Friday, 16 March 2018

The Lost Memorials of London; The Raymond Mausoleum, Ilford

What was once Ilford’s best known monument was unceremoniously demolished in 1923 by the Port of London Authority because it was inconveniently sited in the middle of a large plot of land they had acquired for use as playing fields.  The triangular castle (very similar to Severndroog in Oxleas Wood on Shooters Hill) was built in 1765 at a cost of £420 by Sir Charles Raymond of Valentines House in Ilford. Sir Charles, a ship owner, banker and a member of the East India Company, intended what became known as Raymond’s Folly to be a mausoleum complete with a crypt containing fourteen loculi to hold the family coffins, a ground floor chapel and an upper floor refreshment room for use during interments. According to local antiquarian George Tasker in his 1901 volume ‘Ilford Past and Present’, a descendant of Sir Charles stumbled across family documents which revealed that his ancestor had failed to see eye to eye with the Bishop of London, Richard Terrick, over the finer points of the consecration ceremony for the mausoleum. The Bishop put his foot down and refused to consecrate the building which meant that it was never used for the purpose for which it had been built. It survived as a farm outbuilding, tenant farmer accommodation and even as an Admiralty observation tower during the Great War, until the fateful day when the land on which it stood was sold to the Port of London Authority.   

Sir Charles Raymond
Sir Charles was born into a family of seafarers in Devon, at Withycombe Raleigh near Exmouth, in 1713. He made his maiden voyage to Bengal and Madras as a 16 year old on an East Indiaman captained by his uncle.  He came into his first command as a callow youth of 21 when the East India Company promoted him to the captaincy of the Wager. Trading on his own behalf as well as for the Company, Sir Charles became a powerful and wealthy man, retiring from the sea relatively early to concentrate on a career as an East India merchant, banker, manager of the Sun Life Insurance Office, a director of the South Sea Company and High Sheriff of Essex. He was made a baronet in 1774. He married Sarah Webster, the illegitimate daughter of John Webster of Bromley in 1743 who bore him five children. The family originally lived in Wellclose Square (one of London’s semi mythical locations where they would have been neighbours of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Hayyim Falk, the Baal Shem Tov of London, and poet Thomas Day who was born there in 1748) but moved to Upton in West Ham in 1750 and to Ilford in 1754 where he bought Valentines House and the neighbouring manor of Highlands where the mausoleum was later to be built. Sir Charles kept a menagerie of exotic animals at Valentines, including peacocks and a pair of secretary birds from South Africa, and laid out new gardens. From one of his vines Capability Brown took a cutting in 1768 from which the great vine of Hampton Court was propagated, now the longest vine in the world and a venerable 250 years old.      Sir Charles also collected curios and objet d’art and crammed the mansion at Valentines with them so thoroughly that one contemporary said the whole house could “be called a Cabinet of Curiosities”. Among his prize items were a dark marble statue from the island of Elephanta, a unique leather bound folio containing 814 Chinese paintings of oriental plants and insects with their medicinal uses described in Chinese and English, Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair  and quantities of Chinese porcelain, some of it painted with his own coat of arms.    

Memorial Tablet to Sir Charles in St Margaret's Barking
As well as the mausoleum Sir Charles built a new house at Highlands which he leased to his sister in law and her husband, Captain Webber. When Captain Webber died his widow stayed on in the property. In 1778 Sir Charles wife died and was buried at St Margaret’s Church in Barking. Soon after her death Sir Charles moved out of Valentines and into Highlands with his sister in law. Sir Charles died on 24 August 1788 and was buried with Sarah in the Raymond vault at St Margaret’s.  The unused mausoleum quickly became Ilford's premier tourist attraction and innumerable postcard depictions of it exist from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Severndroog Castle on Shooters Hill built on 1785 to commemorate Commodore Sir William James the destroyer of the island fortress of Suvarnadurg (unpronounceable to southeast Londoners, hence Severndroog) on the western coast of India

Saturday, 10 March 2018

The Man who would be Cheops Part Three: Thomas Willson 1780-1866 St Mary's Acton

The Donkin Memorial in Port Elizabeth with Fort Frederick in the background, before the building of the lighthouse
Thomas Willson, his wife Mary Ann and his three male children returned to England on the Nautilus, a military transport which set sail from Port Elizabeth on 16 February 1822. The family settled out of town at Belmont Cottage, Stockwell, from where Thomas busied himself writing to Lord Bathurst setting out the grounds for his complaint against the British government and demanding restitution of the money he had lost in his ill conceived colonial adventure;

“I have escaped the chains of perpetual exile in the most horrible prison in the world, fell Africa! And, what have I received in return for my rash confidence? Nothing, but obloquy, ingratitude, and maltreatment, from my numerous followers, and from His Majesty’s Government the most vexatious and mortifying neglect, a want of due support, and I am grieved to speak the truth (for it will be scarcely credited) I have not received its pledge! I have in fact received nothing, I am not benefited by this lamentable and ruinous enterprise the least in the world, I have not derived the value of a straw! Under the most trying difficulties.” (Willson to Lord Bathurst 27 March 1823)

He claimed to have lost “upwards of two thousand pounds sterling, and the enormous waste of nearly six years of the very prime of my life,” but the Government was not sympathetic. Whilst in South Africa and as a result of the huge pressure he was put under by his group of settlers (which included threats to his life) Willson seems to have refunded many of their deposits from his own capital in the belief that “I was to be reimbursed in Money on my arrival at the Cape! It was the money only that could afford me the means of protecting myself from the petty debts of numerous Individuals, whose chief aim was to incur debt, and to rob me: and the money was the only means of reimbursing myself for monies advanced, in anticipation of such repayment! This is a serious loss to me.” (Willson to Bathurst 03 April 1823). The Government’s position was that the deposit money was used to pay for the rations supplied to the party by the colonial authorities and neither Willson nor the settlers had any right to have it refunded. Willson felt sorely treated because he had “incontestible proof that in other instances, to persons similarly circumstanced with myself, …. supplies were issued gratuitously, and that by the express Command of General Donkin.” Willson was making himself such a nuisance that K. Wilmot, a civil servant, wrote from Downing Street to the Governor of Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, setting out the essence of his complaint and, in order to refute it, “as Lord Bathurst has not conceded to Mr. Willson’s demands on the presumption that the Balance in Question would have been paid by the Colonial Authorities if the full value of it had not been received in Rations from the public Stores, He begs Your Lordship would be pleased to give directions that an Account may be immediately prepared, and transmitted to this Office, shewing the value of the Provisions so drawn by Mr Willson as compared with the amount of his deposit.” Almost as an afterthought K. Wilmot also enquired about Willson’s “proceedings as Head of a Party during the time he remained in the Colony,” perhaps hoping something prejudicial would emerge that would help them shut him up.

