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

Category: Reformers, Radicals and Revolutionaries Page 1 of 2

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.

Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The bus headed  north from the centre of the city, and as it reached Walton the lack of investment in this deprived and battered suburb of Liverpool  was apparent.  Through the dirty windows  I watched the shuttered shops and red brick terraces passing by.  Walton is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as a town in its own right but by the late nineteenth century it had been swallowed up by the advance of Liverpool. Not quite sure where I was going I got off at the Clock Tower. It is an impressive, if daunting and forbidding structure, built in 1868 as the centre piece of the Union Workhouse. In the twentieth century the workhouse became Walton Hospital. Since the latter was demolished the clock tower building alone remains looming over a new housing estate.

But this was not what I had come to see. I knew that somewhere nearby was the Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, opened in 1851  as the growing population overwhelmed the central churchyards, and that there  Robert Tressell was buried.

As I turned down Rawcliffe Road an unexpected delight awaited me, for the cemetery is no longer in use and has been taken over by the Rice Lane City Farm. The graves have been tidied up and the  farm,  established by the local community 40 years ago, is open to all every day of the year. Small children ran around delighted by the ducks, pigs, sheep, goats, and Ness, the donkey. Scattered groups sat in the weak spring sunshine eating picnic lunches, and Walton suddenly seemed a happier, more cheerful place.

But what of Robert Tressell? The man I was seeking was born in Dublin but emigrated to South Africa where he was employed as a housepainter and sign writer. Following a failed marriage, he returned to England with his daughter Kathleen, and they settled in Hastings where he pursued his trade. He was a founder member of the Hastings branch of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation but is most remembered for writing what has been described as the first working class novel in England: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It was as author of this book that Robert Noonan assumed the pen name Tressell, a word play on the trestle table with which painters work.

Set in 1906, the partly autobiographical novel is a clarion cry for Socialism. It describes a group of painters and decorators  employed to restore a house in a world of stagnant wages and soaring profits. The poverty and near starvation in which the workers live, without proper food and clothing for themselves or their children, in cold cheerless homes, a prey to sickness, the workhouse, and early death, contrasts with the wealth and ease which their employers enjoy. Such is the precarious nature of the workers’ existence that a man murders his children rather than see them starve, an incident which Tressell based on a real case.

Owen, the main character,  refers ironically to his fellow workers as philanthropists because they  hand over the results of their labour to their employer without question, accepting that there is a natural order of rich and poor, of rulers and ruled. They are working class Conservatives, voting in ignorance, relinquishing self-respect and dignity, accepting that they should have only the necessities of existence, that “leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food” are not “for the likes of them.”

Owen tries to explain Socialism to his fellow workers, to make them understand that the pathetic measures, such as smoking in the bosses’ time and minor pilfering, by which they attempt to “get some of their own back,” will change nothing. Revolutionary change, the proper valuing of labour power and the elimination of hereditary wealth is needed, he argues, to alleviate inequalities for good. But even Philpot, a good man who would happily pay another halfpenny on his rates to provide food for hungry school children,  cannot countenance the possibility of  changing the system.

Sometimes the novel becomes didactic as Owen lectures his fellow workmen on Marxist theory. At other times it is sentimental. But  the chapters which portray the men’s home lives, their troubled relationships, their children’s games, their friendships, their weaknesses, the accidents at work, the lure of the public house, and the annual beano, are vivid and real. And with echoes of William Morris, he portrays the frustrated craftsmanship with which the workers seek to express their personalities in lieu of the “scamping,” the cheap, rushed jobs required by their employers to maximise profits.

Tressell  hoped that by publishing the novel  he might convert his fellow workers and, knowing that he had tuberculosis,  provide money for his daughter if he died. But the handwritten manuscript was rejected unread. In 1910  he decided to emigrate to Canada in search of a better life, aiming to send for Kathleen once he was established. Aged forty, he fell ill and died of TB in Liverpool Infirmary while waiting for a ship. Kathleen had neither the money to pay for her father’s funeral nor the means to attend it. Tressell was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

In 1914 Kathleen sold the novel to a publisher; since then it it has never been out of print, and it is frequently credited with helping to win the 1945 election for Labour.

