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

Author: Gravedigger Page 2 of 9

“No destitute child ever refused admission.” Dr. Thomas Barnardo

In the late 50s and early 60s Chester Children’s Library boasted many volumes on the lives of worthy Victorians, and there I became acquainted with Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler,  Thomas Barnardo, William Booth. I recall illustrations of ladies in voluminous dresses and gentlemen with  voluminous beards ministering to the needs of the sick, the imprisoned, the orphaned and the destitute. I was both fascinated and horrified by that extraordinary world, which was just within touching distance for my grandparents had been born towards the end of it, with its monstrous inequalities of wealth and income, of health and opportunity. Fascinated too by those individuals who with courage, compassion, and abounding self-confidence, did not wait for a tardy, lacklustre government to act, but took  it upon themselves to tackle society’s ills.

I learned more of Doctor Barnardo when my primary school issued us all with papier mache collecting boxes shaped like small cottages, with thatched roofs and roses round the door painted in bright primary colours.

Thomas Barnardo had begun studying medicine at the London Hospital in 1866. The following year he followed the example of other philanthropists when he established a Ragged School at Hope Place in the East End providing free basic education for poor children. But 1866 had also seen a cholera outbreak which increased the number of orphaned and destitute children on the streets of London to 30,000. Many of the children coming to the Ragged School were not only poor but homeless, and doubtless as much attracted by the warm fire and the free meal which the school provided as by an introduction to the three Rs.

Jim Jarvis, a homeless boy who attended the  school, took Barnardo to see “the lays,” places where children slept in gutters, under market stalls, and on roof tops huddled against the chimneys for warmth.  Barnardo abandoned his medical training to concentrate on helping these children and in 1870 opened his first boys’ orphanage in Stepney. The number he could accommodate was limited and a year later he had to turn away John Somers, an eleven-year-old who had already lived on the streets for four years. Days later the child was found dead of malnutrition and exposure. Barnardo vowed that he would never turn another child away. By the time of his death in 1905 he had raised the money to establish 122 homes which had helped 60,000 children.

Alongside the boys’ homes Barnardo established a “Babies’ Castle” in the countryside at Hawkhurst in Kent. After he married in 1873,  he and his wife, Syrie, opened the Girls’ Village in Barkingside, where girls were housed in groups with a housemother in “cottage homes.” By 1900 the village with its own school, hospital and church accommodated 1500 girls in 65 cottages.

Eager that they should experience a family environment, Barnardo also assisted the fostering of children, and with Syrie’s help he established  a Rescue Home supporting those who had been driven to child prostitution and protecting them from further sexual exploitation.

The work of Dr. Barnardo’s Homes continued after his death with its watchword “no destitute child ever refused admission.” By the 1960s however  the availability of efficient contraception, the greater acceptability of single parenthood, and the growth of the welfare system meant that fewer children were taken into the homes. With the emphasis moving towards fostering, adoption and supporting children in their own families rather than direct care, the last of the Barnardo’s orphanages closed in 1989. Today the charity works with vulnerable children facing sexual and domestic violence, FGM, child trafficking and drug abuse, and offers support to young carers.

Though the books I read and the stories we were told when we picked up our collecting boxes  painted a glowing portrait of Barnardo and his work, there were always critics. He was accused of kidnapping children who had parents, taking them away without their parents’ permission. As a result, he appeared in court 88 times. He freely admitted this accusation, reasoning that the child’s welfare overrode any parental rights, that children should be removed from violent and abusive homes, and that the end justified the means. He was invariably exonerated by the courts.

Other detractors claimed, possibly correctly, that the photographs he produced for fund raising campaigns, portraying children before and after their admittance to the homes, were stage managed, doctored to make the changes appear more dramatic.

Most seriously, Barnardo’s was one of several charities involved in government schemes to send children to Australia and Canada. Whilst there is no doubt that Barnardo saw this as a means of rescuing children from a corrupting environment and securing for them a new healthy life with jobs and prospects, his good intentions were misguided, and many children faced exploitation as cheap labour, harsh conditions, and abuse.