A dream of Pyramids; Atanasius Kircher imagines the pyramids of Nubia

Incredibly by 1825 Willson was considering emigrating back to Cape Colony and was writing to Lord Bathhurst and others requesting work as a surveyor and a grant of land to compensate him for his financial losses. “It can never be worth my while to hazard a second voyage to the Cape for a trifling consideration,” he wrote to a Government who must by now have been heartily sick of hearing his complaints, “I possess still (Heaven be thanked) a moderate independence in England, which could be employed to much greater advantage in France than at the Cape; notwithstanding this, if I could have a reasonable proportion of land, and a suitable employment, it would be an inducement to return to that colony.” It was that ‘moderate independence’, inherited income of one sort or another, that allowed Willson the time to both continue to brood over his perceived mistreatment in South Africa and to dream of some immense project that would astonish and confound his detractors. What emerged as the pyramids of Meroe and of Caius Cestius melded in his mind with the memorial to Lady Donkin, the “Colossal Monument of our beloved Sovereign King George the fourth” that he had planned for Angloville and the lively contemporary debate about burial reform was the grandiose and bizarre notion of the Pyramid Cemetery. According to HM Colvin in A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects 1600–1840 the idea of the Metropolitan Sepulchre was first launched onto an unsuspecting public in 1824, at an exhibition of the Royal Academy. If Willson did exhibit a pyramid design at the RA it must have been an early and relatively unimpressive version of the metropolitan sepulchre, one that did not attract any press attention as I can find nothing mentioning it in any of the newspapers. Willson himself, in 1829, claimed that he had conceived “the plan of the pyramid to contain millions of the dead” just two years earlier.

The Kings Mews, Charing Cross at the time of the National Depository

The plan for the Metropolitan Sepulchre seems to have first seen the light of day at the National Repository, was opened in the Kings Mews on Charing Cross in 1828 by a group of educationalists for the “Purpose of Annually exhibiting to the public the New and Improved Production of the Artisans and Manufacturers of the United Kingdom”. It was, according to Richard Daniel Altick in his Shows of London effectively the capitals first trade show. The National Repository shared its accommodation with Edward Cross’s menagerie and visitors to the exhibition were accompanied by a soundtrack of monkeys screeching and lions roaring. The exhibits included silk looms, kaleidoscopes, rain gauges, musical glasses, models of improved steam engines, a multipurpose whalebone walking stick containing a mariners compass, telescopes, opera glasses, and models of proposed urban improvements including an iron bridge to be erected over the Thames at Charing Cross or Lambeth and a forty acre “pyramidal metropolitan sepulchre” which Altick says was “suggestive of John Martin’s more bizarre architecture.” The model of the pyramid ‘to accommodate hundreds of thousands of bodies’ was probably the most attention grabbing exhibit.  The Kentish Weekly Post republished, on 20 October 1829, an article from the London University Magazine:

Grand Metropolitan Cemetery.— We have seen the plans of the Pyramid which is to form the principal feature of this novel undertaking. It is intended to be a progressive work, proportionate to the annual demand for burial. When finished it will be capable of receiving no less than five millions of individuals;  being somewhat larger in dimensions than the celebrated Pyramid of Egypt. Simple in form, sublime in effect, and curious in its arrangement; its area will be surrounded by a terrace-walk, an enclosed wall 13 feet high, and the ground within this enclosure is to be tastefully laid out for private tombs and monuments, in the style of the famous cemetery of Pere la Chaise, near Paris. It will present an object of extraordinary grandeur to the Metropolis.

Willson's design for the Metropolitan Sepulchre

In November 1829 Willson was startled to read a newspaper account of a French proposal to build a pyramid in Paris and rushed to write to the London Evening Standard to claim precedent:

Sir, — There appears in a Sunday paper the following paragraph: — "A project is on foot at Paris to construct a cemetery after the plan of the ancient pyramids, to contain five millions of bodies." I am not very desirous of obtruding myself upon the notice of the public; but, when such a glaring plagiarism occurs on the part of our continental neighbours, I feel confident that the English press will be liberal enough to do justice, and protect the interests of a British subject. It will, doubtless, be in your recollection that "the plan of the pyramid to contain millions of the dead" originated with myself above two years ago, and has been exhibited ever since at the National Repository at Charing-cross ; and, now that it is upon the eve of adoption in the vicinity of London, this Parisian plagiarism is not to be tolerated. I therefore appeal to the liberal spirit of your journal to claim the invention on behalf of, Sir, your very humble servant, T. Willson, Architect. No. 11, New Cavendish-street, Portland place, London, Nov 24. 1829

Perhaps rattled by the prospect of being usurped by the French Willson finally published his plans for the Metropolitan Sepulchre in 1830 under the title “The Pyramid, a general metropolitan cemetery to be erected in the vicinity of Primrose Hill”, a publication which included drawings of his proposed design. In March Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle reported that Lord Nugent in Parliament had “presented a Petition from Mr. Thomas Wilson, architect, praying to be heard at the bar of the House in favour of a plan he had completed for the erection of an immense pyramid, calculated hold live millions of bodies. This building would, as he alleged, prove both ornamental and useful, and afford occupation to the living, as well as a place of secure interment for the dead.”

The burial reform movement had become attracted to Willson’s proposal, perhaps more for its publicity value than for any practical hope it held out as a solution to overcrowded and unsanitary churchyards. John Claudius Loudon shared his thoughts on the Pyramid with the Morning Advertiser in January 1830. As with other members of the cemetery movement, Loudon applauded Willson’s desire to abolish burials in churchyards but objected to the pyramid proposal “first, because I think the risk of mephitic exhalations would be greatly increased; secondly, because the expenses of burial of the poor would be greatly increased by such agglomeration of corruption; and, thirdly, and in this perhaps I am peculiar, because I hate the idea of interment in a vault, or in any way which prevents the body from speedily returning to its primitive elements, and becoming useful by entering into new combinations—vegetable, mineral, or even animal, in aquatic burial.” Willson also attracted the attention of barrister George Frederick Carden who enrolled him into the burgeoning burial reform movement. He became one of the early members of Carden’s General Cemetery Company and attended the historic meetings held in the Freemason’s Tavern in June and July 1830, chaired by Andrew Spottiswoode MP. After Carden had opened the meeting by outlining his vision for a London garden cemetery along the lines of Père Lachaise, open to all denominations and all religions, Willson was the first person to respond. According to the Oxford Journal of 10 July 1830, “Mr. Wilson (sic) coincided generally in the sentiments expressed by the last speaker, but he did not think the plan of Pere-la-Chaise suitable for a general cemetery in this country. He had a plan by which he should be able to make 50 or 100 acres of land as available for the purpose of burial as 1,000 could be by any other method.”

But after the initial flurry of interest in the Metropolitan Sepulchre, public attention moved onto other matters and the leaders of the burial reform movement became more firmly focussed on the plan to open a garden cemetery at Kensal Green. During the rest of the 1830’s Willson drifted inexorably into obscurity. We know that by 1835 he was living at Hotwells in Bristol as he was once again in correspondence with the Government about reparations for his African losses, penning the “humble petition of Thomas WILLSON, Gentleman, formerly Head of a Party of Settlers at the Cape of Good Hope, and now residing at the Hotwells, Bristol.” The petition rehearses once again the woeful story of the African adventure, the language being more emotive than ever, the disputes with the settlers in his party had left him “feeling deeply degraded and oppressed in his feelings to find that his influence over his followers was entirely annihilated, his hopes blasted, and his occupation gone, was literally heart broken!” The party “assailed with every kind of Treachery, violence, ingratitude and deadly threats, he was perfectly overturned from his position as the Head of the party, and degraded to the very Slave of the Settlers.” With his “prospects destroyed, his heart pierced and his spirit crushed, for truly "the iron entered his Soul", found it impossible to exist under such a state of oppression” and had been forced to quit his position. He refers to his fortunes after his return to England:

Petitioner on his return home had the mortification to find the former walk of his pursuits in other hands, he nevertheless endeavoured to render himself useful in improving the state of the Metropolis, particularly in the mode of interring the dead, and his plans received the approbation of the most scientific persons in Your Majesty's Kingdom, but he has been again thwarted in this useful work by the Treachery of a false friend, and has had to sustain, singly, the entire expences incurred by this project, and is again wholly thrown out of employment, which makes this appeal to the benevolent breast of Your Majesty the more needful.

