from Kent. Sheldon’s death was the first premature goodbye she would make to her children: his subsequent siblings Auguste and Caroline were to also die in 1863 and 1864 respectively. Warren had also lost a child before through his first wife, Sarah Eager, in 1848.
I’m unsure how normal it would have been for a mariner to be travelling with his wife and newborn child: it certainly wasn’t a honeymoon as they were married in Maine in 1854. His log book (from 1864, several years after Sheldon’s death) hints that London may have been a stop off from New York to Shanghai.
As a captain and man od fairly decent social standing, William also had a portrait painted – it is currently in the collection of Maine Maritime Museum. This is the only image of the Morse family I can find and this brief glimpse into the past, looking into the eyes of someone who once stood and observed in a space so familiar to me, bridges the gap of ages since Sheldon’s burial to the present day.
In Bath, Maine
Did the couple ever re-visit the grave of their infant son? Did their surving children know of their sibling, dwelling in this cockney cemetery? Their time in London, seemingly business linked, would seem to make their trip to Tower Hamlets a brief one.
Caroline and Warren would eventually be buried in Oak Hill cemetery, Sagadahoc County, Maine several years afterwards. I’ve been unable to find the exact plot of Sheldon amidst the wilderness of Tower Hamlets, but the Morse family grave in Maine still stands, although with evidence of damage and repair. This shows that descendants still tended – or perhaps, still tend – the good captain’s final resting place.
It’s exactly this that makes me feel sad for Sheldon. After all this time, wouldn’t it be nice for my little namesake to be reunited with his family after all these years. This is a classic example of a headstone, or records, throwing up more questions than they answer. He was likely forgotten: his name unspoken for years, most likely until this living Sheldon did his best to remember and acknowledge this poor mite who never got a proper chance at life and died so far away from home.
My thanks to Terry Hanna of the City of Bath Cemeteries Parks and Foresty Department for helping me find the Morse grave in Maine.