Finally, there were reports of unsanitary conditions, badly managed homes, and children being cruelly treated. An orphanage is surely no one’s idea of a perfect environment for young children, and yet, the alternatives for many of Barnardo’s children were cold, hunger, abuse from drunken parents, child prostitution, death from exposure. Even for less extreme cases the orphanage could be a haven. My paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, was sent to an orphanage (not a Barnardo’s,  but the Hull Seamen’s Orphanage) following the death of his father. The regime was harsh: if the boys wet the bed they were beaten, the girls were made to parade around the room with their mattresses strapped to their backs. And yet, my father told me, my grandfather always spoke highly of the shelter which the home provided, of the education he was given, of the lessons in health and hygiene; and from games at the orphanage he developed a lifelong love of cricket. All these things he tried to pass on to his own children, and my father and his brothers were taken every year to the Open Day at the orphanage. And if my father’s inherited obsession with immaculate fingernails seemed a little excessive to me as a child, still my Barnardo’s box always weighed heavy with his loose change.

I doubt if today children’s libraries stock eulogising, uncritical hagiographies of Victorian philanthropists, and if I read those books again now I might find their tone cloying. Modern accounts of those nineteenth humanitarians do not spare them accusations of conceit, arrogance, paternalism, and dogmatism. And yet they were brave, good people who gave of their time, money, and energies, faced down criticism, sneers and personal attacks to make their world a little better for others.

Thousands of people filed past Barnardo’s coffin as it lay in state for three days in Limehouse, and lined the streets as it passed through the East End to Liverpool Street Station to be transported to Barkingside. Barnardo had chosen to be buried at the Girls’ Village Home, where Syrie later joined him. A  magnificent monument designed by George Frampton marks their grave. Today many of the original  cottages have been demolished and the land sold to developers so that utilitarian new housing forms an unprepossessing backdrop to the Barnardo memorial, but it still looks out onto the “village green” surrounded by the remaining Victorian cottages now leased to a housing association. And looking across the green and the waterfountain towards the church it takes but little imagination to hear the children’s voices and to catch a glimpse of little girls in button boots, long frocks, and white aprons.

New housing on land formerly a part of the Girls’ Village has crept up on the Barnardo memorial
But it still looks out across the “Village Green” at some of the original cottages
The children’s church and the water fountain on the village green. New housing on the right.
Village green and original cottages, now leased to a housing association.
Detail of memorial, Charity embracing two children
Detail of memorial, Barnardo and three children, modelled on girls at the Village Home

Since 2016 a new memorial in Tower Hamlets Cemetery has commemorated the lives of 500 Barnardo’s orphans who died in childhood and were buried in unmarked graves. Barnardo buried three of his own seven children there too, in graves also unmarked in keeping with the other children. The memorial, designed by Tom Nicholls, is in the form of a pair of hands releasing a sparrow into flight symbolising the care and support of Barnardo’s Homes which enabled children to fly free into the world. Volunteers from the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery have researched the names of the children buried here cross-referencing Barnardo registers with cemetery registers.

Memorial stone marking the graves of 500 orphans who died in childhood and three of Barnardo’s own children
Detail of memorial
Remembering Doctor Barnardo’s children laid here to rest.

The stone also bears a quotation from a poem of disputed authorship. Contrary to the exhortation, it always makes me cry.

 Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there, I did not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glint on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,

I am the swift , uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there, I do not sleep.

(Do not stand at my grave and cry.

I am not there, I did not die!)

And on the base a poignant reminder of Barnardo’s own beloved sons, as vulnerable to the illnesses that stalked Victorian childhood as any of the orphans for whom he cared.

