Coming up Roses: John Alfred Groom, the London Flower-Girls and a Highgate Goodbye (Long Read)

IMG_8030.JPG

The Grave of John Alfred Groom in Highgate Cemetery (Image © A Grave Announcement).

Whilst wandering the main footpath in Highgate East, I almost passed this monument without comment, preoccupied with the vista of the armies of grave markers saluting the woods. It was an unassuming example of the popular scroll headstone, somewhat discoloured, its text fading like an ageing memory. A pockmarked wreath rested atop its surface, contemplating the disappearing tendrils of ivy interspersed with the text. I moved closer and noted the epitaphic biography lining the stone:

IN 
IN EVER ABIDING MEMORY
-OF-
JOHN ALFRED GROOM
DIED 27TH DECEMBER 1919
FOUNDER OF
THE CRIPPLEAGE,
CLERKENWELL, LONDON
AND THE ORPHANAGE
CLACTON-ON-SEA
A SERVANT OF GOD
AND A FRIEND OF THE POOR,
THE ORPHANED AND THE AFFLICTED.

The words moved me to action. I was determined to look into his life. The terminology both appalled and intrigued – what was this so-called Crippleage?’ What kind of work was done there? The phrase seemed to conjure up a series of Dickensian horrors in the form of a crude workfare narrative, the grimness of a quid pro quo penury. At the same time, the notation of ‘the poor, the orphaned and the afflicted’ felt like a clarion call to altruistic acts. I felt as if I had to explore, as others have done, the figure of John Alfred Groom, metaphorically cleansing the dirt and grime from his stone, restoring his memory to an unblemished condition, unearthing, uncovering and, ultimately, revivifying. In doing so, I could perhaps in turn learn a little more about the vulnerable individuals he made it his mission to assist.

John Alfred Groom was born at 6 North Street, Clerkenwell, London on the 15th of August, 1845. He was the third son of Sarah Maria Groom and her husband George, a copperplate printer. Sarah Wigton had married the latter on the 21st of September, 1840 in St. Pancras, an area of London adjacent to where the family would settle. At first, Sarah and George lodged at Brunswick Place in a house with seven other individuals: two families, the Welfords and the Fieldings, in addition to fifteen-year-old labourer John Trott. Conditions must have been rather overcrowded, and it is no surprise to discover the Grooms residing elsewhere by 1851, now occupying 6 Field Terrace following their move from John’s birthplace.

After leaving school, John started work aged fifteen as an errand boy (termed ‘lad’ on the census) for the Inland Revenue. The appointment was not to last for long. He soon undertook an apprenticeship in engine-turning, during which training he became highly skilled in the art of silver-engraving. Indeed, at the age of 21, he set up his own business in the latter, running proceedings from a glass-fronted shed in the garden of the family home.

Engine Turner Advert Sheffield Daily Telegraph 21.12.1865.png

An example of a ‘situations vacant’ advert for engine turners, printed in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on the 21st of December, 1865. © British Newspaper Archive

Amidst all this activity, tragedy struck. In 1866, George passed away at the age of 46, leaving Sarah to raise six children alone. She must have been an indefatigable woman. The family took solace from the loss in their beloved church, where John had been a Sunday school teacher since the age of 16. John himself, as the eldest child remaining at home, was also forced to adopt more of a parental role, assisting his mother in tending to his siblings. The experience likely served him in good stead for his later pastoral efforts helping the vulnerable, informing his need to minister to those whom society had all but forgotten. Indeed, he was already developing a social conscience. In company with a friend who had been appointed a City of London Commissioner, John spent a considerable amount of time in the so-called slums, witnessing at first hand the abject poverty and despair written on the faces of the inhabitants. Their quiet and determined suffering struck an insistent chord within him. John felt a growing determination to help.

Bluegate Fields - Dore

‘Bluegate Fields,’ a slum area in the east end of London, illustrated by Gustave Doré in 1872.

Not long after his business had been established, John was asked to lead a mission hall in the neighbourhood as voluntary superintendent. Whilst his brothers kept his affairs in order, he was able to devote himself to philanthropic endeavour, expending increasing amounts of time and energy upon his new charges. At the same time, travelling much through Farringdon Market had brought him into contact with the situation of the blind and disabled girls who thronged the nearby streets, hawking flowers and watercress to passers-by. These individuals made a precarious living, seasonal and often beset by the vagaries of the weather, sleeping outdoors and, on market-days, ready for action by four o’clock in the morning. The London City Press on the 19th of August, 1871, emphatically details their lot, terming such vendors ‘a forlorn, broken-down set, with scarcely a ray of hope in this world, and next to none in the other.’ They have, in the newspaper’s words, ‘fallen down the ladder of life.’ Their plight was such that John was galvanised into action.

London Flower-Sellers

London Life. Flower-Sellers. © New York Public Library

In 1866, having hired a local meeting hall on Harp Alley near Covent Garden, John founded that which is inscribed upon his grave: ‘John Groom’s Crippleage,’ also known as the ‘Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission.’ Here, the flower-sellers were able to obtain a cup of fortifying hot cocoa in the mornings and, for a small contribution, a warm meal twice-weekly. The organisation became a centre, a hub for vulnerable individuals whose lives were characterised by insecurity, desperately trying to make ends meet. The girls were encouraged to attend to their ablutions, practising a good level of personal hygiene and self-care. Simultaneously, John, who termed himself a ‘voluntary evangelist,’ would read them Bible stories, hoping to inculcate within them a moral framework to guide their future activities, whilst also urging participants to attend one of three Sunday schools established in the area. Whilst this sounds to our ears like rather too many strings attached, it was considered progressive at the time, a small beacon of hope for those condemned to wander the streets in search of a living.

John’s efforts did not go unrecognised. The Earl of Shaftesbury publicly announced his support of the venture, becoming the organisation’s president, a development which was said to have ‘contributed greatly to its welfare’ by the Islington Gazette (11th July, 1873). He also brought in much-needed funds, taking advantage of his many contacts. Indeed, Shaftesbury had noticed John, a distinctive figure commonly found berobed in a top hat, whilst himself visiting the more impoverished sectors of the city as part of his political work seeking reforms for the working poor. The two became fast friends, often to be seen together, the aristocrat and the preacher, an unlikely duo.

Shortly after the project’s inception, wedding bells rang out. Sarah Farmington, the daughter of a coachman, married John on the 5th of March, 1868. Groom was now a groom! The couple went on to have four children, three sons and a daughter, as noted below in this copy of the 1881 census, moving into 8 Sekforde Street in Clerkenwell,  a  terraced house to which a blue plaque commemorating John’s legacy is now affixed. Sarah was an invaluable support to her husband, assisting with his enterprise and proving herself to be an industrious worker. Her contribution to the work of the mission should not be underestimated – she threw herself into proceedings with a relentless energy.

1881 census John Alfred Groom

1881 census depicting John Alfred and Sarah Groom with their children © Findmypast

Now a married man, John persevered with his project, devoting himself to supporting his clients. Professionally, however, he was dissatisfied. Despite operating a centre available for those needing assistance, he soon found that his wish to provide blind and disabled girls with the means to become self-sufficient remained unfulfilled. Whilst a number of attendees were able to secure a position in domestic service, the majority continued to eke out a meagre living on the streets. John wanted to ensure that his charges became more independent and, like all good stories, the solution to the conundrum lay with a woman now almost written out of this particular tale – the Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Angela was extraordinarily wealthy. In 1837, she was suddenly catapulted into the limelight as one of the richest people in the country, having inherited her grandfather’s estate, a fortune worth in the region of £1.8 million, equivalent to a staggering £108,750,000 in 2019. Angela chose to use this money for charitable purposes, establishing scholarships, making endowments and financing philanthropic ventures. She was particularly interested in the plight of the poor and, as a result, had become aware of the hardship and adversity facing the disabled London flower-sellers. In 1879, she had founded a ‘Flower Girls’ Brigade’ designed for those between the ages of 13 and 15. This was supplemented with a factory in Clerkenwell, installed for the purpose of instruction in the art of artificial flower-making. Her primary focus was the security of the girls – she made sure that they received police protection and were protected from the dangers of exploitation. A charitable industry thus rose up, providing clients with the opportunity to teach themselves a skill, establishing a ready-made community into which those formerly condemned to the streets, both with and without disabilities, could enter and, it was to be hoped, flourish. 

At this point, John enters the picture. Angela, having become acquainted with the work of his ‘Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission’ and recognising his desire to furnish the clients of his organisation with a more sustainable means of support, prevailed upon John to devote himself to the enterprise of artificial flower manufacture. He agreed to her request, provided that the following condition be met: that Angela finance the hiring of a manager to oversee John’s engraving business. This arrangement  once made persisted until Angela’s marriage in 1881, an affair which scandalised Victorian society as the 67-year-old heiress wed 29-year-old American William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett. Having thus married an alien, she was forced to forfeit her inheritance, retaining precious little capital for her causes. This new paucity of funds compelled the so-called ‘Queen of the Poor ‘ to step back from her life’s work, focusing instead on her husband’s political career at Westminster.

Angela does not receive due credit for her involvement in the formation of John’s enterprise  – in many pieces researching the history of the flower-making girls, she is simply omitted, an irrelevance in an otherwise grand tale of patriarchal redemption. Whilst reflecting upon the story of John Alfred Groom, therefore, it is imperative that we remember Angela’s key role in the decision to diversify John’s association, and that, without her persuasive efforts, he may well not have embarked upon this industry. In writing this piece, then, I also hope to honour Angela’s memory and give credit where credit is very much due.

Following John’s assent, Angela withdrew from the quotidian administration of her Flower Girls’ Brigade. This, in turn, became the industrial sector of the business, the profits of which paid John a salary. The Mission Hall became a de facto factory with all rushing to offer assistance. Indeed, it was a true family affair – John’s brothers supplied the machines. A cousin, Jane Holiday, is even listed on the 1891 census as ‘Artificial Florist Forewoman,’ a memorable title.