In 1970 the historian Alan O’Toole used cemetery records to locate the grave where Tressell lay with twelve other paupers buried on the same day. Local Socialists and Trade Unionists unveiled a stone  in 1977. Made of Swedish granite donated by Swedish Trade Unions, it bears a portrait of Tressell,  the names of the twelve others buried with him, and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming.

Robert Tressell’s grave surrounded by woodland on the edge of the cemetery,which now houses a city farm
Robert Noonan aka Robert Tressell
The stone bears the names of twelve others buried on the same day in a paupers’ grave
and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming

Through squalid life they laboured, in sordid grief they died,

Those sons of a mighty mother, those props of England’s pride.

They are gone; there is none can undo it, nor save our souls from the curse;

But many a million cometh, and shall they be better or worse?

It is we who must answer and hasten, and open wide the door

For the rich man’s hurrying terror, and the slow-foot hope of the poor.

Emily Wilding Davison Died For Our Vote

One hundred and ten years ago, on the 4th of June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison suffered a fractured skull following a collision with George V’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby. She died four days later in a room hung with bunting in the green, white, and purple colours of the suffragette movement.

Emily had studied at Royal Holloway College, London, and St. Hugh’s Oxford where she had gained first class honours, but being female was not allowed to take a degree. In 1906 she had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This militant wing of the female suffrage movement had emerged in 1903 after decades of peaceful lobbying by the law-abiding suffragists had failed to obtain voting rights for women. The WSPU embraced direct action, and Emily was at the forefront of this, disrupting political meetings from which women were barred, breaking windows and daubing slogans on the walls of buildings where these meetings were held.

In 1911 suffragettes boycotted the census, reasoning that, “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted.” Some returned incomplete or “spoilt” forms covered in suffrage slogans. Others avoided being at home on the night of the census and held  outdoor gatherings including a midnight picnic on Wimbledon Common. Emily hid overnight in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster. Ironically when she was discovered she was recorded on the census as a “resident” of the House of Commons. In 1990 the Labour MP Tony Benn mounted a plaque in the cupboard  commemorating  her commitment to feminism and socialism.

But the consequences for the militant suffragettes were severe. They were arrested and faced solitary confinement in prison. When they went on hunger strike protesting the government’s refusal to classify them as political prisoners they were force fed. Rubber tubes inserted into their mouths or nostrils passed through their throats and oesophaguses to transmit liquid food to their stomachs. This painful process resulted in broken teeth, bleeding, vomiting, and the risk of regurgitated food passing into their lungs.

Emily was arrested nine times. She was imprisoned eight times and went on hunger strike seven times. She was force fed forty-nine times. On one occasion  when she barricaded herself in her cell  to avoid this abuse the cell window was broken, and a fire hose turned on her for fifteen minutes. By the time the door was wrenched open her cell was six inches deep in water.

In a further attempt to end the torture of force feeding she threw herself from one of the inside balconies of the prison. She wrote, “The idea on my mind was that one big tragedy may save many others.” She was severely injured but saved from death when she landed on the wire netting instead of the stone staircase. Force feeding continued.

Public disquiet eventually brought the practice to an end. Under the provisions of the The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, commonly known as The Cat and Mouse Act, however the suffragettes were released from prison when hunger began to affect their health, only to be rearrested without trial to serve out their sentences once they had recovered.

On the day of the Epsom Derby, Emily had ducked under the railings and run into the path of the King’s horse. Film footage of the event shows her apparently reaching for the horse’s reins. She had not discussed her plans with anyone and left no note, so we cannot be certain of her intentions. She may have sought to attach the two suffragette banners which she was carrying to the horse’s bridle so that he crossed the line waving the suffragette flag. She may have decided  to throw herself in front of the horse in a suicidal attempt to provide the WSPU with a martyr and to expose the abuses happening in prisons.

There had been the previous suicide attempt in prison, and in The Price of Liberty Manuscript she had written: “To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of the Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last and consummate sacrifice of the militant! She will not hesitate even unto this last.” The coroner however rejected the possibility of suicide on the grounds that she carried in her purse a return train ticket to Victoria, was attending a suffrage event that evening, and had a diary full of appointments for the following week.

