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’

A Burial Fit For A King: Annie Fletcher, Royal Nurse In Residence

‘the Lancashire Girl who was called to nurse a King’

Todmorden Advertiser and Hebden Bridge Newsletter, May 1st 1903

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Nurse Annie Fletcher (Wigan Observer and District Advertiser May 14th, 1910)

I have previously written about my meanderings in All Saints Churchyard in Marple, Stockport, and the burial ground’s viridescent grave settings, interspersed with pathways of charmingly disordered stones, recycled and reused to form these sepulchral avenues. I had discussed my encounter in this place with Lieutenant Edmund Turner Young and his family memorial, a man lost on the sandy shores of Gallipoli at the age of 33. My eye was also struck, however, by a grave marker in black marble, seeming to sparkle iridescently in the dappled light of a sporadic sun.

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The grave of Annie Fletcher (and sister Mary). Image by A Grave Announcement

The inscription was addressed to one Annie Fletcher (Nan), advertising her profession as that of Resident Nurse to their Majesties King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria. I wondered why a testament to such esteemed royal service was situated in a rural parish churchyard, unassumingly guarding the adjacent cobbled pathway, mingling with the other stones of churchgoers long gone. The lengthy epitaph reads as follows:

Sacred to the Memory of

Annie Fletcher (Nan)

of

“Vedal” Heeley Road, St Annes-On-Sea.

Died 13th May 1933, Aged 68 Years.

For 30 Years Resident Nurse

(Betty)

To Their Majesties

King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra

and

H.R.H. Princess Victoria.

Also Mary Horton

Sister of the Above

Died 22nd December 1960

In her 90th Year

“At Rest.”

Ann Fletcher (known to all as Annie) was born in 1865 in Beeston, Yorkshire, the first child of William and Sarah Fletcher, whose origins lay in Aspull, Lancashire, a town near Wigan. Her father was involved in the coal-mining industry from an early age – on the 1851 census he is listed as a waggoner from the age of eleven. This was a back-breaking job necessitating the pushing of heavy and loaded carts away from the coalface. By 1871, Sarah and William had moved to Wigan where they were living at Ormandys Houses, a row of terraces south of the town centre, adjacent to the Leeds and Liverpool canal . Here, the six-year old Annie was joined by a brother, three-year old John William Fletcher, and a sister, new-born baby Mary, as seen on Annie’s grave marker above.

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Beeston, West Yorkshire, Birthplace of Annie Fletcher (‘Beeston. West Yorks. Station 1779989 ae7d591c’ by Ben Brooksbank is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The personal drive and ambition of Annie’s father ensured that the family rose through the ranks. Following another move to the town of Buckley in Flintshire, North-East Wales, William obtained the position of Colliery Manager, rising impressively from the lowest rung of the ladder to a senior managerial position in a 29-year period. There were now seven children, ranging from the ages of one to sixteen.

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A Typical Coal-Mining Scene (‘Coal-mining’ by The Graphic 1871 is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Annie, however, had been working as a nurse since 1891, associated with the Women’s Hospital in Shaw-Street, Liverpool, a place she had entered in 1889, during which time she trained under Miss Carless. From August 1893, to March 1896, she was made charge nurse. It was at this time that she encountered Royal Surgeon Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923), the man responsible for the care of Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man.” Having repaired for a while to Manchester, she undertook a brief stint in a similar hospital for women. In 1901, she went down to London where she held a series of other nursing appointments, one of which was as matron of a small hospital, before joining the staff of Miss Ethel M’Caul’s (1867-1931) nursing home. The latter was a Royal Red Cross nurse and prominent figure in the London nursing community who had established this private medical institution at 51 Welbeck Street. It was fitted with fifteen beds, an operating theatre and a staff of twenty, of whom ten were nurses.

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Sir Frederick Treves (‘Sir Frederick Treves. Lithograph, 1884’ by the Wellcome Trust licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This experience held her in such good stead that she became affiliated with the King Edward Hospital in Grosvenor Gardens and the Royal Physicians who operated there. The meteoric rise of her career was outlined by the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser of the 14th May 1910 as follows:

‘At first she was associated for several years with the Hospital for Women in Shaw-street, Liverpool, and before joining the staff of the nursing home under Miss Ethel M’Caul, R.R.C., she held other nursing appointments, among these being that of matron of a small hospital. She had so perfected her training in the profession she adopted that she was able to become associated with the King Edward Hospital, Grosvenor Gardens, London, with which the Royal physicians were identified, and in this way she became the King’s nurse.’