1891 Jane Holiday Census.png

1891 census detailing the role of John’s cousin Jane: Artificial Florist Forewoman. © Findmypast

In order to offset the seasonal precarity of the occupation, a programme was devised whereby, during the summer months, bouquets of genuine flowers were made up and offered for sale on the premises, and, during the winter time, artificial blooms were crafted, spots of colour to counteract the drabness and dinginess of the London winter chill. The latter flowers themselves were made from the fabric ‘sateen.’ From this material, fed into the machines, petals were cut to size. Once these had been obtained, the girls would colour the pieces, attaching them to a wire stem bedecked in green paper. This was a task requiring extraordinary skill: a deftness characterised by precision, care and speed. Many of the girls became highly adept at producing even the most intricate of flowers in an impressive trompe l’oeil. In 1888, the fruits of their labour were displayed at the ‘Women’s Art Exhibition’ held at the Royal Concert Hall for the purposes of demonstrating ‘what women can do.’ The Hastings and St. Leonard’s Observer on the 1st of December details the magnificent results of the artificial flower-makers, asserting that their presentation was ‘one of the most effective exhibits in the whole room.’ The newspaper contended that ‘a nearer approach to reality could not be conceived; one feels almost inclined to seize a bouquet and expect to scent a pleasing aroma from them.’ This was the affirmation that the organisation needed – John and his team renewed their efforts, driven by a now reinforced sense of purpose.

In 1894, the expanding company moved to larger premises at Woodbridge Chapel, in the environs of Sekforde Street. The sheer scale of the enterprise meant that the volume was now such that the product could be sold wholesale to businesses and private residences. John remained an ardent campaigner on behalf of the association, generating an influx of donations which enabled the charity to further refine its provision. Indeed, such monies enabled the lease of a number of dwellings near the factory where clients could be housed, overseen by a series of newly-employed ‘house-mothers.’ Such monetary gifts were made to stretch even further – in 1890, John opened a ‘Flower Village Orphanage’ at Clacton-on-Sea.

This institution doubled as both a home for those children whose parents had died or subjected them to abandonment, and a holiday resort not only for the London flower-makers, but also, at certain times of the year, disabled children from the city. In a letter to the Kent & Sussex Courier on the 12th of May, 1899, John urges readers to donate to the retreat’s summer programme, designed as a period of respite for those ‘sightless and helpless little ones’ who found themselves part of the ‘vast army of slum children sent away every year to the various holiday-homes.’ The Groom retreat, he claims in his missive, is specially fitted out for such children, and brings a ‘ray of sunshine’ into their ‘dreary lives,’ the chance to leave behind the smog of the city for the untamed azure of the sea. Ten shilling contributions are sought, a sum sizeable enough to fund a fortnight’s stay for one of these unfortunate souls. The offering was a roaring success. Not long afterwards, five other such homes were opened, all of which were, appropriately, named in honour of a flower, housing around one hundred disabled girls between the ages of two and twelve. The children were raised to go on to things which many thought impossible for the ‘afflicted’ – an education, employment in service, and, of course, London flower-making. Even after they had departed, John urged his former charges to keep in touch, offering them ongoing ‘counsel and advice’ (Heywood Advertiser, 29th of March, 1912).

John Groom - 1899 Sussex Courier May Donation Letter.png

John Alfred Groom’s letter to the editor seeking donations, published in the Kent & Sussex Times on the 12th of May, 1899. © British Newspaper Archive

Amidst such noble exertions, the flower-girls continued to make an impression, going from strength to strength at the site of the new factory. In addition to their commercial undertakings, they took part in many exhibitions, advertising the product to new audiences, demonstrating their dexterity and serving as a living example of Groom’s philanthropic designs. In 1905, for instance, an exhibition of artificial flowers crafted by those from ‘Mr J. A. Groom’s Industrial Training Homes for Crippled and Afflicted Girls’ took place in Oxford Town Hall. The blooms were the subject of lofty praise in the Oxford Times on the 27th of May of that year, being ‘an exceedingly close copy of Nature’ and remarkably versatile, suitable for ‘conservatories, dining-table and drawing-room decorations, as buttonholes, and for evening dresses.’ The girls were able to prove, to a contemporary society often morally selective in its treatment of the needy, that to have a disability was not to be without ability, and that remarkable hardship could be overcome. It was claimed that the enterprise offered a chance to those for whom life had a ‘blank outlook’ and was scarcely ‘worth living,’ teaching ‘poor helpless girls how to help themselves.’

At any one time, there were around 150 disabled workers engaged in John’s flower-making industry, drawn from across the United Kingdom, instructed in the art and given the tools to make a living, earning around fifteen shillings a week. Queen Victoria herself was said to have taken a ‘loving, keen interest in their work,’ and to have sent intermittent funds to the cause. Queen Alexandra and the Princess of Wales also maintained this royal focus, often requesting samples for review. Clearly, then, the disabled girls and their situation made a resounding impact throughout society, providing the wealthy and the elite with an easy outlet, albeit rather paternalistic, to contribute to the alleviation of the sufferings of poor unfortunates and to assuage their own guilt. It is important that we do not forget, however, that for every John Alfred Groom and for every flower-girl, there were those without such opportunity, those who withered like a dying bloom on the streets, those cast out from their families, objects to be pitied, feared, scorned, and, ultimately, spurned. Even amongst John’s operation, assistance came at a price – there were rules to be followed and regulations to be upheld. It was not a disinterested help that aided the disabled and the so-called ‘afflicted,’ but one informed by an entrenched model of the privilege ingrained within narratives of Christian salvation.

In 1906, business was booming, the reputation of John’s work ever-growing. Indeed, the flower-makers were honoured by being chosen to decorate the London Guildhall for the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the results of which received great praise. In that same year, however, a personal tragedy befell John – his wife, Sarah, passed away. She had been his great support, providing constant aid and advice. She had also brought up three sons and a daughter. Her loss must have been devastating. Yet John could not afford to waver. He threw himself into his work, taking solace in offering help to others. Two years later, he found happiness again, marrying Ada Wood, a hospital nurse, the daughter of a contractor. In 1911, the newly-weds were living at John’s accustomed 8 Sekforde Street, with all four of his children, a nephew, and two of his charges as boarders. The engine-turning company, established long ago by John prior to his philanthropic projects, continued to be run from the address, now by his sons, Alfred and Herbert. John was a memorable fellow, a character always to be found berobed in a top hat. Such headgear would only removed when in attendance at a football, swiftly exchanged for flat cap. He was an avid supporter of Chelsea Football Club and was frequently seen at home games. Nobody forgot John. He was a fixture in the neighbourhood, known to rich and poor alike.

1911 Groom Census

1911 census depicting the busy household of John and Ada Groom. © Findmypast

Queen Alexandra’s support, as noted above, continued to flourish. In 1912, she placed an order for thousands of hand-crafted roses which were to be sold on the inaugural ‘Queen Alexandra Rose Day,’ held on the 26th of June, the anniversary of her move to Britain. The event raised approximately £18,000 for charity (c. £1,061,000). Whilst in her native Denmark, the queen had witnessed the efforts of a priest selling such blooms to support those in need. She resolved to transport the idea overseas. Indeed, even today,  ‘Alexandra Rose Day’ is celebrated. This was far from the only royal order presented to the flower-makers. A previous request had seen the girls produce £30,000 flowers to be produced for a banquet in honour of the king and queen of Norway. The renown of ‘John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls’ Mission,’ was clearly such that its manufacturers’ skills were recognised both nationally and internationally. John’s early designs had finally come into bloom – this was a self-sustainable enterprise, providing food and shelter for those with disabilities, sponsoring those whom society had disregarded.

Alexandra Rose Day Image Lancashire Evening Post 1935 15th June.png

Alexandra Rose Day sellers assist the Preston Mayoress [sic] (Lancashire Evening Post, 15th of June, 1935). © British Newspaper Archive

It surprises many who look into the life and times of the flower-girls that their craft was responsible for the emergence of some of the first poppies as reverential symbols of lives lost in combat. In 1916, John’s association was approached by a group of women in Whitby who asked them to assemble a batch of poppies to be sold. An impromptu ‘Poppy Day’ was born, an occasion on which a donation would secure one a flower, the profits of which would, in turn, aid injured soldiers. The practice proved enormously popular and soon became an annual event adopted by the Royal British Legion. It is clear, therefore, that the industry for which the flower-girls laboured had a considerable impact on the socio-cultural fabric of the nation, involved in cementing several traditions in which we still partake today.

In 1918, however, tragedy struck as John passed away. His increasingly failing health had brought an end to his charitable work as superintendent and secretary of the mission in which he was a self-styled ‘baptist minister.’ Throughout the final year of his life, he occupied a room in the Clacton Orphanage, living amidst the realisation of his aspirations, witnessing the prospering of his charges. Shortly after Christmas, on the 27th of December, 1919, John passed away. He was interred on the east side of Highgate Cemetery. 

John Alfred Groom and Son

John Alfred Groom and his son Alfred. © National Portrait Gallery

Following his death, Alfred, John’s eldest son, took over management of the organisation, leaving the Groom’s engine-turning business to his younger brothers. The flower-selling industry continued to prosper under his leadership, expanding to such an extent that manufacture was transferred to a larger site at Edgeware. Here, a de facto village rose up, with houses constructed to accommodate the workers arranged in such a way so as to encircle the newly built factory. 300 disabled girls lived and worked in this place, processing an enormous volume of flowers every year. Indeed, in 1932, around 14 million of the so-called Alexandra Roses were produced on this site. 

Like all great empires, rise gave way to fall. The business of flower-making did not fare well in the first half of the twentieth century. The instability that had once driven John to offer help to those selling fresh blooms on the streets of London returned with a vengeance to afflict their artificial counterparts. As demand shrank, the organisation was forced to remodel itself, eventually even admitting boys in 1965. Whilst maintaining an interest in fostering independence amongst attendees, focus was now very much on the housing of the disabled alone. No longer were those admitted engaged in the labour of flower-making. Furthermore, with Victorian attitudes to disability disappearing in the rear-view mirror, more emphasis was placed upon accommodating those considered to be unlikely to obtain or keep gainful employment, a new state of affairs brought to bear by a growing reluctance to seek the moral edification and practical training of those deemed burdensome to society. In the aftermath of the two world wars and the improved awareness of the disabled generated by the return of so many wounded veterans, the grand old moral strictures of Christian programmes of salvation began to fall out of favour. Indeed, John’s former mission was renamed ‘John Groom’s Association for the Disabled,’ a new name for a new start.

In 1979, the organisation ceased its work with children. It was the end of an era, the culmination of over a century of furnished aid for those considered impoverished and needy. Activities regarding the housing of the disabled were expanded – ‘John Groom’s Housing Association’ became an official registered charity. Flats and complexes were constructed throughout the country. John Groom’s Court, for instance, occupies a site in Norwich and is still in operation for those with ‘physical and intellectual disabilities.’ A subsidiary, ‘Grooms Holidays,’ worked to arrange vacations for the disabled in the UK. Such independence was not to last for long. In 2007, two old friends met once again when the charities John Grooms and the Shaftesbury Society were merged, adopting a new Christian identity under the name of ‘Livability.’ The original aims of John’s association now live on as the inspiration for a range of community engagement projects and services for disabled people. The work continues.

Livability Logo

The logo of Livability, a charity created from the merger of John Groom’s mission and the Shaftesbury Society.

In telling this story, I have attempted to give life to John, Angela and the flower-making project. Finding the voices of the girls themselves, however, has proved to be much more difficult. It is therefore incumbent upon us that we do not allow the forces of an easy nostalgia to dictate remembrance of the services described here. Whilst John’s aims were undoubtedly admirable, a capitalistic model of services rendered propped up the foundations of this charitable entity. An emphatically patriarchal framework imposing aid through the paternal lens of the Christian mission, a status quo where physical redemption was dependent upon the surrender of your mortal soul to a clearly circumscribed moral schematic, was at the heart of the establishment.

Endemic societal attitudes to disability also meant that all was not rosy (pun intended). To our ears, the terminology adopted by John and his mission, reinforced by the echo chamber of his contemporaries, is starkly discriminatory. To read of the establishment of such an organisation as the ‘Crippleage’ is a confronting experience – violating and dehumanising. Former residents substantiate this entrenched prejudice, speaking of their status as constructed spectacles for the so-called able-bodied, their disabilities fetishised, performative mirrors used to confirm innate biases. Even the designation ‘flower-girl’ was one of tacit disparagement, conveying, as Huneault notes, a ‘belittling immaturity’ in accordance with the ‘infantilizing requirements of a patriarchal culture.’ We must always keep in mind that such philanthropic labour is visible to us through the distorted lens of those who were themselves responsible for the very charity itself.

We have come a long way from the days of ‘helping the helpless to help themselves.’ Yet we still have a long way to go. Now more than ever, disability rights must be protected. We must safeguard what has been hard-fought. We must keep fighting to construct a society where there is opportunity for all. Let’s keep on integrating, not segregating, until John’s mission is a thing only of the past.

💀 Thanks for Reading!

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Bibliography

The following general web resources proved very useful in the completion of this research:

The British Newspaper Archive

Findmypast 

The following websites provided valuable background information on John and his family, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts:

P. Higginbotham, ‘John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls’ Mission, Clerkenwell, London (Children’s Homes). http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/ClerkenwellGroom/ [accessed 10 June 2019].

K. Huneault, ‘Flower-Girls and Fictions: Selling on the Streets’, RACAR revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review 23, no.1/2 (1996), 52-70.

L. Oldershaw, ‘Clacton’s Historic Flower Girls and their Royal Connection’, in the Colchester Gazette. https://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/15463243.clactons-historic-flower-girls-and-their-royal-connection/ [accessed 29 June 2019].

L. Oldershaw, ‘When Barnado’s was the Crippleage and Flower Girls’ Mission and floral fundraisers put Clacton on the map in the 1900’s’, in the Colchester Gazette. https://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/15469022.when-barnados-was-the-crippleage-and-flower-girls-mission-and-floral-fundraisers-put-clacton-on-the-map-in-the-1900s/ [accessed 29 June 2019].

M. Pottle, Groom, John Alfred‘, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 10 June 2019].

J. Simkin, ‘Angela Burdett-Coutts,’ (Spartacus Educational). https://spartacus-educational.com/EDburdett.htm [accessed 2 July 2019].

‘Sekforde Street area’, in Survey of London: Volume 46, South and East Clerkenwell, ed. Philip Temple (London, 2008), pp. 72-85. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol46/pp72-85 [accessed 10 June 2019].

God’s Little Acre(s): Highgate Cemetery West – Part 1 (Long Read)

Far spread below doth London wear,
Its cloud by day, its fire by night–
Yet scarce with heavenly presence there
Shrined in the smoke or pallid light.
Incessant troops from that vast throng
Withdraw to silent colonies;
Where houses, lo, are fair and strong,
Though ruins, all that dwell in these.
Yet, ‘neath the universal sky,
Bright children here too run and sing,
Calm verdure waxes green and high,
And grave-side roses smell of Spring.

In Highgate Cemetery, William Allingham (1850)

IMG_7959

Highgate East (Image © A Grave Announcement)

Last night I dreamt I went to Highgate again: the creeping foliage of its lingering woods, the wealth of stones arrayed like a clamouring crowd, the quiet tittering of its avian population, its wildflowers dotted in a universe of stars. Seemingly labyrinthine paths meander through the arboreal canopy, a profusion of markers wind their way towards the horizon, throngs of personal stories gathered about the woods, quiet voices softly speaking both the death and victory of time. It is an affecting sort of place, the kind of site at which your heart beats with wonder at the very act of passing through. As the genealogical adage attests, we are always only passing through. In Highgate, this transience is written into our shared history, carved into the stones of those who have gone before, families occupying that very ground from the dawn of the Victorian era to the technological jungle of our own period. 

In early nineteenth century London, burying the dead was a dark and grotty business. As the population of the city swelled from around 1 million to 2.3. million souls, the growing urban sprawl, in addition to the associated trend for interment within the city limits, gave birth to overflowing graveyards riddled with disease and putrefaction. These unsanitary conditions were even said to contribute to the outbreak of illness in surrounding dwellings. Worse still, decaying matter was known to leak into the water supply. There were even reports of sewer rats desecrating bodies. All was disarray. Burial grounds were ransacked, cadavers taken away to be sold illegally for medical purposes. Corpses were routinely dismembered in order to increase space for further committals. Gravediggers commonly worked in conditions so cramped that recently interred bodies were violently disturbed. These were grisly and unregulated places. Horrifying scenes of putrefaction. Those who had passed on were clearly unable to rest in peace. Something had to be done to ameliorate the atrocity of the prevailing sepulchral practices.

bunhill-fields-cemetery-full-width.jpg.thumb.768.768.png.jpg

Cemetery at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, London, 1866 © Natural History Museum

In 1832, bowing to pressure from those seeking reform, an Act of Parliament was passed urging more burials outside London, seeking to promote the establishment of private cemeteries free from parish control. The construction of Père Lachaise in 1815 with its emphasis on a landscaped ‘garden’ layout, a space defined by artfully arranged plants and imposing architectural features, had a huge influence on the changing conceptualisation of the cemetery in this period, becoming something of a model for those following suit in the British capital. In the ensuing nine years after the above decree stipulated the incorporation of a General Cemetery Company ‘for the interment of the dead in the neighbourhood of the Metropolis,’ seven such sites were selected and developed, beginning with Kensal Green in north-west London. Dying was now reborn, interment made corporate property, as this General Cemetery Company inspired a number of other such enterprises, resulting in a wealth of new burial grounds over the next decade. These site were later gathered together beneath the informal nickname ‘The Magnificent Seven.’

IMG_7904

Part of the gatehouse at the entrance to the West Cemetery (Image © A Grave Announcement)

Highgate is a site of enormous proportions. Now divided into its western and eastern halves (see the forthcoming second part of this post), the former can only be entered via a guided tour (you can book online here). The imposing and turreted Gothic gatehouse through which one enters plays host to both an Anglican and Nonconformist chapel, whilst its arch proudly proclaims the ‘London Cemetery’ moniker of its founding company, formally established in 1836 in imitation of the aforementioned corporation at Kensal Green. The design apes that of a triumphal arch, as if heralding its own deathly boulevard, a via mortis, stygian thoroughfare penetrating the gloom. This is more apt than ever when one realises that, beneath the entryway, a tunnel was carved out to receive coffins for transportation via an hydraulic lift between the Anglican mortuary chapel and East cemetery expansion, a discreet passage for casket removal, slipping quietly beneath the carriage-laden and thronged street amidst services for the dead, a way to ensure that the body remained continuously within consecrated ground between ceremony and inhumation.

Once Upon a Midnight ‘Geary’

Stephen Geary (1797-1854) was appointed as architect for the original burial ground on the west where, in a fitting coordination, he was himself later interred. Geary had been a founder of the London Cemetery Company formed for the purpose of developing Highgate, and was thus a perfect candidate for bringing this sepulchral vision to life. To support his efforts, he employed James Bunstone Bunning as surveyor, later a City of London architect who designed who designed, inter alia, the City of London School, the City Prison and parts of Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge. In addition, David Ramsey, renowned for the beauty of his gardens, was brought on board as landscaper and nurseryman.

James_Bunning_architect

James Bunstone Bunning, Illustrated London News (October 28th, 1865)

Screenshot 2019-05-07 at 23.19.11

Morning Advertiser (18.05.1836)

The team was now in place – next, the site. Seventeen acres of land on the slopes of Highgate Hill, originally belonging to Ashurst House and its estate, was purchased for £3500 (c. £211,500). It took three years of careful planning and execution to bring the project to completion, with a methodical approach to formal planting and configuration of the grounds, all accompanied by the grand architectural models of Geary and Bunning. Such was the ambitious scale of the undertaking that the London Cemetery Company even developed their own brickworks to ensure timely delivery.

