Grave Stories

Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Letters, Pillar Boxes, and Stamps: the Legacy of Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope, and James Chalmers

Once a beloved national institution, the General Post Office has fallen from grace.

The Cameron government severed the Post Office Ltd., controlling branch post offices, from the Royal Mail, responsible for the delivery of letters. It privatised the latter. After a rushed sale at which they were clearly undervalued, the price of its shares on the stock market rose by 38% on the first day of trading, by 70% within a year, and peaked at 87%. As the profits of shareholders rose, previously high levels of public satisfaction with the service plummeted.

Now  there are proposals to dismantle the Universal Service Obligation under which letters are delivered six days a week to every address in the United Kingdom. Deliveries are likely to be  reduced to five or even three days a week, and the target delivery time for all domestic mail reduced to a meaningless “three days or longer.” But to customers in many parts of the country these  suggestions are the more risible for coming ex post facto, as  the frequent absence of any deliveries for a week or more has already left a legacy of missed hospital appointments, useless postal votes, and financial difficulties. Journeys to sorting offices reveal bundles of missing mail accumulating there. Significantly stamp cancellations no longer show the date and time of posting.

None of which prevents anyone from loving their postmen and postwomen. The determination with which so many wear shorts even in the coldest weather is a source of amused affection. All but the most unpleasant and aggressive drivers will move out of the way for their red vans. In our village, where we do still get a six-day delivery, Nicky is known to everyone. When mail is too unwieldy for the letter box she will knock, when she knows that people are deaf or elderly, she will knock extra hard and wait until we open the door. When there is no response she leaves mail with neighbours. And if subsequently she spots us out in the lanes the red van will stop, and she will lean out to tell us where our post has gone today. But the job involves early starts, heavy loads, exposure to all weathers, and delivery rounds have become larger as management seek to squeeze more productivity out of employees. There are not enough post carriers to cover all rounds adequately.

A similar pall hangs over the Post Office Ltd. In the mid-sixties there were 25,000 branch post offices, by March 2021, there were only 11,415, and it is expected that thousands more will disappear in the next few years.

Moreover, an egregious miscarriage of justice has blighted the lives of thousands of sub postmasters. In 1999 a faulty computer software system, Horizon, was installed in branch post offices. It created false cash shortfalls. Sub postmasters called the Horizon helpline when these errors appeared on their screens and  were led to believe that the problem occurred only at their own branch. Post Office executives persistently claimed that the Horizon system was robust. Between 1999 and 2015, 4,000 sub postmasters were accused of financial wrongdoing. They lost their jobs and were forced to repay the “losses,” many becoming bankrupt and losing their homes as a result. More than nine hundred of them were prosecuted for theft, false accounting, and fraud; seven hundred were convicted; over two hundred were sent to prison. Some pleaded guilty  to avoid jail. Four people took their own lives. Chief executives at the post office continued to deny their knowledge of the faults in the system.

For twenty-five years,  Alan Bates has led his fellow sub postmasters in a fight to clear their names. In 2017, 555 of them took legal action against the Post Office in the civil courts, and in 2019  a judge ruled that the software was defective, and in an out of court settlement, compensation, largely swallowed up by legal fees, was paid. This did however  open the way  for the sub postmasters to challenge their convictions and over a hundred have been quashed. In 2021 the government set up a Public Enquiry to investigate malpractice by the Post Office.

Recently a TV drama series, Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office, recounted these events. Since then, the government has announced plans for legislation to provide a blanket exoneration for all the wrongly convicted, and for the Post Office to pay compensation to all the victims of false accusations, but progress is slow. To date more than sixty people have died waiting for justice.

There had been a postal system of sorts in Britain since the seventeenth century, but it was only in 1840 that Rowland Hill introduced a uniform system with prepayment evidenced by the attachment of a Penny Black postage stamp. Previously the post had been mismanaged, expensive and slow, the rates complex. Payment had been made by the recipient who could refuse delivery. An apocryphal story suggests that Rowland Hill’s concern was aroused after seeing a young woman too poor to claim the letter sent by her fiancée. Hill’s system was speedy, cheap, and dependable. The number of letters sent doubled in the first year and the increase in volume continued. By the late nineteenth century London had between six and twelve mail  deliveries per day. Elsewhere there were four deliveries. It was possible to post in the morning and receive a reply by evening.

