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Tunnels, Towers and Temples
London's 100 Strangest Places
By David Long
The History PressCopyright © 2012 David Long
All rights reserved.
City Road, EC1
Bring Out Your Dead
A prehistoric burial ground known as the Bone Hill – and now the sole surviving City burial ground as distinct from a churchyard – one of the three great fields of Finsbury, became a dumping ground for cartloads of bones from the charnel house at St Paul's. Later, as 'the Cemetery of Puritan England', it was established as a place of more orderly interment for dissenters and other religious nonconformists.
Having leased the land since the early fourteenth century, the Corporation of London had in fact planned in the 1660s to use it as a place to bury the dead from the Great Plague. However, no evidence that they ever did so has come to light, nor more significantly has any documentation been produced proving that it was consecrated ground.
As a result it was much favoured by religious nonconformists who – while it lacks any church buildings, although Wesley's famous chapel is opposite – were thus free to conduct funerals here and to bury their dead without reference to the Book of Common Prayer.
With the last such interment here made as long ago as January 1854, it has been a public open space since 1864 and as such provides a peaceful amenity for City workers. Nevertheless it still gives one an excellent impression of how London's old burial grounds would have looked in the years before the search for space led to a move out of town in the mid-nineteenth century. Thus, in just 4 acres, with a spiked gate at one corner to thwart the efforts of the resurrection men, are crammed the remains and memorials of at least 120,000 individuals.
With their disorderly graves now crowded together beneath the spreading branches of mature plane, oak and lime trees, those in residence include Daniel Defoe, William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophia, John Bunyan, Susannah Wesley (mother of nineteen, including John and Charles) and Cromwell's son-in-law General Fleetwood. There are also at least two proper villains: Robert Tilling, who was executed for murdering his master in 1760; and the banker Henry Fauntleroy, who forged signatures, and scammed and squandered an incredible £250,000 (at nineteenth-century prices) before being hanged at Newgate Gaol.
Inevitably there are some peculiarities here too. On Bunyan's memorial, for example, the recumbent figure is probably not Bunyan at all but rather a representation of the tomb's original incumbent, one John Strudwick. His effigy was added to the tomb in 1862 when, at the behest of the Earl of Shaftesbury, this was restored using funds raised by public subscription. Nearby is the tomb of John Lettsom, a physician who made his fortune in the West Indies before introducing the mangel-wurzel to England, and another for poor Dame Mary Page, widow of Sir Gregory Page Bt, who 'in 67 months was tapp'd 66 times and had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining for her case or fearing the operation'. It was, alas, all to no avail and she died, aged 56, in 1728.
Dulwich Gallery Mausoleum
College Road, SE21
No Parting, Even Unto Death
Attached to England's oldest public art gallery, owned and administered by the College of God's Gift at Dulwich, this singularly handsome building has its origins in an establishment founded by actor Edward Alleyn nearly 400 years ago.
Having accrued a considerable fortune as James I's Master of the Royal Game of Bears, Bulls and Mastiffs, in 1605 Alleyn paid £5,000 for the manor of Dulwich. Married but without issue he further decided to endow an educational establishment there and, wishing his foundation to rival the likes of Charterhouse, Merchant Taylors' or even Eton, he provided accommodation for fellows as well as 'alms-people'. When he died in 1626 Alleyn also bequeathed a collection of several hundred paintings to his new college.
Thereafter, and despite backing the wrong side in the Civil War – the fellows melted down their collection of silver to support the Royalist cause, and as a consequence had the Cromwellians quarter troops on them when their fortunes turned – the college prospered. Later still Alleyn's by now valuable collection of paintings was augmented by a generous bequest of another 370 from the painter Sir Francis Bourgeois.
With many of these paintings truly world-class, the bulk of this later bequest had come via art dealer Noel Desenfans who had acquired many from the famed collection of the Duc d'Orleans. He had been collecting for some years on behalf of King Stanislaus II, who intended the works to form the nucleus of a Polish national gallery in Warsaw. However, the country's partition in 1795 and the King's abdication made such a thing impossible.
With Poland gone from the map, split between Prussia, Russia and Austria, Desenfans and his wife shared a house with Sir Francis in England. Maintaining a curious ménage, which indeed has continued beyond the grave with the three of them still lying together in sarcophagi in the little amber-lit structure shown here, Desenfans first offered the collection to the Russian and later the British governments, but there were no takers.
Instead, following his death in 1807, they were left to Sir Francis with instructions that he was to see them settled on an appropriate institution. Once Dulwich had been selected (he counted several fellows among his friends) approaches were made to Sir John Soane to design an appropriate setting for the paintings.
