It’s OK to fall flat on your face………

What a strange title for a blog post I hear you cry!  Well the reason behind it will be revealed later in this post, so now you have to keep reading, right??

The inspiration for this post came from reading an article on a brilliant website called The Pool.  Co-founded by Lauren Laverne, it’s an intelligent mix of news, politics, fashion, food and much more which is easy to dip in and out of and always contains interesting content, written for women by women.  If you’ve not come across it yet I’d thoroughly recommend taking a look.  There is also a Facebook page and one morning a post popped up which immediately caught my attention.  The post was a link to an article entitled “the damage done by demonising single mothers” but what initially drew me in was the quote from Tony Parsons used as the lead in to the link.  From his novel Man and Boy, it simply stated, “the single parent is the one who stayed.” It seems rather obvious doesn’t it but I think that sentiment gets forgotten when single parents (and for parents read mothers, as according to the article 91% of single parent households are headed by women), and their offspring are routinely singled out by society at large and politicians in particular as being the source of all that is wrong with society today.

The article got me thinking about my own experiences of being a single mother, thoughts which I’d like to share with you here.

First of all let me tell you that it’s bloody hard.  Really bloody hard.  It’s lonely, exhausting, spirit-sapping, demoralizing, financially crippling. I could go on but you get the picture.  It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision on my part and it’s not a lifestyle choice I’d recommend.  It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.  I was young and stupid and the day my 18 year old self went home to tell my mum and dad I was pregnant is one I can still clearly remember 33 years later! It’s all the more memorable as my dad, who I actually thought would kill me on the spot, took the news far better than my mum, who was completely unable to hide her total disappointment in me and barely spoke to me for the next few months.

It’s no exaggeration to say I was terrified when I gave birth to Lucy in November 1984.  Not just about the physical act of giving birth but also about the future and how the hell I was going to take care of this beautiful little person I had somehow created.  (Well she actually bore more than a passing resemblance to ET at this time but she improved with age!) I wasn’t even a single mum at this point.  My boyfriend had said he would stand by us and that he did.  Well until he met a married woman with two kids and left us when Lucy was 8 months old, three weeks after my mum had died really unexpectedly.  Now this isn’t the place to name names or apportion blame, and I’m not asking for sympathy.  It was a long time ago and to be honest I’m over it.  I was over it a long time ago.  Shit happens and somehow you just have to get out of bed in the morning, put one foot in front of the other and just pray you make it through that day so that you get a chance to try and make a bit better job of it the next day, and the day after that.  Who knows, one day you may wake up not feeling scared of absolutely everything. (Spoiler alert. As a parent that day may never actually arrive!!)

Now I’m not afraid to admit that motherhood didn’t come naturally to me.  I well remember the day when Lucy was a few months old and I popped down the shop to get something for my mum.  When I got home and she asked me if I’d forgotten something.  I thought she meant the bread but she actually meant the baby, found still fast asleep in her pram outside Gateway’s supermarket where I’d left her.  Yes in those days we did leave sleeping babies in their prams outside the shops!  I remember the first load of washing I did in my “new” twin tub washing machine.  Remember them? I put a duster in with the load of terry towelling nappies I used as I couldn’t afford disposable nappies, then had to hang out a line of perfect yellow nappies for the whole world to see! It took a bit of getting used to, this motherhood lark.  But of course it wasn’t a lark.  It was real, and terrifying and I didn’t know my arse from my elbow most of the time.

After six months living in a “halfway house”, six months that were so awful I’ve pretty much blocked it from my memory, I was then given what every single mother dreams of and aspires to right – my own council flat!  The last word in luxury it wasn’t.  One bedroom, damp and up two flights of stairs.  Sparsely furnished with second-hand furniture donated by friends it was to become my home for the next 6 years. Two of the defining moments of my life happened in that flat, one involving peanut butter!  Craving some peanut butter on toast and unable to get the lid off the jar I completely lost it and threw the jar so hard at the wall it smashed to bits. Then one day, just before our first Christmas there, I opened the door to find someone from the local Lions organisation with a box of Christmas goodies for us.  Someone had nominated me as a worthy cause for their charity. As grateful as I was I can still remember the feeling of absolute mortification that came over me, and I vowed then that I’d always do my best to be self-sufficient, never needing anyone to open a jar and always able to provide for us, no matter how hard times got. If I needed something done I’d do it myself…..or ask my dad, but that was allowed!

I worked part-time at a local community/arts centre where I could take Lucy with me on the days when my dad or other friends couldn’t look after her for me.  It was part of a government scheme which I can’t remember the name of now, but you were allowed to work for I think up to about 25 hours a week and still receive a small salary top-up and get housing benefit.  It was a struggle but it was important to be working.  In those days childcare meant being able to dump your kids with practically anyone who would have them!  If you did have to pay a childminder it wasn’t so exorbitant that it didn’t make it worthwhile going to work, which is the main reason why so many young single mums can’t go to work these days. Childcare is so damn expensive that it really isn’t worth their while, and who can blame them.