The name of Rowland Hill is forever associated with the post, and he is commemorated by statues in Kidderminster, Birmingham, and London, and, the ultimate accolade, a burial in Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is a magnificent building but within lies a mess of centuries of haphazard graves and memorials treading on each other’s toes as they vie for space. Nonetheless Rowland Hill secured both a memorial and grave. In 1879 his was the last arrival amongst  the distinctly crowded and overwrought tombs in St. Paul’s Chapel. His bust peers down at a modest stone marker set into the floor.

From on high Rowland Hill peers down at his own grave marker on the floor of the Abbey

Today Anthony Trollope’s fame rests on his novels. But much of his prolific output was composed on horseback, or later at a portable desk on the train, as he travelled the country in his capacity a postal surveyor’s clerk. The result was forty-seven novels. Perhaps reflecting the circumstances in which he wrote, and his reluctance to revise anything, they tend to the long and repetitious, but he produced some gems. I am particularly fond of the Ointment Heiress; her title alone is a delight. I imagine the eponymous ointment to be germolene pink and contained in a tight little metal tin bearing extravagant claims. Moreover, Martha Dunstable is one of the few nineteenth century heroines who can command respect, being worldly, witty, and sensitive unlike the  simpering paragons and grasping harridans generally beloved of Victorian novelists. *

But Trollope also gave us our red pillar boxes. Sent to mainland Europe to observe their postal schemes, he admired the cast iron letter receiving pillars in France and Belgium. In 1854 at his recommendation the first pillar box was introduced in Britain, obviating the need for a trip to the post office. Originally painted sage green, the boxes turned red in 1874. ** As they reached the height of their popularity in the 1860s and 70s, it is said that he regretted their adoption as it enabled young women to correspond with men in secret avoiding visits to the post office.

Trollope’s grave lies in Kensal Green, the first of the London Big Seven to open its doors to customers. The conventional stone disappointingly bears no reference to his writing nor to his association with pillar boxes.

In memory of

Anthony Trollope

Born 24 April 1815 Died 6 December 1882

He was a loving husband, a loving father,

And a true friend

More controversial are the claims of James Chalmers, bookseller, printer, and inventor. I found him in the Howff Cemetery in Dundee, where amongst the darkened stones his stood out on account of a newer, lighter stone directly in front of it. Placed my Chalmers’ son, the second marker makes no concession to modesty, describing his father as the

Originator of the adhesive postage stamp

Which saved the penny postage scheme of 1840

From collapse

Rendering it an unqualified success

And which has since been adopted

Throughout the postal systems of the World

James Chalmers’ grave in Howff Cemetery with the newer stone added by his son in 1888

I love the idea of anyone sitting down to invent an adhesive stamp, and the extravagant claim that without it the whole postage system would have collapsed, but the truth is more prosaic. Adhesive stamps had long been used on documents to show payment of taxes. Moreover, while Chalmers was certainly an enthusiast for postal reform, the earliest proposal found  in his archives for an adhesive stamp or slip to send a letter is in 1838. In 1837 Rowland Hill had already written a pamphlet proposing not only the single rate of postage but also the use of stamps “covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” The descendants of Chalmers continue to produce pamphlets and articles claiming him as the originator of “stamp gum” but the claim seems tenuous.

I grew up an enthusiastic letter writer: penfriends in school days, letters home and to former classmates in university days, love letters, and, as university friends scattered around the world, letters bearing exotic stamps would arrive from Papua-New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, America. No other form of communication can elicit the same joy as a letter: for someone has taken the trouble to gather pen, paper, envelopes, and stamps; to handwrite several sheets; to address their envelope; to lick their stamp;*** and to deliver the aesthetically pleasing stamped and sealed result to a post box.

But letter writing is in rapid decline. The volume of letters which the post office handles is down from twenty billion in 2011 to seven billion today, and most of those are invoices, business letters, advertising. In 2004 the second daily delivery was officially scrapped, but few of us recall receiving a second post that recently. At first, as friends embraced innovative technology, I held to my pen. Typed epistles would arrive as email attachments with requests to my partner to print them out as, “I don’t suppose she’ll deign to read it otherwise.”  At work, younger colleagues watched with amusement as holding onto a pen like a comfort blanket with one hand, I stabbed crossly at computer keys with the other. But I succumbed at length: email is instant, photos easily attached, replies immediate, as many mails as you like in a day. And there is WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, Skype and Zoom; so much immediate, cheap communication. And yet, it carries little of the romance of a letter.

O Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope, James Chalmers, the world has changed, your lovely post offices are disappearing, soon our post-boxes may join our K6 telephone kiosks as museum pieces. And the end now looks to be a bitter one, with a once noble organisation torn apart and all sacrificed to shareholders’ profits and CEO’s bonuses, but I treasure the memory of your Post Office in its happier days.

*Martha Dunstable appears in Dr. Thorne and in Framley Parsonage, both in The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

**In the 1930s blue post-boxes were introduced for airmail letters but were phased out again from 1939. One survives in Windsor.

***or to wet it with one of those sponges which used to appear in little round dishes in the post office. Self adhesive stamps appeared in America in 1974 but were not introduced in Britain until 1993.

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Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo is a lovely city surrounded by hills; to the east lies the Turkish old town with its narrow cobbled and marbled streets, gracious squares, small wooden shops, bazaars, mosques, fountains, and pavement cafes serving Bosnian coffee with lokum and baklava. To the west is the new town flaunting the grand, imperialistic buildings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My  taxi driver spoke of his city with pride: did I know that under the Ottomans it was the biggest and most important city in the Balkans after Istanbul itself; that it was the first city in Europe to have an electric tram network; that the 1984 Winter Olympics were held here…

Yet Sarajevo has a troubled history. The Ottomans conquered Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fifteenth century and stayed for four hundred years. In 1878 Austro-Hungarian armies ousted them and occupied the territory, formally annexing it in 1908. A trading centre and an ethnic and religious melting pot with Jews, Moslems, Orthodox and Catholic Christians amongst its population, Sarajevo became known as the “Jerusalem of Europe.”

But armies of occupation are always unwelcome, and Sarajevo became the centre of Bosnian-Serb resistance to Austrian rule. As we learned in school, drafting painstaking essays on the causes of World War One, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Bosnian Serb, Gravrilo Princip, was the spark which ignited preexisting conflicts and dissensions, as European armies mobilised against each other in 1914. By 1918  Bosnia Herzegovina had escaped the Austro-Hungarian yoke, only to emerge from the war  annexed to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes under a Serbian monarchy. In 1929 this became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in 1939 the Cvetkovic-Macek Agreement effectively partitioned Bosnia between Croatia and Serbia.

When German forces invaded Yugoslavia in World War Two, the Serbian royal family fled, and the Axis powers created the independent state of Croatia, incorporating Bosnia. The quisling Croat Ustase regime ran the state as a Nazi satellite  promoting terror and genocide. Meanwhile the Chetniks, royalist Serbs, conducted their own campaign of genocide against Croats, Muslims, and Communists in pursuit of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia.

From 1941 however the Yugoslav Communists under Josip Brod Tito had organised their own multiethnic resistance group; the Yugoslav Partisans fought both the Axis and the Ustase. In 1943 they established Bosnia Herzegovina as a republic within the provisional state of Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, and on 6 April 1945 they liberated Sarajevo itself from the fascists.

The Eternal Flame dedicated to the Partisans who liberated Sarajevo from the Fascists
Dedicated 6 April 1946 on the First Anniversary of the Liberation

After the war, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,  comprising the six republics of Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, emerged as a successful decentralised federation, supplanting the national disputes of the past. For forty years Yugoslavia developed its own brand of Communism, maintaining neutrality in the Cold War and close ties with developing countries. An open society whose inhabitants were free to travel for work and holidays, whose borders were open to foreign visitors, it witnessed economic growth and political stability. Along with the other capitals Sarajevo, a multicultural city of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, flourished.

But the Bosnians were to suffer again. By the late 1970s inflation, economic recession, and western trade barriers had led  to a heavy IMF debt in Yugoslavia causing disputes between the Republics reflecting their divergent economies and differing levels of productivity. Moreover, with the death of Tito in 1980 ethnic nationalism revived. Serbians sought a more centralised state under Serbian hegemony while the other partners favoured the continuation of a looser federation. The breakup of Yugoslavia began with Slovenia and Croatia  seceding,  and in March 1992 following a  referendum Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence. The UN recognised its status. Bosnian Serbs however revived the spectre of a Greater Serbia, to include all Serbian populations, and under Radovan Karadzic established the Republica Srpska in the northeast of Bosnia Herzegovina.