As a consequence of this, she took on the role of Second Nurse to King Edward VII himself in 1902, following his operation for appendicitis which had caused the coronation, set for the 26th of June 1902, to be postponed. Annie had taken on responsibility for the night shift in the rota, relieving her colleague Miss Haine. Both nurses had been selected on account of their special knowledge of abdominal surgery. The   procedure itself, performed by Sir Frederick Treves with a Miss Tarr as surgical nurse, at that same private nursing home of Miss Ethel M’Caul, had been somewhat revolutionary – a small incision was made in the abdominal wall, through which a pint of pus from the infected abscess was drawn. Edward made a swift recovery, apparently even sitting up in bed the next day smoking a cigar. The very same operating table upon which the King had lain was later marked with a metal plate with the King’s signature commemorating the event. Edward, however, had reportedly been a rather difficult patient, but ‘met his match in Sister Fletcher,’ according to the latter’s obituary in the Aberdeen Press and Journal of the 19th of May, 1933:

GAVE KING AN ORDER.

‘There has just died perhaps the only commoner in the realm who ever gave an order to King Edward and insisted on it being carried out…This was Sister Annie Fletcher, who nursed him through the appendicitis that caused the postponement of his coronation.

King Edward was not the most amenable of patients, but when it came to taking (or rather, to his thinking of not taking) his medicine, he met his match in Sister Fletcher.’

Her conduct during this difficult period of ill-health for the king resulted in her permanent appointment to the nursing staff of the Royal Household, caring not only for Edward but also for his wife Queen Alexandra and daughter Princess Victoria. Annie had been personally thanked by the King and presented with, in the words of the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (25th November, 1905), ‘a valuable gift.’ She accompanied the family on their European travels and even stayed on the Royal Yacht, the “Victoria and Albert,” for summer cruises. It was on the latter that King Edward recuperated once he was well enough to leave hospital after his surgery.

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The Victoria and Albert Royal Yacht (‘HMY Victoria and Albert’ by the William Lind Collection is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The King and Queen never failed to remember their debt to Annie for her care and skill during Edward’s ‘Coronation’ illness, according to the Cheltenham Examiner on the 12th of May, 1910:

KING EDWARD’S NURSE

‘…It was Nurse Fletcher’s untiring devotion during King Edward’s illness previous to his Coronation that won for her the appointment of Royal Nurse. Her skill on that occasion was fully appreciated by the late King, and both he and Queen Alexandra frequently referred to the services which Nurse Fletcher rendered in the sick room during those anxious weeks in the summer of 1902.’

It also brought her attention from certain quarters, as can be seen here in the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser on the 16th of July 1902, in which the Lady Mayoress of Liverpool herself is said to be asking after Annie:

‘The Lady Mayoress of Liverpool has been making enquiries with regard to Nurse Annie Fletcher, who is nursing his Majesty the King. It is interesting to note that Nurse Fletcher entered the Hospital for Women, Shaw-Street, Liverpool, in 1889, and was trained under Miss Carless. From August, 1893, to March 1896, she was charge nurse. She has been on the staff of Miss M’Coll’s [sic] Home in London, and nurse principally for Sir Frederick Treves.’

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Queen Alexandra and Edward VII (‘Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII in Coronation Robes’ is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In the wake of her nursing assistance to the King, she was considered of such public interest to the Nottinghamshire Evening Post that the occasion of her taking a holiday was deemed newsworthy:

‘Nurse Fletcher, one of the nurses who attended the King during his recent illness, is spending a holiday in her home at Ashton-in-Makerfield.’

Annie continued to receive this kind of recognition. In 1903, in the May edition of the magazine Girls Realm, as part of a series of articles authored by Miss Caroline Masters on ‘girls that the counties were proud of,’ a piece focused upon Lancashire, profiling the nurse. The edition itself was reviewed by the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser on the 29th of April, 1903:

Miss Fletcher, of Ashton.

‘Last of all the writer comes to the King’s nurse, Miss Annie Fletcher, whose father and family reside at Ashton, where she, too, is pleased to make her home when relaxation from duty permits. This is the reference:- “When, last June, King Edward VII was suddenly stricken down with illness, and the world paused aghast at the news, Lancashire was proud to know that one of the two nurses – Miss Annie Fletcher – chosen to nurse him had her home in its county.” A portrait is given of Miss Fletcher, as well as of Mrs. Banks, and most of the other Lancashire women whose excellences the article extols.’

In 1904, Nurse Fletcher had also taken on a role as head nurse in a newly-opened home caring for officers wounded during the South African War (Morning Post, 16th April 1904):

NURSING HOME FOR OFFICERS.

‘Miss Agnes Keyser, who, in conjunction with her sister, carried on such excellent work in Grosvenor Crescent nursing soldiers who had been wounded during the South African war, has now opened a similar home or hospital at 9, Grosvenor-gardens. By permission of his Majesty the home is to be known as King Edward VII’s Hospital for Officers, and the head nurse under Sister Agnes is Nurse Fletcher, who nursed the King in his illness two years ago.’

