THE WALLS OF Bath Abbey are lined with memorials to the dead, many of whom are buried within the church. A remarkably large percentage of the funerary memorials commemorate the lives of people who worked in Britain’s colonies. There are monuments to people who lived and worked in the Caribbean, North America, and Asia, especially for the East India Company, which ‘ran’ and exploited India until 1858.
For example, Francis Mure Esq worked for many years in the civil service of “the Honourable the East India Company on the Bengal Establishment”. He died in Bath in 1810 aged 53. Henry Lynch Esq MD “of the island of Barbadoes” died in Bath in 1823, aged 49. Also from this place in the Caribbean was Benjamin Alleyne Cox Esq who died in Bath in 1802 aged 74. In 1812, 78-year-old Rawson Hart Boddam also died in Bath, after having served as the Governor of Bombay in 1784. Robert Brooke Esq, who had served in the Bengal Civil Service died in 1843 aged 72 is also interred in Bath Abbey. Peter Read Cazalet, “of the Honourable East India Madras Civil Service”, who died in 1859, aged 37, is yet another old ‘India hand’, who is buried in Bath. Also in the abbey are the remains of Major General Sir Henry White KCB, part of whose inscription reads chillingly like some of the news bulletins in the current Ukraine crisis: “The judicious Position taken by his Division in the Attack on Agra Which accelerated its fall And the Reduction of The Strong Hill Fort at Gwalior By Siege Are Proofs of Zeal and Military Skill…” He died in 1822.
What puzzled me was why did so many of these men from the colonies ended their lives in Bath. Was it because they were sick and had come to the place to take the curative spa waters, which failed to cure them? Or had they retired to Bath? Or, as someone suggested, Bath is close to Bristol, which was in many ways involved with colonial affairs.
The answers to these questions must remain uncertain at present. However, I wondered why the wealthy American Senator William Bingham died in Bath in 1804, aged 49. He was involved with the Barings Brothers bank in London, which might have been a reason for him being in England at the time of his death. He left for England in 1801, when his wife was taken ill. What he was doing in Bath remains unclear.
Amongst the many fascinating memorials in the Abbey are several commemorating people who died abroad. Some of these people had been in India when their lives ended. An interesting example of this, which illustrates the hazards of warfare and the difficulties in subduing people, who have no wish to be colonized, is the monument to 1st Lieutenant George Dobson Willoughby, of the Bengal Artillery and the Commisary of Ordnance at Delhi, who died in 1857. His inscription includes the following details: “As a brave and zealous soldier he stood firm in the defence of the post intrusted to him, and when resistance failed blew up the Delhi Magazine on 11: May 1857 to prevent it falling into the hands of the mutineers and rebels. Burnt and wounded he subsequently fell a prey to the insurgents …”
Maybe, this is a lesson from which the dutiful Russian soldiers in Ukraine should take heed.
THE GRAND UNION canal meets the River Thames at Brentford. From there, it runs towards the Midlands where it meets other waterways in England’s extensive network of canals, which was built for commerce, but is now used mainly for pleasure.
Six miles along the canal from Brentford, there is an important junction. Here at Bulls Bridge, the Paddington Arm branches off the main Grand Union canal. From beneath the bridge, the Arm runs 13 ½ miles to Paddington. Near its destination in central London, the arm flows through a large body of water, known as Little Venice. From there, two canals, the continuation of the Arm and the Regents Canal, link Little Venice to Paddington Basin and Limehouse Basin respectively.
The Paddington Arm was opened for use in 1801. The Bulls Bridge is a single-arch brick bridge spanning the Paddington Arm a few feet east of its junction with the Grand Union Canal. It stands amidst a dull landscape filled with industrial units and large supermarkets.
Following the towpath along the Grand Union Canal away from Bulls Bridge in a north-westerly direction for 177 yards, we reach a bridge that carries the canal over a narrow stream, the River Crane. a tributary of the River Thames. According to a website, touristlink.com, the course of the Crane is as follows:
“The River Crane is 8.5 miles (13.6 km) in length. Its source is taken to be a point south of North Hyde Road in Hayes, Hillingdon, from where its course is generally in a southerly, if near semi-circular, direction, before it joins the River Thames at Isleworth. Its name is a back-formation from Cranford, London. Formerly it was called the Cranford River. The River Crane creates the boundary between the London boroughs of Hillingdon and Hounslow.”
