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.