After the recital of his woes Willson asks “to be usefully employed and he prays to be admitted into the service of Your Majesty,” before also going on, once again to request the granting of freehold lands in the cape as compensation. The official response to the petition came in February 1836 (the delay having being caused by the first copy of the petition somehow going astray in the Colonial Office):

Lord GLENELG has directed me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 6th instant, with the copy therein enclosed of a Petition which has been by you presented to His majesty praying compensation for a Grant, to which you consider yourself entitled, of 10,000 acres of land at the cape of Good Hope.
 Upon a review of the voluminous correspondence which has already passed between you and this Department upon the subject matter of your Petition to His Majesty, and by which it appears that your claim to the Grant has been repeatedly and decidedly declared to be inadmissible, Lord GLENELG regrets to find himself placed under the necessity of referring you to that correspondence & of informing you that he is unable to arrive at a different conclusion regarding your case than that which was adopted by his predecessor in this Department.

Ninhead Cemetery in the 1840's

The response would have been crushing. Things picked up for Willson in the 1840’s. He was employed by the Nunhead Cemetery Company between 1842-1843, at a salary of £100 a year, though in what capacity we do not know. In 1845 his youngest son and namesake Thomas married Margaret Prosser daughter of the Rev William Prosser at her fathers church in Leicestershire. Willson himself seems to have moved to Leicester sometime in the 1840’s. His presence in Leicester may explain why he did not attend the November meeting of the Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns, held at the society’s rooms in Bridge Street, Blackfriars. The chairman of the society was George Alfred Walker, the celebrated author of ‘Gatherings From Graveyards.’ According to  Illustrated London News of 1 December 1849 “several communications were read and discussed” at the meeting “including a letter from Mr. Wilson (sic), respecting his proposed scheme for a national cemeterial pyramid, and a voluminous report from the chairman, embodying his views on the subject of urban burials.” Suddenly Willson resumed his attempts to get his Metropolitan Sepulchre noticed by the public and backed by the powers that be. In February 1851 the Leicester Mercury published an article under the title of “A Gigantic Mauseoleum”.

We had the pleasure the other day of inspecting, at Messrs. Cox and Collingbourn's, painters, &c, St. Martin's, (opposite Pares's Bank,) large model of an immense Pyramidal Cemetery designed by Mr. Thomas Willson, architect, of this town, and which is to be sent up to the Great Exhibition, where, we doubt not, it will attract great attention in these days of sanitary improvement. Mr. W illson's idea is that even the present suburban cemeteries the neighbourhood of London will in the course of a few years become very much crowded, and that it will be found very difficult to obtain additional tracts of land of sufficient size to prevent the necessity of recurrence to the evils of intramural interment. To this end he proposes the construction of National Metropolitan Cemetery Woking Common, Surrey, of from 100 to 200 acres in extent. In the centre of this, he proposes to erect his great Pyramid-Mauseoleum, occupying an area of from 18 to 20 acres, and rising in successive stages of catacombs (10 feet high and arched) to the height of 900 feet—each stage of course gradually diminishing—until the apex reached ; and on the top of that, Mr. Willson's plan further embraces the elevation of an astronomical observatory in the shape of an obelisk. This Pyramid would hold above 5,000,000 bodies; great economy in ground would thus effected ; and, large as the cost would be, that need not be an insuperable objection, since the erection of the vast edifice would proceed stage upon stage, as one became filled—and the money paid for catacombs would probably defray the cost of each stage. How much more useful such an application the pyramidal form of mauseoleum, than reserving the structure for the reception some one " mighty Cheops, lying alone his glory." On a smaller scale, the Pyramid might be usefully adopted in provincial cemeteries ; while, as heard shrewd member of the legal profession observe, " It would be just the thing, with its fire-proof catacombs, for a national register of wills and deeds!'

In June The Builder noticed “a model of the ‘Great Victoria Pyramid,' connected with a projected national cemetery on Woking Common” at the Industrial Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. This was probably the same model that was presented by Willson the following year to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society as an exhibit for the Town Museum. Willson’s latest attempt to grip the public imagination was successful enough for him to start a business venture and in November 1851 the following advertisement appeared in the Morning Advertiser:

British pyramid national necropolis, designed by Mr. Willson (registered according to the 7th and 8th Victoria.) —The sanctity, economy, and durability of this novel and capacious plan, which gives the option of Earthly Burial,” or Entombment,” being well known to the public by the Model of the Pyramid in the Great Exhibition, intended for the Centre of the General Cemetery—the interests and feelings of families being deeply concerned in suppressing the violation of their tombs, it is resolved to carry this most requisite NATIONAL WORK into effect granting debentures of 10lb. each, bearing 4 per cent interest, payable at the Bank of England. Application for shares, &e, at the Necropolis Office, No. 81, Charing-cross. HENRY TOWNSEND, Secretary.

The business was not a success. In July 1853 Willson found himself standing before Commissioner Phillips at the Insolvent Debtors Court accused by a young man named James Sykes of defrauding him of £200. Sykes told the court that he had advertised for a job in the press and “offered a douceur of £200 to anyone who would procure him a permanent situation.” His bait landed him Thomas Willson who presented himself to Sykes as an architect with offices in Charing Cross and “an extensive practice as a patent agent and architect. He also said he was the principal of the British Pyramid National Necropolis Company, and that he would offer him a permanent situation in his office, at a salary of £100 a year”. Sykes accepted the offer of work and paid over his £200 to Willson, who signed a document promising to repay it in 12 months time. In the office Sykes “found he had little to do — chiefly in copying circulars for a monument to the Duke of Wellington and the Necropolis Company”. By November Willson told him he “must dispense with his services, from the stagnation of business, and would pay him up, and return the money deposited at the proper time.” He handed him £23 as salary but there were no signs of the return of his £200. Sykes took the matter to Bow Street, summoning Willson to appear before the magistrates, who declined to deal with the matter as presumably they judged it to be a civil rather than a criminal case. Sykes then sued Willson in the civil courts and obtained a judgement, but still no money was forthcoming and as a last resort he summonsed Willson to the Insolvent Debtors Court. Willson was called to give evidence – he confessed to having already been declared insolvent in 1817 and admitted that the only gainful employment he had ever had was with the Nunhead Cemetery Company for a year in 1842. He told Commissioner Phillips that he had an outstanding claim against the Lords of the Treasury for £785 being the balance of the £1177 he had deposited with the Colonial Office when taking his party out to Cape Colony. He said that he was still in correspondence with the Treasury about this but still had not received his money. In giving judgement Commissioner Phillips expressed “felt great anxiety about the case on account of the insolvent, who was now in the decline of life, and who was possessed of considerable talent in his profession, and who was capable of gigantic achievements.”  Despite his obvious sympathy for Willson he felt he had no choice but to find him guilty of obtaining the £200 from “a very weak minded young man” by fraud. Willson “who had been harassed and disappointed, fell into the temptation which the advertisement of Sykes offered” when it “was quite clear there was nothing for him to do in his office but copying circulars and drawing diagrams.” Commissioner Phillips said “he would consider the period for which it was his duty to pronounce a judgment for the fraud committed on Sykes. At the rising of the Court (half-past five o'clock), the insolvent was called upon, but the learned commissioner deferred stating the period of imprisonment at that late hour.” (All quotes from London Evening Standard - Wednesday 20 July 1853). Did Willson serve a prison sentence for this fraud as the newspaper implies? I have not been able to trace any record confirming this.