Choosing to use London brick instead of the Portland stone which was then most fashionable, he created a severe yet harmonious box, cleverly top lit to throw light onto the white, unadorned walls. The effect was to illuminate the paintings without the aid of artificial light, but at the same time to avoid the damaging direct sunlight or irritating reflections which would have arisen had the architect equipped the gallery with conventional windows.
As a finishing touch, opposite the main entrance, Soane included the mausoleum shown here. Based on an engraving of an Egyptian catacomb which had been published just two years after the death of Desenfrans, it is a sombre though deeply lovely place.
St Bartholomew's Hospital, EC1
Diseased Beggars Welcome
London's oldest hospital, Bart's was built at a time when Death really did stalk the streets of London. With harsh and unsanitary living conditions, and successive waves of plague or worse, the average life expectancy in twelfth-century London may have been a tad better than at the Conquest but it was still, clearly, brutally short.
Reliable figures sadly do not exist, but it is thought that in the City's poorer districts twenty to twenty-five years would have been reasonable for a man, while the rich probably enjoyed a mere ten-year advantage. The absence of anything which could reasonably be described as medical science also meant that, for the sick, hope and expectation were rarely the same thing, so a smart new monastic hospital on the edge of the City was clearly something to be welcomed. That said, with only a master, eight brethren and four Augustinian nuns on the staff, the sick were only ever promised 'diligence and care in all gentleness'.
Like any great city, and at the time there was none greater than this, London was no stranger to sickness, disease and epidemics. Rapid population increases inevitably brought with them issues of public health, and by 1547 Bart's – having survived the Reformation (Henry VIII signed the necessary documents less than a fortnight before his death) – was taking in hundreds of 'diseased beggars' as well as the orphans and needy who had previously been its chief concern.
The care offered was naturally extremely primitive: at this time it was still considered good practice to put the bodies of mice into surgical wounds, and rat dung was thought to be a good cure for falling hair. Indeed, it was to be another hundred years or so before any actual medical students arrived at the hospital, and until as late as 1699 surgeons here were still obliged to obtain the permission of unqualified, lay governors before performing any actual procedures – a bid, clearly, to ensure none of them fraudulently obtained the 6s 8d they were due for each amputation by carrying out any unnecessary operations.
The cheerful little Gate House shown here dates from just after this time; however, the eighteenth century saw extensive rebuilding on the site with the result that today visitors to the hospital can see several fine Georgian buildings by James Gibbs, George Dance the Younger, and Thomas and Philip Hardwick.
That said, having been designed in 1702 by Edward Strong and surmounted by a statue of Henry VIII caught in a characteristic pose by Francis Bird, the structure was actually rebuilt in 1834. Happily, though, while incorporating a sequence of rooms above it, Philip Hardwick maintained much of the style and scale of the original. Accordingly today, when viewed from West Smithfield, the stone gateway looks for all the world like the entrance to one of the Oxford colleges. Like those, it is ignored by most people hurrying along the pavement, but for anyone who cares to glance up it is both a striking and well-proportioned little composition.
Grey Friars Monastery
Newgate Street, EC1
Lost Royal Tombs
The burial place of three queens and the heart of a fourth, the first church on this site was originally part of a monastery, built in 1225 by the first group of Franciscan or Grey Friars to arrive in England.
The group of just four soon grew to eighty, their simple life and good works among the poor rapidly attracting the patronage of many admirers both rich and royal. One early benefactor was the Sheriff of London, John Travers, who presented the order with a house on Cornhill. Shortly thereafter a City mercer called John Ewin gave it a parcel of land in Stinking Lane – aptly named as it was close to the abattoirs – and the monastic estate grew from there. Then, in 1291, the heart of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, was buried within the precincts underlining a royal connection which was to endure.
Less than twenty years later Queen Margaret set about rebuilding the church, the second wife of Edward I dying before the work was completed and being buried in front of the high altar. Upon completion in 1348, however, it was a truly massive structure, an overall length of 300ft making it second only in the City to St Paul's Cathedral and as such almost certainly the largest church in the kingdom.
With a roll of benefactors which came to include Edward III's Queen Philippa, the monastery and its church soon became a highly fashionable place to be interred. Many of the noble dead were buried in monk's garb in order to speed their route to Heaven, and within ten years yet another queen was laid to rest here. This time it was Isabella, Thomas Gray's reviled 'She-wolf of France' who married Edward II but subsequently, with her lover Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, had him murdered. Four years later she was joined by her daughter, Joan de la Tour, Queen of Scotland.
In all some 663 nobles were buried here, but following the Dissolution the majority of their tombs and memorials were sold for a paltry £50; in 1547 the monks' chapel was combined with the nearby St Nicholas by the Shambles to become the new parish church of Christ Church.
