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

Category: Sticky Endings

An Unfortunate Encounter with The Rocket

Trains have always been my preferred mode of transport. On the roads, whether passenger or driver, I anticipate disaster: from the BMW hovering impatiently too close to my rear bumper; from the aggressive driver overtaking on a double white line with hand on horn; from my own nervous lane changing; from poor visibility, black ice or imagined faulty brakes. On boats a different problem assails me: a poor sailor, I have been immoderately ill on the short passage halfway across the Bristol Channel from Ilfracombe to Lundy Island. I have no fear of flying, but quail at the dispiriting queues at passport control and the sweaty removing of shoes and belts at security, followed by  the long hours  in airless airport lounges, surrounded by fretful people and the depressing acres of lurid duty free where the scent of a hundred sickly perfumes clogs the air.

But trains offer only delight, from the aimless progress of old diesels ambling slowly cross country pulling in at stations where, in homage to Adlestrop, no one leaves and no one comes, to the sleek inter-city expresses pulling grandly out of London stations. My memories of trains are entirely happy.

In  childhood the smell and sound of steam trains filling the station  meant a day trip to North Wales. We settled into our compartment where the seats were upholstered like sofas, sepia photographs of seaside towns decorated the walls, and  sagging rope luggage racks hung  above our heads. I struggled to release the stiff leather strap which secured the carriage window and, when it fell open with a heavy thud,  hung out engulfed in a cloud of smoke, inhaling the scent of burning coal and steam, waiting for the sea to appear.

On eastern European trains, I always experience a special frisson of excitement, fantasising about being a spy in Cold War days, woken at borders by men in black leather coats with hard faces and hats pulled down over their eyes  demanding to see my papers, questioning my motives for travel,  and  removing me from the train  at gun point on a trumped-up excuse  of wanting the correct visa. At this point I let the fantasy fade.

And nothing can equal the romance of a sleeper. Over  supper in the dining car fellow travellers urgently impart tales of their lives as though anxious to purge themselves of memories before we reach our destination. Cocooned in my bunk on Amtrak, cradled by the gentle rocking of the train, I remember fighting sleep to gaze out at an unknown, black  Appalachian night, illuminated only by the occasional soft lights of an isolated home, and listening for the melancholy whistle of the train. I would have happily journeyed on to eternity.

William Huskisson was  less fortunate in his experience of trains. Statesman, financier, and MP, we remember him more as the world’s  first railway passenger fatality. As MP for Liverpool, and a keen advocate of the railways, he was present  in 1830 at the opening  ceremony of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first passenger service drawn by steam locomotive. He and  other dignitaries travelled on a train pulled by the Northumbrian and driven by George Stephenson. When the train stopped to take on water Huskisson was amongst those who ignored advice not to descend. He walked along to the Duke of Wellington’s carriage and stood talking to the Prime Minister. A train pulled by the Rocket, George Stephenson’s locomotive, approached on a parallel  track. While others resumed their seats, hastened across the track to safety, or stood  still close to the stationery coaches as the other train passed, Huskisson dithered. Twice he began to cross the track but scuttled back. Then he  tried  to climb into Wellington’s carriage, but the heavy door swung outwards, he fell onto the track and the oncoming locomotive mangled his leg.

With the injured man on a makeshift stretcher, Stephenson raced the Northumberland,  flat out at 40mph, breaking the world speed record, to Eccles. There a surgeon attended Huskisson, but the injury proved fatal, and he died later that night.

But if the wide reporting of this incident alerted the public to the dangers of the railways, ironically it also fostered awareness of their potential. The publicity afforded by the dramatic death, the breaking of the speed record, and Huskisson’s magnificent funeral, when 69,000 people lined the route, raised the profile of rail travel, drew attention to the new high speed railway line, and proved instrumental in inaugurating the Age of Railway Mania.

Huskisson  was  buried in St. James Cemetery in Liverpool. One of the most romantic of cemeteries, it lies below the Anglican Cathedral but long predates the latter having opened in 1829, just in time for Huskisson. This gothic enclave lies in a former stone quarry with the cathedral towering above it on a rock outcrop. Steep, winding, stone paths designed for horse drawn funeral carriages and enclosed by high stone walls lined with old gravestones lead through a dark tunnel into the graveyard. My last visit was on a sunny evening in mid-summer, but for the full spine-tingling, preternatural experience you should descend into this phantasmagorical world on a late afternoon in November as the light is dying.

The red sandstone cathedral rears above the cemetery on St. James Mount
Victorian graves in the old quarry

Huskisson’s grave lies at the centre of the former quarry marked by a circular mausoleum modelled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.