What could be seen from the bridge carrying the canal over the Crane was a deep weed-filled fissure in the depths of which there was a narrow stream. This lies in the shadow of an elevated road, the busy Parkway (A 312) that links both the A40 and the M4 with Heathrow Airport.
Continuing north-west along the Grand Union, the canal passes beneath a series of railway bridges that carry trains to and from Paddington Station. Nearby is Hayes and Harlington station, which stands in a part of Hayes, which was once the village of Botwell. This is now a shopping area with supplied with lavishly stocked fruit and vegetable shops and a branch of Lidl’s supermarket chain. Lidl’s faces a Roman Catholic Church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, built in 1961, which according to Pevsner, contains a painting by Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988). Near the station is a less attractive church, St Anselm, built between 1926 and 1928.
Even at the beginning of the 20th century, Hayes in Middlesex was a village north of Botwell and separated from it and other neighbouring settlements by open countryside. By 1940, Hayes had begun to be engulfed by London’s western spread. The village was, according to James Thorne, writing in 1876:
“… quiet and respectable, and chiefly dependent on the wealthy residents … consists of a few ordinary houses and shops.
Today, it is still quiet, the commercial district being in Hayes Town, the former Botwell, near the railway station.
There is one good reason to visit what was old Hayes. That is to see the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. It stands on the eastern side of Barra Hall Park, which are the grounds of the former manor house, now much modified. The church is mediaeval. Its lychgate is probably early 16th century. Its chancel is late 13th century, the tower and the north aisle are 15th century, and the main aisle is 16th century. The church has beautiful timber ceilings and a 12th century font. On the north wall there is a large wall painting of St Christopher carrying the Christ child. Pevsner did not consider this image was painted before about 1500.
The church is full of fine funerary monuments. These include elaborate memorials for Sir Walter Grene (1456); the judge of the King’s Bench Edward Fenner (died 1612); Roger Jenyns (died 1693) and members of his family; Richard Lugg (1697); and Thomas (died 1576) and Elizabeth Higate. There are plenty more monuments to be seen as well as several fine brasses. Fenner’s monument consists of an effigy of Fenner lying recumbent supporting his head on his right hand. This is framed by marbled pillars supporting an elaborate carved stone semi-circular canopy, which is flanked by a pair of sculpted figures.
Although Hayes is not high on most tourist’s lists of what to see in London, the old church parish church of Hayes is certainly worth a detour. As for Bulls Bridge, visiting it is only for dedicated enthusiasts of desolate landscapes and inland waterway history.
I HAVE LIVED in London for well over 60 years, but it was only this November (2021) that I first became aware of, and experienced, something that has been happening annually on the north side of Westminster Abbey since November 1928 (www.poppyfactory.org/about-us/history-timeline/#). For eight days following the Thursday preceding Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the 11th of November, the day on which WW1 ended, the field bounded by Westminster Abbey and its neighbour, the church of St Margaret’s Westminster, is covered with a myriad of mostly tiny wooden memorials hammered into the grass. The memorials are mostly cross-shaped, but some are in the form of crescents, six-pointed stars, and other shapes including some that bear the Sanskrit symbol representing ‘aum’ (or ‘om’). Each of these tiny wooden items commemorates a fallen service person or other victim of war. The shapes of the wooden pieces denote the religion of the person or persons being remembered, be they Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Moslem, Jewish, or of no religion. Many of the wooden memorials have red poppies attached. Oddly, few if any of the Islamic crescents had poppies on them. The small wooden memorials are arranged in groups, according to which service or regiment or organisation the remembered people were members of, or associated with. The whole ‘event’ is organised by The British Legion Poppy Factory. This annual garden of memorials is called The Field of Remembrance.
The Poppy Factory, a charity, was founded in 1922 by Major George Howson (1886-1936) to provide employment for veterans injured during WW1. He bought a site in Richmond (south-west London), where he established a factory to manufacture Remembrance poppies and other related items to be sold to raise money for The British Legion’s Red Poppy Appeal, a charity that supports the Armed Forces community.
Apart from the small wooden memorials, there are many badges and emblems of the groups in which those remembered were members. Looking at these and the small wooden memorials is both fascinating and extremely moving. The fascination lies in the huge variety of regiments and organisations, too many to list, which lost people during military conflicts (and terrorist incidents) since the onset of WW1.