Together with a library presented by Sir Dick Whittington in 1425 (and containing books estimated at the time to be worth a handsome £400) Christ Church was reduced to ruins in the Great Fire. Wren was commissioned to build a replacement, in part following the ground plan of the original, which became very much one of his most expensive schemes; a steeple was finally added in 1704.
Unfortunately this incarnation was similarly doomed and fell to enemy action in 1940, together with some reportedly beautiful choir stalls constructed using timber from an Armada warship. Today all that remains is the tower, one of Wren's best, together with an avenue of trees marking the position of the nave.
Kensal Green Cemetery
Harrow Road, W10
The New Fashion for Funerals
With space having long ago run out in the historic burial grounds and churchyards of the inner city (there were widespread reports of old coffins being dug up to make way for new ones, and bodies being so inadequately buried that they were easy prey for grave robbers), in 1830 Parliament finally acknowledged the need for graveyards to be removed 'to places where they would be less prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants'.
Accordingly, that same year Kensal Green became the first of the great commercial cemeteries in the metropolis (which today extend to more than 3,000 acres). Then as now it was run under the auspices of the General Cemetery Company, which planted hundreds of trees on 54 acres acquired for the purpose before commissioning a vast Doric arch by way of an entrance, a Greek Revival chapel for conventional funerals and an Ionic one for nonconformists at its eastern extremity.
With considerable publicity, and every mod con including a hydraulic lift linking the main chapel to the catacombs below, the enterprise proved to be an immediate success. In less than a decade GCC's share price had more than doubled to £52; with the burials here of Princess Sophia and in a gigantic granite tomb opposite the main chapel of Augustus, Duke of Sussex (both children of George III) the fashion for these so-called gardens of the deceased was soon well established.
Part of their appeal was clearly aesthetic, and with its colonnades and catacombs, the gravel paths and extensive plantings, Kensal Green very much set the pace. Certainly G.K. Chesterton thought so – in 'The Rolling English Road' he wrote of it: 'There is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green' – and the celebrated landscape gardener J.C. Loudon chose to be buried here in 1843.
Before long many more of the great and good were buying up plots here too, including the writers Thackeray, Trollope and Wilkie Collins, the poet Thomas Hood, the Revd Sydney Smith and Byron's celebrated publisher, John Murray. Also, in 1849, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (followed by his wife Sophia and ten years later their son Isambard Kingdom) and the great showman Blondin after his death at Niagara House, Ealing.
These days the most celebrated incumbent, however, must be General James M. Barry. He died in 1865, presumably reasonably confident that history would show this one-time senior inspector of the Army Medical Department to have been a fine soldier and a really first-class medical and military administrator.
When it came to his embalming, however, it was discovered that Barry was actually a woman, and that the 'M' really stood for Miranda. Despite being described by acquaintances as 'the most wayward of men' and in appearance 'beardless', none had succeeded in guessing the truth. Instead, concealing her sex all her life, Miranda Barry had managed to rise to the very peak of her profession; indeed, only posthumously has this formidable individual been recognised as the country's first qualified female doctor – as well, of course, as the Army's first female general.
Carlton House Terrace, SW1
Dark Days and Dog Days
A Nazi memorial in London would be strange enough, even were it not situated right at the heart of England's old imperial quarter. Nevertheless, here it is, just yards from Wellington's personal mounting blocks, in the shadow of the great column raised to the memory of the Grand Old Duke of York, and hard by memorials to Edward VII, 'Scott of the Antarctic' and Sir John Franklin. A carefully tended Nazi grave – and what's more it belongs to a dog.
Described on the stone as Eine treuer begleiter ('a true companion'), the canine in question is an Alsatian named Giro. He died apparently after making an unwise connection with some exposed electrical wiring and was buried here in February 1934 while his master – Dr Leopold G.A. von Hoesch (1881–1936) – was serving his country as the German ambassador to the Court of St James's.
At this time of course relations between Britain and Germany were cool, certainly, but more wary than openly warlike. Even so, it is curious to think that while, by the end of the decade, the façades of Nash's Carlton House Terrace and indeed several more significant memorials in this area were to suffer considerable bomb damage at the hands of Germans, Giro's grave managed to remain untouched and undamaged. Situated under a tree at the top of the steps between the former embassy and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a glass case has more recently been built around it to ensure it stays that way.
Von Hoesch himself died of a stroke two years after the dog, and in accordance with the diplomatic practices then current was given a momentous send-off. This included several British cabinet members leading the mourners, a nineteen-gun salute in nearby St James's Park and a detachment of Grenadier Guards to accompany the ceremonial gun carriage on which his body was borne to Victoria station.
After the ceremonials he was quickly replaced by the reviled Joachim von Ribbentrop, who quickly caused a minor scandal by greeting King George VI with a straight-arm salute.
Excerpted from Tunnels, Towers and Temples by David Long. Copyright © 2012 David Long. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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