Thank You Mary, for My Education and My Rights

I stood on a muddy patch of grass on  Newington Green looking up at Maggi Hambling’s  memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft, a small naked silver figure emerging above a swirl of organic matter, gleaming and glittering like a fish in the pale autumn sunlight. It was my first visit to London since the pandemic, in  that strange time when the full wrath of Covid had passed but we still moved in and out of changing restrictions, alternating between nervous caution and an impatient desire to re-engage with the world.

After a few moments other women joined me: some still wore masks and we all kept a discreet distance from one another, but the air was heavy with unspoken thoughts. Eventually someone broke the hesitant silence: “I’m not quite sure that I understand it.” Empathetic murmurs preceded a burst of speech as we shared knowledge: “I read that she is arising out of female forms to show that she is supported by her predecessors.” “Hambling says it represents everywoman and the birth of the feminist movement rather than Wollstonecraft herself.” “She said that she made it in deliberate opposition to traditional male heroic statuary.” “She made her naked so that she would be relevant for all time, not bound to a certain era by her clothes.”

We were silent again for a few moments, then: “The most important thing is that it is here.” “And that it was made by a female artist.” “Anything new and different is always a bit challenging.” “It would have been inappropriate just to put up a conventional statue.” “I expect it will grow on us.” We parted agreeing that we would revisit the statue.

Two years on and I greet it as a familiar friend and a fitting tribute to Wollstonecraft, for as it says on the plinth, the statue is “for Mary Wollstonecraft,” not of her.

Mary Wollstonecraft memorial on Newington Green
Gleaming and glittering in the autumn sunlight

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She had variously earned her own living as a lady’s companion, teaching in a school which she founded with her sisters and friend in Newington Green, as a governess, and as a translator before focusing on her own writing.

Her output was prolific, but two books stand out like especially bright stars. Critical of aristocracy, monarchy, church and military hierarchies, all hereditary privilege and advocating Republicanism, Wollstonecraft celebrated the  revolutionary events in France. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) she countered Edmund Burkes’s conservative critique of the French Revolution. When a group of angry women had  marched the royal family from Versailles to Paris, Burke had praised Marie Antoinette describing her surrounded by “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women.” Mary responded angrily that they were working women angry at the lack of bread to feed their families. Though deeply saddened and depressed by the Jacobin terror and the executions of the Girondin leaders, and offended by the Jacobins’ treatment of women to whom they refused to grant equal rights, nonetheless Wollstonecraft continued to believe in the ideals of the revolution and remained true to her conviction that it represented a great achievement.

At the heart of all her work lay a conviction in the importance of education for women. In  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (1792), she argued that while women were not inherently inferior to men they often appeared to be because of their lack of education which made them seem silly and superficial, frivolous and incapable, leading to excessive sensibility at the expense of rationality. It precipitated them, unable to support themselves independently, into patriarchal marriages based on economic necessity. They became the mere ornaments and property of men,helpless adornments of their households. Such marriages infantilised them, made them poor companions for their husbands and poor mothers for their children, poor citizens, and poor human beings. Only with education could they achieve independence, support themselves, blossom as individuals with the same rights as men, and realise relationships based love and affection.

Mary had begun an affair with the philosopher William Godwin and when she became pregnant they had married so that society would consider the child legitimate, but Mary died of septicaemia eleven days after her daughter was born.

Godwin’s memoir of his wife, though motivated by his love, compassion, and sense of loss,  destroyed her reputation for many years. For he wrote candidly of her personal life as well as her writings, and her love affairs, illegitimate child, and suicide attempts shocked nineteenth and early twentieth century society. She had sought unsuccessfully to live with her married lover, Henri Fuseli and his wife. She had an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, by Gilbert Imlay. She made two suicide attempts when Imlay rejected her, the first by laudanum and the second by trying to drown herself in the Thames. The opprobrium which these actions engendered meant that only in the 1960s did her star begin to rise again when attention refocused on her work.

