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Monday, 17 October 2016

Tales from Streatham Cemetery

Hi folks,

Below is the first blog post I recently contributed to my new spiritual home of a website, the wonderful Cemetery Club. I opted not 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 SheldonChristina and Caroline.

Instead I've posted mini biographies about two of the 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.

Hilda Wilson
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. 
Captain Gibb Mapplebeck


Picture from Great War London

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.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

"All Hallows Eve by Lamplight" guided tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Hi everyone,

Join The Cemetery Club (as recently featured on BBC's Inside Out) for a very special tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on Sat 29th October 2016!  Join us on our most atmospheric historic guided walk yet as we take you around by lamplight to celebrate the lives of the cemetery's "permanent residents" who've come before us.

Marvel as the lamplight flickers over the graves of heroes, villains and mavericks as we simultaneously step back in time to explore Victorian customs associated with Hallowmas, and taste authentic Soul Cakes, made from a recipe from the time of old Queen Vic herself. It’ll finish on a song, too – a long forgotten ditty that many of the people buried here would have known and sung themselves.

With a choice of two time slots, the tours will commence at the War memorial, by the Soanes Centre. Please wear suitable footwear and wrap up warm... All Hallows Eve can be chilly!

Please see visit EventBrite for more information and to book your places.

Monday, 20 June 2016

The Lives of Highgate’s Lost Girls by Rowan Lennon

In 2014 Sam Perrin and I co-authored an article about Highgate's Lost Girls, the mainly teenage prostitutes buried in an unmarked grave in Highgate Cemetery West, who were inmates of Park House (known as the Highgate Penitentiary) which stood on North Hill where Hillcrest Estate now stands.  The Penitentiary opened in 1856 by the London Diocesan as a charitable trust to rescue girls from poverty and prostitution.
The Victorian vice trade operated on an almost industrial scale with certain brothels and keepers immune from the law and protected by the highest levels of society, the police and politicians.  In 1856 the age of consent was 12 and was later raised to 13 in 1875, and then 16 in 1885 due to the exposure of child prostitution by W.H Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette.  The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon is still the most compelling and powerful piece of journalism and a landmark in the popular press that changed the law and the public perceptions of the vice trade.  The trade constantly needed a supply of fresh young girls and Mrs Jeffries, a notorious brothel keeper and white slaver gave evidence to Stead.  The girls were often recruited from the country, lured to London on the promise of work and taken to brothels.  Many children were taken from railway stations by ‘kindly old ladies’ who offered to ‘mind the children’ while parents were busy.  Some were drugged and transported in coffins to France.
The girls who ended up in the Penitentiary came from all over the country.  Naïve girls were lured to London and the only escape from the life on the streets was the Penitentiary and others like it.  They stayed two years learning life skills and conditions were strict but fair.  There were those for whom the prospect of life without the routine of the Penitentiary was unbearable: in October 1883, 17-year old Penitentiary inmate Ellen Keating attempted suicide by choking herself to death rather than face expulsion following a perceived misdemeanour.  Others who passed through the Penitentiary emigrated, some married and led respectable lives while others reverted to their old ways.  Prostitutes often described themselves as dressmakers and many dressmakers were involved in the vice trade by supplying dresses to brothel madams.  The average life span of a street prostitute was seven years.
So what of the lost girls?  I have been researching their lives.  We will never know the details of their downfall or how they became ensnared into the vice trade.  Their lives were anonymous, their backgrounds mundane (with one exception, Rosetta Edward).  It has been difficult to find information on the girls with as they have common surnames.  They all died horribly of tubercular-related illnesses at the Penitentiary, a condition resulting from poverty and starvation, and were all representatives of a wider problem in the nineteenth century.  Emma Jones, born in Sawbridgeworth Herts, was the first occupant of the grave in 1862.  Her age on the census of 1861 was just 11 years old while living in the penitentiary and she passed away at age 12.  Was this child a victim of the white slave trade?  I have been so far unable to verify her birth or death.