Annie’s work in the Royal Household was again brought to public attention following a ‘slight accident’ suffered by Edward whilst shooting at Windsor in 1905, reported by the Inverness Courier on the 21st of November, 1905:

NURSE FLETCHER. 

‘King Edward’s slight accident at Windsor brought out a fact not generally known, that for some time past there has been a trained hospital nurse in constant attendance on his Majesty’s family and Household. The lady selected for this enviable position is one of two nurses who attended the King in his “Coronation” illness after his operation, the other nurse, Miss Haine, an Irish lady, being now matron of the Convalescent Home for Officers of the King’s Services at Osborne. Miss Fletcher, who is on permanent Royal duty, travels with the Queen and Princess Victoria, the rather delicate health of the Princess being possibly the reason for this arrangement. In having a nurse always at hand in case of sudden illness or accident, the King and Queen are following the example of the late Queen Victoria, who, for some time before her death, was accompanied by a trained nurse, as a sudden summons to a hospital or home for such an attendant might have caused great anxiety to the nation.’

It is also stated in the Staffordshire Advertiser (25th November, 1905) that without Nurse Fletcher’s ‘timely attention,’ the incident may well have been far more serious.

In that same year, she also nursed Princess Victoria through appendicitis, who, like her father Edward, was plagued by such episodes of poor health. This progress report in the Nottingham Evening Post on the 2nd of February 1905 names Annie in detailing the medical staff responsible for the Princess:

‘Her Royal Highness’s nurses are Miss Fletcher, who nursed the King after his operation and Miss Isaacs, both from Miss M’Caul’s home.’

In 1909, as recognition for her steadfast service, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross in the King’s Birthday Honours, as seen here in the Daily Telegraph & Courier (London) of the 9th November in that same year:

‘The King has been graciously pleased to confer the decoration of the Royal Red Cross upon Miss Annie Fletcher, who has been a hospital nurse for twenty years, in recognition of devoted service rendered by her to his Majesty and her Majesty the Queen since 1902.’

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The Royal Red Cross (‘The Order of the Royal Red Cross and Bar’ by Robert Prummel is licensed under CC by 2.0)

The Wigan Observer and District Advertiser on the 13th of November 1909 also proudly announced the conferment of the honour upon their native resident, including the incidence of a public notation of her work in a speech given at a local school’s annual prize distribution:

KING HONOURS LOCAL NURSE.

MISS FLETCHER IN THE ROYAL BIRTHDAY LIST.

‘In the list of Birthday Honours, published on Tuesday, appears the name of Miss Annie Fletcher, of Ashton-in-Makerfield, upon whom the King has conferred the decoration of the Royal Red Cross, in recognition of devoted service rendered by her to his Majesty and the Queen since 1902. Miss Fletcher has been a nurse for the past twenty years.

PUBLIC REFERENCE AT PLATT BRIDGE.

The Chairman of the Hindley District Council, Mr. H. J. Bouchier, speaking at the annual prize distribution of St. Nathaniel’s Evening School, Platt Bridge, on Wednesday evening, said that in looking through the King’s birthday honours list, he saw the name of Annie Fletcher, who used to live not many miles from where they stood in that meeting, and he believed she went to school in that district. Miss Fletcher was one of the nurses to attend the King during his illness, and was very well thought of in the Royal Family. She had no more chances than the girls present that evening, possibly not as good, but by her own endeavours and ambition she had gone up from once place to another until she stood as high as any nurse in England could wish. (Applause). The girls present, he said, must not be disappointed if they could not become great nurses like Miss Fletcher, but they could all at any rate make the best of their opportunities. If they did not get to anything great they would be better men and women for having improved themselves. (Applause).’

King Edward VII was plagued by poor health. In March 1910, he contracted a chill whilst staying at Biarritz, and Annie was telegraphed for, immediately departing for the Continent. Her nursing skills were significant in his recovery, according to a report on Edward’s final year in the British Medical Journal of the 14th May:

‘On his way through France he caught a fresh chill, and during the early days of his stay at Biarritz his condition caused some anxiety. The skill of his physician and the care of his nurse, combined with the favourable influence of the climate, enabled him to shake off the enemy for a time.’

In April, the King fell seriously ill and Annie was immediately summoned to his bedside as someone who ‘understood his Majesty’s constitution probably better than any of his medical attendants’ (Wigan Observer and District Advertiser, 14th May, 1910):

NURSE FLETCHER AND THE KING’S ILLNESS.