Willson's entry in the burial register at St Mary's Acton
The next records date from 1861 when the census confirms he was living at 6 Mill Hill Terrace, Acton with his wife and daughter (now aged 50) and one servant. In July he placed in the press a notice entitled An Extraordinary Persecution. In 250 words Willson recounts his grievances against the Colonial Office and claims that King William and the Earl of Aberdeen both promised to recompense him for the loss of his deposit money. “He has petitioned in vain for redress but who can contend with the gigantic power of our Government?” he asks. He appeals to the Senate “and also to his compatriots, the British Nation, to prevent this singular injustice, this cruel persecution which is causing him and his aged crippled wife (who has honorably shared in all his perils abroad) to be threatened by an ejectment from the present habitation.” No doubt the appeal fell on deaf ears.

In July 1862 ‘his aged crippled wife’, Mary Ann, died. He placed a notice in the newspaper to commemorate the fact and buried her in the Churchyard of St Mary’s Acton. In 1865 he was living at Cambridge Terrace in Hammersmith where he was declared bankrupt on 4th May. The 86 year old insolvent finally died in Islington, at the house of his son Thomas, in October 1866. His body was buried beside that of his wife in the churchyard at Acton.

Post Script  Willson’s youngest son, named Thomas after his father also became an architect though with rather more success as he built several buildings including the St Enoch Station Hotel in Glasgow for the City of Glasgow Union Railway Company. Thomas never had any children, his wife died in 1856 in her early thirties and he seems to have never remarried. He lived in Hampstead and interestingly he was also a Pyramid dreamer. In 1882, at the age of 68, he produced a design for a pyramid mausoleum in honour of the assassinated US President Garfield “to give expression...for all the profound grief,” caused by the “dastardly assassin”. Garfield’s widow chose another design for his final resting place.  

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Man who would be Cheops Part Two; Thomas Willson and Port Elizabeth

Most accounts agree that the putative pyramid builder Thomas Willson was born circa 1780. For most of his life he seemed slightly unsure of his age, giving numbers that, worked backwards, give possible dates of birth sometime between 1779 and 1785. His place of birth is likewise uncertain, on the 1861 census he says is from Fulham, but in 1819 he told the colonial office it was Chelsea. We don’t know the name of his parents or their station in life or indeed anything else about his family background or his childhood. The first documented fact we have about him is that he won the Royal Academy Gold Medal for Architecture in 1801 for a projected National Museum for Painting and Sculpture. It seems reasonable to assume from this that he attended the Royal Academy as a student and he certainly continued to exhibit there; in  1804 it was a 'Design for an entrance front to the Bank of Ireland from Foster Place, Dublin'. We know he married Mary Ann Ince on 13 August 1808 at St Botolph Aldgate; according to the register he was a resident of the parish. The couple went on to have four children; Percy, who was born in 1809, Mary Ann in 1811, Douglas in 1813 and Thomas in 1815. By his own account the young husband and father worked as an architect and land surveyor in the Horse Guards office of the commander in chief of the British Army, the Duke of York and Albany, Prince Frederick (the second son of George III) but by 1819 he may have been out of work as Britain stepped down from being on a more or less permanent war footing with the French.

After the defeat of Napoleon and the demobilisation of thousands of military personnel, unemployment and political unrest became a serious problem in Britain. One of the proposed solutions was to encourage emigration to the colonies and in 1819 Parliament allocated £50,000 pounds to the establishment of a colony on the Eastern Section of the Cape of Good Hope. A plan was circulated offering potential settlers one hundred acres of free land in South Africa plus free passage and food whilst on the ship though a £10 deposit was also required “to provide security for any advances which the Cape Government might be compelled to make for protecting the settlers against starvation”. The Government encouraged the formation of settler parties, the deposit to be collected by the party leader but paid over to the colonial authorities. A presumably unemployed and desperate Thomas Willson was one of the people attracted by the idea of leading a settler party to South Africa. On the 19th July 1819 from the family home of Bridge Cottage, Chelsea Water Works, he wrote to his old superior Henry, Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, soliciting employment in Cape Colony; “As your Lordship on a former occasion did me the honor to express a desire to serve me, having devoted the early years of my Life under Government, and possessing Testimonials highly honourable to my Character and professional fame and presuming upon the means of taking out 100 families to the Cape of Good Hope, may I in such a case be distinguished with an appointment as Colonial Secretary, Surveyor or any other respectable office in your Lordships gift or recommendation?” No offer of employment was forthcoming however and in fact later on the Colonial Office sheepishly admitted that Willson’s application to lead a party had been accepted in error and that they had actually meant to endorse a rival application from the similarly named Edward Webb Wilson who had applied to emigrate with the influential backing of Sir John Kynaston Powell of Ellesmere, the member of Parliament for Shropshire.

Old Chelsea Water Works from the Thames, 1829
Willson’s party consisted of 307 persons, 102 able bodied men and their dependants. Jumping the gun somewhat Willson collected an initial £5 deposit from them before the Colonial Office confirmed the success of his application. He went to collect a further £10 from each of his settlers to pay the Government deposit, the initial £5 would be used, he said, to buy ‘necessary stores’. He also decided to levy a 5% surcharge on the total amount paid by his charges as a personal fee for his efforts on their behalf. From the outset some of the potential colonists recruited by Willson were suspicious of his methods and his motives. A James Phillips of 3 Tann Street, Aldersgate, wrote to the Government wishing to confirm Willson’s bona fides as “being desirous of avoiding the possibility of becoming a dupe to an artifice, I respectfully request to be informed if what he states is the fact, as the terms proposed by him are that £5 be paid the first week of the current month into his hands without any security for its proper appropriation, £5 in Octr & £5 the last week in the same month, which last sum is for the purchase of stores of him on landing at the colony.”

From Chelsea Willson fired off a salvo of correspondence during July and August to Lord Bathurst trying to clarify various details relating to return of the settler’s deposits once they were in South Africa. By October he issued a scheme for the governance of his party once they were settled in the Cape, his suggestion being that the ten individuals in the party with some pretensions to being gentlemen should form a 'Society', each contributing an equal amount of capital and five labourers, and constitute themselves a Committee of Management to oversee the building of houses and the cultivation of their land. In addition he proposed that every ten settlers should select a Director to represent them, who would assist Willson himself in 'the dispensation of benefits'. In the distribution of land to the members of his party he would be as generous as was consistent with 'the public good' and the preservation of his 'own individual rights as Lord of the Manor'. He was willing to give a written guarantee of his intention to grant land to any settler who was entitled to a share, and who would 'pay a stipulated sum towards a Fund of Indemnity' intended to go into his own pocket. This grandiose and rather confusing scheme aroused the resentment of his party and as a result never got off the ground.

