The West Cemetery is looking especially beautiful at the moment, the headstones struggling to hold their own amongst the wild garlic, the three cornered leeks and the newly unfurling ferns. And it is in the West Cemetery that we were working today, back on the trail of lost graves.
Lost because although each grave is carefully numbered and marked on the master map, many have totally vanished from sight under several feet of leaf mould and soil. Which means that we are all honing our skills as grave sleuths. Take this group of graves for example.
As you can see, we have just cleared the bases of the two graves at the front of the picture, behind which is some nice rich earth with a headstone on the right. But is it just nice rich earth? A bit of investigation with a spade reveals that there is a stone beneath that earth.
After this post went live, I recevied the following fascinating email from fellow volunteer Robin who not only gardens in the cemeteries but researches the graves that we reveal.
I just looked at my fellow-gardener Michelle’s nice article and the subsequent comments re the grave of Edward Sex (by which we were doing gardening the other week), whose surname invited further investigation.
I’ve checked my files, and I did look him up several years back, and he and his wife Emily (who died the year before him, in 1856) are recorded in the 1841 Census and other documents as living in “Mount Pleasant Lodge” off the Upper Clapton Road in Hackney. His occupation in the census was “Stock Broker”, and his son also Edward was later likewise, and they had an office in the City and were members of the Stock Exchange. Hackney was a very respectable rural suburb in late Georgian and early Victorian times, and he styles himself “Esq”.
The surname ‘Sex’ is certainly not common, but has ancient origins, and instances probably derive from ‘Sexton’ or ‘Saxton’. There were 34 people recorded with the surname in the 1841 Census, and 61 in the 1939 Register. But just 2 births with this surname in the period 1987-2007, so it would seem to have nearly died out. Presumably, given the change in vibes around the word over the past century, holders change it by deed poll.
Last week, because a film company had kindly donated some unused turf to the cemeteries, we were over in the East Cemetery, on The Mound – the hill on the east side of the cemetery where some of the most recent burials take place. The hill was largely created from builders rubble so natural settlement has led to some unevenness and bald patches around the some of the graves – a perfect use for the redundant turf. However, if you think that means we just laid it down on top – it doesn’t!
Before we started work this morning Adam, the cemetery gardener who looks after us volunteers, offered us a treat – a look at the catacomb.
This runs along under the terrace below St Michael’s Church at the north end of the West cemetery and is built into the side of the hill which is topped by the church. Adam said that they think that the catacomb could originally have been an ice house for the grand house that was demolished to allow the church to be built in the early 19th century.
Lit by round open ‘skylights’ it is lined with deep stone shelves each of which carries a coffin. Some of these were temporary residents while their grandiose mausoleums were built outside. Others, such as the Anderton graves below, were obviously there to stay as they have engraved marble fascias. Others have iron railings keeping the coffins in and, presumably, the grave robbers out.
And most of the cast iron railings have rusted into beautiful patterns.
For more details on the history of the cemeteries see the history section of the cemeteries’ site.