‘Nurse Fletcher, of Bryn, who nursed the King through his previous illness was summoned to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday morning, last week, not Monday as previously stated. After being in attendance on his Majesty at Biarritz, Nurse Fletcher was taking a short holiday with her family in Bryn when she was summoned to the Palace. The first telegram was received at 7.23 on Tuesday morning: a second following an hour later at 8.25 and Nurse Fletcher left at 11.32 taking first available train to London.

The nurse summoned to his Majesty’s bedside was Miss Fletcher, who cared for him after the operation he underwent in the year of his accession and she was also at Biarritz during his first attack of bronchitis early in March. She is a[n]… expert in whom all the doctors attending the king have the most implicit reliance. Her Majesty also had the utmost confidence in Miss Fletcher, who, a contemporary states, understood his Majesty’s constitution probably better than any of his medical attendants.’

Despite Annie’s and the Royal Physicians’ best efforts, King Edward VII passed away at 11:30pm on the 28th April, having suffered a series of heart attacks.

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The Funeral Procession of King Edward VII passing along Piccadilly (The Herald, 28th May, 1910)

Amidst the widespread newspaper coverage of the event, Annie herself was the recipient of a sizeable biography, again in the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (14th May, 1910), demonstrating her status as a prominent figure among her local community in Wigan. I reproduce the account here in full as a manifestation of regional pride, even amongst so much national mourning:

KING EDWARD’S NURSE.

MISS ANNIE FLETCHER, R.R.C.,

OF WIGAN.

‘On page 3 will be found a portrait of Miss Annie Fletcher, King Edward’s nurse during his illness, wearing the decoration conferred upon her by the late King. Nurse Fletcher, who has had the great honour of occupying the distinguished position of Royal nurse ever since King Edward came to the throne is, it is interesting to note, a native of Wigan, having been born in the Gidlow district [sic]. Some twenty years ago her parents removed to Brynn, and took up residence in Wigan-road, her father being an under-manager under the Garswood Hall Colliery Company.

Nurse Fletcher’s career reflects the greatest credit not only on herself but on the profession to which she belongs. At first the was associated for several years with the Hospital for Women in Shaw-street, Liverpool, and before joining the staff of the nursing home under Miss Ethel M’Caul, R.R.C., she held other nursing appointments, among these being that of matron of a small hospital. She had so perfected her training in the profession she adopted that she was able to become associated with the King Edward Hospital, Grosvenor Gardens, London, with which the Royal physicians were identified, and in this way she became the King’s nurse.

It was shortly before the date fixed for the King’s Coronation when his Majesty was seized with a sudden illness, and the operation for appendicitis was so skilfully performed that Nurse Fletcher was brought into close nursing association with Royalty. She was then placed by Sir Frederick Treves as second nurse to the King, and so greatly were her services appreciated that she was later taken into the Royal household as a permanent nurse. In this way was her skill and devotion recognised. When the King journeyed to Biarritz on his last visit, it was Nurse Fletcher who was chosen to be in attendance upon his Majesty, and when the King returned to London she was granted a week’s holiday, when she came on a visit to her relatives and friends in the Wigan district.

Miss Fletcher’s mother is dead, and it was while taking this holiday, staying with her father at Brynn, that the telegram asking her to return to Buckingham Palace was received. This was on Tuesday morning, and Nurse Fletcher made all haste, taking the first available train to London, and she was in constant attendance in the Royal apartments until the King passed away.

Nurse Fletcher’s services, it is interesting to note, have received Royal recognition. She was honoured with the Order of the Red Cross in King Edward’s birthday list last year, and she has received many presents, most of which bear touching inscriptions, from various members of the Royal Family. When she was chosen as a Royal nurse her appointment at Court was duly gazetted.’

As noted above, Annie’s father and family had later returned to the Wigan area from Flintshire, settling in Brynn. In 1901 they were living at 343 Wigan Road with William taking up the position of Under-Manager (Below Ground) at the Garswood Hall Colliery Company. Annie’s mother had by this time died and William was living with his three sons, all of whom were employed in the business of coal – Robert, 28, as a Hewer, Thomas, 21, as a Colliery Wagon Shunter (Above Ground) and Harry, 19, also as a Hewer. The family’s increased wealth and status, as well as the loss of Sarah, had also brought about the employment of a domestic housekeeper. In 1911, William had retired and was living with his son Robert, a coal salesman, and the latter’s wife Hannah. The couple had three children, one of whom was named Annie. It is not inconceivable to surmise that, following Annie’s newfound fame for her part in attending to Edward on his deathbed, her brother wished to honour his sister with this familial gesture, perpetuating her memory through this expression of pride and satisfaction at her achievement. Annie herself had never married and remained childless, meaning that such a move must have been especially meaningful to her.

The local zeal generated by these connections had led not only the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (as seen above), but also a number of other publications to falsely attribute Annie’s birthplace to Wigan, a state of affairs corrected by a letter to the editor of the Yorkshire Post on the 13th of May 1910:

THE KING’S NURSE.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE YORKSHIRE POST.

