Ryde Social Heritage Group research the social history of the citizens of Ryde, Isle of Wight. Documenting their lives, businesses and burial transcriptions.
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The National Federation of Cemetery Friends AGM

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
The National Federation of Cemetery Friends AGM
Saturday 14 June 2008
Attended by Rachael Mead and Janette Gregson on behalf of RSHG

At 6:50am on the morning of 14 June, we met at Ryde Esplanade filled with great anticipation as to what the day would bring for the two us. What was the occasion? We were on our way to attend the National Federation of Cemetery Friends. Every year this meeting is held at a different cemetery of a Friends Group who are members of the National Federation. This year’s AGM was hosted by the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in London.

The cemetery was opened in 1841 by The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Company a company whose directors were made up of eleven wealthy local businessmen. The company bought 27 acres of land and divided it into a consecrated part for Anglican burials and un-consecrated for other denominations.

The park was closed to burials in 1966 when it was bought by the Greater London Council. It is estimated that there are approximately 500,000 graves in the cemetery and just short of 10,000 of these have been researched. In 1986 the London Borough of Tower Hamlets took over ownership of the cemetery and in March 2001 it became the Borough’s First Local Nature Reserve.

We arrived at the Park just after 10am and even at first glance we could tell that it was going to be an extraordinary place. After signing in at the Soanes Centre (a resource centre situated just inside the main entrance), we were directed into a room with a variety of display boards around the walls with information and pictures about some of the people buried within the cemetery. There was also a long table in the middle of the room which enabled some of the visiting groups to display information about their own cemeteries. The overall atmosphere was very friendly and it was good to meet up with other groups with similar interests and concerns as ourselves.

At about 10:50am we were all asked to gather outside by the large war memorial. The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery (FTHC) had prepared four walks around the cemetery on different topics for attendees to go on during the morning. Each attendee could choose to go on two of the four walks. At this point Janette and I separated so that we could cover all four walks between us.

1. The first tour I went on was the ‘Introduction to History’ which had a mother and daughter leading it, Doreen and Diane. There were about twenty people on the tour along with myself. As you enter the cemetery for the first time you are immediately struck by its wild and overgrown beauty, also by the peace and tranquillity of the area. As we walked around the park these two lovely ladies stopped at various interesting graves that they had picked out and told us the history of the people. It was truly fascinating. The first grave that we were shown was that of Samuel Soanes who owned the land previous to the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Company.

Among the others we visited were:
Will Crooks, a man who started out as a cooper and ended up becoming the first Labour Mayor of London.

The grave of the mother and father of John Jock Willis (or “White Hat Willis”) a shipbuilder who commissioned Hercules Linton to design the Cutty Sark.

There is the headstone to the memory of a man who was killed by Red Indians in California in 1804.

Just inside of the walls of the cemetery on one side is the grave of the Rev David Roe, a Wesleyan minister who was the superintendent of a seamen’s mission and was instrumental in the building of The Queen Victoria’s Seamen’s Rest which is still in use today.

Image of Queen Victoria’s Seamens Rest from http://www.qvsr.org.uk/history.htm where you can read all about this establishment for the social and morale welfare of seafarers.

There is a beautiful monument on the grave of Charlie Brown. He was landlord of the “Charlie Brown” pub and he was a larger than life character. Everyone in Poplar knew him. He died in 1932 at the age of 72. Hundreds of people waited for hours to follow the funeral procession to the church including the Mayor of Poplar and other dignitaries.

The last monument I was shown was the grave of Dr Rees Ralph Llewellyn who was the Surgeon who performed the post mortem on Polly Nichols, the first of the first victims of Jack the Ripper in 1888. He died in 1921 aged 70 years and is buried in the cemetery in the family grave.

There were many more graves that we were shown but these are the ones that I could remember the most about. Unfortunately being in London and in close proximity to airports meant that at times it was difficult to hear everything that was being said but hopefully this will give you a small taste of the rich history of those buried within the cemetery walls.