The press and the establishment ridiculed her actions, but for the WSPU and their supporters she was indeed a martyr. 6,000 women accompanied her coffin to the funeral service at St. George’s, Bloomsbury and 50,000 people lined the route. Afterwards her coffin travelled north to Morpeth in Northumberland where she was buried in the family plot in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin. Her headstone bears the suffragette watchword “Deeds Not Words.”

Family grave of Emily Wilding Davison
Deeds Not Words
Other memorials surround the larger monument
A new marker placed by the family a hundred years after her death
Valiant in Courage and Faith

Emily’s friend, Mary Leigh (1885-1978 ), visited the grave every year taking with her one of the suffrage flags which Emily had carried on the fatal day. Later she carried the same flag on the first Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march to Aldermaston in 1958.

Whatever her intentions Emily must have known the risk of stepping into the path of a racehorse moving at full gallop, and there is little doubt that she would willingly have given her life to ensure female suffrage “for generations (then) unborn.”

Female suffrage was not obtained on equal terms with men in Britain until 1928.

When Parliament seems a sordid place and many politicians at best meretricious and out of touch with the electorate, at worst criminal and cruel, remember Emily Wilding Davison died for our right to vote. And if with  heavy hearts we fear that we can only cast our ballots for the lesser evil, we owe it to her at least to do that.

Remembering Raja Ram Mohan Roy

At  Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol a magnificent chattri towers incongrously above the angels, crosses, and obelisks which line the Ceremonial Way. Made from Bath stone but based on a traditional Bengali funeral monument, and much the grandest of the Victorian memorial sculptures, it marks the grave of Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

The chattri of Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, often referred to as The Father of Modern India, was a linguist and philosopher, committed to female rights, education, and religious reform. He was born into the Kulin Brahmin, those Bengali Brahmins designated Kulina or superior. They advocated the prevailing systems of polygamy, dowry, sati, caste rigidity and child marriage. In his childhood he witnessed the burning to death of his seventeen-year-old sister-in-law in a sati ceremony. Mohan Roy championed a social reform Hinduism which opposed all these practices, leading to conflict with the authorities of the day and with his own family. Committed to monotheism, he co-founded the Kolkata Unitarian Society in 1822 and the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, the latter specifically seeking to reform Kulin Brahminism tempering it with Unitarian beliefs.

For Mohan Roy, education was the key to social reform, and he established schools where teachers incorporated western learning into Indian education, believing that modern subjects were vital to prepare young people for success in the world. This integration of eastern and western culture brought further criticism,  as did his emphasis on the particular importance of education for girls.

He travelled widely, learning many languages, and defying the Hindu prohibition on crossing the Kala Pani, the Black Water, or the seas which separate India from foreign lands. Such journeys resulted not only in loss of social respectability but also, it was believed, precluded reincarnation when individuals were cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges.

Roy had been instrumental in obtaining a ban on the practice of sati which the British East Indian Company had long condoned to facilitate their own trading and colonial expansion. In 1830 he came to Britain, acting as Ambassador for the Mughal emperor, and successfully pressured the British government  into upholding the ban.

While in Britain the Raja visited his Unitarian friends in Bristol including Lant Carpenter and his daughter Mary. Influenced by her contact with him, Mary was to become a political and social activist campaigning against slavery, for prison reform, female education, and latterly for female suffrage.

Sadly, the Raja was never to leave Bristol,  for in 1833 he died of meningitis while staying at Beech House, the home of Unitarian friends in the suburb of Stapleton. According to Hindu beliefs he should have been cremated  but in the England of 1833 this was still illegal. Non-Christian burials in  Christian graveyards were also prohibited. And so, at a silent service, his friends buried him in the grounds of Beech House.

Ten years later new owners had purchased Beech House. Consequently, William Carr and William Prinsep, businesspeople who had worked in Kolkata, bought a plot in the new cemetery which the Bristol General Cemetery Company had established at Arnos Vale . They  moved Mohan Roy’s coffin to a brick lined vault in an unconsecrated section of the cemetery. The chattri was designed by  Prinsep and funded by Dwarkanath Tagore.

