Grave Stories

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

A Corner of Some Foreign Field: (1) Scipio Africanus

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s a corner of some foreign field

That is for ever England.

Rupert Brooke’s sonnet, written just as the First World War was about to begin, is as much a love poem to England as a war poem: “her flowers to love, her ways to roam…washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.” It is a romanticised, idyllic England, and its allure is so strong that the foreign land in which the protagonist is buried will become England. 

A few months after writing the poem, on a troopship bound for Gallipoli, Rupert Brooke died of blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros.

I have not visited his grave (yet) but I know many graves which form small enclaves in England’s foreign fields.

Scipio Africanus (1702-1720) was an enslaved boy from West Africa named by his “owner”, the Seventh Earl of Suffolk, after the Roman General who conquered Carthage in the Second Punic War. Suffolk  lived at the Great House at Blaise in Bristol and the boy, who died at the age of eighteen, is buried in St. Mary’s churchyard in the suburb of Henbury.

The two stones which mark his grave stand out from their subdued grey neighbours having first been painted in the twentieth century. The brighter colours to which they were later treated in 2006 proved controversial,  but I am captivated by the  black cherubs, startlingly pink and blue flowers, white skulls, and gold lettering.

The Grave of Scipio Africanus, St. Mary’s, Henbury, Bristol

I am more disturbed by the description of the young man as a “negro” on the headstone,

The Headstone

and the patronising wording on the footstone  referring to his birth as “a Pagan and a Slave.”  I choke on the condescension and bigotry encapsulated in the lines:

What tho’ my hue was dark my Saviors sight

Shall change this darkness into radiant light

and  fulminate against the arrogance and conceit inherent in the suggestion that it is by the Duke’s good recommendation that the former slave will enter heaven:

Such grace to me my Lord on earth has given

To recommend me to my Lord in heaven.

The Footstone

Despite the distasteful inscription however I am not alone in being charmed by this burst of colour in the churchyard, for the grave is popular receiving many visitors  who frequently leave flowers. The headstone was vandalised  in June 2020 apparently in retaliation for the damage caused to the statue of Edward Colston in central Bristol. During a Black Lives Matter protest the statue of Colston, merchant, slave trader, and philanthropist, had been toppled, defaced, and thrown into Bristol harbour. Following a public survey, the graffitied Colston statue is now on display in the M Shed museum in Bristol, meanwhile a funding campaign raised over £6,000 for the repair and restoration  of the gravestone.

Scipio Africanus rests again in his foreign field, an exuberant little plot that is forever Africa.

An exuberant little plot that is forever Africa
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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.

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Another Grave which makes me Smile: Norman Thelwell

Norman Thelwell (1923-2004) produced talented landscapes in watercolours and oils. He was better known however for his prolific output of cartoons; some poked gentle fun at human foibles, but it was the Thelwell Pony which brought him lasting celebrity and gave pleasure to generations of children and adults. The pony cartoons were born in the 1950s when, in a field viewed from his studio, Thelwell observed two fat, hairy, bad tempered ponies called Thunder and Lightning. In his autobiography he wrote:

They were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves. They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs, and velvet safety helmets. Thunder and Lightning would pointedly ignore them, but as the children got near, the ponies would swing round and give a few lightning kicks which the children would sidestep calmly. They had the head collars on those animals before they knew what was happening. I was astonished at how meekly they were led away, but they were plotting vengeance – you could tell by their eyes.

There followed a lifetime association with the trademark plump, stubborn ponies and their equally plump, determined riders. The comic strip  Penelope and Kipper featured in the Sunday Express, and the collections of cartoons  came out on a regular basis, delighting not just Pony Club Members but  a whole spectrum of children and adults.

On the hundredth anniversary  of his birth this year two exhibitions celebrate the work of Thelwell: one at Mottisfont, a National Trust property near his home in Hampshire, the other at the Cartoon Museum in London. The latter features his work alongside that of other cartoonists and environmentalists in an event in support of climate recovery and carbon neutrality. Entitled Norman Thelwell Saves the Planet, it pays tribute to the prescient  concerns raised in  his work The Effluent Society (1971), a humorous but heartfelt plea to take better care of the natural world.

In lieu of commonplace angels  sounding the last trump, Thelwell’s gravestone in St. Andrew’s churchyard at Timsbury, Hampshire features  two resolute little girls with herald trumpets blasting the peace of the graveyard undaunted at being bounced out of their saddles by their recalcitrant ponies.

Thelwell’s gravestone
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A Grave which makes me Smile: Michael Bond

The graves of those taken too young are always painful. Heart-breaking too are those recalling lives which have been difficult, troubled, unhappy. But for those who have led a long life, loved, and been loved, whose passage through the world has known shared happiness, the sadness is mitigated, and when their stones speak with a gentle humour they make me smile.

Michael Bond (1926-2018) first introduced us to A Bear Called Paddington in 1958. His inspiration was a small bear whom he saw seated alone on the shelf of a London department store one Christmas Eve. Feeling sorry for the forlorn bear he bought him and gave him to his wife as a Christmas present. They named the bear Paddington after the nearby railway station and Bond began drafting a story about him.

Paddington’s Aunt Lucy had sent him to London from “darkest Peru” when she moved to the Home for Retired Bears. He had arrived  as a stowaway and  the Brown family found him sitting disconsolately on his suitcase near the lost property office at Paddington Station. Around his neck he wore a luggage label written by his aunt, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” In his suitcase was the remains of a jar of marmalade which had sustained him during his voyage.

Bond explained that his inspiration came from his war time memories of refugee and evacuee  children at London stations wearing similar labels bearing their names and addresses and clutching small suitcases containing their few possessions. Paddington too was a refugee and Bond received many poignant letters from child immigrants telling him about their new life in England.