We have Anna Williams, who was 15 when she died in 1869.  A country girl, her father Charles was a cow keeper (deceased) and Anna suffered from tuberculosis and later died of pneumonia.  The life of Caroline Rhodes yields more information: she was born in the Union Workhouse in Walsall, Staffordshire in 1855 to father William Rhodes, a butcher, and mother Elizabeth (formerly Harrison).  To be born in a workhouse suggests great poverty in spite of her father’s trade.  He died in 1860 when she was just five, which lead to even greater hardship.  In the census of 1861 she was living with her 29-year old mother and two sisters (Anne, two, and Emily, 11 months) at the butchers shop in Upper Market Street, Walsall.  By 1871 she had disappeared entirely, presumably swallowed up by the great city, before ending up in Highgate destitute and ill.  She died in 1874 of tuberculosis and softening of the lungs at age 19.  21-year old Emily Potter died in 1878 of acute tuberculosis.  Her father, Thomas, was a labourer.  Harriet Smith died age 17 in 1880 of tuberculosis and pneumonia.  Her father Daniel was a hay binder.  Frances Illiffe died age 15 in 1881 of scrofula, tuberculosis and meningitis.  Born in Croydon in 1866, we have a glimpse of her in the 1871 census living at Rose Cottage with her 35-year old father and siblings, (Louisa 12, Arthur 10 and Minnie, eight). Her father John was a gardener and had been widowed that same year.  How did this child end up on the streets with a fate so different from her siblings?  Maud Clabby, daughter of Patrick, a soldier, was born in Guernsey and died in age 18 of tuberculosis and pneumonia.
Rosetta Edward died age 20 in 1900, her cause of death tuberculosis of the lungs and intestines and peritonitis.  She came from a fascinating and well-recorded family: born on 10 October in the district of St Savour, Southwark, her father (Andrew Duthrie Edward), a compositor, married Annie Rosetta Amelia Belasco at St James, Clerkenwell, in September 1879.  Annie was the daughter of Joseph Belasco, a clerk and a member of a colourful Sephardic Jewish family that included a popular actor, David James, co- founder of the Vaudeville Theatre, who was a cousin of her grandfather and Georgian boxer Abraham Belasco.  There were a couple of less salubrious relatives who had been in trouble with the law for running gambling dens and brothels.
Rosetta’s mother Annie died of tuberculosis age 25 at her father Joseph’s house when Rosetta was just three, no doubt a very traumatic moment for a child so young.  It is possible she was sent to live with a foster couple up north following the death of her mother and a census entry suggests she was returned to her father on his remarriage in 1886 in Camberwell to Frances Miriam Gunner, the daughter of printer William Gunner.  Rosetta is entered on the school records of Goodrich School, Dulwich, where her birth year is noted as being 1882 instead of 1880, deducting two years from her age - she was eight, not six.  Andrew is mentioned in electoral rolls in 1890/1 and also in the 1891 census, where he was noted as living with Miriam, 23, and Rosetta, 10, at 4 Vicarage Rd.  Andrew was 33-years old and owned a printing and publishing company called Photophane where he’d developed a ground breaking lithographic process for printing high quality books with photographic reproductions of great detail that did not fade.  Despite this innovative technique, the Photophane Printing and Publishing Company was dissolved and struck off the companies register in July 1890.  That did not hamper Andrew’s entrepreneurial skill and in 1891 he went into business with prominent Australian Mr H Glenny, a Justice of the Peace and writer under the name of Silverpen, of Ballerat, Victoria.  A gossip column in the Daily News of 19 August mentioned Glenny acquiring the patent rights to a new printing process called Photophane, for which a fledgling company was being formed.  The next record of Andrew is on a ship The Orizaba bound for Melbourne on 11 September 1891 travelling with Mr Glenny.  Had Andrew abandoned his family for a new life in Australia or did he promise to make his fortune and return?   An article in the Australian Daily Telegraph dated 27 February 1892 describes the development of the Photophane Company in Melbourne by Andrew Duthrie Edwards of London, who claimed he devised the process in 1887.  No death certificate for Andrew has been found in England or Australia but Frances remarried in 1894, describing herself as a widow.  She gave birth to a boy, Gordon, on 1 July 1892, claiming he was Andrew’s son, but Andrew was in Australia - her marriage may have been bigamous. Whatever the complications of her father and stepmother, it is clear that Rosetta endured a disrupted childhood and might not have gotten on with her stepmother.  Many middle class girls became victims of the vice trade.  It was no respecter of background, and the poor girls who lie in Highgate are the forgotten victims of a despicable trade.

Rowan Lennon © 2016




Saturday, 2 April 2016

So many projects, so little time

I haven't posted in an age because I'm currently writing my first book, a (surprise surprise) historical biography.  It's taken a long time to research but the outcome will be worth it - my subject led a fascinating life! 

In addition to the book, I've undertaken a further two biographies which will be posted here once research is completed.  Once those are online, there's a very exciting history-related project waiting in the wings... I'm having a blast, be back soon!