From here between 1992 and 1995 the Serbian army directed a programme of ethnic cleansing  against the Muslim Bosniaks. They conducted massacres, the most egregious that of Srebrenica, and  systematic mass rapes of Bosnian women throughout the country.Their soldiers encircled Sarajevo from the hills, attacking the city with artillery, mortars, tanks, machine guns. Sniper attacks in the city accompanied the shelling. Sarajevo was besieged for 1425 days, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. An average of 329 grenades hit the city every day; 100,000 Bosnians lost their lives, the dead included 11,541 civilians of whom 1,500 were children; 56,000 were wounded including 15,000 children.

The Massacre of Srebrenica shocked the West into calling for a cease fire, a NATO air campaign ended the siege, and at length the Dayton Agreement brought the Bosnian War to an end.

More than a quarter of a century later my  taxi driver could still make no sense of it: “We were all living together,” he said, “then out of nowhere….” his voice cracked, the memories obviously still sharp and painful.

And Sarajevo bears witness: outside the reconstructed library, burnt to the ground during the siege with the destruction of two million  books, a plaque reads, “Do not forget, remember and warn.” In the Martyrs’ (Kovaci) Cemetery soldiers and civilians killed in the war lie alongside Alija Izetbegovic, the first President of Bosnia who declared Bosnian Independence in 1992.

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Kovaci, Sarajevo
Lives lost too soon: young victims of the war
Alija Izetbegovic, First President of Bosnia, declared Bosnian Independence, March 1992

The Siege of Sarajevo Museum uses film, photographs, artefacts, and written material to recount harrowing personal stories of the siege. The poignant Sarajevo Roses mark the places on pavements where sniper fire killed people queueing for bread and water during the siege. The pock marked concrete has been filled with red resin like candle wax, creating the red flowers. There are two hundred of them, beautiful but terrible memorials, scattered throughout the city.

Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo and its inhabitants have suffered horribly, but as he drove me back to the airport my driver’s principal concern was to know if I had enjoyed his city: was my hotel good, had I been up Mount Trebevic in the cable car, did I like the food, had I tried cevapi, had I seen the national museum and the botanical garden, had I had coffee in Sebilj Square, did I like Sarajevo, would I come again, would I tell my friends to visit. It was a resounding yes to everything. For all its sorrows Sarajevo is a warm, welcoming, friendly little city, bruised and hurt by foreign occupations and ugly wars, not forgetting its past and its dead, yet looking forward  even while remembering. I hope its future is as bright as the red roses on its pavements.

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Young Lives Lost: A Wartime Tragedy in Cornwall

I have always been fascinated by the experiences of evacuees, those children of the Second World War who were sent from their city homes to more rural locations away from the threat of the Blitz. Photographs of the time show them clustered on railway stations, clutching gas masks, small suitcases, teddy-bears. Some beam cheerfully at the camera, for there must have been a sense of adventure as they headed towards a new world and a new life. Others force a brave smile trying to cover their anxiety and apprehension. A few are blank faced, already uprooted and bewildered. Older siblings keep a determined hold on smaller brothers and sisters, the latter too young even to read the identifying labels around their necks. And several cannot hold back the tears.

National and local archives document the evacuations, and they are brought to life in the many personal reminiscences which have been recorded.* Their stories tell of  children who led two lives: for the luckiest ones a sunny, bucolic interlude followed by a happy return home, and the bonus of two loving families forever after; for others a traumatic and heartbreaking time away from the warmth and security of parents and familiar environment; and for a third and perhaps the saddest group an interval of intense happiness and expanding horizons before returning to cold, indifferent parents.

Strikingly apparent from many of  the accounts are the very deep class divisions which severed  Britain in the 1940s. In an early teaching post, I learned more of this from two older colleagues who had been evacuees. Ron, from a working-class background in south London, found himself with  a prosperous family in Kent  who treated him kindly, but lost in an alien world he was desperately homesick and twice ran away, determined to walk home. After the second attempt his mother decided he was better off risking the bombs with his parents than facing further distress and misery alone. This proved a wise decision, not least because Kent was soon redefined from a Reception to an Evacuation Zone due to the threat of invasion.

