King Alfred gazes over Winchester

KING ALFRED RULED the West Saxons from 871 to c886 and king of the Anglo-Saxons from c886 to 899. He was known as ‘Alfred the Great’. Amongst his many achievements was encouraging education and proposing that primary education was taught in (Old) English, rather than Latin. Winchester was Alfred’s capital and the place where he was buried there for a while. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, his remains were removed to Hyde Abbey near Winchester. This was destroyed in 1538 during the Reformation. Despite this, his grave remained intact until 1788, when the land where he was interred was redeveloped to build a jail. Since then, the whereabouts of his remains is unknown.

Despite, the disappearance of his bones, King Alfred dominates the centre of Winchester in the form of a huge statue near to the city’s cathedral, rich in gothic features, and its Guildhall, which is richly adorned by Victorian gothic features. The statue was erected in 1899. A plaque at its base reads:

“To the founder of the kingdom and nation D. October DCCCI. Winchester and the English name MDCCCI”

DCCCCI, being Roman for 901 and MDCCCCI, being Roman for 1901.

The tall bronze statue was designed by Sir William Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925), a sculpto who might have been unknown to me had I not become aware of him whilst walking near London’s Holland Park back in 2017. He was an important figure in the New Sculpture movement, whose members’ oeuvres bridged the gap between the neo-classical tradition, popular during the 19th century, and early modernist trends at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the next.

I was roaming around Kensington taking photographs of buildings of interest prior to writing a piece about them when I spotted a plaque on a house in Melbury Road. Number 2a was Thornycroft’s studio, which was designed by his friend, the architect John Belcher (1841-1913).

Although I did not realise that they were created by Thornycroft before I wrote this today, I am familiar with two of his other creations: the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside The Houses of Parliament and “The Sower” at Kew Gardens. His Alfred statue is far larger than the other two.

I wonder what the great king would have thought if he knew that at his feet today, there is a short-term car park and that his capital’s cathedral now charges a fee for visitors to enter within it.

Pets and musical instruments in north London

CLAVICHORDS, HARPSICHICHORDS, VIRGINALS, and other historical musical instruments can be viewed whilst walking through the rooms of Fenton House in Hampstead. When I first visited the house in the second half of the 1960s, anyone could touch the keyboards of these antique instruments even if they had not the faintest idea how to play them. Some visitors with musical skills used to play music on them. Nowadays, visitors are not permitted to touch the instruments without special permission from the management of this house maintained by the National Trust.

Built in about 1693 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1378648), Fenton House is named after Philip Robertson Fenton, a wealthy Riga merchant who exported goods to the UK. He bought it in 1793. Prior to getting its current name Fenton House was known as Ostend, then Clock House. Members of the Fenton family lived there until about 1835. Later residents included a Mrs Selwyn, and, according to Baratt, a historian of Hampstead, also:

“…Mr. Vaughan Davis; Thomas Turner, Treasurer of Guy’s Hospital and the Hon. Mrs. Margaret Murray, afterwards Baroness Gray in her own right, and great-aunt of the sixth Lord Mansfield. Lady Abercrombie also resided in this mansion for a time. Both Baroness Gray and Lady Abercrombie had been ladies-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, and her Majesty visited them on different occasions at Fenton House.”

Lady Binning, widow of Brigadier-General George Baillie-Hamilton (1856-1917), whom she married in 1892, bequeathed Fenton House to the National Trust in 1952, the year of her death.

The musical instruments within the house were collected by Major George Henry Benton Fletcher (1866-1944), who had a varied career including social work; archaeology; art and book illustrating; and soldiering. His collection of keyboard instruments was housed in various locations including Old Devonshire House in Holborn, where he lived until it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. Fortunately, his collection of musical instruments was saved because he had evacuated them to Gloucestershire earlier. In 1937, he had donated his house and the collection to the National Trust on the condition that he could live there for the rest of his life. His collection of musical instruments was moved to Fenton House in 1952.