Of course still being young and still being stupid I inevitably found myself pregnant again at the age of 23.  This time I thought my dad really would kill me.  He was so disappointed, especially as by that time things were looking up.  I was working full-time, Lucy and I had even had a holiday in Gran Canaria and the future was beginning to look a lot less bleak than it had 4 years previously.  But this time I didn’t panic, even though I was still on my own.  Something had changed in me. Although it was a far from ideal situation, this time I knew I would cope.  I was stronger and more confident in my abilities, although it might just have been the realisation that whatever happened couldn’t possibly be any worse than what had gone before!

My best friend Debbie took me to hospital and stayed with me while I gave birth to the gorgeous Sarah (well, think more Yul Brynner but luckily she too improved with age!).  I was out of hospital the next day and started a new job 2 weeks later, working for a friend of a friend doing the admin for his business while he was out on the road selling something or other.  He gave me the use of one of his cars so I could get to work, about a 40 minute drive from home, so I’d put Sarah in her carry cot on the back seat of the car, drop Lucy at a friend’s house who took her to playschool for me, and go to work 5 days a week.  Yes in those days you could just put a baby in a carry cot on the back seat of the car, strap the seat belt round it and hope it didn’t slide around too much when you went round a corner!!


In that first flat.  We were poor but happy!

I didn’t stay there too long and eventually found a job in the village where I lived.  By this time Lucy was at school and I was beginning to think I should try and do something more with my life.  I left school at 16 with a handful of mediocre ‘O’ Levels and no real career plans or ambition.  One day I found myself at Alton College with the girl who used to babysit for me.  She too hadn’t gone to college so was looking at night classes.  I just went to keep her company but whilst there picked up a prospectus about King Alfred’s College in Winchester (now Winchester University).  Flicking through I saw they accepted “non-traditional” students – those without A Levels and mature students – you just needed to have completed an “Access” course which would give you the qualifications required to apply for a place.  I then discovered that Alton College ran such a course and there was an open evening coming up in the next couple of weeks.  Excitedly I decided to go and sign up but when I got there the course tutor told me it was full and I’d have to wait for next year’s intake.  We had a really good chat about my interests and why I wanted to go to college but I returned home disappointed.  Much to my amazement though the tutor rang me the next day, saying she’d got permission to open up an extra place as she’d been so impressed with our chat the night before!  I think that’s probably the first time I felt that someone actually believed in me, had seen some potential and was willing to give me a chance.  So off I went for the next 2 years, working part-time and studying part-time.  I’d initially planned to apply to King Alfred’s to do a teacher training course, but after a couple of months I realised that I wasn’t as stupid as I’d previously thought and was actually quite good at studying!  History had always been my favourite subject at school so a BA in History at Portsmouth Polytechnic looked like the most likely option, that is until  I saw a prospectus for Royal Holloway, University of London (or Royal Holloway and Bedford New College as it was known in those days).  The photo of the glorious Founders Building on the front of the prospectus had me completely spellbound.  Now that looked like a proper university and after rather sheepishly asking the admissions guy if “people like me” could go there, and being told that anyone with the right qualifications could apply, there was nowhere else I was ever going to go.


Royal Holloway.  Photo courtesy of

Lucky enough to be offered a place to read medieval and modern history, and fortunate enough to get the required grades in my Access course, in September 1993 I started on what would become one of the hardest, but also one of the most rewarding, journeys of my life.  Studying full-time is hard, especially with two small children.  I was that strange mother who sat in the playground reading Plato whilst waiting for the girls to finish school. I was the completely disorganised mother who sent them back to school a day too early after the holidays. I had to work in a pub 3 lunchtimes and 2 nights a week just to earn enough money to put food on the table.  It took me 5 years to complete my degree as one very short-lived marriage and the death of my dad during my second year completely derailed me for a time.    But I went back and finished and got a 2:1, which I’d never have thought possible when I first started.

And you know what?  Life gets better.  I got a good job working in the City, although the commuting got me down and I left after a couple of years. I cycled across Cuba for charity. I had a long-term relationship during which time I was able to see a bit of the world.   And even though that relationship ended over 8 years ago and plunged me back into the rather terrifying world of renting and living from hand to mouth every month, I’m happy.  For the first time in my life I think I’m finally happy being in my own skin.  I even went back to Royal Holloway in 2012 and spent two years part-time getting my MA in Public History at the age of 49!


MA Graduation 2014.

My girls have grown up to be incredible, beautiful, strong (some would say bloody-minded) women who I couldn’t be more proud of.  Despite their less than perfect start in this world they are happy, confident and make it easy to forget all the hard times.  Lucy is a terrific mother to my gorgeous, confident, funny, Star Wars obsessed grandson Charlie and Sarah lives in the States studying for her history PhD. Did I mention how proud I am of them both!


Reunited June 2016!

I’m conscious this post has turned into a rather long and boring autobiographical tale which I’m sure no-one is really interested in.