One group of memorials interested me because of their emblem that incorporates a heraldic creature, which has fascinated me for several decades. The creature is the double-headed eagle (‘DHE’), currently used as an emblem by countries including Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, the Indian state of Karnataka, and Russia. The DHE appears on the crests of some of the various regiments of The Royal Dragoon Guards. The Dragoon Guard regiments were first established in the 18th century, in 1746, and consist of mounted infantry. While the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed, it also used the DHE. In 1896, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) of Austria-Hungary was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, some of whose members are remembered in the Field of Remembrance. The emperor allowed the regiment to wear his empire’s emblem (https://web.archive.org/web/20130303033912/http://www.qdg.org.uk/pages/Uniform-1843-Onwards-81.php), the DHE. In addition, the regiment adopted “The Radetzky March” as one of its official march tunes; it is still used today. It was sad that in 1914, Franz Joseph, became the ruler of one of the powers against whom Britain and its allies were fighting. Some of those who fought in the British Royal Dragoon Guard regiments with the DHE on their headwear were killed by allies of the emperor in WW1, who had earlier been appointed their C-in-C. They are commemorated the Field of Remembrance. Judging by the small wooden memorials planted in the Royal Dragoon Guard’s section of the Field of Remembrance, members of at least four religions fell while serving in these regiments. I wondered why the DHE was retained even after Austria-Hungary became one of Britain’s opponents in war.
Returning to the Field of Remembrance as a whole, it is a poignant sight to behold. Although war is both horrific and ugly, this annual memorial is both moving and beautiful. The Field is laid out beneath trees lining its northern edge. Seeing the dead leaves from these trees lying fallen amongst the thousands of tiny memorials to victims of war seemed most apt to me.
LIKE FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE, Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a heroine of the nursing profession. In fact, Edith, who was born in the county of Norfolk, was martyred because of her compassion and goodwill.
Recently, we spent four nights at an excellent bed and breakfast place in Norfolk. It is located in the village of Swardeston, which is only 4.7 miles southeast of Norwich Cathedral. After leaving our accommodation in Swardeston, we spent several hours in central Norwich. At least one hour of our visit to the city was taken up by exploring the interior and exterior of the cathedral. We attended part of a Sunday service, which was held in the part of the church east of the nave. The cathedral’s choir sounded magnificent. The reason the congregation was not in the nave is that part of the cathedral is currently being used to display ‘Dippy the Dinosaur’ from London’s Natural History Museum. On Sundays, Dippy is allowed a day’s rest from being gawped at by crowds of visitors, so we did not get to see this prehistoric skeletal attraction, apart from a short section of its backbone, which could be glimpsed through the window of a locked door leading from the magnificent cloisters to the nave. You might be beginning to wonder why I began this piece by telling you a little about Edith Cavell. Well, now I will tell you more.
After the service and a wander around the cloisters and the east half of the cathedral, we walked around to the outside of the southeast corner of the building, where we were told that we would find the burial place of Edith Cavell. The original gravestone surmounted by a cross stands close to a newer monument, which does not bear a cross, but resembles the kind of gravestones often found in Commonwealth war cemeteries but has a circular inscription that reads: “ECOLE BELGE D’INFIRMIERES DIPLOMEES”. While we were looking at these two memorials, we chatted with a lady who was passing by. When we asked her why Edith Cavell was buried in Norwich, she told us that the nurse had been born in the village where we had been staying, Swardeston. When she was born, her father was the vicar of the village’s church, which we would have visited had we known about its connection to the famous nurse.
Close to the cathedral, next to the western wall of the Cathedral Close, there is yet another monument to Cavell. A bronze bust of Cavell tops a rectangular based column with a bas-relief showing a soldier attaching a wreath to the monument. Erected in 1918, the bust’s sculptor was Henry Pegram (www.racns.co.uk/sculptures.asp?action=getsurvey&id=289), who lived from 1862 to 1937. The monument was commissioned by the physician John Gordon Gordon-Munn (1863-1949), who was Mayor of Norwich between 1914 and 1915.
After finishing school, Edith Cavell first became a governess, including for a family in Brussels. Then, after caring for her ailing father, she trained to become a nurse. She worked in various English hospitals until 1907 when she was recruited by Antoine Depage to become the matron of a recently opened nursing school in Brussels, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées. This helps explain the inscription on the newer of the two memorials next to the cathedral.