There is a celebration of the life of Raja Ram Mohan Roy  every year at Arnos Vale on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his death  on 27th September 1833. This year marked  the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1772. Anyone is welcome at the ceremony and so  I joined members of Brahmo Samaj, Unitarians, a representative of the Indian High Commission, The Lord Mayor of Bristol, staff and volunteers at Arnos Vale, and other members of the public to honour the life and achievements of this remarkable man.

Mrs. Mariju Chowdhury, a member of Brahmo-Samaj speaking at the ceremony
Ovessa Iqbal laying flowers on behalf of the Indian High Commission
Laying flowers at the memorial
Carla Contactor speaking at the ceremony
At the memorial

There are other tributes to Mohan Roy in Bristol:

In Bristol Art Gallery, a magnificent portrait of the Raja provides a burst of colourful magnificence dominating a room of Victorian art.

Portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bristol Art Gallery

In 1998 the Indian government presented a bronze statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to the City of Bristol in celebration of fifty years of Indian Independence. It stands  outside the cathedral on College Green.

Bronze statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy outside Bristol Cathedral

There is a plaque on the wall of Beech House in Stapleton.

Beech House, Stapleton where Mohan Roy stayed on his visit to Bristol
Contrary to the dedication on the plaque, the Raja was born in May 1772

Next year the ceremony at Arnos Vale will be on 24th September.

https://arnosvale.org.uk/remembering-the-raja

Arnos Vale Cemetery  closed and fell into neglect in the 1980s. With no room for new burials, the income of the private for-profit company which owned it disappeared. With fewer descendants left to care for graves the cemetery  become overgrown and vandalised. In 1987 the company  proposed to clear away the graves and use the land for commercial development. The Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery led a successful campaign to save it, and in 2003 Bristol City Council made a compulsory purchase order. Today volunteers have cleared away brambles and overgrown paths, restored monuments, and cleaned graves. They host tours, talks, film, theatrical and musical productions. And they have a great café where in fine weather you can sit outside with the forty-five green acres of the new Eden stretching before you. If you find yourself in Bristol pay them a visit.

https://arnosvale.org.uk

Daniel Defoe

A year on from the first Covid lockdown I turned to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to compare notes. His plague year was very much like ours: the first signs in Holland and  rumours  regarding the possible origins in Italy or the Levant, mirrored our own experiences watching Italy and Wuhan. The gradual spread from St. Giles and the West End  to Cripplegate, Clerkenwell, and the City reflected our monitoring of Covid hotspots. The flight of the court and the well-heeled to their second homes was  familiar; likewise, the first deaths and the sudden desolation in the streets with shops closed, Inns of Court shut up, theatres, alehouses, and diners all dark. Attempts to control wandering beggars resembled our own government’s sudden concern to house the homeless. The sick were either sequestered and died apart from their families or whole households were shut up in their homes, as happened in our hospitals and care homes. When Defoe bemoaned the lack of enough “pest houses” he might have been speaking of our own shortage of Covid wards leading to the construction of the Nightingale hospitals. Quack medicines appeared,  just as hydroxychloroquine and the possibility of injecting bleach into our veins to wash out our lungs found favour in certain quarters in the twenty first century. Defoe recorded people moving to live on boats in the Thames or to camp in Epping Forest, and similarly at the height of Covid caravans and camper vans occupied green sites, sometimes received sympathetically by locals, at other times not. During the plague year the government forbade movement to second homes once people were sick, but some went against the rules; no need to labour the parallels. Daily and weekly recording of illness and death rates confirmed that then as now, the poor, living in overcrowded conditions  with inadequate ventilation and unable to  avoid the breath of others, sickened more than the wealthy. It became apparent that asymptomatic people could carry the plague. There were disruptions to trade and the closure of ports. As the plague intensified people rushed to stockpile provisions and there were shortages; they soaked their money in vinegar there being no contactless cards to replace cash. The poorest in the community found themselves out of work, unable to purchase food or pay for their lodgings. Charity, like our foodbanks, stepped in to supplement the parish relief which like our universal credit proved inadequate. Servants were redeployed as nurses, sextons, gravediggers. In Defoe’s London burials took place before sunrise and after sunset and neighbours and friends could not attend church funerals; when people died in the streets  their bodies were removed in deadcarts to mass graves. Similarly in our own times government regulations limited numbers of mourners requiring them to be socially distanced, and as morgues and mortuaries became overwhelmed in 2020 contract workers wearing hazmat suits dug mass graves on Hart Island off the Bronx in New York. When, at last, the death rate began to decline JPs issued certificates of health to permit travel anticipating our own vaccine passports. Then as people became careless the rate rose again. Plus ça change…