2. Kenneth Greenway led the second tour I attended called an Introduction to Nature. Ken is the only member of the FTHC who is paid to work on site full time. He is extremely enthusiastic about the work going on in the park and from the way he talks about the park it is plain that he loves his job. During the walk we were encouraged to look, smell and even taste some of the abundance of wild plants growing there. He talked about controlling the plants such as ivy within the park and various other rogue plants. One of the interesting things he told us was that if you get stung by nettles the best thing to cure the rash is the juice from inside the nettle stem itself. All you have to do is rub the nettle though your clothes to take off the leaves and snap the stem then rub the juice on the rash and it takes the stinging away. I had never heard this before.

Janette’s comments on the two tours she attended are below:

3. The first tour I joined was led by Alan Gardner and entitled “So … what do we do with the monuments”? Alan is a professional working in the areas of conservation and restoration. He explained to us about the different types of stone found in Tower Hamlets Cemetery and showed how weathering affects different stone in different ways. He then went on to explain some of the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of cleaning stone and what you might be considered before any attempt to clean stone. Such as will cleaning cause any further damage to the stone? and Do you want a stone that might be over 100 years old to look ‘brand new’?
We spent a lot of time looking at the Westwood monument which the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park are hoping to have tidied up. Alan said that as a professional he prefers to be guided by the people who are involved to find out what they want. He can give various options as to what can be done but it is important for the Friends to decide what they want. For example it would be possible (finances permitting) to have the monument completely cleaned and re-cut or pieces of stone replaced where they have eroded or broken off and have metal and tiles replaced where they are missing. This would make the monument look pretty much as it did when new. However the Friends had discussed this and decided that they rather liked the ‘aged’ look of the monument, part of the carving might be re-cut, and where missing tiles where still in the vicinity of the monument they would be put back, but missing tiles would not be replaced with new. They want the monument to look cared for, but they also want to acknowledge it’s age and the fact that stone does weather over time, so they have decided not to have it completely cleaned.

Restoration and conservation of monuments and buildings is a huge subject and in an hour we could only touch on it, but it certainly gave me lots to think about, particularly with the proposed restoration works about to start in Ryde Cemetery.

4. The second walk I attended was lead by Terry Lyle, the Chairman of FTHC on the subject of Planning and Managing for Wildlife. When the Friends group became involved in Tower Hamlets cemetery it was very overgrown with self seeded trees (and it still is to a large extent). The Friends group have cleared some areas of the trees and shrubs, but it was interesting to me that once an area is cleared they plant wild grasses and flowers which they allow to grow very tall, I think this grass is only cut about once or twice a year. Allowing the grass and wild flowers to grow like this makes the cemetery a haven for wildlife. The tall grass also helps to prevent many of the invasive plants like brambles and ivy to get established as it cuts down on the light at ground level. Many of the people I spoke to on that day were distressed at the overgrown state of the cemetery, but I thought it was very beautiful and peaceful; the combination of the graves and nature giving a very restful feel to the whole place.

After the four walks were finished we all arrived back at the Soanes centre just in time for a buffet lunch, which had been provided for us by the FTHC and was delicious.

At 2:15pm we were asked to go back into the display room, which was now full of seats, to attend the AGM meeting.

The discussion during the meeting was mostly just group business and election of officers but there were also important issues such as over-burials and new burial policies the government is considering. Ryde Social Heritage Group got a special mention in connection with our new book, a copy of which had been sent to every Cemetery Friends group in the country, and we even got a spontaneous round of applause which was a lovely surprise.

At 4:15pm the meeting was brought to a close and we were free to wander for a short while and have a cup of coffee before making our way back to Waterloo station for the journey home. The whole experience of the day was very interesting, uplifting and very enjoyable.

We would like to thank the National Federation of Cemetery Friends for the AGM and for the all the valuable advice and support they give to groups such as ours, also thanks are due to the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for their generous hospitality and for the excellent and informative tours in the morning.

Rachael Mead
July 1 2008