At present (April 2021), visitors cannot enter the house, but are able to see the small but lovely gardens. The rear gardens are on two levels, the lower of these includes a small orchard. The upper level is a lawn surrounded by flower beds. At one end of the lawn, there is a sculpture of a standing figure holding a long, slender staff in his right hand and dressed in what looks like 18th century attire.

In one of the flowerbeds, I noticed three small carved stones that look like small tombstones. Two of these have become almost submerged in the soil. The third has the following carved on it:
“ BE??? 1933-1944”, the question marks being letters that were too indistinct to read. The stones reminded me of the small gravestones that I have seen in the pet cemetery on the edge of London’s Hyde Park. The volunteers working at the house confirmed that these stones mark burial sites of pets, who resided at Fenton House. The stone with a visible inscription most probably commemorates a pet owned by Lady Katharine Binning (née Salting), who bought the house in 1936 (https://alondoninheritance.com/london-buildings/fenton-house-hampstead/). As for the other two stones, without digging them up, which would not find favour with the National Trust, we cannot know when they were placed, or by whom. As they are the same design and material as the one inscribed stone, maybe it would be safe to guess that they mark the burial places of other pets owned by Lady Binning.

I look forward to entering Fenton House when covid19 regulations are relaxed in the future. From what I remember of earlier visits, its rooms are filled with interesting exhibits in addition to the lovely old musical instruments.

Hindu burials

Death is a morbid but fascinating topic, as is disposal of the dead. Many people living outside India, including myself, believe that the corpses of Hindus are only cremated. At least, I believed this until about 15 years ago, when I visited a Hindu burial ground in Bangalore.

In a Hindu Burial Ground in Bangalore

I have visited two Hindu cemeteries in Bangalore, one of them being next door to a major electric crematorium in the city centre. When I have asked about Hindu burials, I have been told that some sects of Hindus favour burial rather than cremation.

Recently, I read an article about Hindu burials (in Calcutta) by A Acharya and S Sanyal in the “Mint” newspaper (Bangalore), dated 24 Nov 2018. Here is a brief digest of the points contained within it.

1. Certain groups of Hindus are traditionally immersed or buried.

2. These groups include:

A. Saddhus or ascetics who perform their own mortuary rites when they become saddhus, and are considered to be dead to the social world, living ghosts one might say.

B. Some young children, especially those who have not yet developed visible teeth. Also, some parents prefer to bury their dead offspring, rather than watching them being cremated.

C. Lepers. It used to be feared that a leper’s body might release an infectious vapour during cremation.

D. Some members of the following communities prefer to bury their dead to avoid the dominating behaviour of the Hinduism of the Brahmins: dalits, Vaishnav, Hela, and Kaburpanthi.

3. Sometimes, burial is cheaper than cremation. In Calcutta, burial can cost half of the charge of cremation.

4. Burial of Marwaris and Vaishnavites is more costly than for others because these two groups bury their dead with lots of salt, which they believe speeds disolving the flesh off the bones.

This newspaper piece has helped me to understand the existence of cemeteries where Hindus are buried. I assume that at least some of what has been written about Calcutta also applies to Bangalore.

On a parting note, I used to believe that the traditional method of corpse disposal amongst the Parsis was to feed their dead to the vultures. A Parsi friend of ours died in Bangalore, which has Towers of Silence for the corpses of Parsis, was buried in a Parsi cemetery in Bangalore. I have visited that cemetery, which is located in the district if Malleswaram and is for Parsis only.

All of this goes to show that making generalisations about India is inadvisable. So, before you assert that Hindus do not eat beef, hold your tongue! Some sects of Hindus have eaten beef since time immemorial. If the present government in India bans the consumption of beef, it will not be only Christians and Muslims who will be affected, but also several million Hindus.

An empty grave

On one of my frequent visits to Bangalore in India, I was idly flicking through a street atlas of the city when I noticed a small green patch near to the Mysore Road. It was marked ‘Jewish Grave Yard’.