Godwin buried Mary in the churchyard of Old Saint Pancras Church where they had married, and when she was a small child he took their daughter, also a Mary, on visits to her. When Godwin remarried, the child, unhappy with that second marriage, continued her visits alone. There she would read her mother’s works, and later meet in secret with one of her father’s political followers, the poet Shelley. An unsubstantiated tradition has it that there beside the grave she lost her virginity to him. I choose to believe it.

Like her mother, Mary led a turbulent and unconventional life, eloping with Shelley in the face of her father’s disapproval, facing ostracism and debt. She had four children with Shelley, whom she married after the suicide of his  first wife Harriet, but only one of them, Percy Florence Shelley survived. Mary supported herself through her writing producing travelogues, historical fiction, short stories, biographies, and novels, most famously Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. After Shelley drowned in 1822 while sailing from Livorno to Lerici she devoted herself to promoting and editing his work and  ensuring the education of their son.

Mary Shelley had asked her son and his wife Jane to bury her with her parents in Old Saint Pancras, but when she died in 1851 they thought the old graveyard a “dreadful” place. Indeed a local resident had written to The Times in 1850 complaining that, “More than 25 corpses have been deposited every week for the last twenty years in an already overcrowded space: and at this very time they are burying in it nearly twice that rate…teeth, bones, fragments of coffin wood are seen lying in large quantities around these pits.” A few years later it featured in Charles Dickens’ Tale of two Cities as a site of body snatching. Moreover, the arrival of the railway brought further disruption and  the railway company supervised the excavation of over 10,000 graves to make way for the new London train terminus at St. Pancras. So they buried her in the churchyard of St. Peter in Bournemouth near their own home and to fulfil her wishes disinterred  her parents and reburied them with her.

Later in her desk they found a box containing a human organ wrapped in the preface to Shelley’s poem Adonais, an elegy on the death of his friends Keats. They thought it was Shelley’s heart, for in accordance with quarantine regulations his friends had  cremated Shelley on the beach where his body had been borne by the tide, but Trelawny had rescued the slow burning heart and given it to Mary. When Mary Shelley’s son died, both he and the heart joined his mother and grandparents.

At least one modern medical speculation however has suggested that this organ may have been Shelley’s liver rather than his heart, for the liver is a denser and more solid mass and more likely to have resisted the heat. I choose to believe it was the heart; keeping a liver, even one wrapped in poetry, in a desk drawer for thirty years lacks romance.

St. Peter, Bournemouth and the Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley grave
William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, removed from St.Pancras, London to St. Peter, Bournemouth
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her son and his wife

Today the Bournemouth grave despite its famed collection of inhabitants is little visited, the churchyard and the grey Victorian church a little bleak, while ironically the church and graveyard of Old Saint Pancras have a new vitality. The redevelopment of the surrounding area, the restoration of  King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations along with the magnificent old Midland Grand  Hotel, and the opening of the Crick Institute, have transformed the neighbourhood. The metamorphosis of Coal Drops Yard has seen designer outlets, an abundance of cafes and restaurants, fountains, and gardens  replace the dereliction  which previously blighted the area with disused railway sidings and warehouses. Ingenious designs have slotted clever apartments into old gasometers. The Central School of Art  has located in an old granary. Bright river craft dawdle along the Regent’s canal. And across the road from this vibrant area the graveyard offers a  tranquil green space, with its paths and gates recently repaired, shaded seats beneath the mature plane trees and neatly trimmed grass around the tombs. The pretty church is open daily hosting concerts and community groups as well as religious services.

It is Mary Wollstonecraft’s original grave marker which draws her admirers today though neither she nor Godwin lie beneath it. Nonetheless devotees leave tributes to Mary, the tomb chest always bearing an array of pens, pencils, flowers, stones and ribbons  There are notes too; like medieval pilgrims visitors seek Mary’s help with exams, relationships, careers, and sometimes they just tell her about their lives, their joys and sorrows, successes and failures, hopes and fears.

I lifted a crystal holding down a sheet of paper torn from a small notebook: “Thank you Mary,” it read “for my education and my rights.”