There were differences, not least the greater presence of religion in Defoe’s Britain: sects, fortune tellers, and astrologers flourished; Solomon Eagle stalked the streets, naked with a pan of burning charcoal on his head, calling on the populace to repent; though some clergy fled, others kept their churches open; and when the plague ended Defoe gave credit for the recovery to god. Conversely there was less respect for the medical profession and far from clapping for carers Defoe wrote of nurses finishing their patients off and stealing their goods. And while, notwithstanding some fear of interspecies transmission, pet ownership increased during lockdown, Defoe’s London witnessed the wholesale killing of cats and dogs.

Defoe was only five years old in 1665 and the vivid “eyewitness account” which he recorded originated with his uncle Henry Foe, supplemented by Defoe’s own meticulous research. A man of many talents – merchant, spy, novelist, poet, political pamphleteer, and activist – Defoe’s life was a rollercoaster of excitement, achievements, and disasters. In 1685 he participated in the Monmouth rebellion against James II but escaped retribution in the Bloody Assizes, and when William III came to power became a secret agent in the pay of the latter. His poem The True Born Englishman defended William against racial prejudice, reminding xenophobic readers that they were all descended from immigrants. William’s death and the succession of Queen Anne led to the persecution of nonconformists and Defoe’s arrest in 1703 for pamphleteering, political activity and producing satires directed against high church Tories. Prior to his removal to Newgate, he was placed in the pillory for three days but his poem Hymn to the Pillory putatively resulted in the pillory being garlanded, flowers rather than rubbish thrown at him, and his poem sold in the streets. With the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tories he was able to resume work for the Whigs. Over five hundred works have been attributed to Defoe: away from the world of politics, these include Robinson Crusoe,  Moll Flanders,  A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain and of course A Journal of the Plague Year. No stranger to the debtor’s prison during his life he died, as he had often lived, in debt.

Defoe was buried in the Non-Conformist Cemetery at Bunhill but the original stone which marked his grave was struck by lightning and the headstone broken in 1857. James Clarke, the editor of Christian World,  a children’s newspaper, encouraged his readers to donate 6d. each for a new memorial, setting up two rival subscription lists, one for girls and one for boys. An obelisk, raised in 1870 bore the inscription:

THIS MONUMENT IS THE RESULT OF AN APPEAL

IN THE CHRISTIAN WORLD NEWSPAPER

TO THE BOYS AND GIRLS OF ENGLAND FOR FUNDS

 TO PLACE A SUITABLE MEMORIAL UPON THE GRAVE

OF

DANIEL DE-FOE

IT REPRESENTS THE UNITED CONTRIBUTIONS

OF SEVENTEEN HUNDRED PERSONS.

Defoe’s obelisk at Bunhill Fields
Inscription on Defoe’s obelisk

Samuel Horner, a stonemason from Bournemouth, erected the obelisk and took the original stone home with him, selling it as part of a general load from his yard. It became  part of the paving of the kitchen floor at Bishopstoke Manor Farm until the farm manager, Frederick Stiles King, moving to a new house at 56 Portswood Road in 1883, took the stone with him, where it remained in his front garden for over 60 years. Charles Davey acquired it in 1945 and thirteen years later gave it to Stoke Newington library. There it lived in a glass case in the entrance lobby, an appropriate final resting place as Defoe had lived in Stoke Newington from the age of fourteen while he attended the Dissenting Academy  under Charles Morton at Newington Green. But when I arrived at the library in search of the stone there was no sign of it. Happily, the librarian knew of its whereabouts: having been vandalised several times it had been moved to more secure premises in the delightful local history museum  in Hackney where, beside a bust of Defoe and backed by a wall display of the famous pillory, it keeps company with other Hackney  radicals, revolutionaries, and immigrants, not to mention a Saxon longboat  and a complete reconstruction of a pie and mash shop.

Defoe’s original gravestone in Hackney museum

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén