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)

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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‘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.

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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’

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.

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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.

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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…

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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:

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“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.

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“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.

In the Beginning…

To the solemn graves, near a lonely cemetery, my heart like a muffled drum is beating funeral marches.

Charles Baudelaire

Nothing says more about the land of the living than the world of the dead. Those we have left behind inspire and inform the progression of our lives, quietly inhabiting the dusty recesses of the earth, sleeping that final sleep, their voices silenced. Yet they call to us, demanding that their tales be told and that their memory never die. Where their stones tattoo the earth, their epitaphs bewail the frailty of human existence and urge us to live as though we shall too be dust. It is up to us to also keep them alive.

In this blog, my intention is to combine graveyard visits with the consultation of archives to introduce readers to, or refresh readers’ memories of, the stories of those who have passed on. My starting-point will be the monuments themselves, as we can tell much about the manner in which an individual lived from the manner in which he died. In addition, I will explore attitudes towards funereal rituals across the centuries, making particular use of newspaper collections to divine the changing nature of  post-mortem custom. As social history and genealogical record, the study of grave monuments and their associated rites is a rich resource, bringing the past, literally, to our finger-tips. As it is said, ‘in the midst of death we are in life.’

In Petronius’ Satyricon, a 1st century AD hodgepodge of acerbic satire and monumental epic, Trimalchio, the freedman host of an ostentatiously lavish dinner-party, orders the sepulchral stone he has commissioned for himself to be brought out and laid upon the table. The monument is the crowning glory in a series of actions designed to render the man’s house as a living and breathing land of the dead. Indeed, comestibles and expiration were not uncommon bedfellows in Roman society; banquets were commonly held in honour of the deceased and images of such commensality appeared frequently on funerary monuments. Trimalchio’s own monument is the ultimate act of self-representation, a caricatured musing on the right way to die, transforming this achingly luxurious feast into the occasion of his own funeral. Such continuous references to the end serve to remind both his guests and the reader(s) to live in the moment:

ergo uiuamus, dum licet esse bene (Sat. 34.2)

So let’s live, while we can do it well.

IMG_2521 copy

Image by A Grave Announcement

Latin epitaphic inscriptions in the Roman period were often characterised by the manifestation of this same sentiment:

Primae / Pompeiae / ossua h{e}ic / Fortuna spondet multa / multis praestat nemini uiue in dies / et horas nam proprium est nihil / Saluius et Heros dant

(CIL_1.1219)

Here lies Prima Pompeia’s bones. Fortune promises much and does not bestow much to any. Live day by day and hour by hour as nothing is yours. Salvius and Heros offer this as a gift.

Manlia L(uci) f(ilia) Sabi[na] / parentem amaui qua mihi fuit [optimus] / parens uirum parenti prox<i=U>m[um amplius] / ita casta u{e}itae constitit rat[io meae] / ualebis hospes u{e}iue tibi iam m[ors uenit]

(CIL_12.1836)

I, Manlia Sabina, daughter of Lucius, loved my parent best by virtue of being my parent, I loved my husband only as second to my parent. The account of my life was therefore established as spotless. Farewell, stranger. Live, for death is coming for you also.

Epitaph_des_Marcus_Caelius

The Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, a centurion killed in the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9BC.  
“Epitaph des in der Varusschlacht umgekommenen Centurios Marcus Caelius und seiner Freigelassenen. CIL XIII 8648 = AE 1952, 181 = AE 1953, 222 = AE 1955, 34” by Agnete is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Such epitaphs are vital pieces of grave information, furnishing details of the dead, acting as a memorialising tool and forming a method of communication with the living. A particular feature of Roman epitaphic inscriptions, as seen in the first example above, was the direct apostrophising of the passer-by in a fashioning of dialogue between the living and the dead:

Rogat ut resistas hospes te hic tacitus lapis / dum ostendit quod mandauit quoius umbram tegit / pudentis hominis frugi sum magna fide / praeconis Oli Grani sunt ossa h{e}ic sita / tantum est hoc uoluit nescius ne esse uale / A(ulus) Granius M(arci) l(ibertus) Stabilio / praeco

(CIL_12.1210)

Stranger, this silent stone asks you to stop, while it shows to you what he, whose shade it covers, entrusted it to show. Here lieth the bones of Aulus Granius the auctioneer, an honourable man of great fidelity. No more. It was his wish for you to know this. Farewell.

In the western world, this epitaphic habit could be found throughout the Middle Ages and well into the 19th and 20th centuries. Contemporary epigraphic markers on gravestones, however, are now characterised by their brevity and simplicity, lacking the literary flourishes of their predecessors. These poetic renderings of inscriptions honouring the deceased have themselves died out. Nonetheless, we read a grave as if it writes only to us, always bearing in mind the sentiment of that famous Latin funerary motif:

quod fuimus estis, quod sumus uos eritis

quod tu es ego fui, quod ego sum tu eris

quod sumus hoc eritis, fuimus quandoque quod estis.

What we were, you are, what we are, you will be,

What you are, I was, what I am, you will be

What we are, you will be, we were once what you are.

Any comments or suggestions are welcome.