The original Wollstonecraft Godwin tomb at Old Saint Pancras
Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
Tributes laid on top of Mary’s tomb

To find out more about Mary Wollstonecraft read Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Laurie Lee: He Lies in the Valley he Loved

As the long-wet days of July dripped seamlessly into August I began a cull of the bookcases. This is slow work, for potential sacrifices must  be granted the dignity of a last read  before they make their final journey to the Oxfam Shop. Often this results in a reprieve when forgotten qualities and nuances not previously appreciated are discovered. The task is further slowed when I am distracted by an old friend  inviting me to turn its pages again, to read and to remember, and by the time I close the book and replace it, the day has passed, the light faded, and my labour no further advanced.

I took down an old Penguin paper back, its pages yellowing with age, priced in its 1964 reprint at 3/6d. Our English teacher had encouraged us to buy these editions and their faded orange spines are scattered amongst the novels on my shelves, the price not varying as I progressed through school in the mid and late sixties. Cider with Rosie was something of a cult book at the time, I think every girl in my class read it, and it met with universal approval.

I recalled a nostalgic account evoking the simplicity and innocence of a rural world in the aftermath of World War I; an autobiographical chronicle of a blissful lost idyll; a soft focused, sunny, beguiling picture of  life in the village of Slad in Gloucestershire. The blurb on the back of the book seemed to confirm my impression, sounding itself a little quaint today. “Cider with Rosie” it reads “puts on record the England we have traded for the petrol engine.” This tuned with the gentle melancholy I associated with Laurie Lee’s reflections, written years later, on his childhood memories.

At first the book confirmed my recollections: in 1918 when Laurie Lee, his mother and siblings moved there, Slad was indeed a lost domain, isolated from the world, its inhabitants’ horizons confined largely to home, their only transport the horse and cart. Lee conjures  a world of homely cottages, “snug, enclosed and protective” set in the hillside “like peas in a pod,” and of cottage gardens: “syringa shot up, laburnum hung down, white roses smothered the apple tree, red flowering currants spread entirely along one path: such a chaos of blossom as amazed the bees and bewildered the birds of the air.”

He charts a poetic journey through the changing seasons. In winter, “there were jigsaws of frost on the window. The light filled the house with a green polar glow; while outside there was a strange hard silence, …it was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar,” and there was  carol singing in the snow with candles in jam jars. The summers were spent roaming the fields: “The grass was June high and had come up with a rush, a massed entanglement of species, crested with flowers and spears of wild wheat, and coiled with clambering vetches, the whole of it humming with blundering bees and flickering with scarlet butterflies.”

 The  Annual Church Tea and Entertainment, the charabanc outing to Weston-Super-Mare where the children played on the beach and peered into the penny slot machines, leap off the pages, intense, vivid, gleeful events.

Poverty, dirt, and limited horizons are treated lightly, met with humour: a pump supplies water and wood fires are used for cooking and heating water for the shared bath – “being the youngest but one my water was always the dirtiest but one.” The  hungry children tore apart “fresh loaves with crusts still warm, their monotony brightened by the objects we found in them – string, nails, paper, and once a mouse; for those were days of happy-go-lucky baking.” In the two roomed village school – “universal education and unusual fertility had packed it to the walls with pupils” – one teacher and her young assistant taught every child in the valley from four to fourteen.

And at the book’s heart he recounts the perfect first flirtation, the perfect first kiss, with Rosie. “It was a motionless day of summer, creamy, hazy, and amber coloured, with beech trees standing in heavy sunlight as though clogged with wild wet honey.…we went to the bottom of the field, where a wagon stood half loaded. Festoons of untrimmed grass hung down like curtains all around it. We crawled underneath, between the wheels, into a herb-scented cave of darkness.” They drank from the squat jar of cider and, “For a long time we sat with our mouths very close, breathing the same hot air. We kissed, once only, so dry and shy, it was like two leaves colliding in air.”