When WW1 broke out, Edith was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. The Red Cross took over her clinic and the nursing school, to which she returned after seeing her mother. It was in Brussels, after it had been occupied by the Germans, that she began helping British soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium to then neutral Holland. Harbouring and helping soldiers who were in armies fighting the Germans was against German military law. In August 1915, after being betrayed by a collaborator, she was arrested by the Germans, tried at a court-marshal, and found guilty of aiding a hostile power. She was executed by firing squad at Schaerbeek, a district of Brussels.
Cavell was first buried next to St Gilles prison in Brussels. Then in 1919, her body was shipped to England. At first, it lay in state on Dover pier for one night before it was transferred by train to London, where there was a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. On the 19th of May 1919, Edith was buried at the spot next to Norwich Cathedral, where she ‘rests’ now.
Next time that we are in Norfolk, we will try to visit the church in Swardeston, where Edith’s father officiated. As the bed and breakfast accommodation was so excellent in Swardeston and we fell in love with Norwich, I hope it will not be long before we return to Norwich and its environs.
PS: there is a large memorial to Edith Cavell in London, near the south end of St Martins Lane and just north of St Martin-in-the-Fields church.
TEARING DOWN STATUES or defacing them is nothing new, as some might believe after hearing about dunking Edward Colston’s toppled statue into a river in Bristol.
When I visited Albania in 1984, I saw statues of Josef Stalin and the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha prominently placed in public spaces. Neither of these two gentlemen can be seriously considered to be God’s best gifts to humanity. Many of their actions caused great fear and suffering in both the former USSR and in Albania.
In 1991, Albania’s long (1944-1991) Communist regime crumbled ignominiously. In February 1991, citizens of Albania’s capital, Tirana, attached cables to a huge statue of Enver Hoxha, an admirer of Stalin, and pulled it down. Many of the police guarding the huge monument to repression assisted the people to cause this bronze statue to topple to the ground.
Years later, in 2016, we visited Albania. In the centre of Tirana, there is a national museum of art, which was present when I visited the city in 1984. Back then, and even in 2016, there was a good collection of fine works created in the Social Realism style, so popular amongst Communist regimes. After seeing the gallery in 2016, we happened to bump into one of the museum’s curators. I showed him a picture of a sculpture I had taken in 1984 and asked him if he recognised it. Without answering, he invited us to follow him to a yard at the rear of the gallery.
There, in the yard, stood the sculpture I had photographed in 1984. More interestingly, it was not alone. It stood next to a giant statue of Lenin and another one of Stalin and another large object wrapped in cloth tied down with ropes. The curator explained that these statues, although they depicted people whose ideas and actions had done much harm to the Albanian people, were valuable works of art, not simply because of their great scrap metal value but, more importantly, they helped record the country’s history. In addition, he explained that they were fine examples of their genre. The bundled-up object standing in that yard was, he explained, too sensitive to uncover as it would upset many people viewing it. It was part of an enormous statue of Enver Hoxha, who had not yet been forgiven by many Albanians. Clearly, Lenin and Stalin were thought to be less disturbing as they were not covered up, but sufficiently upsetting to be confined to a relatively unvisited yard behind the gallery open to the public.
Both Trafalgar and Parliament Squares in London contain statues that might cause offense to those whose knowledge of history is more than superficial, yet their actions have not always been 100% reprehensible. Fortunately for these monuments, many of the kind of people who might be inclined to topple statues do not usually read much detailed history.
There are some statues or monuments, which remember people, whose actions cannot rationally be called into question. One of these is that of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), whose work formed the foundation of something on which we are currently becoming extremely dependent: vaccination. Only someone out of his or her mind would consider pulling down or defacing his statue.
Recently, when strolling along an embankment, I spotted a monument close to the River Thames outside Lambeth Palace. Erected in 2009, it commemorates the Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), whose covert activities in no little way helped to bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany’s forces during WW2. The plinth with metal commemorative plaques is topped with the head of a woman with high cheekbones, a serious, determined face, and luxuriant curly hair, tied back. She stares out across the River Thames toward the Houses of Parliament. The bust depicts Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo (1921-1945), whose actions behind enemy lines in France were designed to sabotage German military activity. She was one of many women including Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), of Indian aristocratic heritage, who risked and lost their lives to assist in the defeat of a repressive regime.
