Pieter van der Merwe’s history of the Pleasaunce

A History of the Pleasaunce

by Pieter van der Merwe

National Maritime Museum, June 2006

What follows is no more than an incomplete and very informal chronicle of the Pleasaunce’s origins. It was, of course, the last burial ground (of three) of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, from 1857 to 1869. As such it holds Greenwich Pensioners including remains moved from the previous burial ground at various times; also some Hospital officers and personnel of the Greenwich Hospital School, which occupied what are now the National Maritime Museum buildings until (as the Royal Hospital School from 1892) it moved to Suffolk in 1933. The source is almost entirely the Minutes of the Board of Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital in class ADM 67 at the National Archives, Kew, and the information here was only noted incidentally while doing other work. A few of the page references used are included to give general bearings, but by no means all for reasons of time. While the story also begins clearly enough it does not come to a particular end, as I have not pursued it further than my other concerns took me, broadly 1861. The Minutes themselves cease in 1865 when the Commissioners were abolished under the Act that led to the final closure of the Hospital four years later. I also did not note everything in detail within the date span covered (and have included a few things remembered but not noted). Anyway, ‘warts and all’ here it is…

The vast increase in London’s population in the early 19th century created severe problems in burying the dead in old, overcrowded churchyards, or beneath the floors of chapels and schools. Apart from complaints of ‘noxious effluvia’ – a common phrase for the smell emanating from overburdened graveyards and often shallow burials – there was a well-recognized public health problem. In 1845 a pressure group called the National Society for the Abolition of Burial in Towns was established and two years later the Cemeteries Clauses Act created general powers to establish commercial cemeteries. This proved ineffective, however, and was followed by the Burial Act of 1852 (15 & 16 Victoria, Cap. 85), which remained the principal legislation on the subject until the early 1970s. Under the 1852 Act the General Board of Health had to establish new suburban cemeteries and a large number of new parochial and other burial-grounds were set up round London, old ones being closed.

A certain amount of time was, of course, needed to do this. As far as Greenwich was concerned the matter was resolved early in 1855, when St Alfege Parish Council – the ‘local authority’ at that time – acquired ground for a new cemetery on the Kidbroke estate of the Earl of St Germains. As regards the Greenwich Hospital burial ground matters were to prove more complicated and prolonged.

At that time, and since July 1749, the Hospital had been burying its Pensioners on the former Goddard’s Ground or ‘Great Garden Ground’ – the area now partly covered by Devonport House (1924-35) and the south-west wing (1876) of the National Maritime Museum. This was its second burial ground, the first (1707-49) being the strip of land occupied since the early 19th century by numbers 32–40 Maze Hill, in the north-east corner of Greenwich Park.

By the 1850s the second graveyard was a walled area of about 4.5 acres bounded to the north by Romney Road; to the east by what are now the grounds of the National Maritime Museum; to the south by the Park and what from 1823 was the site of St Mary’s Church and is now that of William IV’s statue; and to the west by the 1783 Hospital School building – which became the School infirmary in the 1820s – and King Street (now King William Walk).

Pensioner burials were in rows of 16-foot pits on an east-west orientation, each holding 18 coffins, two abreast and nine deep, with a minimum of four inches of earth between each layer. This usually meant each grave was only finally closed after about three weeks. Hospital officers, their wives and children, were buried in either the vault of the Mausoleum (built by Thomas Ripley about 1750) or the surrounding officers’ enclosure, both of which still survive in the north-east angle of Devonport House. Because of overcrowding in the Mausoleum, some wooden coffins in it had already been removed in 1817 for interment, and thereafter only lead coffins were permitted in the vault.

In 1847 the Hospital’s Medical Inspector, Dr John Liddell, had voiced health fears concerning the the mass burials in the site – eventually over 20,000 in nearly 110 years of use – and while the Hospital Commissioners hesitated about what to do, new ground was certainly needed. They were already trying to find it when on 5 April 1855 the Parish Council sent an official letter requiring them to close the existing burial ground under the 1852 Act by 1 July 1856, and to advertise the instruction by putting up public notices.

Although they had earlier declined a suggestion from the Parish Council to seek ground jointly from Lord St Germains, he was the Board’s early independent resort. In August 1855 his agents expressed a willingness to sell the Hospital land on Kidbroke Common, subject to the agreement of some nearby residents. In November Philip Hardwick, the Hospital architect, and Mr Holmes of the Home Office, which had to give approval, went to inspect this 11-acre site. Later that month the Hospital solicitors also reported they had found two 7-acre plots, the property of the Earl of Dartmouth, near that obtained from him by Lewisham for its new cemetery, although the price was likely to be high. There was also one of 10 acres on land draining into the Ravensbourne at Hither Green, owned by a Mr England who wanted £250 per acre. Lord St Germains was already pressing for an early conclusion when the Hospital Inspectors of Works and the solicitor went to inspect Hither Green. They reported it four miles from the Hospital, though the road was good, but three trial pits showed the ground was mostly waterlogged clay. On receipt of their report Hardwick pronounced this very unsuitable and that option was abandoned.