What I did want to say though is that even though it may not seem like it at the time, becoming a single mother isn’t the worst thing in the world that can happen to you.  At the end of the day you only really have two choices.  You can either sink or you can swim.  I’ve been found in the deep end, floundering and gasping for air on many occasions but ultimately I’ve always managed to claw my way to the surface.  And you can too. You just have to believe in yourself.  Failing that find someone else who believes in you and make sure they keep telling you that on a regular basis.  A human flotation device if you will!!  I’ve never had any confidence in myself or my abilities but I have always had amazing people in my life who do and they’re the ones who pick me up, brush me off and send me back off into the world again ready to fight another day.

Find something that motivates you.  With me it was simply wanting to be able to stick two fingers up at all those who wrote me off as being just another single mum, to their mind the old slapper of the village who was destined to become just another statistic along with my deadbeat children, as they would inevitably turn out to be.  It doesn’t matter what motivates you, as long as something does.

And the title of this blog?  Well, my dad once said of me, “Sue. What can you say about Sue?  Well she falls flat on her face more times than she wins, but at least she tries.”  I’m still falling flat on my face on a regular basis, but I sure as hell keep trying!




In Flanders Fields…

I actually wrote the main portion of this post last year and published it on my other blog, From Shackleford to the Somme.  I thought I’d re-publish it here on my new(ish) blog as we again approach Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day.

It actually feels like a lot has changed since this time last year.  Last November the country was still in the throes of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, there had been a lot of column inches and broadcast media attention focused on the centenary and the Tower Poppy installation at the Tower of London had captured the public imagination in a way that I think no-one had really anticipated.

This year there seems to be a rather more serene atmosphere.  People generally seem to be a little less interested, maybe slightly battle weary if you’ll pardon the pun, but also maybe preparing themselves for the anticipated onslaught of events, publications and TV documentaries which will undoubtedly assail the senses as we approach the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in July 2016.

There also seems to be a change of mood on some social media sites too.  My timeline is being increasingly filled by friends sharing posts urging me to like and/or share a photo of a poppy or risk being shamed as unpatriotic or uncaring about our ‘fallen heroes’.  It’s been termed “Poppy Fascism” and I tend to agree.  (By the way ‘heroes’ is a term I have a real problem with but I need to compose my thoughts on that carefully so I’ll save that particular discussion for another day.)

There are also the posts often shared by friends, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and call them unsuspecting, but who really should check the provenance of the pages/groups they follow more closely.  More often  than not originating from some racist, hate-filled, right-wing organisation masquerading as the patriotic voice of the British people, they vilify non-Christian groups, let’s face it, usually Muslim, for allegedly being offended by the wearing of poppies.  All the while forgetting the nearly 75,000 Indian servicemen of all faiths who laid down their lives in defence of Great Britain and it’s empire during the First World War.

Now I would defend the right of anyone to not wear a poppy if they choose not to.  Just as I would defend the right of anyone to wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union.  What I won’t defend are those who set out to make a quick buck at the expense of the Royal British Legion.  I had a rare meltdown on Facebook recently when I saw someone advertising on a local ‘For Sale’ page ‘Blinged-Up Poppies’.  Not those items of jewellery made and sold on behalf of the Royal British Legion but the normal, paper poppies sold by thousands of volunteers on the streets of Britain in the few weeks before Remembrance Sunday.  Bought for an undisclosed sum, which could actually be pennies, adorned with cheap stick-on jewels and then sold for a tenner, with a proportion of the sale price going to the British Legion.  When pressed it seems that the proportion going to charity was about a quarter of the selling price.  That to me is completely indefensible and the posts were quickly removed from the Facebook page after my rant!

Anyway.  This time last year I wanted to write a little blog about the poppy, that most iconic symbol of remembrance.  Here it is.

The Tower Poppies

I started thinking about the poppy a few months ago when I first read about the installation planned at the Tower of London.  Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, created by artist Paul Cummins, has developed over the past few months into a spectacular but also very moving tribute to the 888,246 British and Commonwealth dead of the First World War, each of those fatalities represented by a handmade ceramic poppy.

Every evening at dusk there has also been a reading of a Roll of Honour, each name read a fallen soldier nominated by a member of the public.  On 6th August I was very privileged to attend to hear the name of my great-uncle read as part of that evenings roll call; Lance Corporal James Bias, 1st Battalion Border Regiment, followed by the playing of the Last Post.  It was incredibly moving and the crowds who were gathered at the Tower, most of whom were tourists and I’m sure had no idea what was going on, were incredibly respectful and remained remarkably quiet during the half hour or so it took for the Roll of Honour to be read out.  I admit a few tears were shed!

Roll of Honour 6th August 2014

Roll of Honour 6th August 2014

I applied to be a volunteer poppy “planter” and was delighted to be accepted and go along on the afternoon of 14th September with my friend Nikki to help, in a very small way, create this stunning installation.  After watching a short video about the idea behind the project and seeing how the poppies were made in a factory in Derby we were then shown how to assemble and where and how to plant the poppies.