In September 1838, an announcement was made in the Morning Post and elsewhere in the press, informing the residents of the city that ‘the Highgate Cemetery is finished and ready for Consecration.’ Once the latter had taken place, the first occupants could lay down to rest in sacred earth.

Screenshot 2019-05-07 at 23.28.25.png

The area was consecrated on the 20th of May, 1839, by the Right Reverend Charles James Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London, who swiftly dedicated the ground to St. James.

Charles_James_Blomfield_by_Lawrence_(follower)

Charles James Blomfield by Thomas Lawrence (St Edmundsbury Museums)

Blomfield was a former classical scholar known for his fierce debating skills in the House of Lords. In previous years, he had presided over a scheme to accelerate the building of churches in the capital with, according to his fellow churchmen, ‘almost superhuman exertions.’ He brought this ecclesiastical drive with him to the Highgate ceremonial, and, as a man with interests in the ancient world, must have been impressed by the sheer  splendour and scale of Geary and Bunning’s architectural foundation.

The cemetery’s land was partitioned in accordance with denomination – the Church of England received fifteen acres and the Dissenters, two.

Highgate Cemetery Consecration.png

The Globe, 25.05.1839

The first burial took place six days later, on the 26th of May. Elizabeth Jackson, aged 36 and formerly of Little Windmill Street in Soho, had paid 3 guineas for the privilege of a Highgate interment. For a considerable period, however, Elizabeth’s grave stood mournfully bereft of neighbours – initial applicants to the cemetery were distributed throughout its acres, favouring lots away from the entrance and main paths proper.

Elizabeth Jackson - Highgate

The Grave of Elizabeth Jackson © Bill Nicholls

Slowly and steadily, however, from this first quiet entombment of Elizabeth, West Cemetery became grandeur itself, a site bedecked with saxeous funerary monuments, pomp-laden announcement of magnificent ceremony, ever in flux, proliferating and gasping under the weight of its own departed. It was the place to be and the place to be seen to be dead, a fashionable funereal locus where the well-heeled flocked in their droves, enviously admiring each other’s passage into the earth. Highgate was on the map.

From its very inception, the London Cemetery Company advertised widely, building momentum around the idea of a Highgate interment,  an insistent presence in the city’s newspapers. This early offering from The Morning Post in May 1839 presents a simple summary of the services available, advising interested parties to apply at the corporation’s offices in Moorgate-Street, at the ‘back of the Bank.’

Highgate Advertisement.png

Not only was Highgate presented as the latest and greatest burial site for your consideration, but it was also configured as somewhere you ought to visit for your own edification, a place to roam, ‘OPEN DAILY till Eight o’Clock P.M., free of charge.’ Bury your relatives and, while you’re there, take advantage of the grounds. Soak up the sense of place. Be at one with your Dearly Departed. According to the Stamford Mercury of the 9th August, 1839, Highgate’s popularity was such that ‘more than 7000 persons’ had visited in one day. The piece singles out the architectural wonders of the site, in addition to ‘the view from the terrace’ which ‘extends for a distance of thirty miles, and embraces the river Thames as far as Gravesend, the Surrey hills, and the Knock-bold beeches in Kent.’

Stamford Mercury - Highgate.png

Into the Woods

Upon entering this great place and following the path up the hillside, the visitor is struck by the gateway to the impressive Egyptian Avenue, a Pharaonic arch flanked by two columns on either side. This is, in turn, guarded by twin obelisks, stone guardians of the dead. The structure is a striking example of the Egyptian Revival style so beloved by the Victorians, an architectural system grounded in the recycling and reworking of the motifs of ancient Egypt. Interest in the latter emerged from the fanfare surrounding the Napoleonic campaigns in Alexandria and Cairo (1798-1801), a military cavalcade which contained, rather unusually, a sizeable contingent of scholars and scientists. You may be familiar with Pierre-François Bouchard’s associated discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, now housed in the British Museum. Reports of the work and finds of these intellectual expeditionists generated a growing fascination with Egyptology in Europe, a preoccupation which had a great effect on the aesthetic fabric of the continent. Indeed, the centrality of death to ancient Egyptian ritual practice was a phenomenon which could be readily transferred to the emergent funerary architecture of the nineteenth-century burial places of Western Europe.

Egyptian Avenue - Highgate

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue

The road beyond this entryway continues at a gentle incline. Bordering the track are lines of family vaults, home to the slumbering dead, their entrances adorned with a variety of funeral symbols. These cavities were made to accommodate multiple coffins in order to ensure that families could be buried together, sealed units, metaphorically and literally, affection and companionship assured until the end of time. Leaving this sepulchral cavern behind, one emerges into the almost indescribably exquisite Circle of Lebanon, a wheel of tombs arranged around the roots of a magnificent cedar tree, a striking mass in place long before the construction of the cemetery, part of the grounds of the aforementioned Ashurst Estate. I felt as if I had emerged into a timeless space, where nature and architecture were in happy communion, where as many memories circulated as the abundant needles of the cedar’s leaves. Interestingly, the circular disposition of these burial chambers has formed an enclosure serving as an impromptu plant pot within which the tree is contained. There are two rings of such tombs: the inner circle of twenty vaults was part of the original design and was supplemented by an outer addition of sixteen sepulchres in the 1870s, a facility expanded in response to the popular clamour for a slice of this particular piece of eternity. In addition, one finds here the columbarium,  a series of cubicles fashioned for the purpose of holding urns full of ashes, an unpopular provision in the Victorian period when cremation was looked upon with righteous suspicion. It was only following the passage of the Cremation Act in 1902 that the practice became more commonplace, and the notion that the sanctity of the body remain undisturbed post-mortem began to be overcome.

Circle of Lebanon

Circle of Lebanon © Bill Nicholls

In this same area, the terrace catacombs in Gothic style are to be found, burial spaces hewn from the very hillside itself. Indeed, they occupy the same space as the previous deck of the garden of Ashurst House, formerly a splendid viewpoint from which to gaze out upon the teeming life of the city. Visitors to the cemetery would seek out this spot for a genteel promenade, ambling up and down in their finest, away from the heady stink of the London smog. As an aside, if you enjoy bitumen and random facts intended for pub quizzes, the terrace is also apparently the earliest asphalted building in the UK. Within the structure, one encounters a brick-vaulted, eighty-yard long passageway filled with separate recesses on both sides, capable of housing an entire coffin from floor to ceiling. In total, the catacombs hold eight hundred and forty such caskets in apertures which are themselves sealed with memorial plaques or small glass windows for inspection. When laying the deceased to rest in this place, coffins were apparently situated with the heads of the cadavers closest to the opening, meaning that relatives could easily commune with their dead.  

Catacombs Illustrated London News 1974.png

Illustrated London News (01.09.1974)

Behind the Circle of Lebanon is what can only be described as an immense mass of a tomb: the eye-waveringly ornate mausoleum of Julius Beer. This is a big beast of a burial chamber, the Highgate leviathan. A square structure with bronze doors, pyramidal roof carved to resemble roof-tiles and arched windows, the edifice is said to have been inspired by the fearsome Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and was designed by John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913), an architect experienced in the construction of religious buildings.

Julius Beer Mausoleum.jpg

The Mausoleum of Julius Beer (by Steve James)

The architraved doorway bears an inscription with a powerfully simple message to passersby, identifying itself as the ‘Mausoleum of Julius Beer.’ The opulent theme continues within, as the tiled walls, golden mosaic lining the dome and Corinthian columns perfectly accompany the pièce de resistance, namely the bas-relief representing Julius’ deceased daughter Ada as a winged child, who had died of consumption aged only six, being spirited upwards to heaven by an angel.

Julius Beer is a fascinating example of the model of the self-made man. Born in Frankfurt, he came to London and promptly made an intimidatingly large amount of money on the London Stock Exchange, before gobbling up several newspapers: the Observer and the Sunday Times. A quirky and perhaps apocryphal tale accompanies this majestic tomb – having become embittered by his lack of acceptance in polite society, Julius decided that, in death, he would have the last laugh. In 1876, he parted with £800 (c. £52,950) for the site, in addition to an eye-watering £5000 (c. £330,923) for construction, placing this, the tallest and largest monument in the cemetery, in such a position so as to utterly dominate the otherwise splendid view from the terrace, thereby damning in the process a phalanx of afternoon constitutionals. We should not forget, however, that the project was, in its essence, a house of mourning for his little Ada, the adding of a bombastic note to the burial ground’s architecture of grief to memorialise his daughter. Once I myself had fully taken in its immensity, I was left with nothing but a quiet sense of humanity, thinking of the pathos inspired by the severing of the parental bond.

Mausoleum Beer Ada

Relief Panel: Angel Lifting a Winged Child by Thomas

Down Memory Lane

There are many other graves of note on this side of Highgate, more than a mere written piece can ever hope to encapsulate. Amidst the meandering footpaths and untamed thickets, individuals of great note have found their rest – from the poet Christina Rossetti to the scientist Michael Faraday, from the pioneering lesbian author Radclyffe Hall to the renowned novelist Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm. Even the eponymous founder of the Crufts dog show, Charles Cruft, can be found occupying a tomb. It is a fascinating pastiche of the great and the good, the devoted and the quiet, the industrious and the kind, the pauper and the poet. In the end, all roads lead to Highgate. 

hallradcliffe

Memorial Plaque to Radclyffe Hall, Circle of Lebanon (by Scott Michaels)

Indeed, the eye is drawn not only to those graves commemorating the lives of such eternally famous figures, but also to those who, having once achieved renown, languish, known only to researchers and scholars, campaigners and active taphophiles. One example might be Ellen Wood (1814-1887), better known as the famous writer Mrs. Henry Wood, a literary figure who was as celebrated as Charles Dickens in her era. Her books were Victorian bestsellers, snapped up in an instant by her devoted followers. Particularly loved was her sensation novel East Lynne, an elaborate offering of mistaken identity and comic misunderstanding. On her death, she left an estate worth £36,000, an enormous sum equating to £2,500,000 in today’s money.