At the same time the St Germains offer faded away and the solicitors were instructed to re-advertise in the local papers for six to ten acres. This raised at least five expressions of interest, none satisfactory and the matter was re- advertised. By February 1856 the solicitors had been in discussion for some land at Deptford with a Captain Drake, who then rather peremptorily told them that their offer of £300 to £400 per acre was ‘far beneath his expectations’, that he did not want his land used for burials and ‘to consider the matter closed’ (ADM 67/107, 28 Feb., p. 93).

With things getting nowhere, early in June 1856 the Hospital Board had to ask the Home Office for an extension of time. On the 14th they heard that the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, would recommend an extension of six months from 1 July and that if this proved inadequate they should give early notice. On 10 July the Board’s receipt of an Order in Council confirmed the extension, of which they had already had informal notification.

It was only a week later, on 17 July, that the Commissioners heard about the possibility of purchasing land in East Greenwich for a new burial ground from the trustees of the late Sir Gregory Page Turner, and set the wheels of investigation in motion. That September the land was inspected by Mr Grainger of the Home Office on the order of Sir George Grey and various queries were satisfactorily answered. The purchase was approved by the Home Office and Admiralty by end of October and executed by the Hospital on 12 November 1856 at ‘£550 per acre exclusive of the interest of Mr William Miles, the Yearly Tenant of the Land’, who used it primarily as an orchard of fruit trees (ADM67/107, p. 459). In mid-December a further extension for closing the old burial ground was also initiated through the Home Office, confirmed by a second Order in Council in January 1857 which granted a reprieve to the end of May of that year.

On 9 March 1857 Hardwick laid before the Board his proposals and the rough costs for walling the new East Greenwich land and building a two-storey keeper’s lodge on the Woolwich Road by its proposed main gates (ADM 67/108, pp. 103-5). These were agreed and advertised for public tender. At the same time the Board had employed a professional arbitrator to negotiate with Mr Miles for his tenancy interest. On 25 March they approved the proposed settlement: Miles was paid £100 for giving up possession of the land and £366 -15s-10d for the loss of his fruit trees, the arbitrator’s fee being £26 –11s-6d ( ibid., p. 119). The trees and other crops were to be sold for Hospital benefit, except any trees too large to remove save by felling.

Just over a month later, on 15 April, the building tenders for the walling, gates and lodge were opened and the contract was awarded to Messrs Lucas Brothers of Belvedere Road, Lambeth, whose estimate was £2,154 (ibid., p. 149). This the Admiralty approved a week later, at the same meeting when yet again the Board agreed to seek a third extension from Sir George Grey to continue using the old burial ground beyond 31 May 1857. This was granted by a further Order in Council, to 31 August. Work began rapidly, the results being what stands today, though the original main Woolwich Road entrance no longer functions as such due to later changes.

In June Hardwick then submitted full details of both the internal layout of the new ground and how burials were to be managed, along with printed copies of related statutory regulations (ibid., pp. 233-241 A-C). At this point there was an intervention from the Hospital’s benevolent (and peg-legged) last Governor, Admiral Sir James Alexander Gordon, who had succeeded Sir Charles Adam in 1853. He observed that he saw no arrangement in the new ground for the separate burial of officers, as in the old graveyard, where he assumed this would continue and anticipated that the Mausoleum would have to be enlarged for the purpose. He also wished to appoint a former Drill Master called Robinson as ‘warden’ of the new burial ground. The Board replied that they had asked Hardwick to make recommendations regarding the burial of officers and that they themselves proposed to appoint ‘a steady person at weekly wages’, not the Governor’s nominee, as warden of the new plot (ibid., 8 July p.246-48).

This exchange has to be understood against the rather strange system of governance operating in the Hospital from 1829. Before that, its Board of Directors was chaired by the Governor: he was thus both the head of the civil administration, which ran its daily and business affairs, and of the ‘military establishment’, under which the officer and Pensioner corps were organized on lines of naval discipline. However, as result of major and costly malfeasance in the 1820s by one of the Hospital financial staff, from 1829 the Governor became responsible only for the military side, while the previously large board of directors was replaced by three resident Commissioners (and two non- attending ex-officio ones). The Commissioners thereafter ran the Hospital’s financial and domestic affairs and held all real executive power, with no direct formal involvement by the Governor or other military officers, none of whom attended the Board. This created a separation of powers which relied entirely on good communication and worked fairly well until 1844 while the senior Commissioner was E. H. Locker – a skilled and diplomatic ‘networking’ administrator, who believed business was best done by discussion and who appears to have kept paper bureaucracy to what was reasonably necessary. His colleague and successor, George Tierney, was quite the reverse, believing that all business should be done on paper, with minimum verbal exchanges.