Setting sail from Deptford, 1820
For some reason Willson left his 8 year old daughter Mary Ann in England with relatives whilst the rest of the family, including his two youngest sons who were just 6 and 4, joined the rest of the emigrating party in Deptford in early January 1820. There they all boarded the Belle Alliance for the voyage to the Cape only to find themselves miserably stuck in the ice bound Thames for over a month waiting for the unusually fierce winter frost to thaw. The ship finally struggled to the Kent Coast and set sail from the Downs on 12 February taking just under 3 months to reach Table Bay on 2 May. Willson immediately wrote to Lord Bathurst to let him of the party’s safe arrival:

We have made the passage (without   accident)  in eleven weeks from the Downs, and except in the cases of measles and small  pox which was brought on board  by some of the  settlers'  children, we have had excellent health, and it is my duty  to say that in general the Settlers  have  not only stated  themselves  to  be well satisfied but have expressed their gratitude for the excellent accommodation and  provisions which were furnished  for them  by your  Lordship's, direction, and I believe in so large and varied a party it would  be difficult  to  select  an  instance  wherein  greater  order  has  more generally  prevailed, with  the  exception  of  two  juvenile  thieves who, for example sake, I have found it necessary to have punished, but careful to avoid the character  of severity  on the  passage, not­withstanding  their  repeated depredations,  for the sake of example.

The 1820 settlers landing in Algoa Bay by Thomas Baines
Very few migrants on government transports in the 19th century felt that they were excellently accommodated and provisioned. Willson’s party may not have been as contented as he portrayed them to Lord Bathurst. Thomas Cock for one might have had something to say about the ‘excellent health’ apparently enjoyed by virtually everyone on board apart from his wife and three children, who all died during the passage. One the settlers with pretensions to being a gentleman, a Mr Wilmot, may also have taken issue with the statement having lost one of his servants. Two of the excellently accommodated and provisioned settlers demanded to be put ashore at Simon’s Town with their families and leave the party. On the final leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay Willson issued a circular to his party members demanding 'indemnification' for his efforts and expense on their behalf, claiming the sole right as 'Lord of the Manor' to hunt, fish and cut timber on the party's lands and to call on its members for labour. Almost the first thing the settlers did on disembarking at Algoa bay was to present a petition to Sir Rufane Donkin the acting governor of the colony asking him to intervene on their behalf with their leader. The governor called a meeting with Willson and his party and 'after explaining and exhorting, and deciding rather against Mr W', he believed that 'union was restored' and he despatched the squabbling settlers to their final destination on the Bush River.
Willson had ambitious plans for the new settlement. On the voyage out he had written to Lord Bathurst to explain his vision:

Taking  all things  into consideration  it  has occurred to me from the  great  influx  of population  in  the  district   I am  to  inhabit, foreseeing that  a number  of Artificers  and persons  of mechanical genius who have entered  themselves as farmers, will naturally  fall into their  former  occupations,  and   that   additional   towns  and villages  will  most  probably  grow out  of such  a  state  of things, I have suggested  a  plan for a Town which  can  be systematically and  progressively acted  upon: to express  its  origin  I have given it the name of Angloville, which name I have also inserted  in my printed forms for sub-grants; it will in the beginning simply  take the form  of a square, which with  your  Lordship's  permission,  in  token of my respect  and from a grateful  sense  of duty,  I must beg leave  to  call  Bathurst Square,  in  the  centre  of  which it  is proposed when  our  funds  will  admit  of  the  expence,  to erect  a Colossal Monument of  our  beloved  Sovereign  King  George the fourth, and as other  squares  and  streets  occur  in the  design, His majesty’s ministers  will not be omitted  in marking our gratitude for the  present epoch of our lives, with  the  natural  feeling and spirit we must ever have for our native and beloved Country.

Willson’s dream of Angloville with its colossal monument to George IV in Bathurst Square never materialised. Within a few days of arriving at the place that would eventually come to be known as Beaufort Vale, a terrified Willson had abandoned his settlers and returned to Cape Town because the ‘wretched minded classes’ amongst them had threatened to put a bullet in his head. The cause of the discord, the non return of the deposit money, was exacerbated by Willson’s high handed manner and by misinformation spread by colony officials. The settlers had been told, incorrectly, that the deposit money had already been returned to Willson and assuming that he was trying to cheat them, furious party members threatened him and his family. In 1823, two years after his return to England, Willson wrote to Lord Bathurst outlining the events that led to him abandoning his charges: 

The Donkin Memorial with the 1861 lighthouse in the background
I was to be reimbursed in Money on my arrival at the Cape! It was the money only that could afford me the means of protecting myself from the petty debts of numerous Individuals, whose chief aim was to incur debt, and to rob me: and the money was the only means of reimbursing myself for monies advanced, in anticipation of such repayment! This is a serious loss to me, my Lord, and a serious grievance entailed upon me by His Majesty’s Government. And, from the blunders of the Irish Commandant at Algoa Bay, who insisted upon it, and assured the Settlers that I had received the whole of my Deposit money, my family were assailed with midnight violence, and I was threatened with Assassination! Nothing but clamor and discord followed, and I had afterwards to contend against no fewer than Twenty-five Actions at Law! which I have been informed since my return, that these several actions were secretly advised and supported at the expence of General Donkin! and proof has been tendered to me to establish it as a truth! My Lord, I can scarcely credit the possibility that the Honorable General could be guilty of such duplicity! which would be no less cruel and wicked than it proved altogether futile, unnecessary, and derogatory to the Abettors. What, my Lord, can compensate me for  such unheard of persecution? I was previously threatened by the rude Hibernian with ruin, nothing but my ruin could satisfy his lust of authority, he pursued me with still greater barbarity, at the very hour that my poor wife (whose education and family connexion ought to have been her protection, she is the only sister of Mrs. George Cowell of Fitzroy Square, a Lady who I believe is not unknown to your Lordship), when she, unhappily, was in a perilous state of life, and death, for 24 hours, at that critical time did this unfeeling Officer threaten, in braggart terms, to toss both me, and my baggage, into the waggons which he had planted before my door, and threatened to send us into the Interior under a Military Escort.

Sir Rufane Donkin and his wife Elizabeth
Willson never returned to the settlement and his place as leader was taken by the party’s clergyman William Boardman. For the next two years Willson and his family were stuck at the new settlement at Algoa Bay, arguing, by long distance correspondence, with the Colonial Office, for a grant of freehold land that he felt was his due as leader of a group of colonists. During this time the ramshackle harbour settlement started to grow in much the same way as Willson had once probably imagined the growth of Angloville. The most important figure in the colony was Sir Rufane Donkin, the Quarter Master General of the British Army and acting Governor at the Cape, veteran of the Peninsular War, where he had served under the Duke of Wellington, and of the campaign against the Mahrattas in India under Hastings. It was in India that Donkin suffered a devastating personal tragedy, the death of his young wife Elizabeth. Feeling unable to continue with his responsibilities as a senior officer in the army Donkin requested and was granted extended sick leave at the Cape. Whilst there he recuperated sufficiently to be given the relatively light duties of supervising the nascent East Cape colony. Although she was buried in India Donkin decided Cape colony was the right place to commemorate his dead wife, firstly by naming the new coastal settlement Port Elizabeth in her honour and secondly by commissioning the building of a prominent memorial to her on the summit of the hill that overlooked the town. Captain Moresby of the Royal Navy welcomed the building of the Donkin cenotaph, a 10 metre high “pyramid, about to be erected as a private memorial, half-a-mile to the South-East of Fort Frederick” as an aid to navigation that “will stand conspicuous to ships approaching the land.” The pyramid, built of local stone and bearing an inscription to “one of the most perfect of human beings who has given her name to the town below”, was declared a national monument in 1938. In her 1994 book Port Elizabeth: A social chronicle to the end of 1945 Margaret Harradine mentions that “settler draughtsman Thomas Willson made drawings for a pyramid similar to that of Caius Cestius in Rome, and William Reed supplied the stone. The builders were soldiers from the Fort”.