Hodges, Joseph Sydney Willis, 1828-1900; Mrs Henry Wood (1814-1887)

Mrs Henry Wood – Joseph Sydney Willis Hodges (© Worcester Guildhall)

These individuals of distinction rub shoulders with those otherwise unknown. As long as there were available funds, Highgate was open to everyone, with your cheque made out to death, the great leveller of us all. Take this beautiful and arresting monument, ‘The Sleeping Angel,’ in memory of Mary Nichols, wife of Bank Manager Harold. The figure atop her stony bed slumbers in perpetuity, her wings carefully folded, an expression of profound mourning. She is the perfect representation of peace. 

Sleeping Angel Highgate 2

‘The Sleeping Angel’ (Monument to Mary Nichols) by Tom Bennett 

Reflecting on what we had seen, we made our way back to the entrance, steeped in poignant contemplation. My trip to the east side of the cemetery would be just as eventful, allowing me the opportunity to explore further Highgate’s 170,000 graves, and to bring yet more stories of quiet voices unheard back to life.

Highgate East - Woods

Image © A Grave Announcement

💀 Thanks for Reading!

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Sources

With thanks to the following which proved very useful in compiling this account:

British Newspaper Archive

Highgate Cemetery

Historic England

National Archives

Natural History Museum – ‘A History of Burial in London’

The Peasants are Revolting: Samuel Holberry, Mary Cooper and the Sheffield Uprising

IMG_4822

Image by A Grave Announcement

It was an unusually cold Monday morning for early September when I, having found myself in Sheffield for the day, decided to see for myself the Victorian splendour of Sheffield General Cemetery. I set off in the magnificently tree-lined Nether Edge, a prosperous borough raised aloft in the southern part of the city, both looking down into the cavernous valleys of the urban sprawl and gazing away at the distant countryside of the city’s hill-studded environs. I made my way along a good number of such arboreal boulevards, espying a church or two amidst what seemed like  marshalled battalions of terraced dwellings, disappearing placidly into the horizon.

The cemetery itself is located in the neighbouring area of Sharrow, bordered by the aptly named Cemetery Road, along which I myself travelled, and edged on the other side by the indolent waters of the Porter Brook. I did not enter through the impressive neo-classical gatehouse, although, upon seeing this later, I was inevitably reminded of a Roman triumphal arch, a portal through which bodies would pass, overpowered by Death’s parading victory, in a final journey of silence. Rather, I myself passed through the so-called Egyptian Gate, gazed upon by twin ouroboroi – etymological tail-eaters – serpentine rings formed by coiled snakes with tails in their mouths, symbolising unity, eternity and a kind of cyclical balance. A winged sun surmounted the design, a pronounced symbol in the iconography of the Ancient Near East.

The site of the cemetery is spread across a quarried hillside, interspersed by a number of footpaths, both formal and informal, in what is now, I am told, a Grade II listed park. The presence of buildings manifestly influenced by Greek and Egyptian architectural styles attests to the grandeur and magnificence of the scope of the design – not merely a fine cemetery this, but a veritable Necropolis – a real life city of the dead.

IMG_4772.JPG

Image by A Grave Announcement

Opened in 1836, this Nonconformist cemetery holds over 87,000 burials, formerly serving as Victorian Sheffield’s main repository for the disposal of the dead. Rampant overcrowding, rife disease and paltry conditions in the churchyards of Sheffield had necessitated the construction of a burial site away from the dense congestion of the city itself. In 1834 a private enterprise, the Sheffield General Cemetery Company,’ was established with committee and shareholders, and the concern immediately began to gather funds for the project through public subscription. Their activities were reported in the press, as seen here in the Yorkshire Gazette of the 3rd of May 1834:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY.- A meeting

of the shareholders in this undertaking took place on Monday,

at the Cutlers’ Hall, T.A.Ward, Esq., in the chair. It

was stated, that £26,400 was already subscribed, but that

£25,000 would be amply sufficient to carry the object of the

society into effect. It was agreed, that the committee should

select a piece or several pieces of ground, and submit the choice

to a future meeting.

The requisite land was procured for £1900 and work soon commenced on the site. Designed by the Sheffield architect Samuel Worth and assisted by the horticulturalist Robert Marnock who superintended the layout, progress was rapid, aided considerably by the fact that the stone necessary for construction could be quarried from the very site itself. The first vault was sold on the 1st of January, 1836, and, amidst predictions of the cemetery’s imminent completion, the transaction was heralded with enthusiasm in the edition of the Sheffield Independent released on the following day:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY. – We understand

that the first and only finished family vault was sold

yesterday. It is calculated to contain about twenty coffins

in so many separate compartments, all neatly built with

stone and bricks. The ground and buildings are now

assuming a very imposing appearance, and it appears

probable that early in the Spring, the whole will be

completed.

As the year advanced and the business of the cemetery gathered momentum, directors of the cemetery were appointed and adverts placed for individuals to serve as employees, as seen here in the Sheffield Independent of the 28th May 1836, calling for a Sexton and Gatekeeper in residence:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY           

Wanted, a Steady, Active Man, who is married, to fill the Situations of SEXTON and GATEKEEPER, at the Sheffield General Cemetery. A Person who understands Gardening will be preferred. He will have a Residence, rent free, on the premises. Applications, with Testimonials of Character, addressed to the Directors of the Cemetery, must be presented at the Offices of Mr. JOHN WILLIAM SMITH, or Mr. GEORGE WELLS, Sheffield, on or before the 6th of June next. – Post letters to be paid.

The first burial was that of Mary Ann Fish, the wife of a book-keeper, having sadly succumbed to tuberculosis. Indeed, once ready to receive those to be interred, the cemetery had placed official advertisements in local newspapers. This extract, from the Sheffield Iris on the 9th of August 1836, announces the site’s readiness to bury the dead, a proclamation issued under the name of the Reverend William Thornhill Kidd of the Sheffield parish Eccleshall Bierlow:

Sheffield General Cemetery.

MINISTER AND REGISTRAR,

The Rev. William Thornhill Kidd.

This beautiful Place of Sepulture, whose picturesque

and architectural attractions are so well

known to the Inhabitants of this Town, arranged

upon a plan admirably adapted to the purposes for

which it was designed, IS NOW READY FOR

THE INTERMENT OF THE DEAD. Vaults of

almost every description and size, and finished in the

most complete manner, may, by an early Application,

be purchased upon reasonable terms; and Graves, in

various situations, the most open or the most secluded,

are also disposable to the choice of the Public.

In this place, in an alleyway lined with crooked tombstones, I stumbled across the final resting place of one Samuel Holberry, the name faintly familiar, the epitaph lengthy and full-hearted:

img_4963.jpg

Image by A Grave Announcement

SACRED

to the Memory of

SAMUEL HOLBERRY.

WHO AT THE EARLY AGE OF 27 DIED

IN YORK CASTLE, AFTER SUFFERING

AN IMPRISONMENT OF 2 YEARS AND 3

MONTHS, JUNE 21st, 1842.

FOR ADVOCATING WHAT TO HIM APPEARED

TO BE THE TRUE INTEREST OF THE PEOPLE OF

ENGLAND.

VANISH’D IS THE FEVERISH DEAM OF LIFE:-

THE RICH AND POOR FIND NO DISTINCTION HERE,

THE GREAT AND LOWLY END THEIR CARE AND STRIFE,

THE WELL BELOVED MAY HAVE AFFECTIONS TEAR.

BUT AT THE LAST, THE OPPRESSOR AND THE SLAVE

SHALL EQUAL STAND BEFORE THE BAR OF GOD;

OF HIM, WHO LIFE, AND HOPE, AND FREEDOM GAVE,

TO ALL THAT THRO’ THIS VALE OF TEARS HAVE TROD.

LET NONE THEN MURMUR ‘GAINST THE WISE DECREE,

THAT OPEN’D THE DOOR, AND SET THE CAPTIVE FREE.

ALSO OF SAMUEL JOHN, HIS SON WHO

DIED IN HIS INFANCY.

THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED BY HIS BEREFT WIDOW.

I wondered why I felt such a twinge of recognition upon scanning these words, and I pondered too about the identity of the grieving widow, nameless, her own exertions unmarked, compelled by injustice to erect this monument to her lost husband, an appeal to martyrdom and an attempt at post-mortem exoneration. A subsequent search brought my ailing memory back to life: Samuel Holberry, the Chartist activist, organiser of the Sheffield Uprising and champion of democracy. Grievously ill-treated at the end, his death stands as a testament to governmental misconduct and penal brutality in a demonstration of the barbaric treatment of one whose very existence was devoted to the advocation of political rights for the people. I vowed to look into his life and, in doing so, to attempt to restore the selfhood of that unnamed widow.

SamuelHolberry01-320 (1)

Bust of Samuel Holberry (Photo by River Sheaf)

Samuel Holberry was born in the small village of Gamston, Nottinghamshire in 1814, and was baptised on the 21stof November in that same year. His father John was an agricultural labourer, working on the Duke of Newcastle’s estate, and had married his mother Martha Simpson on the 19th of December, 1793, in Grove, also in Nottinghamshire. Martha and John had nine children in total, of whom Samuel was the youngest. He grew up working on the land, watching over livestock and scaring off birds, jobs typical of child workers at the time, whilst receiving some basic schooling, before achieving the position of labourer like his father.

Gamston.jpg

‘Gamston Village and Church’ by Roger Reach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Samuel, however, was restless and unsettled, making the decision in March 1832 to leave the area and enlist, following in the footsteps of his brother. Being only seventeen at the time, he was forced to lie about his age, joining the ranks of the 33rd infantry and subsequently serving in Ireland and Northampton. It was during his time in the latter that he became politically sensitive – the town was a bastion of radical activity and had considerable ties with the NUWC, The National Union of the Working Classes, a group comprising those who rejected the 1832 reform bill as unrepresentative of the rights of working people and retained links with the unions. Such political activism in Northampton came to be a preserve of the shoemakers with whom Samuel himself came to associate.