How to assemble a poppy stem and centre – Photos courtesy of Nikki Legg

How to assemble and plant a poppy – Photos courtesy of Nikki Legg

It was an amazing afternoon and I feel very privileged to have been a part of a project which seems to have caught the public imagination like no other I can remember.  A very simple idea which provides a fitting tribute to the fallen but, even amongst the crowds, also offers the opportunity for personal reflection on loss and commemoration.  It has been estimated that so far up to four million people have visited the Tower of London to witness the sea of poppies spill out and fill the moat surrounding the Tower.

Over the last few days my Facebook and Twitter timelines have been littered with posts asking people to sign an online petition to keep the poppies in situ for another twelve months.  Although I can understand the sentiment behind this and also the disappointment felt by those who have not been able to travel to London to see the poppies, I do feel that perhaps this appeal is missing the whole point of the installation.  Personally I think the beauty of the installation is its transient and ephemeral nature.  It’s not meant to be permanent.  Life isn’t permanent.  All of the lives represented by the poppies were once here.  Then they were gone.  That is the nature of life, and death.  War just magnifies and speeds up that process.  So personally I think it is right that the poppies are disassembled after November 11th, although perhaps some thought could be given to producing another art installation in 2018 at the end of the centenary period?

There is also the commercial imperative.  Although the number of visitors to the Tower to see the poppies has been phenomenal, it is free to view the poppies and rightly so, and even though I’m sure the Tower of London has seen an increase in paying visitors as a result, Historic Royal Palaces, which maintains and runs the Tower of London (and Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace) on behalf of the Queen for the nation, receives no funding from the crown or government, so its income is solely derived from visitors, donations and the like.  There is also the ice rink to be installed in the run up to Christmas, again a lucrative addition to the Tower’s funding stream and essential if it is to compete with other tourist attractions at this time of year.

According to the Historic Royal Palace website all 888,256 poppies have now been sold, which should ensure over £11million will be shared among several charities, including Confederation of Service Charities (COBSEO), Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes and SSAFA (formerly the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association) and of course the Royal British Legion.

The Remembrance Poppy

The story of how the poppy became the symbol of remembrance is all due to the work of two women; one American and one French, and a poem, written in the fields of Flanders in 1915 by a Canadian army medic, John McCrae. Called upon to officiate at the burial of one of his friends who had been blown to pieces by an enemy shell at the Second Battle of Ypres, the following day McCrae looked out over the landscape of makeshift graves and composed the poem which would forever change the landscape of remembrance and commemoration.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 The poem was published anonymously in Punch magazine on 8th December 1915.


Fast forward to September 1918 and a middle-aged American secretary, Moina Michael, working in a drab office at a conference of the  YMCA Overseas War Secretaries, picks up a copy of the Ladies Home Journal which prints McCrae’s poem under the title “We Shall Not Sleep” accompanied by an illustration of dead soldiers rising from their makeshift graves over a sea of poppies. Inspired to write a poem in response, “We Shall Keep The Faith” Michaels is then given $10 by some delegates to buy some flowers to cheer up her office.  The rest, as they say, is history!  Inspired to buy red poppies, although no fresh poppies could be found so she had to buy silk poppies from a local department store, Michael carried her purchases back to her office where the delegates all took a poppy to pin to their lapels.  Through constant pressure on the part of Michael, by 1920 the poppy had been adopted as the official emblem of remembrance by the American Legion.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in France Anna Guérin had been making artificial poppies since the end of hostilities in 1918.  As determined as Moina Michael, she gained the backing of the American Legion to hold an annual Poppy Appeal and employed war widows in the former battle sites of Northern France to make silk poppies for sale, not just to the American Legion but also veteran’s associations in other parts of the world for onward sale to the public to raise money to support disabled veterans and the families of the fallen.

By 1921 Guerin had introduced her poppy to the British Legion where the idea was seized upon by Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, the much maligned senior commander of the British Army during the First World War.  The first poppy day in Britain was held on 11th November 1921 and sales of the nine million French-made poppies raised £106,000 (the equivalent of over £10million today).  The success of the first British Poppy Appeal led to the establishment of The Poppy Factory, the story of which makes up the final part of my post.

The Poppy Factory

The Royal British Legion is the organisation most closely associated with the poppy but the actual remembrance poppies, crosses and wreaths are made at The Poppy Factory, an independent charity in Richmond-upon-Thames, south-west London.  I live in Ham, a couple of miles from The Poppy Factory, so I booked a place on a tour of the factory the week after my afternoon “planting” poppies at the Tower to discover more about the work they do supporting ex-servicemen and their families.


Upon arrival at The Poppy Factory you’re served a lovely cup of tea, in a poppy mug of course, and then usually watch a film about the history of The Poppy Factory and how the poppy came to be adopted as the emblem of remembrance.  Unfortunately on the day I visited the projector wasn’t working so instead the trip started with a tour of the factory floor and the chance to speak to some of the employees.  You’re told that if someone is wearing headphones it means they do not want to be approached or photographed but most employees were happy to have a chat about themselves and what their role is within the factory, although at times I must admit it felt a little intrusive and hard not to feel a little patronising.