Sir, ‘ The other day there appeared in one of the Wigan newspapers an account of the life of Nurse Fletcher, who was in attendance upon our late King during his last illness. This paragraph stated that Nurse Fletcher was born at Wigan. Her friends at Beeston wish me to state that she was born at Crow Nest Lane, Beeston, and is descended from an old Beeston family. Your readers may be interested to know that Leeds has the honour of being the birthplace of the nurse that has been so much valued by our Royal Family in their sickness – Yours, etc.,

W.L.INGLE.

Millshaw, May 12.

 In a later report published in the British Medical Journal and referred to above (May 14th, 1910), Annie Fletcher is singled out as being instrumental in Edward’s care, in company with the King’s Physicians:

‘The King was attended throughout by his Physicians-in-Ordinary (Sir Francis Laking, Sir James Reid, and Sir Douglas Powell), and by one of his Physicians Extraordinary (Dr. Bertrand Dawson). Dr. St. Clair Thomson being called in consultation some time ago, his Majesty underwent a course of vaccine treatment at the hands of Dr. Spitta, bacteriologist at St. George’s Hospital. All the resources of modern science were used in the last illness. He was nursed by Miss Fletcher, whose ministrations he had learned to appreciate at the time of the operation performed upon him by Sir Frederick Treves.’

Throughout the nation, Nurse Fletcher was cited in a great number of regional newspapers, thanking her for her attendance upon Edward prior to his death, as seen here in the Clifton Society on the 12th of May, 1910, a Bristol publication:

THE ROYAL NURSE.

‘Many kindly thoughts, will, says The Globe, be turned to Miss Fletcher, who nursed King Edward through that illness which fell with such dramatic suddenness on the eve of his Coronation, and who brought all her skill and tenderness to the Royal bedside in the last and fatal hours. Miss Fletcher had become a part of the Royal household, respected and honoured by all who have been associated with her. Her exalted patient had the greatest regard for Nurse Fletcher, and not long ago bestowed upon her the decoration of the Royal Cross.’

In 1912, on the two year anniversary of the King’s death, Annie was even invited to a private service attended by members of the Royal Family in the Albert Memorial Chapel, Windsor, to celebrate Edward’s life.

Indeed, Annie had remained close to the family. After Edward’s passing, she had continued as nurse for Queen Alexandra until the latter passed away in 1925. The following image from The Sphere on the 5th of December in that same year depicts the deathbed scene shortly after the Queen had passed away. Nurse Fletcher had been in constant attendance on her since her ill-health had forced her to retire to Sandringham House. Annie is shown at her bedside in the right-hand corner of the illustration, tentatively drawing the curtain back.

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Annie subsequently retired to Lancashire, a lifetime’s dedicated service behind her. She took up residence in Heeley Road in the seaside resort of St. Anne’s on Sea, in a house whose name consisted of a royal acronym expressing her great love of this family to whom she had given so many years of her life – “Vedal” (V for Victoria, ED for Edward and AL for Alexandra).

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Lytham St. Anne’s and its Promenade (‘The Promenade at Lytham St. Anne’s’ by Raymond Knapman is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

She remained close with the Royal Family, as is noted in her obituary printed in the Manchester Guardian on the 15th of May 1933, with Princess Victoria even reported to have stayed with her on a number of occasions:

A ROYAL HOUSEHOLD NURSE

‘Miss Fletcher nursed the late King Edward when he had appendicitis. She remained with the royal family and nursed Queen Alexandra up to the time of her death, when Nurse Fletcher retired as nurse from the royal household. She was awarded the Order of the Red Cross in 1910 [sic]. Princess Victoria, who frequently visited her at St. Anne’s, has telegraphed her sympathy with the family.’

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Princess Victoria (‘Princess Victoria of the United Kingdom, daughter of Edward VII’ by W. & D. Downey is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

These visits of Princess Victoria to the nurse were later recalled the former had passed away, detailed here in the Lancashire Evening Post on the 3rd of December, 1935, two years after Annie herself had passed away:

TO SEE OLD NURSE.

Princess Victoria’s Visit to Fylde Recalled

‘The death of Princess Victoria (as reported on page 3) recalls visits which Her Royal Highness paid some years ago to Lytham St. Annes, when, as an incognito visitor she stayed with a former nurse of the Royal Family in Heeley-road.

Princess Victoria at that time stayed with Nurse Fletcher , who had been a servant of the Royal Household practically all her life. While staying there Princess Victoria planted a small beech tree and inscribed certain markings on a window of the house as souvenirs of her visit.

The beech tree remains, but the window was removed by relatives of Nurse Fletcher when she died about two years ago.

