John Constable and a bookseller’s grave

ST JOHN’S IS the parish church for the C of E parish of Hampstead. The present building, designed by Henry Flitcroft and John Sanderson, was dedicated in 1747. It stands on Church Row, which is lined with elegant 18th century houses and links Heath Street with Frognal.

Church Row, Hampstead, London

The church is at the northern edge of a graveyard well populated with funerary monuments, including the grave of the artist John Constable (1776-1837). This grave is in the old part of the church’s cemetery, which was hardly used after 1878, when it was officially closed. A larger, newer graveyard is on a sloping plot across Church Row and north of St John’s. This is the burial place for a host of well-known people as well as the family of Hampstead’s Pearly Kings and Queens.  

When I used to visit Hampstead in the 1960s and early 1970s, I used to ‘haunt’ a most wonderful second-hand bookshop on Perrins Lane, which leads east from Heath Street. It was owned by an old gentleman, whose name, Francis Norman, I only learnt many years after he died. Recently, I met a member of Mr Norman’s family. He told me that Mr Norman died in 1983 and is buried in the cemetery at St Johns, describing the location as: “by a wall near Harrison and the children’s playground”.

I was not sure to whom he was referring when he mentioned “Harrison”. At the church, we asked a lady about Mr Norman’s grave.  Hearing that he had died in 1983, she suggested that we looked in the newer part of the cemetery. This has a wall that borders a children’s playground. When I looked around carefully, I found  neither any monument to Harrison nor Norman’s gravestone.

On returning to the church and explaining our unsuccessful quest, the lady sent me to see another church official, who was working in an office attached to the church. This lady knew exactly where Mr Norman was buried. She took me into the older part of the cemetery and showed me the gravestones of Francis and his wife Sonia, which lie next to each other. They are next to a small wall and close to a large monument to the clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776). He was the inventor of a marine chronometer, which solved the problem of how to ascertain longitude whilst at sea. His story can be read in “Longitude” by Davina Sobell.  Norman’s grave is not far from that of John Constable.

Francis and Sonia Norman are amongst the few people buried in the old cemetery after it was closed in 1878.  My helpful informant at the church did not know why they had been interred there instead of in the newer part.

Francis Norman was a kindly, wise, and friendly fellow, who did not mind me and several of my friends spending hours in his shop, often spending very little on his extremely reasonably priced books. I have fond memories of the time that we spent in his presence, which are described in my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92).  So, it was with great pleasure that I met one of his family and was able to pay my respects at his grave.

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