As he reveals the changes that began to encroach during the later part of his childhood, destroying forever that guileless world,  it is impossible not to share his regret, impossible not to want to reach out and hold on, to draw back all that is lost. The motor cars and the bicycles took the young  away from the village, the expanding towns drew nearer, the clothes people wore and the very language they spoke moved into line with the wider, modern world. “The old people just dropped away – the white-whiskered, gaitered, booted and bonneted, ancient-tongued last of their world, who had thee’d  and thou’d both man and beast, called young girls damsels, young boys squires, old men masters.”

But beyond the poetry I discovered something I had forgotten, for Laurie Lee did not view the past through  a glass darkly, and alongside the joyous celebration of his childhood world he reveals the bigotry, casual cruelty, danger, and disease which blighted the lives of the villagers.

For this is a world where infant death is commonplace: “in those cold valley cottages, with their dripping walls, damp beds and oozing floors, a child could sicken and die in a year,” and a heartless church will not bury the unbaptised infants in consecrated ground, so that “tiny, anonymous graves were tucked away under the churchyard laurels, where quick dying infants – behind the vicar’s back – were stowed secretly among the jam-jars.”

This is a world where old folk remember the gibbet at Bulls Cross, and Laurie and his friends play in a ruined cottage at Dead Combe Bottom where “behind the door, blood red with rust, hung a naked iron hook.” This, they learn, was the home of the hangman who, during the hungry times when local felons flourished, worked busily by night in darkness. One night he dispatched a shivering boy and as the cloud moved from the moon recognised his son. He went home, fixed a noose to the iron hook, and killed himself.

It is the world of ugly superstition and desperate tramps, halfwits, a deaf mute beggar “with a black beetle’s body, short legs, and a mouth like a puppet, soft boiled eyes” of whom it was said “he could ruin a girl with a glance, take the manhood away from a man, scramble your brains, turn bacon green,” so that when he approached the village “food was put out on the top of walls and people shut themselves up in their privies.”

It is a world in which a vicious murder can be absorbed into the fabric of everyday life. A lad who had been shipped off to the colonies, a common fate for poor boys, returns successful and richly dressed boasting of his success, contemptuous of the tenant farmers and their miserable wages, scornful of their narrow lives and their servility. In the village pub he buys round after round of drinks while he flaunts  his achievements, and “when the public house closed the New Zealander was the last to leave. When he reached the stone-cross the young men were waiting, a bunched group, heads down in the wind. They hit him in turn. Beat him bloodily down in the snow…beat him for the sake of themselves. Then they emptied his pockets, threw him over a wall and left him. He was insensible now…   the storm blew all night across him… and in the morning he was found frozen to death.” But the young men “were not treated as outcasts, nor did they appear to live under any special stain. They belonged to the village and the village looked after them”.

It is a world of tragic suicide. The grief stricken, half mad Miss Flynn who has “been bad” kills herself one night: “naked, alone in the night … she slipped into (the village pond) like a bed and drowned quietly away in the reeds.. a green foot under, still and all night by herself, looking up through the water as though through a window…her hair floating out and her white eyes open.”

It is the world where half a dozen bored, aimless young men casually plot to rape “mad Lizzy”, a simple-minded girl of sixteen with “a stumpy accessible body.” That Lizzy responds to the first tentative touch by hitting her would be assailant with a bag of crayons before walking away unharmed, renders the ugly intention no less sickening.

It is a world where the shadow of the workhouse is always present. “The Workhouse – always a word of shame, grey shadow falling on the close of life, most feared by the old, abhorred more than debt, or prison, or beggary, or even  the stain of madness”. Frail, sick, and old, the devoted Joseph and Hannah Brown “white and speechless were taken away to the Workhouse”  by the “kind, killing Authority” which labelling them too frail to care for themselves separated them for the first time in fifty years, Hannah to the women’s wing, Joseph to the men’s wing of the merciless institution. “They did not see each other again for within a week they were both dead.”