In April 1835, Samuel bought himself out the army, moving to Sheffield where he began working as a distiller, following a brief period as a barrel-maker. It was here that he met Mary Cooper, born in 1816 to John and Ann Cooper, labourers of Oakes Green, Attercliffe, Sheffield. Mary and Samuel soon established a relationship. In 1837 the pair were  separated, however, as Samuel was made out of work and spent some time in London, before returning to marry Mary on the 22nd of October in that same year, and settling in Sheffield. Despite joining the Sheffield Working Men’s Association towards the end of 1838, driven by his desire to extend the political rights enshrined within the aforementioned 1832 Reform Act, he did not yet announce himself as an active Chartist.

This latter movement had arisen from the People’s Charter, centring itself upon ‘a charter of rights for all,’ and, in particular, promoting mass enfranchisement. Authored mainly by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and introduced in Glasgow in May of 1838, it laid out six features of Chartist ideology deemed necessary for electoral reform: universal suffrage, no property qualification, annual parliaments, equal representation, payment of members and vote by secret ballot. Both Mary and her husband became increasingly involved in these Chartist aims and objectives and began to engage in a number of peaceful protests.

peoplescharter2-large.jpg

‘The People’s Charter’ by the Working Men’s Association is licensed under CC by 2.0

The rejection of the Chartists’ strategy of moral resistance in 1839 after the failure of the above petition gave rise to a fractious leadership, riddled by division and dissent over the future of the movement. With some local leaders advocating a physical response, an initial uprising took place in Newport in Wales (the Newport Rising), but was swiftly suppressed, hamstrung by its own lack of proper planning. In this climate of insecurity and increasing anger, Samuel and Mary became involved in calls for more radical action, with Samuel spearheading proposals for an armed rebellion and appropriation of key settlements throughout the region. It was in this climate of discord and disunity that the Sheffield Rising was conceived, the event for which Samuel and Mary would become almost national celebrities.

With Samuel now in a leadership position alongside other prominent Chartists, more extreme plans began to be take shape. There was talk of seizing control of public buildings in Sheffield, namely the Town Hall and the Fortune Inn, with the aid of firepower and explosives. The houses of magistrates would also be torched. Before such proposals could come to fruition, however, the group was betrayed by the Rotherham landlord of the Station Inn, James Allen, on the 11th of January, 1840. Both Samuel and Mary, in addition to a number of their fellow activists, were arrested for conspiracy. Police officers Atcherly and Wilde had entered a dwelling owned by Samuel on Eyre Lane close to midnight, finding Holberry reclining in bed, fully clothed except for his stockinged feet, illuminated by the intermittent flickering of a bedside candle. According to the Northern Star of the 21st March 1840, the conversation proceeded as follows:

‘Are you one of the people called the Chartists?’ said Wilde.
‘Yes.’ replied Holberry.
‘This dagger is a deadly weapon – you surely would not take life with it?” said Atcherly.’
‘Yes; but I would in defence of the Charter, and to obtain liberty” replied Holberry.’

Whilst Samuel and his associates were held in custody, Mary was released, remaining tight-lipped throughout her interrogation. As Gammage (1969:173) notes, ‘Mrs. Holberry, a very interesting woman, was also arrested; but the evidence against her not being sufficient, she was discharged.’

Unrepentant, Samuel openly admitted his intentions to the police and swore that he would die for Chartist principles. Undeterred, the authorities admitted him for trial at Sheffield Assizes, charging Samuel with seditious conspiracy. A reporter for the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of the 18th January 1840 described Samuel (and, elliptically, Mary in attendance) as follows:

Samuel Holberry: a very tall, well formed, and muscular young man, with much of the appearance and manner of an itinerant showman.

Mary Holberry: his wife.

Samuel’s importance both to the Chartists and the case itself can be seen in these opening remarks of the prosecuting Attorney General in the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette of the 20th March, 1840:

‘In regard to Holberry, it will be proved that he was a leader, and attended the class meetings; that he attended a meeting at a place called Fig Tree Lane, where the delegates used to attend, and that he attended likewise a meeting held in Lambert-Street, where the details of the plan were arranged. He was, I may say, the contriver of the scheme.’

During the course of the trial, the plans of Holberry and his associates to foment disorder by using force were laid bare. In this extract from the Northern Star on the 21st March, 1840, the testimony of Chartist Samuel Thompson revealed the extent of Holberry’s proposed charge:

‘He said we must all be at the Town Hall and the Tontine [Hotel] by two o’clock, as they must be the places to be first taken. The classes were to come up to take these places, one man first from every class, then two, and the whole body. Exactly as the clock struck two they were to rush into the Town Hall and Tontine, and take possession of them. Boardman said he could bring about fifty, and I said I could bring about fifty … If they got the Tontine, they were to shut the gates, and barricade them with the coaches inside. When they got into the Town Hall, one party was to occupy the floor, and the others were to go above. We then began to talk about the ‘cats’, the instruments to lame the horses, and it was proposed to throw them in Snig Hill, leading from the barracks, and they were to be thrown at the corner of the Town Hall and the Albion. Holberry said that he and eighty-three picked men were to go after the soldiers when they were called out and fire the straw chamber. One of them was to do it by climbing the spout and throwing a fire-ball in it. That, it was said, would set fire to the Riding School. The ones and twos who came up were to assassinate all the soldiers and watchmen they met … Holberry said in the event of their being baffled, they must ‘Moscow the town’.’

Unsurprisingly, it was as a result of his own candour as regards his offences that Samuel received a guilty verdict (along with twenty-nine others – six were acquitted) and he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Sent to the gaol at Northallerton, he was illegally placed upon the treadmill, a form of punishment banned by the government in 1902 forcing the prisoner to walk  for extremely lengthy periods as a means of powering equipment or producing some kind of energy. Samuel also underwent what was termed the ‘silent system,’ a combination of stringent diet, extended periods on the above machinery and solitary confinement.

Coldbath-fields-treadmill-mayhew-p306.jpg

‘Prisoners Working At The Tread-wheel, And Others Exercising,’ by Henry Mayhew & John Binny is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Whilst confined in that place, Mary was only able to visit her husband once, afflicted by grief at the death of their only son in October 1840. Indeed, she had suffered a breakdown and was supported by the National Charter Association. She was, however, a continuous advocate on Samuel’s behalf and wrote a number of letters to him in prison, often enclosing care packages filled with requested items. In this epistle, held in the Sheffield Archives, Mary lists such articles, including here a comb and a brush and two stocking needles:

Indeed, during his incarceration, Samuel received many other letters from supporters and associates, of which fifteen (including that above) survive in the collection of the above-named Sheffield Archives.

Following Samuel’s move from Northallerton Gaol to the hospital at York castle in September 1841, his already fragile health seriously deteriorated. On the 21st of June 1842 he succumbed to inflammation of the liver, brought about by the devastating advance of tuberculosis. The appalling state of the conditions in which Samuel had been imprisoned was revealed in the aftermath of the furore surrounding his death, when the House of Commons requested copies of all the correspondence relating to the prisoner between the Home Secretary and the prison authorities. In  reading these dispatches, it is clear that those involved in his care were well-aware of Samuel’s disproportionate suffering. Such missives were published at length in the newspaper, as seen here in a selection from the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser of the 30th of July 1842:

Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated July 6, 1842, for a copy of all communications that have passed between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the authorities of York Castle, from the beginning of September, 1841, to the present time, relative to the state of heath and death of Samuel Holberry.

Whitehall, 16th September, 1841

Gentlemen- Secretary Sir James Graham having deemed it expedient to give directions for the removal of Samuel Holberry from Northallerton Gaol to the York Castle, there to undergo the remaining term of his imprisonment, I am directed to request you to call upon the surgeon of the latter prison to pay constant and particular attention to the prisoner’s health, and to report theron to Sir James Graham from time to time.

I am, &c.,

(Signed) S.M.PHILLIPPS

The Visiting Magistrates of York Castle

[…]

Samuel Holberry, the Chartist prisoner in York Castle, is suffering from severe pain in the left side, the effect of chronic inflammation of the left lobe of the liver, extending to to [sic] the stomach, and, perhaps, the colon, which, from his having had former attacks, I believe to be organic disease. His digestion is very bad, and he is very weak; and I consider him to be in great danger. I am of an opinion that his symptoms have increased, and his health has been impaired, of late, by the length of the confinement, and the great anxiety of mind he appears to have suffered since his imprisonment.

(Signed)

                                                                                                                GEORGE CHAMPNEY.

Surgeon to the York Castle

7th June 1842.

York Castle, 21st June, 1842.

SIR, – As the gaoler of this prison is unavoidably absent at the Insolvent Sessions at Wakefield, I have to report the death of Samuel Holberry, the Chartist, who died this morning rather suddenly.

Such were the sympathies for his widow Mary Cooper in the aftermath of his death and such was the outrage at his fate, that a rousing call to obtain support for Mary was published in the Chartist Northern Star of the 16th July 1842, entitled ‘AN APPEAL TO THE CHARTISTS OF GREAT BRITAIN, IN BEHALF OF THE WIDOW OF SAMUEL HOLBERRY:’

BRETHREN.- We appeal to you in behalf of the widow of one of nature’s nobles, who has at last fallen a martyr for the rights and liberties of mankind. Samuel Holberry is no more, but oh could his dungeon walls find tongues to describe the anguish they have witnessed, the painful agony they endured, and the acute torture of his mind, when bursting the portals of a prison’s gloom, his soul left its clay tenement,without the kind assistance of a fond wife to minister to his wants, or to close his dying eyes. Who can pourtray [sic] the agony of his sufferings?…

Brethren, that wife he has left for your protection.