Our lovely tour guide for the morning was Androcles (or the Maltese Pavarotti as he likes to be known!), himself a former member of the British Army now employed at The Poppy Factory.  Originally established in 1922 as The Disabled Society in a former collar factory in the Old Kent Road by Major George Howson MC, an engineer who had served in the First World War, the factory moved into an old brewery on Petersham Road in Richmond-upon-Thames in 1925, which although altered and extended, is where it remains to this day.  Over 150 disabled ex-servicemen were employed to make poppies for the British Legion to sell annually at remembrance tide to raise funds for ex-servicemen and their families. The design of the poppy was so it could be made by a man using only one hand.  Major Howson also bought 4 acres of land between Richmond Hill and the River Thames where accommodation for factory workers and their families was provided.  A number of the current employees I spoke too still live on the estate today.

Although not all current employees are ex-servicemen they do all have a connection with an ex-service person.  Ron, whose dad served in the army during the second world war, has been making poppies at The Poppy Factory since 1972.  Stephen has been at the factory for 24 years and was making altar poppies on the day of my visit.  He also had a lovely collection of old postcards of the factory he was happy to share with me.  (Both Ron and Stephen gave me permission to use their photos.)




Altar Poppies

Workers at the Poppy Factory      Aerial view of the Poppy Factory

Until 1994 the black centre of the poppies was imprinted with the words “Haig Fund” and in actual fact on the day of his death, 28th June 1928, Earl Haig had been visiting The Poppy Factory earlier in the day to see boys being enrolled into the Earl Haig’s own scout troop established for the sons of factory employees.

By 1961 the factory employed over 300 men.  Today that figure is 40 working in the factory plus another 40 who are too disabled to leave their homes and who have the materials to make the poppies delivered to their homes on a fortnightly basis.

A staggering 131,000 wreaths and sprays, 1.7 million remembrance crosses and over 30 million poppies are made at The Poppy Factory!  A total of 5 million remembrance petals are made and dropped during the Remembrance Service at Westminster Abbey.

I’m conscious this has turned into a rather long post but if I still have your attention I would thoroughly recommend a visit to The Poppy Factory if you’re ever in Richmond.  Visits do have to be pre-booked but it is well worth a couple of hours of your time

There are many debates about why, how and even whether we should remember, but in this centenary year I believe more people than ever will have found some personal resonance with the act of remembrance.  The immense popularity of the Tower Poppies has encouraged people to seek out the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents who may have served during the First World War, even those who would not normally consider themselves interested in history.  As a public historian I consider that a positive development and one which can hopefully be built upon over the next four years.

Further information about the history of the poppy can be found in “The Poppy: A History of Conflict, Loss, Remembrance & Redemption” by Nicholas J Saunders.  Published by One World in 2013.

Special thanks to Androcles and the staff of The Poppy Factory and Nikki Legg for permission to use a selection of her photographs throughout this article. 

Dying to get to Brookwood…

Following my first post on the #PeaceforFriedrichBrandt campaign last week, I got to thinking about death in general and how we deal with our dead in particular (I know, I need to get out more!!).

One of the modules of the MA in Public History I completed last year was entitled “The Public Communication and Understanding of History” and involved having to make a broadcast quality radio programme – finding a topic, research, finding experts to interview, writing the script, finding background music then editing the whole thing together into a 23 minute radio programme using free to download editing software!  Not the easiest module and to be honest one I found really difficult and only just passed.  However it did give me the opportunity to research a topic that had fascinated me for years.  Yes you’ve guessed it.  One that involved death and how we deal with our dead!

It all started with one sentence in Chapter One of The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary, written by Simon Winchester in 1998. The sentence in question was describing the Victorian era London borough of Lambeth, in particular the area around Waterloo Station.  It read as follows:

And this bridge was symbolic of what encompassed the entire Marsh: the railways, hefted high over the swamps, on viaducts on which the trains (including those of the London Necropolis Railway, built to take corpses to Woking) chuffed and snorted, and across which miles of wagons lurched and banged.

This really got me thinking, and, I suspect, was what started me on the road to trying to make a career if not as an historian then certainly in the history/heritage world and, 13 years later, doing my MA!

I read the book around 2001 when I was actually working in the City of London and commuting into Waterloo, through Woking, every day, yet I had never heard of the Necropolis Railway. A quick book search led me to John Clarke’s The Brookwood Necropolis Railway, which satisfied my interest at the time but left me feeling that some day I’d like to discover more and possibly find an outlet for that interest.

Roll on 12 years and the story of Brookwood and the Necropolis Railway seemed the obvious choice for my radio programme, satisfying not only the requirements of the course but also my curiosity which had lain dormant for years.  I therefore launched into my research with my accustomed gusto and have now decided to revisit that research and turn my radio programme into this blog post.

What follows is by no means the definitive history of Brookwood Cemetery and the Necropolis Railway. There are many publications which tell the story far better and in much more detail than I can do here, and if you’re really interested the records of Brookwood Cemetery and the Necropolis Railway can be found at the Surrey History Centre.

There is also a large military cemetery at Brookwood, owned and run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, together with a very impressive American Military cemetery.  This part of Brookwood deserves a post all it’s own, which will follow at some point in the future.  However more information can be found here.

What I do hope to do is maybe introduce you to a story you were unaware of and perhaps even encourage you to one day visit Brookwood Cemetery if ever you’re in the vicinity.  It’s a beautiful and very interesting place to stroll around on a sunny afternoon!


Anyway my journey, rather ironically, began at the final destination, in more ways than one! St  Cyprian’s Avenue in Brookwood Cemetery and the grave of Joseph George, who died in December 1868.  But Joseph George lived in London, 81 Dean Street, Soho, to be exact. So why was he buried so far from home? And how exactly, did he get there?


The grave of Joseph George, his wife Harriet and their daughter, also called Harriet at Brookwood Cemetery

In memory of Joseph George of 81 Dean Street, Soho. Who died 19th Dec 1868. Aged 58.

To find the link between Joseph George, Brookwood Cemetery and the Necropolis Railway you need to go back to London in the 1840’s.  With a population of over two and half million, more than double what it had been in 1801, London was a city so dirty, noisy, smelly and fog-ridden that Thomas Carlyle called it a “monstrous Wen” (that’s means a boil or carbuncle to you and me!). The medical metaphor is apt as London was also a sick city.  Poverty, squalid living conditions, pestilence and general wretchedness all contributed to an alarmingly low life expectancy and high death rate.

To find out more about the health of mid-19th century London I interviewed Dr Richard Barnett, a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow and expert in the medical history of London.  He didn’t hesitate to offer his help when I contacted him and very kindly agreed to be interviewed in the churchyard of St Anne’s in Dean Street, Soho, the parish church of Joseph George.  Unfortunately as I was making a radio programme I didn’t think to take any pictures (!) but there is a small selection of photographs of the church of St Anne on their website.  Dr Barnett explained that at the time Soho would have been a dirty, overcrowded area with lots of businesses, including tanneries, breweries and factories making percussion caps for guns, all contributing to the noise and general filth spewing into the atmosphere.

The churchyard of St Anne’s is now a public park, but in the 1840s it was one of the most notorious graveyards in the city. George Alfred Walker was a surgeon and sanitary reformer whose Gatherings from Grave-Yards, published in 1839 mentions the “rotten coffin-wood and fragments of bone littering the churchyard of St Anne, Soho, which was overlooked by houses thickly inhabited”.(1)  Where we stood the ground level was about 5 feet higher than the adjoining street, due to the approximately 60,000 people buried there between 1695 and 1853.  Many of those were victims of the cholera epidemic of 1848 and Dr Barnett described the devastating effect cholera had on the population of Soho and the wider population of London.

By 1850 London was literally bursting at the seams – both above and below ground and the city was running out of space to bury its dead!

London wasn’t the first city to experience problems disposing of its dead.  Paris and Vienna’s burial grounds had been closed earlier in the century, with new cemeteries being established outside their city limits. Père-Lachaise, built to the east of Paris in 1804, is still one of the most famous cemeteries in the world.  However the sheer scale and horror of London’s overflowing graveyards and the serious threats to public health made finding a solution imperative.  There was a real concern that the dead may actually be killing the living!

The Metropolitan Burial Act of 1852 had closed many of London’s overcrowded graveyards.  But the demand for new cemeteries to replace them remained, exacerbated by further cholera epidemics.  John Clarke has written extensively about the Necropolis Railway and Brookwood Cemetery.  Again he was incredibly helpful and agreed to meet me for an interview. Unfortunately the interview is largely unusable due to being conducted outside without adequate protection from the wind (take note any budding radio presenters out there!), however he did explain that the problem facing London basically boiled down to a lack of space; under 400 acres available to bury the 55,000 people who died every year in 1850’s London.  Government and politicians generally were not against a private solution to what was commonly referred to as the “Deadman’s Question”, as the idea of a government running national cemeteries, which is what the Board of Health proposed, was not seen as a good thing.

So what was the solution?  It was simple.  One huge cemetery, far enough away from London to pose no threat to the public health and designed to bury all of London’s dead – forever.  And how would the dead get from metropolis to necropolis?  That was simple too.  They would go by train!

The area around Woking had already been identified as a potential site for a cemetery as early as 1843 and in 1852 The Necropolis scheme was launched by private Act of Parliament. This authorised the newly formed London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company to purchase 2000 acres of land at Brookwood, a couple of miles from Woking, which belonged to the Earl of Onslow.  500 acres of this land was to be put aside to form the new cemetery, served by the London and South Western Railway Company, which was already running a passenger service from London Waterloo to Southampton. In November 1854 the cemetery was consecrated, instantly becoming the largest cemetery in the world, and the first funeral train ran from the London Necropolis Company’s terminal at Waterloo to Brookwood on 13th November 1854.