This has left very comprehensive documentation but at the time produced a situation in which – though living within yards of each other – the Governor and Commissioners generally only communicated, at least officially, in writing. At its most bizarre, the Governor often wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty in Whitehall, who then forwarded his communication with Admiralty views on the matter back to the Board at Greenwich, or vice versa. When the Admiralty suggested that the Governor might occasionally attend Board meetings to improve this situation, the Commissioners declined as an infringement on their prerogatives. Their attitude was eventually self-defeating, the resulting tensions and inefficiencies being contributory factors to the Hospital’s closure as a residential institution in 1865-69. They themselves were ‘wound-up’ in 1865, under protest, when the Admiralty began to take over more direct control of Hospital affairs.

The new burial ground’s distance from the Hospital meant it was no longer possible to take coffins easily across the road from the mortuary in the Infirmary (now the Dreadnought Library) on the twice-weekly burial days, Tuesday and Friday. Instead, in August 1857 the Board accepted an estimate from George Shillibeer – he of the celebrated horse omnibuses – to supply one of his ‘Patent Funeral Carriages’ by as close to 1 September as possible. It was to be of a size to carry up to six Pensioners’ coffins, plus mourners, with a velvet canopy, all complete for the sum of £140. At the same time Joseph Richardson and Sons of London Street, Greenwich, won a new tender as funeral contractors to the Hospital from 1 September, replacing the existing one, Mrs Sarah Sheppard, also of London Street. They agreed to provide first- class funerals for 10 guineas and second-class for 5 guineas (presumably both for officers and their families) with Pensioner burials to be 15 shillings each. A retired Royal Marine Colour Sergeant, Thomas Stockham, was also appointed porter of the new burial ground at £1 per week on the recommendation of General Wesley, and came up from Plymouth with his family to take possession of the new lodge. All burial arrangements were placed in the hands of the Hospital Inspectors of Works and use of the ground was to begin as from 1 September (ADM67/108, p.298).

The Hospital’s senior Chaplain then raised the issue of consecrating the new burial ground. The Board replied that there was no previous record of this but that they thought it unreasonable ‘where Interments of every variety of creed will be made’ – an interesting if unspecific sidelight on the multi- denominational and/or multi-faith make-up of the Pensioners. They none the less sought the Admiralty’s view, enclosing some Hospital General Court Minutes of 1750 (presumably related to the old, unconsecrated burial ground) and apologizing for the fact that a legal opinion to which these referred ‘had been destroyed when the Chapel was burnt in 1780’: it was in fact in 1779. (ibid., 26 Aug, pp. 307-8).

The Admiralty quickly directed that the new ground should not be consecrated and authorized burials in it to begin. The last Pensioner to be buried in the old ground was Daniel Drewett, aged 60, on Monday 31 August 1857. The occasion prompted a fellow inmate, George Hewens, to commemorate it in a long verse of which he sent a copy to Queen Victoria:

‘Tis finished! Now his corse must close the scene,

And undisturbed, the grass shall flourish green;

No more a friend deplored we here may trace,

We seek their exit in a distant place;

On the dread locale here the gates we close,

And leave our brethren to their last repose….

…In peace they rest, and on this bourne no more

Will they be harrass’d by the clangs of war!

Yet unborn ages shall their names revere

And say, ‘England’s patriots lie buried here’!

The ‘distant place’ was, presumably an oblique and perhaps regretful reference to East Greenwich. (The poem comes from a copy in the Greenwich Heritage Centre, Woolwich.)

On the day the Admiralty commencement order was received, 2 September 1857, a letter from Hardwick also arrived proposing to enclose and rail round a small plot in the middle of the new ground for the burial of officers, their graves to be marked with ‘recumbent slabs’ only. Hardwick also proposed that the coffins in the vault of the old Mausoleum be rearranged to provide ongoing space for the ‘principal officers’. All this the Board approved but had to explain to the Admiralty, who had queried the appointment of Sergeant Stockham, that the porter of the old ground could not yet be dispensed with. The Mausoleum, they said, would still be in use for some years; the Romney Road gate to the area (with the residential porter’s lodge behind the wall, both demolished and replaced by railings before 1860) also had to be manned for access to the graveyard, the Mausoleum and the Hospital School Infirmary, and to guard the large number of monuments, of which few now remain.