Sister democrats, do you do your duty. Your sister, though young in years, has drunk deeply of the cup of affliction. It is for you to administer the balm of consolation – to sympathise with the afflicted, and to comfort the heartbroken…

Sheffield has promptly and nobly come forward to assist in the good work, and to our townsmen we return our thanks for their hearty and generous sympathy so well proven upon this melancholy occasion. To the Chartists of York we also return our warmest thanks for their timely and patriotic aid, and to our brother democrats in other parts of the country who without waiting for this appeal have already commenced collecting monies for the support of Mrs Holberry. We have purchased the ground where the  remains of the martyr repose, and intend to erect a plain monument over the grave. To accomplish this, and secure for the widow a maintenance for the future, we expect the cooperation and assistance of every Chartist in the kingdom…’

The ensuing funeral on the 27th of June 1842 was a very public affair, attended by between 20,000 to 50,000 people who lined the route of the procession from Attercliffe all the way to Sheffield General Cemetery. The cortege was led by a band of musicians playing Pleyell’s German Hymn and festooned with a large black banner, on one side of which read ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ and on the other ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it, saith the Lord.’ All the funeral trappings of an affluent send-off were present, most notably the elaborate hearse and the mourning coaches. On the name-plate of the coffin itself was the following inscription: ‘Samuel Holberry, died a martyr to the cause of democracy, June 21, 1842, aged 27.’

Once the line had reached the burial plot, a hymn composed especially for the occasion was sung, ‘Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!’ by John Henry Bramwich, a Chartist hymn writer from Leicestershire:

Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!

Shall they who dare defend the slave

Be hurled within a prison’s gloom,

To fit them for an early grave!

Shall victim after victim fall

A prey to cruel class-made laws?

Forbid it, Lord! on Thee we call,

Protect us, and defend our cause!

In vain we prayed the powers that be,

to burst the drooping captive’s chain;

But mercy, Lord, belongs to Thee,

For Thou hast freed him from all pain.

Is this the price of liberty!

Must martyrs fail to gain the prize?

Then be it so; we will be free,

Or all become a sacrifice.

Tho’ freedom mourns her murder’d son,

And weeping friends surround his bier;

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

Oh! may his fate cement the bond

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise, raise the cry, let all respond,

Justice, and pure and equal laws.

Those assembled were then addressed by George Harvey, a National Charter Association leader, in a speech which served as a call to arms, vowing that Chartists will ‘annihilate forever the blood-stained despotism which has slain its thousands of martyrs, and tens of thousands of patriots, and immolated at its shrine the lovers of liberty and truth.’ Samuel was also commemorated throughout the nation by local Chartist meetings, his sacrifice lauded and confirmed.

Samuel Holberry’s Sheffield legacy lives on. In 1998, the Holberry Cascades were named in his memory, located in the Peace Gardens next to the Town Hall.

Holberry Cascades

‘Holberry Cascades’ by Derek Harper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This designation was also marked with a plaque, asserting that Holberry ‘gave his life for what he believed to be the true interest of the people of England – a democratic society that would guarantee freedom, equality and security for all.’ There could be no more fitting tribute to the struggle and activism of the man.

Holberry Plaque

‘Holberry Plaque, Peace Gardens, Sheffield’ by Chemical Engineer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As for his widow Mary Cooper, she continued to campaign alongside the movement until it was disbanded in the 1850s. She had remarried a widower, Charles Pearson, in 1845 who worked as a publican. Three children subsequently followed. The first was named Holberry in homage to Mary’s first husband, in what was also a powerful reminder of her own duty and sacrifice in pursuit of the Chartist cause.

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Bibliography

R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edn. (1894), 173, 175, 213–16

R. Hutchins, ‘Holberry, Samuel (1814-1842)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), pp.

Coming Alive in the City of the Dead (Part 1 – ‘Wee Willie’ Miller)

What a lesson in the tawdriness of all our worldly wealth and earthly ambition does a visit to the old Necropolis afford.’

Glasgow Herald, 14th October 1892

On a balmy July afternoon, I found myself on the path meandering its way towards the summit of the Glaswegian Necropolis. Towering above the cathedral, this spectacular array of funerary monuments is a striking fixture in the skyline of the city. On this day, the weather was capricious and temperamental.  In one sphere of the sky, the clouds loomed low, glowering menacingly. Elsewhere, wispy cumuli drifted shapelessly across the cerulean heavens.

IMG_3756.JPG

Image by A Grave Announcement

Upon entry, I passed through a pair of gilded cast iron gates, a beautifully formal way to make one’s acquaintance with a Victorian cemetery.

IMG_3735

Image by A Grave Announcement

After crossing the so-called ‘Bridge of Sighs’ (designed by Glaswegian architect David Hamilton in 1833 in a homage to its Venetian namesake, and traversing the covered stream of the Molendinar Burn, colloquially known as ‘The Styx), scene of many a sombre funeral procession, I took the left path away from the façade of the imposing central archway that divides the route into its two branches. The hill began to ascend, a steep climb but not breathlessly so, the sinuous roaming of its path lined with a miscellany of sepulchral stones, and the layout, lacking a scrupulous and exacting blueprint, charmingly organic. More than 50,000 souls have found their final resting place in this location, and it is difficult not to feel like something of an intruder into their eternal peace when traversing these streets, bringing the land of the living to the city of the dead.

The foundation stone of the Necropolis was laid in 1826, its inaugural interment taking place in May 1833. This occasion was the burial of ‘the Jew Joseph Levy,’ a sixty-two year old quill merchant who had been struck down by cholera. The expanse chosen for the city of the dead had formerly been the Merchants’ Park, an area once bedecked with needled firs, and followed by the languid gestures of planted willows and elms. The transformation of this tract into a place of rest, proposed by John Strang, Chamberlain of the Merchants’ House, was entrusted to a competition launched to find the best design. The work of the winner, David Bryce, was amalgamated with that of four other entrants by the judges and George Mylne was appointed as Superintendent to oversee the execution of the proposed outline, a schematic inspired by the Parisian garden Necropolis Père Lachaise. This spirit of collaboration, of resources combined, can be felt in the eclectic conglomeration of the stone requiems to the dead that came to ordain the place, the finished product a visual representation of our own collective cultural memory, a history no longer merely peopled by the forgotten dead.

As I ambled along the track, my attention was drawn to a rather well-kept monument. Despite not serving as the largest or most imposing of the reliquaries, the obelisk seemed to loudly announce its presence. Its grey surface was speckled and pockmarked, like skin chapped by the wind. The man’s face carved in relief was quietly reflective, seeming to look away from the hill itself and gaze across Glasgow at the city he had left behind. The memorial was crowned by the engraved emblem of a harp and laurel wreath, Apolline tokens of creative endeavour, symbolising the man’s literary craft. Monumentalising a staunch Glaswegian, whose work has taken on global importance, resonating across the decades, in inspecting the monument it seemed as if I could hear the famous verses being spoken, that masterful Scotch dialect crying in the wind: Wee Willie Winkie runs though the town…

IMG_3738

Image by A Grave Announcement

I am speaking, of course, of William Miller, a literary giant, whose death, wretched and in penury, saw the man consigned to the oblivion of an unmarked grave in Glasgow’s Tollcross Cemetery, a state of affairs later rectified by his friends and admirers in financing this lapidary ode to the great man. The inscription reads:

To the Memory of William Miller

The Laureate of the Nursery

Author of Wee Willie Winkie

Born in Glasgow August 1810

Died 20 August 1872

Born in the Bridgegate area of Glasgow, a formerly prosperous merchant district then experiencing a slum-like decline, William Miller spent most of his formative years in the East End of the city, coming of age in the village of Parkhead. Plagued by ill health as an adolescent, he was unable to fulfil his aspiration of becoming a surgeon and settled instead for life as a wood-turner, undergoing an apprenticeship in that skill before achieving great expertise in the intricate craft of cabinet-making. As a youth, he published a number of pieces in various newspapers which, sadly, do not survive. His first poetic appearance was in Whistle Binkie: Stories for the Fireside, a compendium of songs edited by Mr David Robertson in 1841. It was the publication in this volume of the nursery song Wee Willie Winkie, however, the grumpy figure personifying sleep, that brought him fame and admiration, although at first it was received with mixed opinions by Robertson’s friends. To settle the dissent, he dispatched the manuscript to Mr Ballantine of Edinburgh (who had himself contributed much to the publication) who asserted, according to the Perthshire Advertiser on the 29th August 1872) that:

“There is not at this moment in the whole range of Scottish songs, anything more exquisite in its kind than that little Warlock of the Nursery, “Wee Willie Winkie.”

This achievement eventually commanded the attention of such literary connoisseurs as Lord Jeffrey, founder of the prestigious Edinburgh Review. Such notice notwithstanding, William Miller abnegated the kind of literary relationships which were based upon patronage, choosing to hone his craft at home when the honest labour of the day was done. Indeed, such was the hardship he underwent as a consequence of his trade that it was reported by the Glasgow Herald on the 6th February 1846 that the Countess of Selkirk, an admirer, had transferred to the poet the sum of two pounds following a period of ill-health in which he was unable to work:

“We learn that the Countess of Selkirk has transmitted to Mr David Robertson of this city, by the hands of the Rev.Mr Underwood of Kirkeudbright, the sum of £2, for behoof of William Miller, the author ofWee Willie Winkie,” &c.; her Ladyship having been impressed with a favourable opinion of the poet from having perused his Nursery Rhymes. Mr Miller is so much improved, that he is now able to pursue his occupation of a wood-turner.”

The widespread recognition of this talented literary craftsman all took place before William Miller had even published a collection of his works. In fact, this did not occur until 1863, when, prevailed upon by a number of friends, he circulated the volume Nursery Songs and other Poems, an enormously popular offering at the time. This treasure trove was dedicated ‘to Scottish mothers, Gentle and Semple…not fearing that, while in such keeping, they will ever be forgot.’ It included the original Scots version of ‘Wee Willie Winkie,’ a rhyme anglicised very soon after its publication:

4243671088_495e5f8829_b


“Wee Willie Winkie” by Thoth, God of Thor is licensed under CC by 2.0

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the toon,

Up stairs and doon stairs, in his nicht-goon,

Tirling at the window, cryin’ at the lock,

Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?

Hey, Willie Winkie, are ye coming ben?

The cat’s singing grey thrums to the sleeping hen,

The dog’s spelder’d on the floor, and disna gie a cheep,

But here’s a waukrife laddie that winna fa’ asleep.