SOE was staffed by both men and women of many nationalities, and their bravery is recorded on this simple memorial outside Lambeth Palace. Although simple in design, the expression depicted in the face of Violette Szabo gave me a feeling of the great determination of those brave souls who gave up their lives in horrific circumstances. They did so in the hope, fulfilled, that we could enjoy life in Britain and elsewhere without having to bear the burden of inhumane dictatorial rule.
Unlike Stalin and Hoxha, statues of the purely benevolent such as Jenner and Szabo should be allowed to stand undisturbed for ever, well, at least, so long as they can survive London’s ever-changing weather conditions and pollution.
IT SEEMED APPROPRIATE to visit Runnymede, the so-called birthplace of democracy on a day (7th November 2020) when Donald Trump, the current president of the USA, appears to be losing faith in it and might be about to attempt to undermine it.
Runnymede, a water meadow of the Thames close to Windsor, is close to a former Roman river crossing near the town of Staines. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘runieg’, meaning ‘meeting place’, and ‘mede’, meaning ‘meadow’. The ‘Witangemot’, a council of Anglo-Saxon kings, used to meet at Runnymede between the 7th and 11th centuries (AD). This pre-Norman Conquest meeting place was used again on the 15th day of June in 1215, when King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta in the presence of a group of barons who had met a few months earlier in the Suffolk city of Bury St Edmunds (www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/blog/2018/discover-bury-st-edmunds-historic-role-in-the-creation-of-the-magna-carta). Runnymede is the most probable location of the signing, as this is what is written at the end of its text (translation from www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation):
“Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”
The Magna Carta, whose evolution is too detailed to be described here, was, and still, is of great importance because it aims to ensure a fair relationship between the rights of ruler and those of his or her then powerful subjects, his barons, but nowadays its principles have extended to cover all subjects of the realm, It contains chapters such as:
“In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” (chapt. 38)
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” (chapt. 39)
“In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants – who shall be dealt with as stated above – are excepted from this provision.” (chapt. 42)
“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” (chapt. 45)
The Magna Carta includes a number of items that are hardly relevant in the modern world, but those such as I have quoted above are deeply relevant and extremely important. However, the document signed by King John has some elements that illustrate attitudes that we would consider unacceptable today, notably antagonism to Jewish people as can be seen in chapter 10:
“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands …”, and in chapter 11:
“If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands…”
Seventy-five years after the signing at Runnymede, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England, thus throwing into question whether or not everyone in England was protected by the mostly virtuous intentions of Magna Carta.
In brief, Runnymede was the site of the signing a far-reaching document of great importance to the rights of citizens. Several centuries later, the Magna Carta influenced the formulation of the Constitution of the USA in the late 18th century. The area of Runnymede is now maintained by the National Trust. It contains several monuments and artworks relating to the historic significance of the place.
On arrival at the parking place, we passed a sign that reads:
“Runnymede. A home to politics and picnics for over 1000 years.”
The car park is next to one of a pair of lodges designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), son-in-law of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) the Viceroy of India from 1876-1880, and the architect of some of the government buildings in New Delhi. The lodges were built between 1930 and 1932. They are not the only connection between Runnymede and India as I will explain soon.
During our visit to Runnymede on a crisp sunny morning, we walked across the muddy ground to four features of interest in its meadows dotted with lovely trees, many of them oaks. The first place we reached is a cylindrical stone monument standing within a ring of eight square pillars that support a circular ring whose centre is open to the sky. It is approached via a staircase with names carved in its steps. These are the names of lawyers from the USA. The cylindrical stone bears the words:
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law”
This monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and erected by the American Bar Association in 1957.
The American monument stands a few feet above the base of an oak tree, which is growing beside a square marble stone that bears the words:
“Quercus robur, planted by PV Narasimha Rao, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, as a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, which the people of India cherish and have enshrined in their constitution. March 16 1994”
‘Quercus robur’ is a type of oak tree and Rao (1921-2004), a member of the Indian National Congress Party, was Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.