The Donkin Memorial is Willson’s first recorded involvement with the design and construction of a pyramid. In fact it is his only known involvement with a finished building. Interestingly the design was based on the classical Cestius pyramid in Rome which was exactly the model chosen for the Metropolitan Sepulchre. As we shall see Willson’s sojourn in Africa had repercussions which lasted the rest of his life and he continued to refer to his adventure at the Cape as the source of the financial troubles that dogged him until the day he died. The only topic which seemed to obsess him more than Africa was the Pyramids and the proposal for the Metropolitan Sepulchre. But in his writings on the subject and the constant self publicity about it he never once mentioned the fact that he had been previously involved in the construction of a pyramid in South Africa. If he had played a significant role in the designing of the memorial surely he would have brought the subject up in later life? By the time Willson was making the proposal for the colossal pyramid on Primrose Hill Sir Rufane Donkin was also back in England, someone who would have known the true circumstances concerning the memorial overlooking Port Elizabeth. Perhaps Willson was, as Margaret Harradine says, purely the draughtsman but if so the production of the drawings were the seed which generated a lifelong obsession with the idea of pyramidal interment. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Man who would be Cheops Part One; Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death

The Pyramid of Cheops (or the Great Pyramid of Giza as it is better known) in the ‘Description de l'Égypte’
One of the consequences of Napoleon’s invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1798 was a wave of Egyptomania sweeping across Europe during the first two decades of the 19th century. Alongside his 40,000 troops Bonaparte took 167 savants with him to the land of the Pharaohs; engineers and artists, geologists, chemists, and mathematicians as well as philologists and antiquarians, who collectively formed the Institut d'Égypte, dedicated to studying the cradle of civilisation, Ancient Egypt.  Back in France, from 1809 until 1829, the Institut painstakingly produced and published under Napoleon’s patronage the nine folios of text and ten volumes of plates of the monumental ‘Description de l'Égypte’, fuelling the craze for all things Egyptian. In architecture the Egyptian revival look poised, for a while at least, to challenge the hegemony of neo-classicism. Gothic revival may have eventually became the prevailing taste of the Victorian age but the architecture of the Egyptian revival, with its fascination for mortuary culture, found its niche in the newly formed garden cemeteries of England’s major cities.  

Sir Frederick Trench's proposed pyramid to commemorate victory against Napoleon.  
Some of the greatest monuments of the Egyptian revival never made it beyond the planning stage. In 1815 a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Sir Frederick William Trench MP, proposed building a pyramid to commemorate victory over the French.  His suggestion was for a 380 foot tall, 22 step ziggurat (one step for each year of the war and taller than St Paul’s) to be sited at the top end of Pall Mall where Trafalgar Square now stands. Sir Frederick’s pyramid scheme would, he calculated, provide employment for demobilised British troops for at least 10 years at a cost of just £1 million to the British taxpayer. No one took the proposal for a giant pyramid seriously and Sir Frederick eventually gave up on the idea, instead throwing his time and energy into pursuing a scheme to build a giant quay along the north bank of the Thames. But something about Pyramids appealed to the Zeitgeist and in the architect Thomas Willson’s proposal for the metropolitan sepulchre on Primrose Hill, a gigantic pyramid to be built to store up to five million corpses, it also happened to dovetail with the heated contemporary debate about what to do about London’s overcrowded and noxious churchyards. The 1828 edition of The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, & Sciences dubbed Willson’s proposal the ‘pyramid of death’:

Another remarkable design is “the project of a pyramidal metropolitan sepulchre By Thomas Willson Architect. The edifice is to consist of brick work to be faced with square blocks of granite. The base of it would, according to the project, occupy an area of 40 acres (about as large as Russell Square) the length of the ground line being 1200 feet. The height of it is intended to be 1500 feet, (nearly four times the height of St Paul's). The projector has published a prospectus of the work, which will be found annexed to the painting exhibited in the gallery”. This monstrous piece of folly, the object of which is to have generations rotting in one vast pyramid of Death, instead of being quietly mingled with their parent earth and forgotten, is perhaps the most ridiculous of the schemes broached in our scheming age. The desire to accomplish that which every wise and philosophical mind must wish not to have accomplished is indeed worthy of a professor of that art or science Architecture, which is at so low an ebb in this country, as to stand at the bottom of the whole list.
Willson's blueprint for the Metropolitan Sepulchre
Willson’s proposal required no public funding; it was in fact ‘practical, economical and remunerative’ and would, he believed cost, £2,583,552 to build but make a profit of £10,764,800 once the sepulchre was completely filled (which he estimated would take about 125 years, at a rate of 40,000 interments a year). Freehold vaults, “which are to closed up and sealed for ever when interment lakes place, with stone tablets on the face, explanatory of name, place, age, &c.”, were to cost between £100 and £500, depending on the size and location, and there would be a steady income stream from vaults leased to the various parishes of London. The gigantic structure would hold 215,219 vaults on 94 stories, accessed by sloping ramps and hydraulic powered lifts and would cover 18 acres of Primrose Hill but hold as many bodies as a 1000 acre cemetery.   His clever design would, Willson wrote “go far towards completing the glory of London.” It isn’t clear if the 1500 foot height of the Metropolitan Sepulchre included the 200 feet elevation of Primrose Hill or not. Either way the brooding bulk of the Sepulchre, at almost 460 metres tall, would have dominated the London skyline; the obelisk at the summit of the pyramid would have been at twice the height of Canary Wharf and 250 metres higher than the Shard. Being almost as wide at the base at it was tall it would have hung over the capital like a manmade mountain, blocking out sunlight for long periods of the day to huge swathes of north London. One of the main concerns about the scheme was that the weight of the millions of tons of bricks and granite used would crush Primrose Hill.

