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.