Mike by contrast left his very middle-class London home for a working-class village in Scotland where he felt isolated in a hostile environment, looked upon with suspicion and resentment. His one consolation was the semi-friendly rivalry he developed  with the only other high achiever in the village school. Some years later, when he was about to begin his studies at Cambridge, he heard that his former school mate was about to enter a Borstal. “There but fortune,” he reflected wryly.

One of the most pitiful stories of evacuees comes from Gunwalloe on the Lizard Peninsula, one of the oldest settlements in Cornwall. The Lizard coast is magnificent: when the sun shines the sea caresses auriferous shores, and in winter the austere beauty of the granite cliffs competes with the grey lowering skies, and the waves pound contemptuously on the rocks.

Golden shores in the sunshine
The austere beauty of winter

Gunwalloe must have seemed a paradise to imaginative, adventurous evacuees, a story book location with deserted beaches, cliffs to climb, rock pools, a history of smuggling and shipwrecks, and swimming in summer.

But those beaches deemed suitable for amphibious landings by enemy tanks and troops had been mined.

Ronald Munting, an evacuee from London, and his friend Harry Dale, a local lad, both aged twelve, were killed by an unmarked landmine on one of those beaches.

The medieval church of Saint Winwaloe crouches at Church Cove surrounded by its graveyard, and there two pitiful graves bear stark testimony:

The church of Saint Winwaloe at Church Cove

In Fondest Memory of


Beloved son of

Henry Cyril and Caroline Dale

Accidentally killed in a minefield

July 23, 1944, aged 12 years.


  Memory of

Ronald Munting

Died 26 July 1944 aged 12 years.

Evacuated from Hornsey Rise N.19

Came to Cornwall. Was killed with his

Friend Harry Dale by an unmarked landmine

At Gunwalloe Fishing Cove. His parents

Were also killed in the London Blitz.

Faced with the brutal irony of a child sent, surely after much heart-searching by sad and anxious parents, from home to a “safe place,” only to meet with a tragic death, it is almost a relief to realise that his parents predeceased him and that had he remained in London he too would probably have been a victim of the Blitz. For even today for all the surrounding beauty a deep melancholy hangs over the churchyard at Gunwalloe.


*For photographs and archive film of evacuees see:

And for personal reminiscences:

Gillian Mawson Britain’s Wartime Evacuees (November 2016)

The evacuation has also spawned a wealth of literature, not least the children’s books, chief among them Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, herself an evacuee, and Michelle Magorian’s Good Night, Mister Tom.

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Theodoros Kolokotronis, The Old Man Of Morea

England, January: looking out at a leaden sky, a vicious wind battering the window, the garden sodden and sulky from weeks of rain, it is hard to believe that six months ago I was hesitating to leave the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel for the sweltering streets of Athens. With the temperatures exceeding 40 degrees, fires lapping at the margins of the city, heat rising from the pavements and trapped between the buildings, and bottled water turning warm in minutes, the prospect was not welcoming. But I knew where to seek refuge, and a short walk took me to the First Cemetery of Athens.

While my fellow tourists slumped, sluggish and irritable, in the cafes of Plaka, waiting for the torrid hours to pass and the Acropolis to reopen, I wandered beneath the pines and cypresses, a world away from the traffic and turmoil of the city. The cemetery opened in 1837, soon after the founding of the modern Greek state. Built with marble from Mount Pendeli, it houses eminent Greeks and foreigners beneath magnificent sculptures. Such is the quality of the work and the prestige of the inhabitants, that it resembles more an open-air sculpture park and museum than a graveyard. Easily rivalling Pere La Chaise and Highgate cemeteries, it has the additional attraction of being less known, and that day I had it to myself, save for the cats stretched languid and lethargic amongst the monuments.

The absence of plans and guides to the cemetery might have been a disadvantage, but I had all day, and find an extra satisfaction in locating my targets unaided. My list of notable internments was long, and I did not encounter every individual I sought, though some, proudly located in prime positions, came easily, and others appeared serendipitously as I meandered along the side paths.

Theodoros Kolokotronis was impossible to miss: a larger-than-life figure, he sits with legs planted firmly apart, hands with splayed fingers resting on his knees, knives and pistols thrust into his belt, gazing out from under bushy eyebrows above a luxuriant moustache. He is every inch a romantic revolutionary. A jumble of Greek flags, flowers, fading wreaths and candles at his feet confirm his status and enduring popularity as the archetypal hero of 1821.