The Admiralty disagreed. The Head Sick Attendant was to be given the lodge of the old burial ground. Its porter, Samuel Parsons, was to move to the new one in East Greenwich as warden there at his existing salary of £48 –5s a year, and he was later given £2 gratuity for the costs and ‘the very hurried manner in which he was removed’ (ADM 67/109, 14 July 1858, p. 225). Stockham was thereby evicted, being reimbursed £20 expenses by the Hospital for his removal from Plymouth, where he had given up a position worth £65 a year. In September 1857 things briefly looked dicey for the Stockham family but the Board had a solution. They had previously had considerable trouble with various nuisances in Greenwich Market, including a gang of prostitutes, and had provided a house there for a resident police sergeant – for whom they had had to pay, since the Market was private property. On 6 October they agreed to dispense with him, giving Stockham use of the house instead and appointing him their ‘Constable of the Market’ at 25 shillings a week, with an annual suit of clothes and a hat similar to that of the police. The coat was to have ‘GH’ on the collar and Pensioner’s gold lace, and the costs to be charged to the Hospital Estates. At Board request, Stockham was also officially appointed a special constable in December, to give him legal status, and appears to have been an efficient and successful man. In December 1858 he got a greatcoat as well, also marked ‘GH’.

By 25 November 1857 the sums for the new burial ground were totted up and came to £7,428 – 19s- 2d (ADM 67/108, p.425), including land purchase and all the construction work. A few things remained to be done, including railing the officers’ enclosure in the centre, for which plans were laid before the Board on 10 March 1858 by ‘Mr Hardwick Junr’ – Philip Charles Hardwick – attending on behalf of his father. These were approved and £100 was earmarked for them in forward planning.

On 13 March 1858 Lieutenant Monk, Superintendent of the Hospital Schools, died after a period of illness. Though placed in a lead coffin, the Admiralty declined to allow him to be buried in the vault of the Mausoleum – a practice they had already suspended the previous November unless they gave special permission, and there is so far no evidence they ever did so again. As funeral arrangements had already been made, Monk appears to have been buried in the surrounding enclosure (though this needs re-checking), in a 10-foot rather than 8-foot grave, while the solicitors were instructed to investigate burial regulations regarding ‘metallic coffins’: if buried in the old ground he was, however, one of the last there. The final burial there was that of Sir James Gordon, who was the last resident Governor and by his death an Admiral of the Fleet. He died just before the Hospital finally closed in 1869 and lies under a fine pink granite slab in front of the old Mausoleum, not in the long-sealed vault. This, however, was very much an exception.

On 25 August 1858 the Second Inspector of Works (William Sivell) reported to the Board on a comparison of the ‘old system’ of digging graves using ‘Pensioner Grave Diggers’ and the ‘present one’ on the new ground. This was by a day labourer employed by the Works Department, which was proving much more satisfactory and cheaper. Using Pensioners it had cost 9s. 1d. per grave while the labourer dug them in the new graveyard at 2s-6d each. Sivell also reported that in the year ended 1 August, 269 interments had taken place – the large majority (from 1 September 1857) being in the new ground. Burials were then still taking place on Tuesdays and Fridays but, by Governor’s order of 16 March 1859, this changed to Monday and Thursday.

A little information is available on early monuments in the new burial ground. On 30 August 1860 Ann Christian requested to erect a ‘tablet’ to James Christian, a Pensioner who had died in 1859. The Inspectors of Works told the Board that his grave was ‘marked with the small red-ware Indicator, numbered, registered &c’ the same as all other Pensioners, ‘no other form of tablet being allowed and for which space could not be found’. She was however allowed to do so by the Board if she adhered to size and description required by the regulations and communicated with the Inspectors of Works ( ADM67/111, p.314).

Unfortunately I have no note of what these regulations were, but there had been at least one other such request and Hardwick as architect had specified the size of plain stone tablets that could be fixed to the enclosing walls of the new burial ground to commemorate individuals. At least two of these, of Portland stone, are still in place in the south-east corner of the Pleasaunce, though now almost illegible from erosion of the stone. In the right raking light, however, it may still be possibly to work out at least the names on them.

Such recording, together with a proper survey and recording of the badly damaged memorials in the now railing-less central officers’ burial plot, with transcriptions of their lettering (if it these do not already exist) would also be very useful, for the record and perhaps restoration in due course. There are some quite notable individuals buried there, at least in the social history of Greenwich. They include Sir John Liddell FRS (1794-1868) Medical Inspector- General of the Navy after he ceased being Medical Inspector of the Hospital, and masters of the school and members of their families.

The last note I currently have is that on 3 June 1861 the Board ordered notices put up in the ‘new cemetery’ forbidding the ‘gathering of flowers &c’, following an arrangement of two weeks earlier to sell the mown grass to a cowman. On that note, part officious, part bucolic and hinting at the eternal problems of ‘maintenance and its costs’ I have, for the moment, to stop.

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