Aunt Lucy had taught Paddington perfect English, impeccable manners, and a clear-eyed understanding of the difference between right and wrong. He was not afraid to, politely, challenge authority  when he considered that authority was in error, nor to express his disapproval of wrongdoing with a “hard stare.” Paddington was kind, loving, charming and upright. Filled with  enthusiasm and optimism, he always tried to do the right thing notwithstanding a tendency to be disaster prone.

The Browns, whom Bond modelled on his own happy childhood family, adopted Paddington, and as his story unfolds he writes letters and postcards to Aunt Lucy about his life in London.

Bond continued to write about Paddington for many years. The books were translated into forty languages and sold thirty-five million copies around the world bringing delight to children and adults alike.

When Bond and his wife separated they decided on joint custody of the bear, and he described how they would phone each other up and say, “He feels like coming to you now.”

In 2000 a bronze statue of Paddington was erected on Platform One at the station. Parents take photographs of their children, often holding one of Paddington’s favourite marmalade sandwiches, standing beside the bear; unaccompanied adults pat him surreptiously as they pass.When Michael Bond died in 2017 the statue almost disappeared beneath the welter of flowers, cards, notes written on luggage labels, and jars of marmalade.

Bond is buried in Paddington Old Cemetery beneath a stone bearing the appropriate legend,

Please look after this bear. Thank you.

for Paddington Bear and his creator were said to be very much alike.

Michael Bond’s grave at Paddington Old Cemetery, seldom seen without some Paddington memorabilia, often left by children
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An Exhibition, a Curse, Two Graves, and a New Museum

In  the early Spring of 1972, I queued for five chilly hours to see the Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum. Over nine months 1.6 million people  visited the exhibition, and it remains the most popular in the history of the museum. It was magical. The now famous words of Howard Carter when he first peered into the tomb welcomed us:

…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Wonderful things indeed: a gold figure of Tutankhamun, the golden shrine, scarab necklaces and bracelets, alabaster vessels and caskets, and the mask of solid gold, beaten and burnished, which had covered the head and shoulders of the Pharoah. I had stepped out of the grey London streets and into  all the colour and spectacle of Ancient Egypt.

The catalogue, Treasures of Tutankhamun, 1972

Yet whilst I was entranced by these riches I could not shake off the uneasy knowledge that Howard Carter and his financial backer, Lord Carnarvon, were essentially grave robbing, albeit with official sanction. No surprise then that when Carnarvon died in April 1923, only months after the discovery of the tomb, speculation began about “the curse of Tutankhamun.” The apocryphal story of the warning  found on the wall of the burial chamber,  “Death will come swiftly to those who disturb the tomb of the King,” passed into popular culture.

Carnarvon, of course,  died not from a curse but from an infected mosquito bite. Nonetheless his death and that of others with even the most tenuous connections to the excavation were claimed as evidence of the malediction. The list included: George Jay Gould who had visited the tomb and died of pneumonia  a few months later;  Carnarvon’s  brother, Aubrey Herbert, who, five months after Carnarvon’s own death, died from sepsis following dental surgery; Aaron Ember, Egyptologist, and friend of Carnarvon who died when his house burnt down;  and Archibald Reid who died soon after  x-raying the contents of the tomb.

But Howard Carter himself, openly sceptical of the curse, lived on until 1932 when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Despite the drama and glamour of his discovery his fame had dissipated  and only nine people attended his funeral. Since that exhibition back in 1972 however his star has risen again and today his own grave in Putney Vale Cemetery in London is carefully tended. The stone bears an inscription  taken from the alabaster lotus chalice found in Tutankhamun’s tomb:

May your spirit live, may you spend

millions of years, you who love Thebes,

sitting with your face to the north wind,

your eyes beholding happiness.

Grave of Howard Carter, Putney Vale Cemetery, London
The alabaster lotus chalice from which the inscription on Carter’s grave is taken

And at the foot of the grave an extract from the prayer of the goddess Nut :

O night spread thy wings over me

as the imperishable stars.

Grave of Howard Carter, Putney Vale Cemetery, London

Carnarvon’s grave lies within the fortifications of Beacon Hill Camp overlooking his family seat at Highclere in Hampshire. It is surrounded by an ugly iron fence with a padlocked gate.His epitaph






is less than modest given his lack of enthusiasm for the dig, which he had only agreed to finance for one more season in response to an impassioned plea from Carter, and that he only arrived from England after Carter had discovered the entrance to the tomb.

Grave of Lord Carnarvon, Beacon Hill Camp, Hampshire

More than twenty years after I saw the exhibition in the British Museum, I viewed those treasures again, this time in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. There were no queues, only fragile vitrines came between me and the precious objects, and for most of the time I had the rooms to myself with just an occasional group passing swiftly through like a murmuration of starlings. But while the artefacts were as wondrous as ever, and the opportunity to view them almost in solitude an unexpected privilege, the old museum, built in Tahrir Square in 1901, was looking  dusty and tired, unworthy of the glorious heritage which it sheltered.

Then in 2003, following an international architectural competition, the Irish practice Heneghan Peng won the contract to design a new museum to be built on the Giza Plateau next to the pyramids. Work on the site halted during the conflict which followed the Arab Spring of 2011 and during this time rioters broke into the old museum, the destruction and damage including two statues of Tutankhamun. And in events far worse than any imagined curse the museum was reportedly used as a torture site.

But work resumed on the new Grand Egyptian Museum in 2014, and it is due to open later this year. For the first time Tutankhamun’s entire treasure collection will be on display – and in the exact order in which Howard Carter found the objects in the tomb. More than five million people are expected to visit  every year, and for all my reservations about grave robbing I will be among them.

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