Willson first proposed his scheme in 1824 when it caught the attention of barrister George Frederick Carden, the garden cemetery pioneer, who was beginning to take an interest in burial reform.  Carden was intrigued but not convinced and Willson was enrolled into the burgeoning burial reform movement.  He became one of the early members of Carden’s General Cemetery Company and attended the historic meetings held in the Freemason’s Tavern in June and July 1830, chaired by Andrew Spottiswoode MP. After Carden had opened the meeting by outlining his vision for a London garden cemetery along the lines of Père Lachaise, open to all denominations and all religions, Willson was the first person to respond. According to the Oxford Journal of 10 July 1830, “Mr. Wilson (sic) coincided generally in the sentiments expressed by the last speaker, but he did not think the plan of Pere-la-Chaise suitable for a general cemetery in this country. He had a plan by which he should be able to make 50 or 100 acres of land as available for the purpose of burial as 1,000 could be by any other method.” 
Perhaps spurred on by the momentum around the General Cemetery Company Willson published his plans in 1830 under the title “The Pyramid, a general metropolitan cemetery to be erected in the vicinity of Primrose Hill” including drawings of his proposed designs.  The publication attracted the attention of another notable figure in the burgeoning cemetery movement, John Claudius Loudon, whose correspondence with the Editor of the Morning Advertiser was published in the newspaper on 19 January 1830. As with other members of the cemetery movement, Loudon applauded Willson’s desire to abolish burials in churchyards but objected to the pyramid proposal “first, because I think the risk of mephitic exhalations would be greatly increased; secondly, because the expenses of burial of the poor would be greatly increased by such agglomeration of corruption; and, thirdly, and in this perhaps I am peculiar, because I hate the idea of interment in a vault, or in any way which prevents the body from speedily returning to its primitive elements, and becoming useful by entering into new combinations—vegetable, mineral, or even animal, in aquatic burial.” He also had an geometrical objection to the proposed form of the metropolitan sepulchre; “a pyramid recalls to me an age of darkness and superstition; and not being guilty of what Mr. Bentham calls, ancestor worship, and thinking that in this country there is by far too great a veneration for antiquity in things mental as well material, I prefer looking forward.” After encouraging Willson to “push his scheme as far it will go, by which, at least, public attention will be called to the subject,” he went on to make an alternative proposal, a garden cemetery, to be built on 500 acres of the cheapest land available within a 50 mile radius of London, somewhere like Bagshot Heath he suggests. That the dead be conveyed there by public hearse which “ought to leave London every other day, at a certain hour” though “a rail-road and steam loco-motive engine might in time be employed in this business, for poorer classes —and the rich, or those who ride when alive in private carriages, might bury by private hearses.” This sounds remarkably prescient of Brookwood Cemetery, which is a mere 6 or 7 miles from Bagshot Heath.
Laura Haines recreation of the Sepulchre as it would look on today's London skyline
Willson assiduously followed Loudon’s suggestion to ‘push his scheme as far as it would go’ as we will see later, but despite 30 years of unstinting effort on his part and the lure of the potential millions to be made in burial fees no one really took the Metropolitan Sepulchre proposal seriously. In time memory of the scheme survived only as a paragraph in scholarly histories of the burial reform movement and as footnotes in accounts of the architecture of the English Egyptian Revival. But in the last six or seven years interest in the ‘pyramid of death’ has revived and dozens of websites have given posting space to an account based very heavily on the London Literary Gazette article of 1828 and it frequently features in lists such as ‘The landmark buildings that never were’ (BBC News 24 Jul 2012) and ‘The TopTen: Unrealised and unfinished buildings’ (The Independent 09 May 2015). The graphic artist Laura Haines completed her project ‘Metropolitan Sepulchre: ACounterfactual History of London’ in 2016, imagining what Willson’s pyramid would be like today if it had actually been built; the answer, of course, is that it would be a tourist attraction.
Laura Haines again - this time recreating the Sepulchre during the blitz.
In 2012 Radio 4 broadcast ‘A Pyramid For Primrose Hill’, Jonathan Glancey’s look at the Metropolitan sepulchre, the Egyptian Revival and the cemetery movement (still available on BBC iplayer). One of Glancey’s  interviewees was Ralph Hyde former librarian of the Guildhall Library. As they leaf through a copy of Willson’s plans Glancey asks do we know much about Thomas Willson? “Not very much,” says Hyde, “he was born about 1780, and he went to the Royal Academy schools, and he was given some prizes, so he started off as a serious architect by the sound of it. He did various schemes for national monuments, victory monuments, but none of them seem to have been built. But in the 1820's he came up with this idea for a pyramid for London….” And there, in less than a hundred words, we have the sum total of virtually all the biographical data available on Willson. No one seemed to know anything about him; his pyramid may be one of London’s favourite unbuilt buildings but the man himself was a total mystery. I could not believe that anyone in the public eye for an outré proposition like the Metropolitan Sepulchre could really leave no trace in the records. There had to be something, somewhere. And so I started to work through birth, death and marriage records, census returns, newspaper archives and even the records of the Cape Colony in South Africa and eventually started to piece together a biographical outline of the man who would be Cheops.  

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

London's Malign Geometery; A Hawksmoor Tour (Part 3 Whitechapel to Limehouse)

Shortly before midnight on Saturday the 7th December 1811 Timothy Marr, a draper of 29 Ratcliffe Highway (a “public thoroughfare in the most chaotic quarter of eastern, or nautical, London,” according to Thomas de Quincy) sent his serving girl Margaret Jewell out to buy him some oysters and to pay a bakers bill whilst he and his apprentice James Gowan were shutting up the shop. Margaret’s errands were a waste of time – she couldn’t find any oysters for sale at that time of night and the bakers too were closed. When she returned back to the drapers the door of the shop was closed and the shutters down. Margaret heard the Marr’s three month old baby crying as she rapped on the door but it quietened, presumably when Celia Marr picked up her son and comforted or fed him. No one answered Margaret’s increasingly frantic knocking. A passing drunk began to harass her and she had to quieten down until the parish night watch passed by at 1am. Even he couldn’t rouse the Marrs, even though his shouting and banging on the door woke all the neighbours, including John Murray a pawnbroker who lived and worked next door. He went to the rear of his property and climbed over the wall into the Marr’s back yard. From here he was able to get into the shop where he almost tripped over the body of James Gowan, who was lying on the floor with his head smashed to a bloody pulp and his throat gashed open. By the light of his candle the shocked Murray could also see the body of Celia Marr, her head similarly staved in and still leaking blood into a large pool on the floorboards. Murray ran to the front door and pulled it open yelling "Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is here!" The small crowd of neighbours and passersby, led by the night watchman poured into the shop where they soon located the body of Timothy Marr. Someone yelled "What about the baby?" and the crowd pushed into the Marr’s bedroom where they found the baby still in its crib, its throat cut so deeply that the head was almost severed and the left hand side of the head battered with a blunt instrument.

The murder of the Marrs caused national outrage. A mass killing of this sort, taking place in the victims own home was unusual and terrified everyone. A hundred guinea reward was posted for information leading to the identification of the killer or killers. The only tangible clue the police had to go on was a maul, a heavy shipwright’s hammer that had been found at the scene of the crime clotted with blood and human hair and obviously one of the murder weapons. Then on the 19th December the murderer struck again, at the King’s Arms Tavern in New Gravel lane (now Glamis Road). A night watchman had been passing the public house in the small hours when he found a half naked man trying to climb down a rope of knotted sheets from the top storey of the building. The man turned out to be a lodger in the pub by the name of John Turner and he started yelling that there was murder being committed inside. The door of the cellar was quickly broken open and inside the bodies of the landlord, John Williamson, his wife Elizabeth and a barmaid Bridget Harrington were all discovered with their heads battered in and their throats cut, in the same manner as the Marrs. The Williamson’s 14 year old granddaughter survived – she slept through the attack and the murderer or murderers probably did not realise she was in the house.

Postmortem sketch of
John Williams
On the 21st December a seaman by the name of John Williams was arrested at the Pear Tree Inn after information was received from an anonymous source naming him as the murderer. He had been seen drinking at the Kings Arms on the night of the murder and there were other circumstantial details too which linked him to the crimes. He was remanded at Cold Bath Fields Prison to appear before the Shadwell magistrates to answer questions on his possible involvement in the shocking crimes. On the day of the hearing the magistrates were sat waiting in their packed court room when a messenger appeared from the prison – Williams had committed suicide, hanging himself in his cell. The magistrates went ahead and heard the testimony of the other witnesses in what now appeared to be an open and shut case. Their verdict, hotly disputed to this day, was that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. 

To appease public opinion and In lieu of a public execution the Home Secretary Sir Richard Ryder, accepting the conclusions of the Shadwell Magistrates that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, ordered that his body be publically paraded around the streets at the scenes of his crimes. Once the local residents were satisfied that the monster was indeed dead he was to be interred at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. The crossroads chosen were at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, close by the Crown and Dolphin public house. The photograph above looks from the railway bridge on Cannon Street Road to the cross roads where Williams was buried with the Crown and Dolphin still standing on the corner and the tower of St Georges’-in-the-East showing above the roof tops of the houses.