Twelve bronze chairs are placed in the midst of the meadow closest to the raised wooded area containing the American and Indian monuments. They are arranged in two rows of five facing each other with another two chairs at the two ends of what is effectively a rectangular dining table with the table removed. Each chair back’s two surfaces are decorated with bas-reliefs, one facing the chair opposite it and the other away from it. The bas-reliefs depict the various people, events, and ideas resulting from the ideas expressed in the Magna Carta. One of them depicts Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a Parsi, the first Indian woman to practise law in India. Another depicts Mahatma Gandhi’s portable spinning wheel, his symbol of resistance to the importation of British goods to India. Other motifs are described in an informative website, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/what-does-the-jurors-represent . Seeing the empty chairs set out so formally in the field made me feel as though someone had put them there in readiness for King John’s famous meeting with the barons in June 1215. This effective and moving artwork was created by Hew Locke (born 1959) for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the charter. It is quite likely that the sun would have been shining as brightly on that significant day as it did when we visited Runnymede.
Dramatic as is Locke’s work at Runnymede, it is rivalled, or, better, complemented, by another fantastic creation not far away. From the outside, it looks like a recently constructed circular military bunker with a tall entrance in its wall. Step inside and you find yourself in a dark passageway that runs parallel with the outer wall and another inner circular wall. Soon, you reach an opening in the inner concentric wall. This leads into a circular chamber lit by daylight coming through a circular orifice in its ceiling. The inner circular chamber contains a circular pool of water surrounded by a metal band in which words are written as a mirror image, just like the way that Leonardo da Vinci used to write. The words are reflected in the water, where they appear the right way round. They spell out the words of chapter 39 of the Magna Carta (translated into English). The effect is both dramatic and very moving. The artwork is called “Writ in Water”, the words coming from the inscription on the gravestone of the poet John Keats, which are:
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
This spectacular piece of art was designed by Mark Wallinger (born 1959) as a place to reflect on the principles of democracy that were born at Runnymede in 1215. It was completed in 2018 and it alone is a good reason to visit Runnymede.
While I was writing this, news began arriving from the USA. It suggested that barring any devious surprises from the current president of the USA, the democratic process in the USA might well have a chance of remaining guided by the noble principles enshrined in Magna Carta under a new president, Mr Joseph Biden.
I ENJOY ENTERING HOUSES in which famous characters once lived. It gives me a thrill to think that I am entering rooms where, for example Samuel Johnson or Benjamin Franklin, once lived and worked. But, how does one know where these personalities once resided? In London, that is quite easy because the homes and places where famous historical characters lingered are marked with blue (usually) plaques recording their occupation of these buildings. In other parts of the world, signing is often attached to the places which were occupied by well-known or, sometimes once famous, men and women.
In London, many of these plaques which are circular with white writing on a blue background. They are known as “blue plaques”. According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the first blue plaque scheme was started by the Society of Arts in 1867. The first of these was installed in 1867 (on a house which has since been demolished). It commemorated the birthplace of Lord Byron. Another early one (in King Street, London SW1) commemorates Napoleon III, who “lived here, 1848”. He lived there from February 1847 until September the following year. It is one of, if not the only, blue plaque to be put up whilst the person named on it was still alive.
We are fortunate to live in a part of London rich in blue plaques and similarly purposed plaques of different colours. Kensington was favoured by the rich and famous (in all fields of activity) and remains so. The names on the plaques differ, and that is not surprising, but so do the words describing the nature of the person’s occupancy of the marked buildings. A small plaque in Sheffield Terrace in Kensington, records that the author GK Chesterton was “born” in a house on that street but gives no indication of how long he stayed in that place. In contrast, there is a house not far away which records that “Dame Agatha Christie … lived here 1934-41”, a good length of time, accurately recorded. Incidentally, I have enjoyed strolling through the rooms of Greenway, the house overlooking the River Dart, which she used to own and occupied during her holidays.
Much vaguer than Agatha’s is the plaque in Palace Court, which reads “ALICE MEYNELL 1847-1922 POET AND ESSAYIST lived here”, because it gives the passer-by no clue as to how long the building was home to Ms Meynell (actually she was ‘Mrs’ but as a promoter of women’s rights, she would have probably liked the title ‘Ms). Not far from this plaque, there is another one in Portobello Road. It informs someone walking past that “George Orwell … lived here.” Again, we are not made privy to how long the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” lived on this street, which in normal, virus-free times is flooded with tourists heading for the Portobello Road street market. It would fill me with a sense of well-being to know I was sharing the same roof as someone as illustrious as, in this case, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair). And, no doubt it would impress some of my friends and family. However, if they knew that Orwell had only lived there for one winter in 1927, they might be less awed.