It is also understood that while on visits to the Fylde Princess Victoria visited relations of Nurse Fletcher living at a house in North Shore, Blackpool. Few people, however, were aware of her visit there on account of the strict secrecy which was maintained.

Mr. H. Mosscrop, a newsagent, of Headroomgate-road, St. Anne’s, speaking to our reporter to-day, recalled Princess Victoria’s visit to the town. “She was often seen walking around here, and frequently came into the shop,” he said, “but it was not until later that we realised who our distinguished visitor was.”‘

Annie herself had been taken ill with pneumonia in 1933, whilst staying with her sister Mary in Peacefield, Marple. She passed away at the age of 68 on the 13th of May and was buried in the churchyard at All Saints on the 16th of that same month.

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All Saints Churchyard, Marple – Image by A Grave Announcement

Upon death, she left a considerable estate amounting to around £100,000 in today’s money, according to the Dundee Evening Telegraph on the 5th of September 1933:

‘Nurse to King Edward, Miss Annie Fletcher, of Heeley Road, Lytham St Anne’s, left £1968.’

In addition to this monetary sum, she also bestowed a watch given to her by King Edward VII  upon her nephew, as reported in the Lancashire Evening Post on the 4th of September 1933:

ROYAL NURSE’S WILL

Watch Presented by King Edward to Lytham Woman

‘Miss Annie Fletcher, R.R.C.O., Vedal, 150 Heeley Road, Lytham St. Annes, for many years a nurse in the Royal household and nurse to King Edward VII, when he was operated upon for appendicitis and during his last illness, and who died on May 13th last, aged 69 [sic] years, left estate of the gross value of £1,968, with her personalty £1,921.

She left to her nephew, the Rev. Harry Fletcher, the gold watch presented to her by his late Majesty, King Edward VII; and one year’s wages to her maid, Harriet Mainwaring, if in service at her death.’

This timepiece was one of a number of gifts presented to Annie by the Royal Family, the rest of which were sold at Bonhams in 2003.

Nurse Fletcher’s death had been reported in a wide variety of regional newspapers, from Scotland to Southern England, signalling the continuing interest in the nurse whose name, at the height of her fame, was known throughout the nation. Ultimately, her life stands as a remarkable exercise in  social mobility as coal-miner’s daughter rose to become Royal Nurse to King Edward VII, an extraordinary achievement for an extraordinary woman, and a fitting voice for 2018’s celebratory year of Extraordinary Women.

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

With thanks to the profile of Annie Fletcher’s life by the Marple Local History Society for  additional background information.

 

Strangely Enough – Fantastic Deaths and Where to Find Them

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.

George Bernard Shaw

Archived newspaper collections are fantastic resources for those interested in obituaries and epitaphs. A particular motif is the ‘strange death’ series common to a vast swathe of newspapers, covering everything from animal-related fatalities to enigmatic acts of fatal criminality. Curiously terse in nature, these odd notations prove that the rich tapestry of life is amply represented in the multiplicitous diversity of death. Occasionally, lengthier versions would be produced, often containing excerpts from the transcripts of coroners’ proceedings. Beneath the veneer of gallow’s humour and almost fetishisation of curiosity, such tales have their very own sense of peculiar tragedy, even as they advertise themselves to us with macabre appeal. In this post, I will present an assortment of these odd, unexpected and, ultimately, wretched demises, finding that, paradoxically, there often exists more of life in the irrevocable grasp of death’s end.

I begin with a piece in the Aberdeen Evening Express of the 16th June 1886, presenting a case of deathly coincidence, proving that we should think twice before invoking the divine power of God in entreaty:

STRANGE DEATH.

‘A singular affair is reported from Greenville, Michigan. James Martin served notice of ejectment upon Abraham Van Horn, a Crystal township farmer, claiming the title to Van Horn’s farm. A few years ago the farm was sold to Van Horn by Mrs Lydia Lyons who said, when Van Horn expressed doubt about the clearness of the title, that she “hoped God would strike her dead if the title was not all right.” When Van Horn was served with notice of ejectment he went to Greenville and consulted a lawyer. The latter advised him to call on Mrs Lyons about the matter, and toward noon Van Horn visited the woman at her home, She heard him through, and then dropped to the floor dead.’

Death by misadventure in the form of an encounter with murderous poultry is the surprising meat of this next unfortunate demise (The Scotsman, 27th August 1929):

‘The child was sitting at play in his father’s garden when he was suddenly attacked by a big cock, which pecked him so furiously that he died a few hours later.’