On New Years Eve 1811 accompanied by the Thames Police and the Bow Street Mounted Patrol as well as local constables and watchman John Williams’ body was arranged on an open cart along with the maul, a chisel and a crowbar that he had used in committing his crimes and driven slowly through the streets of Wapping and Shadwell, stopping outside the Marr’s shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the Kings Arms Tavern. 10,000 spectators lined the route and the normally unruly east end crowd was unusually subdued. When the procession reached the crossroads the grave had already been dug. The driver of the cart whipped Williams’ body three times in an unscripted act of revenge and then it was removed from the cart and placed on its knees in the open grave. A stake was placed at the point of his back judged to be above the heart and then driven through it with a mallet before the earth was piled over the corpse.

In 1902 gas mains were being laid in Cannon Street North and Cable Street. The labourers digging the trenches uncovered a skeleton with a wooden stake driven through the ribcage and adjourned to the Crown and Dolphin while their bosses debated what to do. They probably left carrying John Williams’ skull which rumour has it was then exchanged for a few pints when the landlord took an interest in it. Certainly by the time the authorities arrived to take Williams’ remains away the skeleton was headless and once the mains had been laid, the road repaved and official interest in the site had waned a skull purportedly belonging to John Williams’ went on prominent display in the saloon bar.

The Marrs, the first victims of the Ratcliffe Highway Murderer, were buried in the churchyard of Hawksmoor's St Georges'-in-the-East. A large headstone was set up which disappeared when all the headstones were cleared and lined up against the churchyard wall to allow the graveyard to be converted into a park. It was assumed the headstone was gone forever but the historian Sarah Wise (author of a trio of excellent books on London, including one on grave robbing in Bloomsbury) was rooting around some broken fragments of stone in the park when she came across pieces of the lost memorial.

The funeral of the Marr family, held at St George's in the East

There has been a flurry of activity centred around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders because of the 200th anniversary. On the 28th December there is a Highway Murder Walk starting at 3.00pm at St George's (just as it is getting dark - obviously for the atmosphere) and taking in all the key sites in an hour and a half stroll. There isn't that much to see - the Marrs' shop is now a SAAB dealership for example - but that is the nature of these East End walks. As there are few physical traces of the places the events happened you have to attune yourself to picking up on the non physical force fields that are still in place, the lines of energy that tell you that you are standing on the spot where the ghastly deeds happened. A £10 fee is payable and booking in advance recommended. Call me a philistine but I don't understand why anyone would pay a tenner to be shown a SAAB dealership that is perfectly easy to locate all by yourself. And if you want to hear the story or know more, PD James book 'The Maul & the Pear Tree' will give you a lot more for your ten quid then you will get out of a tour guide.  

Work started on Hawksmoor’s St George’s in the East in 1714 (on land acquired for £400) and was completed in 1729 (unexpected delays were caused by bad bricks, incompetent workmen and the theft of building materials ‘especially on Sundays’ according to one of the contractors). It is a large church, designed to seat 1230, and cost £18,557 3s 3d. At the time the church was built Shadwell was a rather prosperous suburb of maritime London – it was only much later that it became an East End slum district. In 1795 Daniel Lyson his ‘Environs of London’ described the area as built up ‘apart from a few grass fields’ in the north of the parish and the residents were “employed, for the most part, in rope-making, and the manufacture of other articles for the rigging of ships.” His list of burials in the church yard includes 14 ships captains, 2 Royal Navy Lieutenants, a pair of surgeons, a merchant, a sprinkling of Esquires and ‘John Abbott, Gent (1787).  In the late 1850’s the church became the scene of serious disturbances when the Low Church Bishop of London appointed a militant protestant clergyman as a Sunday afternoon  preacher in what was a church and congregation dominated by High Churchmen. According to a parliamentary report the congregation retaliated to the appointment by “hounds let loose in the aisles; hassocks thrown at the altar; boys and clergy kicked and tripped; boys supplied with peashooters and fireworks; a pew used as a privy; and a Protestant League which met every week to plan the next weeks assault.”

The church suffered a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1941 and was completely gutted. The shell stood empty for 20 years until it was restored in the early 1960’s. By then the parish had no requirement for such a large church so, in a very unusual arrangement, a new, smaller church was built inside the walls of the old.  Hawksmoor’s design is as idiosyncratic and eclectic as ever – the tower is topped by six copies of a Roman sacrificial altar. 

From Shadwell you can walk down the Commercial Road to Limehouse or you can take a slightly longer route which takes you down to and along the Thames. Canary Wharf, 1 Canada Square which can can be seen intermittently along your route from Bloomsbury to Shadwell is always in view once you reach the river side. Iain Sinclair would have made much of the Pyramid that tops the building if it had been built in 1975 when he was writing 'Lud Heat'. As it wasn't, other fevered imaginations have had to extract every last ounce of symbolic meaning from what is London's most prominent building......

“London still sees more than its share of buildings which seem to owe more to the occult than to strict practicality. Number One Canada Square, better known as Canary Wharf, is topped with a conspicuous pyramid with a flashing light at its apex. It could hardly be a more graphic embodiment of the familiar image of a pyramid topped by an eye, a symbol familiar from the back of the US dollar bill.

The architect of One Canada Square was Cesar Pelli, who is quoted as saying that the tower was intended to be a simple geometric form. “Of the four different roof shapes available from the World Financial Center, he chose the pyramid because he found it to be common in most cultures,” according to one source.

Pyramids are not exactly common in our culture – although Hawksmoor certainly added a few. The height of the Canary Wharf pyramid happens to be 130ft (40m), which some have suggested makes it an embodiment of the 13 steps of the Masonic pyramid.

“This is the clearest symbol yet. Screw the Washington Monument, I think I’ve found the biggest Obelisk and Eye of Horus yet. This has got to be down to the Masons,” writes one excited blogger as he demonstrates how the Canary Wharf complex can be mapped on to Masonic symbols. Of course, conspiracy theories do not need much of a launch pad, and others skilled in the art have managed to link Pelli to the Freemasons, the Skull & Bones Society, the Order of Death and much, much more…”
David Hambling in the Fortean Times

The foundations of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s were laid in 1712 and the church was completed in 1724. For some reason however the building wasn’t consecrated until 1730. There is a Pyramid in the church yard which was originally meant to be placed at the top of the tower (see the photograph below).

The Limehouse pyramid by Guy Vaes
Daniel Lyson’s, in his ‘Environs of London’ (1795) said that the parish “contains about 150 acres of land not covered by buildings: of these about 10 are market-gardens; the remainder pasture, occupied by cowkeepers, whose stock of cattle amounts to about 180…. The principal manufactures in the place are Mrs. Turner's of sailclothes, and Mr. Hall's of pot-ashes. The late Charles Dingley, Esq. erected a saw-mill of his own invention, which still exists, but has not been employed for many years. There are three dock-yards in the parish used principally for repairs. A navigable canal communicating with the river Lee at Bromley joins the Thames in this parish. It was made about the year 1769, pursuant to an act of parliament, and is called the Limehouse-cut.” He notes the birth of triplets as a curiosity from the Parish Registry; "John, Thomas, and Eleanor, sons and daughter (at the same birth) of Thomas Carnell, fisherman, and Susanna his wife, baptized Nov. 21, 1739,” but then goes on to mention almost as an afterthought “they were all buried on the 7th of December.”  

This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011.