There was a darkness interwoven with the beauty of the Slad Valley, and Laurie Lee’s book is something more powerful and complex than the bucolic, nostalgic celebration which I had remembered.

Yet Laurie Lee never lost his great love of the steep sided valley, and with the success of his books he bought a cottage in Slad near his childhood home where he lived until his death in 1997.

He had chosen his place in the churchyard, located between the church and The Woolpack Inn. On one side his stone reads, “He lies in the valley he loved.”

On the other the first lines of his poem April Rise are recorded:

If ever I saw

blessing in the air

I see it now in this

still early day

Where lemon green

the vaporous

morning drips

Wet sunlight on the

powder of my eye.

In the church a memorial window features his violin, signature, a map of Spain and an extract from Cider with Rosie.

Bees blew

like cake crumbs

through the

golden air,

white butterflies

like sugared wafers

An afterthought

If you visit Laurie Lee in Slad, cross the road to The Woolpack where you can buy the books and where the food has been enthusiastically reviewed by no less a person than Grace Dent:>food>2023 The Woolpack, Slad, Gloucestershire: “Fancy but hearty food.”

A Corner of Some Foreign Field (3 and 4): Prince Lee Boo and Thomas Caulker

Unlike Scipio Africanus and the Beautiful Spotted Boy not every incumbent of England’s Foreign Fields arrived here  under coercion. Prince Lee Boo and Thomas Caulker were both encouraged by their families to pursue schooling in England; sadly, both died young.

Prince Lee Boo

Prince Lee Boo was the second son of a former Ibedul or high chief of Koror Island  in the Palau Island group in the western part of the Pacific Ocean. In 1783 Captain Henry Wilson, a trader for the East India Company, and his crew were shipwrecked on the rocks off Ulong Island . They were rescued and given hospitality by islanders from nearby Koror who spent three months helping them to rebuild their ship. The Ibedul, whose title they misinterpreted as Abba Thule, thinking this was his name, asked them to take Lee Boo back to England with them to further his education. Lee Boo lived with Wilson’s family in Rotherhithe and attended school there but tragically contracted smallpox and died at the age of twenty.

Wilson held Lee Boo in high esteem and during his brief time in England the young man captured the public imagination. He was feted, books and  poems were written about him, and illustrations produced. Many of these productions however were patronising. Lee Boo was portrayed as a noble savage, an exotic curiosity, and his reactions to things which he had not seem before – mirrors, horses, oranges – were a subject of condescending amusement.

The Prince was buried in the Wilson family grave in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin Rotherhithe, SE London. The East India Company paid for his tomb and the inscription on the top. The very worn script reads:

To the memory of

Prince Lee Boo

A native of the

Pelew or Palos islands

and son of the Abbe Thulle,

Rurack or king of the

Island Coorooraa

Who departed this life

on 27 December1784

Aged 20 years.

This stone is inscribed by

The Honourable United

East India Company

As a testimony of esteem

For the humane and kind

Treatment afforded

By his father

To the crew of their ship,

The Antelope,

Captain Wilson,

Which was wrecked

Off that island on the night

Of 9th August 1783.

Stop reader. Stop. Let nature claim a tear,

A prince of mine, Lee Boo, lies buried here.

Wilson family grave and tomb of Prince Lee Boo in St. Mary the Virgin, Rotherhithe, SE London
A weathered inscription commemorates Prince Lee Boo

In 1984 a service was held on the two hundredth anniversary of his death and visitors from the Pacific Islands planted a gingko tree.

Thomas Caulker

Thomas Canray Caulker (1846-59) was descended from a wealthy, mixed race family: on the one side his namesake Thomas Caulker, an Anglo-Irish trader and colonial official with the Royal Africa Company, and on the other a Sherbro princess, Seniora Doll. Through this marriage in the seventeenth century the Caulkers had become hereditary chiefs of Bompey in what is now Sierra Leone. By the eighteenth century they had also  become major slave traders.