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The China fowl – Shanghae, Cochin, and “Brahma. (1874) (14582281449)” by Fae is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the West London Observer of the 7th January 1927, it is made clear that there are more fatal consequences to dancing than simply having two left feet:

NEW YEAR DANCER’S DEATH

UNUSUAL INQUEST THEORY

‘Collapsing in her sister’s arms early on Tuesday morning, Lillian Florence Goose, 34, shop assistant, of Mendora Road, Fulham, was dead when a doctor saw her.

At the inquest at Hammersmith yesterday (Thursday) medical evidence showed that deceased, who had complained recently of a pain in the side, died from shock and peritonitis, following internal obstruction.

Mrs Chainey, the sister, said deceased was dancing on New Year’s Eve.

Dr. Ross, in answer to a question by the Coroner, said it was possible that the exertion of dancing brought about the trouble.

The Coroner, in recording a verdict of “Death from natural causes,” said it was very likely that the woman brought on the rupture by the exertion of dancing.’

It is often said that ‘smoking kills’ but it appears the latter’s reach extends far beyond the noxious fumes of its cancerous miasmas. The following is taken from the Western Daily Press of the 2nd December 1931:

BLAGDON FARMER’S STRANGE DEATH.

‘The remarkable cause of a Blagdon farmer’s death was disclosed at an inquest held by Mr W. G. Burrough, Coroner for North Somerset, who was found lying dead at a foot of a hayrick he had been cutting on Saturday last.

Medical evidence showed that death was caused by the stem of Watts’s tobacco pipe penetrating his windpipe. Watss probably struck the edge of the haystack with his pipe during his fall.

A verdict of “accidental death” was recorded.’

As children, we are commonly warned by parents and guardians not to talk whilst eating. This cautionary excerpt in The Scotsman of the 18th June, 1908 proves that there is indeed truth in the truism:

LABOURER’S STRANGE DEATH. – ‘At Gillingham, Kent, yesterday, a labourer named William Baldock, aged 36, was on his way home from work, when he attempted to put a large piece of raw beef in his mouth. A companion commented upon the strange proceeding, when Baldock replied he could eat anything. The act of speaking, however, caused him to swallow the meat, which stuck in his throat. A doctor was summoned, but death from choking ensued despite all efforts to relieve the man.’

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“History_of_Inventions_USNM_11_Tobacco_Pipe” by Animalparty is licensed under CC by 2.0

Incidents surrounding those suffering from mental health conditions and often confined to institutions were a especial source of fascination, albeit transmitted in a manner lexically unpalatable to our contemporary tastes The following example is drawn from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the 27th November 1894:

STRANGE DEATH OF A LUNATIC.

‘A lunatic’s strange death has been investigated by Coroner Roumieu, at Brookwood Asylum. The deceased, George Stevens, was a native of Guildford, and had been confined in the County Asylum 11 years. During the temporary absence of the foreman of the painter’s shop, deceased took some green paint, which contained arsenic, mixed it with water, and swallowed it. Just before he died he stated that a “voice told him to drink the green paint, so as to get to Greenland’s icy mountains.” The jury found that the man did not drink the pain with the intention of committing suicide.’

Strange death reports also frequently invoke supernatural and mysterious elements, demonstrating that the fondness of the Victorians for eerie happenings extended well into the twentieth century. In The Scotsman of the 27th November 1929, there is reported a case of the the unearthly and unexplained on the Hebridean island of monastic tranquillity, Iona:

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“Iona. Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeath” by Pamla J. Eisenberg is licensed under CC BY 2.0

IONA MYSTERY.

Woman Visitor’s Strange Death.

UNCLOTHED ON HILLSIDE.

‘A remarkable story of the death of a woman comes from Iona, the historical island off the West Coast of Scotland. The woman, Miss Nora Emily Fonario, of Mortlake Road, Kew, London, was found dead on a lonely hillside last week. Her unclothed body was lying on a large cross which had been cut out of the turf, apparently with a knife which was lying nearby. Round the neck was a silver chain and cross.

Miss Fonario, who arrived in Iona during the summer, disappeared on Sunday, November 12. She was a woman of extraordinary character. Mrs Varney, her housekeeper at Kew, told a reporter yesterday that Miss Fonario, whose father is an Italian doctor, did not believe in doctors, and was always “curing people by telepathy.”

“If people would not let her heal them she would moan and cry piteously, but she was otherwise cheerful and happy,” said Mrs Varney. “Once she announced her intention to fast for 40 days, but was persuaded to give it up after a fortnight.

“She dressed in a long cape-like garment made by herself, and never wore a hat. Several times she said she had been to thefar beyondand had come back to life after spending some time in another world.”

WEIRD STORIES

A letter she sent to Mrs Varney last week stated:- “Do not be surprised if you do not hear from me for a long time. I have a terrible healing case.”

Occasionally, it is stated, Miss Fonario went off into trances and would remain in that condition for several hours. Her death was apparently due to exposure.