Huskisson’s grave at the centre of the old quarry
Huskisson’s grave is modelled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates
Huskisson’s grave from above

Small consolation perhaps for Huskisson but he does have a record number of memorials, mostly commissioned by his devoted widow Emily. There is a plaque in Eartham church near his home, a  statue in Chichester Cathedral where he is resplendent in toga, and three identical statues of him sporting the robes of a Roman Senator in Pimlico Gardens at Millbank, in Duke Street, Liverpool, and in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Beside the track at Parkside outside Newton-le -Willows where the accident occurred a marble memorial tablet is a replica of the vandalised original now in the National Railway Museum in York and you can find another replica on Newton-le-Willows station. But his greatest memorial is surely his inadvertent contribution to the success of the railways.

Have mind of Huskisson when next you travel by train.

Three Ladies Who Did Not Go Gentle

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death” are two of my favourite poems about death.

 “Do not go gentle into that good night,

  Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 thundered Dylan Thomas.

 A more light-hearted Roger  McGough pleaded,   

“when I’m 104

& banned from the Cavern

may my mistress

catching me in bed with her daughter

& fearing her son

cut me up into little pieces

& throw away every piece but one”

 Alas,  despite extensive trawling of graveyards, I  have never uncovered such a beguiling epitaph. Yet, a select few  have eluded what McGough stigmatised as a “clean & inbetween the sheets” death. Let me introduce you to three eighteenth century ladies whose colourful demise ensured that they did not “go gentle.”

Hannah Twynnoy was allegedly the first person killed by a tiger in England. Her story reads like the inspiration for one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. In 1703 the animals from a  travelling menagerie were housed in the rear yard of the White Lion Inn at Malmesbury. Hannah, a servant there,  ignored repeated warnings not to tease the animals and persistently taunted the tiger. Tiring of this treatment, the latter  escaped his cage and mauled her to death. The epitaph on a stone in Malmesbury Abbey Churchyard records her fate:

In bloom of Life

She’s snatched from hence,

She had not room

To make defence;

For Tyger fierce

Took Life away.

And here she lies

In a bed of Clay,

Until the Resurrection Day.

Hannah Twynnoy, savaged by a tiger

 As a tribute to Hannah in 2003, on the 300th anniversary of her death,  Malmesbury girls named Hannah under the age of eleven each laid a single flower on her grave. My  own sympathies lie wholly with the tiger.

In Bunhill Fields  Dame Mary Page draws  more attention than the luminaries, Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, with whom she shares a resting place. In 1728 she sought medical advice for a swelling of the abdomen. Her physician diagnosed a form of dropsy. The inscription which was  carved upon her tomb chest at her own request describes the excruciating treatment she received:

  IN 67 MONTHS SHE WAS TAP’D 66 TIMES,

  HAD TAKEN AWAY 240 GALLONS OF WATER

  WITHOUT EVER REPINING HER CASE

  OR EVER FEARING THE OPERATION.

Dame Mary Page

Unfortunately, the treatment was clearly not successful. Current medical opinion favours the suggestion that the poor lady had Meigs’ syndrome, a form of ovarian cancer.

F J Baigent and J E   Millard in  “A History of the Ancient Town and Manor of Basingstoke”  tell the story of Alice Blunden,  “a fat gross woman (who) had accustomed herself many times to drinking brandy.” In 1764 she  imbibed a large quantity of poppy water, a herbal tea, which can function as a narcotic inducing a coma. She fell into a deep sleep from which she could not be wakened, and an apothecary pronounced her dead. Her relations, considering that “the season of the year being hot and the corpse fat, it would be impossible to keep her,” buried her without delay in the Holy Ghost Cemetery. A few days later boys playing nearby heard “groans and dismal shriekings”  and a voice crying “Take me out of my grave.” When the coffin was opened  “ the corpse puffed up as it had been a bladder and the joiner had made the coffin so short that they were fair to press upon her and keep her down with a stick while they nailed her up.” The body bore signs of self-inflicted injuries as Alice had sought to escape. Since there was now no sign of life,  they returned Alice to her grave until the coroner could be summoned next day. Disinterred for the second time she had “torn off  a great part of her winding sheet,  scratched herself  first in several places, and beaten her mouth so long that it was  all in gore blood.” This time the coroner pronounced her definitely dead, and Parliament fined the town for its negligence. Alice appears in a bronze panel decorating the Triumphal Gateway, erected in 1991 at the Top of the Town leading into the old town of Basingstoke,  where she hammers for all eternity on her coffin lid in a moonlit churchyard.

Mrs. Blunden hammers on her coffin lid for all eternity

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