The idea of using trains for a funeral service was a radical one.  Trains were after all a relatively new form of public transport – the first passenger rail service had only been introduced in 1830.  Victorians generally disliked them for being noisy and dirty, and many even thought they contributed to the general spread of disease.

The original Necropolis Station was in York Road, just outside Waterloo and now long gone.  But if you walk out of Waterloo onto Lower Marsh and head onto Westminster Bridge Road, there you will still find number 121, which was the entrance to the replacement Necropolis Railway terminus, built in 1902.  Complete with mortuaries, funerary workshops and a chapel it was a one-stop funeral shop!

The offices and station entrance of the London Necropolis Company published in

The offices and station entrance of the London Necropolis Company at 121 Westminster Bridge Road, published in “The Undertakers’ Journal” January 1915

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121 Westminster Bridge Road as taken by the author in April 2013

There was even a special event to show off the new premises to the press in April 1902.  A menu card is shown below (2): New Doc 37_1

Arriving at Waterloo today it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like over 150 years ago.  But if you stand under the famous clock and close your eyes you can imagine the hustle and bustle, the noise of the steam trains and the cries of the luggage porters as they attended to the first class passengers.

That Victorian obsession with class and social order was not forgotten amongst the call for reform, in both public health and burial practices in the city.  The Bishop of London voiced his concerns about the use of trains as the mode of conveyance for both corpses and mourners.  The idea of “profligate spendthrifts” sharing railway carriages with respectable churchgoers was the ultimate embarrassment to a society still bound by strict social structures and class separation.  These concerns were addressed by the London Necropolis Company.  Indeed, from the journey’s beginning to end class distinctions were upheld, distinctions not just for mourners accompanying their dearly departed to Brookwood but also for the dearly departed themselves – although of course they probably didn’t notice!!

First class funeral parties would sit in individual waiting rooms whilst the coffins were transported by lift from the street entrance of 121 Westminster Bridge Road.  If they wished they could watch as the coffin was loaded into the hearse carriage and then take their place in a private train compartment for the journey to Brookwood.  Third class mourners by contrast would have had to turn up half an hour before departure time and sit in the communal waiting room.  There was even an opaque glass screen to separate the first class & third class mourners – although I’m not quite sure who was being shielded from whom!  The charge for transporting a lower class coffin was two and six compared to a pound for the upper classes.  One wonders what the first class dead got for that extra 17 shillings and sixpence!

Once at Brookwood, distinctions between class and religion were also strictly observed.  The Necropolis trains would leave the main line at Necropolis junction and continue the journey to the cemetery at walking pace.  There were two station buildings – North Station was first, catering for Roman Catholics, Jews, Parsees and other dissenters; South Station, a little further down the line, was for Anglicans.

In order to run a profitable business and fulfil the intention of Brookwood becoming London’s main burial ground, the London Necropolis Company envisaged arranging 10,000 burials a year, or a fifth of all London burials at the time.  They had agreements with a number of London parishes, whose own churchyards had been closed in the 1850’s, to transport their parish dead to Brookwood and offer a dignified funeral and peaceful resting place so long denied many poor souls in the overflowing, unsanitary churchyards of the city.  Even paupers were guaranteed an individual plot rather than the communal pits usually reserved for paupers in London.  Indeed the first funeral at Brookwood, on 13th November 1854, was that of the stillborn twins of Mr & Mrs Hore, of Ewer Street, Borough.  The grave was paid for by the parish of St Saviour’s, Southwark.  And such pauper graves were pretty common – more than three quarters of the two hundred and forty thousand graves at Brookwood are those of paupers.

However, The London Necropolis Company never achieved the number of contracts with London parishes it had envisaged.  A clause in the 1852 Metropolitan Burial Act enabled individual parishes to elect their own burial boards who could choose to open and maintain new cemeteries rather than having to transport their parish dead down to Brookwood.  However, many other organisations and communities did choose to maintain separate areas within Brookwood for their members.  This again strongly echoes the Victorian emphasis on class and separation; continuity of neighbourhoods and trades, religions and affiliations in death as they were in life.

And this brings us back to our protagonist, Joseph George. He was lucky enough to survive the worst years of decay and decomposition leaching from the churchyard of St Anne’s, becoming an active campaigner for social and sanitary reform. As a member of the parish burial board, the first in London to be established after the passage of the Metropolitan Burial Act, he played an important part in making St Anne’s one of the first London parishes to acquire burial space at Brookwood. When he died in 1868 he made his final journey on the Necropolis Railway and was buried in the plot belonging to the parish of St Anne’s, joined by his wife nearly 30 years later. The record of his burial is in the Burial Registers which are available at the Surrey History Centre to view on microfiche (3).


Joseph George – Buried 24th December 1868

The plot belonging to the parish of St Anne, Soho, has largely been cleared now, the grave of Joseph George being one of only a couple of graves still extant.  However when you enter the cemetery at the Glades of Remembrance entrance on Cemetery Pales, you can still see two cast-iron obelisks which were built to mark the boundaries of the St Anne’s plot. wpid-20150607_124807.jpg

The Necropolis Railway service even attracted the golfers of West Hill Golf Club, a short walk from Brookwood Cemetery.  Eager to take advantage of the six shilling return first class fare, and before the days of garish plaid trousers and pink polo shirts, they would don their most sombre suits and pose as mourners to avoid paying the eight shillings charged by the regular London & South Western Railway service! Although what they did with their clubs is anyone’s guess!