Among weird stories now in circulation in the island regarding Miss Fonario are mysterious remarks about blue lights having been seen near the body, and of a cloaked man.

A number of letters, said to be of a strange character, have been taken possession of by the police, who, it is also stated, have them on to the Procurator-Fiscal for his consideration.

Miss Fonario had been heard again and again to express hatred of Italy and Italians, and her hostility to them was carried so far that she refused to meet them.’

Such published accounts were not concerned with human beings alone. In this brief aside from the Cornishman of the 8th September 1898, a bovine catastrophe is made the subject of consternation in news from the village of Constantine:

STRANGE DEATH OF A COW.– A cow, the property of Mr. John Williams, Sevorgan, Constantine, was put into a small meadow of clover to be milked; and left there for about an hour. Afterwards turned into the road, in a very short time she died.

Cow_Drawing

“Cow_Drawing” by Fae is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So recognised was this journalistic trope that certain governmental organisations even subjected the phenomenon to statistical review. The Hampshire Telegraph of the 30th December 1938 furnished the following overview, drawn from the work of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in Canada:

6,000 STRANGE DEATHS

MEN MORE UNLUCKY

Reuter telegraphed from Ottawa on Saturday:-

More than 6,000 people in Canada lost their lives in strange deaths during the past 12 months, according to a report published here by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics:

People died getting into bed, getting out of bed, getting into the bath, getting out of the bath, from insect bites, and from taking the wrong medicine.

Four hundred children under four were killed by accidents. They fell into boiling water, wells, or open fireplaces, or were medicines supposed to be administered externally.

Older children also died through freak causes. A girl set her celluloid comb down on a stove after combing her hair and died in the ensuing blaze. A young boy playing with a cigarette-lighter set his clothes on fire and died from the burns.

Another boy heeding his mother’s call to dinner slid down the bannisters to death.

Men were more likely to be killed than women, according to the report. At least two-thirds of the accidental deaths occurred to men.

Explosions claimed the lives of some, while others were shot by their friends when hunting.

A large number fell through ice into the rivers beneath and several fell from high buildings while cleaning the windows.’

A further useful genealogical source for fatalities unusual and outlandish are parish records, providing information on burials (in addition to births and marriages) prior to 1837, when civil registration proper began. These handwritten documents, sole records for the significant milestones of the lives of individuals, were originally mandated by Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General to Henry VIII, before the practice was refined by a directive of Elizabeth I. Characterised by gaps, errors and considerable variation in detail, these entries nonetheless provide a wealth of knowledge as regards the demises of those within the bounds of the parish. Deaths perceived to be of particular note for their idiosyncrasy and irregularity received, in many instances, a fuller representation, sometimes even in narrative form. The following, taken from the 1757 registers of Melling in Lonsdale, a parish in Lancashire, perfectly illustrates the literary flourish employed by clerks when faced with the dire, miserable and downright unfortunate:

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Image by A Grave Announcement

The mystery in these records is often not so much in the odd manner of death itself, but in the strangeness surrounding the circumstances of the fatality and its unresolved nature, as seen here in the 1852 parish register of burials at St Mary the Virgin in Walney, Barrow-in-Furness (1744-1858):

Walney Parish Burials 1852.jpeg

Image by A Grave Announcement

The fascination with death in all its forms, literally a necrophilia (in, of course, its broader sense as a human psychological trope, rather than as perverse pathology) has ensured that, even today, there exists a continuing and widespread preoccupation with the outlandish and singular expiration. Such a phenomenon forms part of the cultural establishment, identified and discussed by the late theologian and feminist philosopher Grace Jantzen, former Professor of Religion, Culture and Gender at the University of Manchester. In her work Foundations of Violence (2004), Jantzen argues that Western culture and Christianity’s compulsive fixation on the aesthetics and rhetoric of death, manifesting itself in violence and destruction, has led to deadly postmodern consequences which ought to be disrupted with a newfound ethos of beauty and desire:

‘From militarization, death camps, genocide to exploitation, commodification and the accumulation of wealth, from the construction of pleasure and desire to the development of terminator genes, from the violence on the streets to the heaven-obsessed hymnody of evangelical churches, preoccupation with death and the means of death and the combat with death is ubiquitous. It is a necrophilia so deeply a part of the western symbolic that it emerges at every turn…our language is full of metaphors of war, weaponry, violence and death.’

In the end, reading and engaging with these extraordinary incidences of the freakish and the fantastic, beyond the gallows humour and the terse evocations of the somehow mundanely bizarre, reinforces and reaffirms our own sense of existence, forcing us to simultaneously face and shake off the inescapability of mortality – in this way, the weird keeps us alive.

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“Death and the Antiquaries” by Arallyn! is licensed under CC BY 2.0