Theodoros Kolokotronis, General in Chief, 1770-1843

Kolokotronis spent his childhood on the Mani Peninsula in the Morea Eyalet, a Peloponnesian province of the Ottoman Empire. He came from a family of klephts, highwaymen, bandits and brigands living in the mountains. Descended from those who had retreated there in the fifteenth century to avoid Ottoman rule, they waged a continuous guerilla war against their oppressors. Unable to control these mountainous areas themselves, the Ottomans employed armatoles, irregular, semi-independent, local soldiers, to enforce their rule. Kolokotronis was one of many who alternated between the roles of klepht and armatole, pragmatically and opportunistically reversing roles and allegiances. Men like him were to form the nucleus of the Greek fighting forces during the War for Independence.

In 1806 when the Ottomans attempted to eliminate the klephts of Morea, Kolokotronis escaped to the Ionian islands where he joined the revolutionary Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) which coordinated the launching of the Greek War of Independence. In 1821 he returned to the Peloponnese and participated in the liberation of Kalamata under the leadership of Mavromichalis. Already 50 years old, hence the soubriquet The Old Man of Morea, he was appointed to take charge of the Peloponnesian troops, and laid siege to Tripolitsa which fell to the Greeks after five months. In 1822 his guerilla forces routed the Ottomans at the Battle of Dervenakia and went on to take Nafplion, Corinth and Acrocorinth. At Nafplion, in swashbuckling style, he rode his horse up the steep slopes of Palamidi to celebrate his ascendancy, claiming, “Greeks, God has signed our liberty and will not go back on his promise.” His victories, destroying a large part of the Ottoman forces, were instrumental in establishing the revolution.

But between 1823-25 disagreements between central Greece and the Peloponnese precipitated civil wars alongside the War of Independence, and Kolokotronis was imprisoned on Hydra. He was amnestied and restored to his position when Egyptian forces reconquered a large part of the Peloponnese in support of the Ottomans. Nonetheless, with the aid of the large and well organised Egyptian army, the Ottomans took Missolonghi and Athens. Reluctantly, the Greeks called on foreign aid. By the Treaty of London (1827), Russia, France, and Britain, conscious of their own geopolitical interests, called on the Ottoman Empire to grant Greece autonomy. They were ignored. At the subsequent Battle of Navarino Ottoman and Egyptian forces were defeated, but it took two further military interventions before Greece was recognised as an independent state in February 1830.

Kolokotronis died in 1843, the crowds attending his funeral lauding him as a symbol of the Greek War of Independence, and Yannis Makriyannis in his Memoirs hailed the klephts as “the yeast of Liberty.”

And yet, there is little doubt, that as well flamboyant freedom fighters, the klephts were callous thieves, running personal fiefdoms with exhortation, and directing violence as much against the local peasantry as against their Turkish overlords. Motivated during the war not just by national aspirations and patriotism, they also sought economic gain and the expansion of their personal influence in the Peloponnese. Nor can it be forgotten that the fall of Tripolitsa was followed by the massacre and torture of civilians on a scale mirroring the Ottomans’ own atrocities. Mary Shelley however thought the Greeks justified: “Our friends in Greece are getting on famously. All the Morea is subdued, and much treasure was acquired with the capture of Tripolitsa. Some cruelties have ensued. But the oppressor in the end must buy tyranny with blood – such is the law of necessity.” 

Two hundred years have passed, so time perhaps to leave Kolokotronis in peace as his epitaph requests:

Softly wayfarer

For here sleeps the old man of the Morea

His slumber do not disturb.

But one last thing: despite the inscription, widespread claims, and the splendid grave, Kolokotronis is not here at all. In 1930 Venizelos authorised the removal of his bones to Tripolis where they were placed in a crypt beneath a memorial to the Heroes of the Revolution of 1821. During the German/Italian occupation of Greece in 1942 Italians desecrated the memorial and scattered the bones. They were rescued by thirteen-year-old George Tsutsanis and his father, and replaced in the crypt which today lies beneath an equestrian statue of Kolokotronis.


The First Cemetery of Athens is a Box of Delights full of interesting people, and, unlike Kolokotronis, most of them really are there. I recommend a visit if you are in the city, but go equipped with mosquito repellent, the mosquitoes love those trees too. I was forewarned and, slathered in Deet, survived almost unbitten.