One of my favourite composers of western classical music is the Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The first classical LP I ever bought was his Second Symphony. So, I was excited to find a blue plaque with his name in Gloucester Walk in Kensington. It is a “lived here” plaque. However, according to the memorial, he only lived in this lovely part of London in 1909. A little research reveals that it was only a few weeks in that year. I think the wording “stayed here” would have been more appropriate than the wording on display. There is a brown circular plaque in Kensington Square, which reveals that “WM Thackeray … lived here”. This is an honest record because the novelist did live in the house from 1846 until 1854. Close to Thackeray’s former home, we can find a blue plaque recalling “TS Eliot (1888-1965) … lived and died here.” He lived there from 1957 until his death. This is also an honestly worded plaque.
I have long been interested in Hungary and the Hungarians. I was excited to discover recently that the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth (1802-1894; ‘Kossuth Lajos’, to use the correct Hungarian version of his name) had spent time near where I live in Kensington. His blue plaque is on a house in Chepstow Villas, not far from Portobello Road. According to the plaque, he “stayed here”, rather than “lived here”. He stayed there in 1851, whilst on a three-week lecture tour in England, during which he spoke to the English about Hungarian independence and his exile. Of these three weeks, maybe only a few nights were spent at this address in Kensington, or, he and his family, who did spend another seven years in England, might have lived in the house in Chepstow Villas. Possibly, the plaque should be worded “lived here”, rather than “stayed here”.
Number 18 Melbury Road, near Holland Park and the oddly-shaped Design Museum (formerly, the Commonwealth Institute), offers us two blue plaques, one a “lived here” and the other a “stayed here”. The pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) “Lived and died here”. The other plaque on the building records that Cetshwayo (c. 1832-1884), King of the Zulus, “stayed here in 1882”. When I first spotted this plaque several years ago, I was intrigued, and wrote a little about it (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/ ) , which I will repeat here:
“Earlier in 1882, this house, built in 1877, hosted a very important guest, King Cetshwayo (Cetshwayo, ka Mpande, c1832-1884), King of the Zulus. After being defeated by the British in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Cetshwayo was held captive in Cape Town. During his exile, he visited London in 1882:
“On his arrival, 18 Melbury Road … was made more appropriate to his needs and those of his chiefs. The beds, for instance, were reduced to floor level. On waking on 5 August, the ex-king ‘made his way through the various rooms of the house, examining them with curiosity’.
Outside, a huge crowd of people had gathered, eager to see Cetshwayo. The Times described how ‘at times the ex-king would appear for a moment at one of the windows, and he was invariably greeted with cheers’. Cetshwayo himself looked upon the throng ‘as a display of friendly feeling towards him’. By the close of his visit, he had become something of a celebrity.
In an interview given while at Melbury Road, Cetshwayo said that he regarded the war as ‘a calamity’. He had made it clear that the purpose of his visit to England was his restoration to the throne, reasoning that his people wanted him and that there would be another war if he didn’t return. Following a meeting with Gladstone and a visit to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, his reinstatement was agreed.”. The British allowed him to return to Zululand in 1883.”
Would the famous artist have met the African king in Melbury Road? I doubt it because Holman Hunt only moved into his final home from 1903 onwards. However, Cetshwayo might have seen or been seen by another artist Colin Hunter (1841-1904), who lived nearby on Melbury Road from 1877 until his death. His home was destroyed by bombing in 1940. Woodsford Court, built on its site, bears a blue plaque, appropriately of the “lived here” variety. By the way, if you are ever near to it, a leisurely stroll along Melbury Road will delight those fascinated by late Victorian domestic architecture.
For my favourite memorial placed on a building to commemorate its occupancy by a notable person, we must transport ourselves to Palermo in Sicily. The island of Sicily is full of plaques celebrating the temporary presence of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in this place or that. This might not be surprising because he did travel a lot around western Sicily while fighting the Bourbons. In a square in Palermo, I spotted a grand marble plaque carved with the words: “In questa illustre casa il 27 Maggio 1860 per sole due ore poso le stanche membra Giuseppe Garibaldi”, which loosely translated means ‘Garibaldi, rested his weary limbs in this illustrious house for only two hours on the 27th of May 1860.” So, it sems that a two-hour stay is enough to bring fame to a building, providing the temporary occupant is worth remembering. I am not sure whether it would be justifiable for one of our local supermarkets used by a former Prime Minister to put up a plaque with the wording “David Cameron stayed here”, or even “Peter Mandelson shopped here”, but one can never tell what the future holds.