CEMY 1

I knew that there have been large Jewish communities in cities such as Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin, and Poona, but I had never associated Bangalore with a Jewish presence of any size. I visited the cemetery the next day. Surrounded by a huge Moslem cemetery on two sides and two roads, the well-maintained burial ground contains just over fifty graves, and the foundations of the hut which was used to prepare bodies for burial.

The land on which the cemetery is located was donated on the 9th September 1904 by Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the Maharaja of Mysore. On that day, Subedar Samuel Nagavkar died, and his is the earliest death recorded on the stones in the cemetery. A notice at the entrance informs us that the land was donated due to the “efforts of the late Mr Rubin Moses”. This might have been the case, but I have reason to believe that this man did not reach India until later.

CEMY 3

Rubin Moses Nahoum (‘Nahoum’ has been dropped by his descendants) left his birthplace, Iraq, to join the California Gold Rush. After the city of San Francisco was struck by an earthquake in April 1906, Rubin left for India in order to become involved in the Kolar goldfields near Bangalore. By 1910, he had opened a shoe store in Bangalore’s Commercial Street. It was to become the largest in southern Asia. The large premises still exist but in another reincarnation: it is now the home of ‘Woodies’ a vegetarian café popular with the numerous shoppers in what is Bangalore’s equivalent of London’s Oxford Street.  The Moses family, who still finance the maintenance of the cemetery, had a prayer hall in the now demolished Rubin House, a building which housed a shoe factory. Any Jew living in, or visiting, Bangalore was welcome to worship there. The most notable of these visitors was a future president of Israel, Ezer Weizman, who was stationed at an RAF base in Bangalore in 1946.

The majority of those buried in the cemetery were born in India and represent the various different types of Jews who lived there. Six of the graves commemorate Jews not born in India, five of them European. When Saida Abrovna Isako, a Russian Jewess, the wife of the proprietor of the Russian Circus, died in 1932, her coffin was brought to the cemetery on a bier drawn by white circus horses. Not far from her grave are those of a number of refugees from Nazi Europe. Siegfried Appel came from Bonn in Germany. His compatriots the dentist from Gleiwitz, Gunther Moritz Rahmer, and his mother Margarethe (née Schuller: the widow of Alfred Rahmer, a soap maker in Gleiwitz) lie close by, as does another German dentist, Carl Weinzweig, who had a practice in Bangalore’s MG Road.

Bangalore has been an important military base for several centuries. So, it was not surprising to discover some graves related to warfare. Yusuf Guetta died age 22 years in 1943. His grave records that he was an “evacuee” from Benghazi, the Libyan town evacuated by the British in April 1941. Yusuf lies next to the grave of Private Morris Minster of the South Wales Borderers Regiment. Morris passed away on the 4th of April 1942, aged 24. I looked up Private Minster on the Commonwealth Graves website and was surprised to find that he was recorded as being buried in the Madras War Cemetery, Chennai. Yet, I had seen and taken pictures of his grave in Bangalore.

CEMY 2

I wrote to the Royal Welch Regimental Museum.  Martin Everett replied, informing me that Morris, son of Solomon and Annie Minster of Salford, joined up maybe as early as 1931, and died in 1942, but not in action. He told me that at the time of his death there were no Welsh Borderers in India. They had all left for Iraq by November 1941. Morris was probably too ill to travel and remained in India. Mr Everett wrote that he believed that his remains had been moved to Chennai. He wrote also that:

“The Madras War Cemetery was created to receive Second World War graves from many civil and cantonment cemeteries in the south and east of India where their permanent maintenance could not be assured.”

Well, I can report that Morris Minster’s grave in Bangalore is certainly being well-maintained. When I enquired about the whereabouts of his body, a member of the Moses family, the last Bangalore born Jew still residing in the city, told me that a few years ago it had been disinterred and transferred to Chennai, as suggested by Martin Everett. My mind was set at rest.

I have published a photographic album showing all the graves in the cemetery, “Buried in Bangalore”.

It is available for purchase from:

http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1126091