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Joseph Tanner and the Sad Demise of the Printing Works

In the churchyard of the twelfth century St. Mary Magdalene in Great Elm, a parish in the hundred of Frome, is a headstone  which had always fascinated me.  The grave of Joseph Tanner, a printer, it urges with wit and self-depreciatory charm,

“Pray Stranger

that the forme be


that’s put to bed with

errors uncorrected.”

Joseph Tanner was, I discovered, the last member of his family to run the firm  of Butler and Tanner, printers in Frome since 1845. William Longford, a chemist, had established a press mainly for his own printing needs, notably medicine labels and advertising leaflets. He was joined a year later by William Butler, and they expanded the business printing labels for nation wide firms including Robinson’s Barley Water. When Longford retired in 1863, Butler united with Joseph Tanner. It is the latter’s descendant, another Joseph Tanner, whose grave lies in Great Elm.

In the nineteenth century, when the previously prosperous wool and cloth trade  declined, Frome diversified, and chief amongst its new industries were metal working and printing. John Webb Singer’s metalworks and Cooper and Tanner’s print works were the new stars and they shone very brightly indeed. Singer’s works included casting the gigantic Boudica which stands beside Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, the figure of Justice on the top of the Old Bailey, and the statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester.

Cooper and Tanner meanwhile became the largest employer in Frome, achieving international renown in the world of book printing. In 1895 they established a four-storey factory with several hundred employees working with thirty-eight new presses to print 13.5 million sheets each year. Their commissions included printing for the publishers Chatto and Windus, and Hodder and Stoughton.

In 1907 their success precipitated a move to a larger factory in Caxton Road. Here their enormous new press nicknamed the “Dreadnought” worked day and night. It could turn out 224 sheets per revolution, though it took five days to make ready for printing. In the 1960s it was joined by the “Bristolian” which ran at a high speed and could print in half tones. For this the ink had to dry quickly and gas burners were introduced. An article in the Independent records encouragingly that “the racing paper hardly ever caught fire.”

Butler and Tanner produced the early Penguin paperbacks for Allen Lane, starting with André Maurois’ Ariel, the very first Penguin book, in 1935. They were responsible for Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In more recent years they produced The Gentle Author’s London Album(2013) and Bob Mazzer’s Underground (2014).

The Joseph Tanner whose grave lies in Great Elm churchyard joined the family firm in 1948 after studying at the London College of Printing. While there he produced spoof articles for the British Printer magazine, one advocating a process for turning old shoes into printing plates, and another outlining a process for leather plate making by coating a cow in photo-sensitive emulsion and driving it into a disused tunnel with negatives imposed on the coated hide. Light from the ventilated shafts of the tunnel would supposedly develop the image, and the hide could then be removed and fixed for printing. In both cases the technical detail was sufficiently convincing to elicit serious enquiries.

Yet Joseph Tanner was also serious about his trade, and when he retired he left a business, which in 1948 had still been printing from metal type mainly in black and white, at the forefront of modern colour lithography. During his fifty-five years with the company, it became the largest privately owned printer in Europe. The colour presses which he had introduced in the 1980s featured on the television programme Challenge Anneka in the 1990s when a book was set, printed, and bound in 24 hours.

But sadly, the firm ran into financial difficulties. In 2008 Felix Dennis had rescued it from administration at the eleventh hour, enabling it to continue operating until 2014 when, with its lease running out, and planning permission in place for a housing development on the site, it closed for the final time. The company’s map division, now Dennis Maps, continues to produce Ordinance Survey maps. Developers turned the site of the old factory in Caxton Road into a  £45 million housing estate, “The Old Print Works,” where, their advertising boasts, the interior colours of the show homes were, “inspired by the primary colours of Penguin book jackets once produced here.”


The Butler and Tanner Story by Lorraine Johnson, published by Frome Society for Local Study, can be obtained from  the Hunting Raven Bookshop in Frome or from Frome Heritage Museum, which has a wonderful collection of documents and artefacts relating to the industries of Frome.

And for an evocative eulogy of the firm see So Long, Butler and Tanner, May 14, 2014, where the Gentle Author describes a visit to the printing works during its last days to see the pages of his London Album coming off the press: “Everyone who loves books knows the name of Butler and Tanner…” There you will also find some lovely photographs of the old print works and its magnificent machinery.

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