Onything but sleep, you rogue, glow’ring like the mune,

Rattling in an airn jug wi’ an airn spoone,

Rumbling, tumbling round about, crawing like a cock,

Skirlin’ like a kenna-what, wauk’ning sleeping fock.

Hey, Willie Winkie – the wean’s in a creel,

Wambling aff a bodie’s knee like a very eel,

Ruggin’ at the cat’s lug, and raveling a’ her thrums-

Hey, Willie Winkie – see, there he comes!’

Wearied is the mither that has a stoorie wean,

A wee stumple stoussie, that canna rin his lane,

That has a battle aye wi’ sleep before he’ll close an ee

But a kiss frae aff his rosy lips gies strength anew to me.

In that same volume, we revel in the jubilant celebrations of Hogmanay, commemorate a marriage, wonder at the effect of a sudden flurry of money in the form of an inheritance, list the virtues of ‘my poor old coat,’ and are introduced to the figure of Jack Frost, the hoar-breathing rover whose advent betokens the arrival of spring.

Jack-frost.jpg

“Jack-frost” by Polylerus is licensed under CC by 2.0

In November 1871, an ulceration of the leg forced William to cease his trade. Despite the increasing frailties of his body, his mind remained as sharp as ever and he continued to write and disseminate poetry, works which appeared in publications such as The Scotsman. Learning of his condition as an invalid, The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 1st March 1872 urged its readers to furnish monetary contributions ‘for this deserving old poet:’

WILLIAM MILLER THE POET.

“Perhaps the most delicious nursery song that has been written by a modern minstrel for the delectation of the “bairns” in these northern regions is the song of “Wee Willie Winkie.” We are sorry to hear that the writer of it has for a long time past been an invalid, and that he is in poor circumstances. William Miller has a strong claim on the public for some help to smooth his declining years. He is now upwards of sixty, and at his advanced age, afflicted as he is with serious disease of the limbs, there is no prospect of his ever being able again to resume work. By trade he is a wood turner, and he resides in Glasgow, of which city he is a native. One who knows him says that his heart seems still young, his mind still vigorous; but he feels his position irksome and his spirit galled that he cannot now, as formerly, earn by the swear of his brow the bread of independence.”

The following July, he repaired to Blantyre, hoping that the town’s airs – the settlement was 8 miles from Glasgow – would reinvigorate him. The sojourn proved futile and he was soon returned to his son’s house in the city, having suffered a paralysis of the lower limbs. He passed away, destitute, at the age of 62 on the 20th August, 1872.

The poet subsequently received a number of obituary notices in the newspapers lamenting the loss of this Scottish talent. The account below, in The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 22nd August, 1872), reports the grim news:

DEATH OF WILLIAM MILLER, THE POET

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. He was born in Glasgow in August, 1810. He was early apprenticed to a wood turner, and by diligent application to business made himself one of the best workmen of his craft; and even in his later years there were few who could equal him in the quality of his work. It is, however, as a poet that he is known to fame. In his early youth he published several pieces in the Day and other newspapers; but from the fact that no record of these productions was observed, it is impossible to know when they issued from his pen. The first thing that brought him into public notice was the publication of the nursery song “Willie Winkie.” The MS. of this song was sent to Mr. Ballantine in Edinburgh, who gave it unqualified praise, as being the very best poem of its kind that he had ever seen. This led to the publication of the poem, and it at once attracted a large amount of attention. This was followed by a number of other pieces of a similar description, all of which were received with great favour, and led to the author’s acquaintance with Lord Jeffrey and other gentlemen of literary tastes. The best of his nursery songs which have obtained for him the well-earned title of the Laureate of the nursery were all written before he was 36 years of age; but it was not till 1863 that, at the request of several friends, he collected together and published a small volume, entitled “Nursery Songs and other Poems.” It had a wide circulation and has earned for the author a reputation that will never decay.”

Most fulsome in its praise of the deceased was the sketch authored by Robert Buchanan in the St Paul’s Magazine (reproduced here in The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 22nd August 1872), emphasising the global appeal of William’s work – songs now sung from Canadian Manitoba to the sonorous banks of the great Mississippi river:

“St Paul’s Magazine for July contained a notice of Wm. Miller, written by Robert Buchanan, who only knew the subject of his sketch through his writings. He had expressed a desire to make Wm. Miller’s acquaintance, and had arranged to call on him on his first visit to Glasgow, but the death of the poet has prevented that wish being gratified. In the article alluded to Mr Buchanan says – “No eulogy can be too high for one who has afforded such unmixed pleasure to his circle of readers; who, as a master of the Scottish dialect, may certainly be classed alongside of Burns and Tannahill; and whose special claims to be recognised as the Laureate of the Nursery have been admitted by more than one generation in every part of the world where the Doric Scotch is understood and loved. Wherever Scottish foot has trod, wherever Scottish child has been born, the songs of Wm. Miller have been sung. Every corner of the earth knows ‘Willie Winkie’ and ‘Gree Bairnies, Gree.’ Manitoba and the banks of the Mississippi echo the ‘Wonderfu’ Wean’ as often as do Kilmarnock or the Goosedubs. ‘Lady Summer’ will sound as sweet in Rio de Janeiro as on the Banks of the Clyde.” Again – ‘Few poets, however prosperous, are so certain of their immortality. I can scarecely conceive of a period when William Miller will be forgotten; certainly not until the Scotch Doric is obliterated, and the lowly nursery abolished for ever. His lyric note is unmistakeable – true, deep, and sweet. Speaking generally, he is a born singer, worthy to rank with the three or four master-spirits who use the same speech; and I say this while perfectly familiar with the lowly literature of Scotland, from Jean Adams to Janet Hamilton, from the first notes struck by Allan Ramsay down to the warblings of ‘Whistle Binkie.’ Speaking specifically, he is (as I have phrased it) the Laureate of the Nursery, and there, at least, he reigns supreme above all other poets, monarch of all he surveys, and perfect master of his theme. His poems, however, are as distinct from nursery gibberish as the music of Shelley is from the jingle of Ambrose Phillips. They are works of art – tiny paintings on small canvas, limned with all the microscopic care of Meissonier. The highest praise that can be said of them is that they are perfect ‘of their kind.’ That kind is humble enough; but humility may be very strong, as it certainly is here.'”

The news of William Miller’s expiration spread beyond Scotland. The Christchurch Times of Hampshire included a brief notation in its edition on the 31st August 1872:

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. Born in Parkhead, in August, 1810, William Miller spent his earliest days in the village, and thereafter resided in Glasgow.”

Similarly, the Cheltenham Chronicle on the 10th September 1872 reported on the event:

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. Born in Parkhead, in August, 1810, he subsequently resided in Glasgow. He was author of Wee Willie Winky [sic] and other well-known rhymes.”

William Miller was interred in an unmarked grave near the main entrance to Tollcross Cemetery, a state of affairs over which a great clamour arose, with friends and supporters condemning the inglorious and wretched resting-place of this immortal poet. A campaign was even spearheaded by the Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, a plea to its readership which descended into sniping bitterness against the merchant class for their perceived meanness in the strength of their donation, as can be seen in the edition on the 29th July 1872:

“There has been a great deal of writing in favour of the proposal to get up a testimony for William Miller, the “laureate of the nursery,” writer of “Wee Willie Winkie” and other immortal lyrics. A brief appeal of our own was not fruitless, provoking at least one handsome subscription, that from Mr Thallon of London; but we regret to say that the merchant princes of Glasgow are contributing (if they contribute at all) on a scale which does not say much for their appreciation of poetry. The great firm of Messrs J. and W. Campbell & Co., one of whose members gave 200 guineas to the Norman Macleod Testimonial, gives to the poor old poet the munificent sum of – twenty shillings! Messrs J. Tennant and Co. also give a pound. In fact a pound seems to be the maximum subscription. And the bard, besides being a genuine poet, has been all his days a decent, hard-working, God-fearing man – paying his way, and even when laid aside by illness asking nobody to help him – nay, so independent in spirit that he begged his friends to make no appeal on his behalf. To this true poet and true man, in his day of trouble, when he can no longer work for his bread. The merchant princes of Glasgow throw a contemptuous trifle which would not keep them in brandy and soda for a day. On the whole, we should prefer to see them give nothing.”

The proposed monument was eventually erected by public subscription through such calls for contributions.

William Miller’s reputation remained that of a consummate and skilled poet throughout the 19th century. Indeed, The National Dictionary of Biography (Vol.13) spoke of the man as follows:

“He has an easy mastery of the Scottish dialect; his sense of fitting maxim and allegory is quick and trustworthy, and his lyrical effects are much helped by the directness and simplicity of his style.”

It was particularly the cultural influence of William Miller’s most famous creation, the figure of Wee Willie Winkie, that had a sizeable impact. Indeed, the character was immortalised further through Rudyard Kipling’s inclusion of the figure in his 1888 Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories, and, in 1937, an eponymous adventure film starring Shirley Temple was made for the big screen.

Cover_to_Wee_Willie_Winkie_and_other_stories“Cover_to_Wee_Willie_Winkie”
by University of California Libraries
is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The German-American painter Lionel Feininger unveiled the cartoon strip “Wee Willie Winkie’s World” in the Chicago Tribune on August 19th, 1906 and this continued in print until February 17th, 1907. Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnights Children, includes the character “Wee Willie Winkie,” a minstrel, in homage to William Miller’s creation.

In 2009, Glasgow City Council unveiled a tribute to the poet at his former dwelling, 4 Ark Lane in Dennistoun, erecting a bronze plaque on the wall of the Tennent’s Brewery which now sits on the site of William Miller’s house. A blue plaque in the Trongate also serves as a quirky tribute to his most famous creation, declaring that ‘Wee Willie Winkie was spotted here in his nightgown’ in 1841.

It is clear that, even now, William Miller’s pyjama-clad figure still urges children to get into their beds and sleep as a nursery song learnt and replayed the world over, one of a number of figures invoked by parents at bedtime, such as Germany’s Das Sandmännchen and Denmark’s Ole Lukøje.