In the nineteenth century however Thomas’ father Richard Caulker, also known as Canrah Bah Caulker, had aligned with the abolition movement to suppress the slave trade in the Sherbro country.

In line with other affluent African-European families Richard Caulker sent his son to London  to acquire a Christian education. Thomas lived with the reverend JK Foster and his wife in Islington and because he suffered with severe eye weaknesses was sent to a school for the blind. Other medical problems however led to his death at the age of thirteen  and he  was buried in Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington. His original stone is weathered almost beyond reading and is fast being consumed by ivy, but a new marker placed by the Abney Park Trust bears the bold legend:







Caulker’s original stone,
the inscription barely legible
The new marker, placed by the Abney Park Trust

Far from home, Lee Boo and Caulker lie, the one in a  London churchyard beside the Thames at Rotherhithe, the other amongst the tranquil woodlands of a nineteenth century garden cemetery in Stoke Newington, their small plots now and forever a part of their tropical homelands.

A Corner of Some Foreign Field (2): George Alexander Gratton

George Alexander Gratton (1808-1813) was born the son of slaves on a sugar cane plantation on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, the name Gratton probably that of the plantation owner. He arrived in England via the port of Bristol when he was only fifteen months old. His skin was covered  in permanent white patches due to a loss of pigmentation caused by Vitiligo.

The showman John Richardson bought the child for 1,000 guineas at Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield Market. Richardson owned a traveling theatre which toured the fairs of England  with enormous success in the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens  described the performances  in Sketches by Boz:

This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat is “ Richardson’s,”  where you can have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes.

The young Edward Kean was one of Richardson’s actors.

Richardson interspersed the main performances with “freak shows”,  displaying dwarfs, albinos, giants, bearded ladies, Josephine Ghirardelli the Fireproof Female, conjoined twins, tattooed men, and people displaying all manner of diseases, deformities, and disabilities. Some of these “novelties” were hoaxes but other unfortunate individuals had little choice but to earn their living as part of this shameful spectacle.

Alert to the commercial possibilities of George’s appearance, which must have been considerable given the price he paid for the child, Richardson paraded him as “The Beautiful Spotted Boy” alongside his other exhibits.

Despite this callous exploitation Richardson was fond of the boy, adopting him, having him baptised in Newington church, and educating him.

But within a few years George died, sometimes described as a victim of the cold climate but more likely suffering from a tumour or infection. The distraught Richardson commissioned a brick vault in the churchyard of All Saints, Marlow, Buckinghamshire and had an oil painting of the boy placed in the church. He requested that on his death he should be buried in the same vault and the two headstones bolted together. His wishes were carried out  in 1837.

Part of the original inscription on George’s gravestone read with a strange mixture of love and inured, casual racism:

Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eyes,

Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,

Know that there lies beneath this humble stone,

A child of colour, haply not thine own.

His parents born of Afric’s sun-burnt race,

Tho’ black and white were blended in his face,

T0 Britain brought, which made his parents free,

And shew’d the world great Natur’s prodigy.

Depriv’d of kindred that to him were dear,

He found a friendly Guardian’s fost’ring care,

But, scarce had bloom’d, the fragrant flower fades,

And the lov’d infant finds an early grave.

When I visited the grave both markers were heavily  weathered and the child’s stone broken, but they remained bolted together. The Beautiful Boy lies close to the river in the churchyard at Marlow, an idyllic spot which will be forever St. Vincent.

Gravestone of The Spotted Boy, a bolt visible near the top attaches it to that of John Richardson
Gravestone of John Richardson, the bolt again visible
The two stones bolted together

Recently a community of St. Vincentians living in High Wycombe who style themselvesSV2G (St. Vincent and the Grenadines 2nd Generation) have raised awareness and funds to preserve the stones. Research by the community has also resulted in the production of an independently published paperback  written by Jacqueline Roberts: The Beautiful Spotted Boy, February 2022, ISBN no. 9798415998579.

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