As a bit of an aside, the story of the Necropolis Railway has been an inspiration for a folk song and two novels. “The Strange Fate of the London Necropolis Company” by Boxcar Aldous Huxley is rather dirge-like and wouldn’t seem out of place at a New Orleans funeral procession!

Necropolis, written in 1980 by Basil Copper, is a gothic thriller with Brookwood cemetery at the heart of the story, albeit a rather embellished version!  This was followed in 2002 by The Necropolis Railway: A novel of murder, mystery and steam, set in 1901 and written by Andrew Martin.  Andrew very kindly agreed to be my last interviewee and we actually met under the clock at Waterloo Station!! I asked him how he first came across the story of the Necropolis Railway and what it was about the story led to him writing a novel based around it.

Although the railway service continued to serve Brookwood throughout the early 20th century, the frequency of trains declined, from a peak of one train every day in the years up to the turn of the century, to only twice a week by the 1930’s.  The reasons were many:  the lack of contracts with metropolitan burial boards, the rise of cremation as an alternate form of disposal (the first crematorium was also built in Woking on land purchased from the London Necropolis Company in 1879), the growing popularity of motor vehicles and the unwillingness of those family members left behind to make the increasingly more expensive train journey out of London.  All conspired to signal the demise of the Necropolis Railway.  Although its death knell was ultimately sounded by the Luftwaffe; the Westminster Bridge Road Station platform and most of its rolling stock being destroyed on the night of 16/17 April 1941, one of the worst nights of death and destruction London saw during the Blitz.

The story of the Necropolis Railway and Brookwood Cemetery doesn’t quite end there though.  Coffins were still transported to Brookwood for some years after World War II, being carried in the guards vans on regular services.  Some of the original buildings at Brookwood survive; both of the former Anglican chapels and the site of South Station were acquired by the orthodox monastic community of the St Edward Brotherhood.

One of the former chapels in Brookwood Cemetery.  Now home to the Orthodox church of the St Edward Brotherhood

One of the former chapels in Brookwood Cemetery. Now home to the Orthodox church of the St Edward Brotherhood

And that was where my research for the radio programme ended really.  I didn’t make too good a job of my interviews but it was good experience.  It also made me realise that even if I have a face for radio I certainly don’t think I have the voice.  I’m definitely far more suited to behind the scenes research!

As I’ve recently moved to Woking I’ve spend the last couple of weekends wandering around Brookwood looking for some of the graves of the more well known names who too made their final journey on the Necropolis Railway.

Among them are the anatomist Robert Knox, vilified for his involvement with the grave robbers Burke and Hare.  Rather ironically fear of the “Resurrection Men” in the 1830’s and 1840’s was one of the reasons dead bodies were being kept for days after death to ensure they were too far gone for the anatomists!! This contributed to the unsanitary conditions and spread of disease, the closure of London’s burial grounds and the development of Brookwood.

The final resting place of Robert Knox.  Looks pretty secure to me!

The final resting place of Robert Knox. Looks pretty secure to me!

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, controversial survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, also made his last journey on the Necropolis Railway.  Though unfortunately this time a first-class ticket didn’t guarantee you a lifeboat!!

The grave of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon

The grave of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon

As I said at the beginning of this post, I find the story of Brookwood Cemetery and the Necropolis Railway fascinating.  Just one of the myriad of stories behind places and events waiting to be discovered and shared.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.  One day you too may find yourself wandering around Brookwood Cemetery and stumble upon the grave of one of the many thousands of Londoners who were literally, “dying to get to Brookwood”.

1.  Curl, James Stevens (2000): The Victorian Celebration of Death (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd)
2.  Surrey History Centre – Catalogue No:  6852/7/1/8
3.  Surrey History Centre –
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Welcome to my first post on A Cup of Tea and a Slice of History.  Actually it’s not the first post I was planning to publish but a veritable fire storm erupted on my Twitter feed late last week which caught my attention enough to want to consider the subject in more detail and share some thoughts here.

It started with this.

This is the story of Friedrich Brandt.

Back in June 2012 a skeleton was uncovered near the Lion’s Mound on the site of the Waterloo battlefield in Belgium whilst the area was being excavated for a new car park.   The first complete skeleton (minus the skull) found in the 200 years since the battle of Waterloo, an article was published on the Mail Online website in April 2015 revealing the painstaking research which had gone into identifying the skeleton as most likely that of 23 year old Friedrich Brandt, a native of Hanover who had fought as part of the British Army in George III’s German legion against the forces of Napoleon during the Battle of Waterloo. Perhaps not surprisingly the Mail Online tagged him the “Hanoverian hunchback”, a reference to his obviously deformed spine and no doubt keen to play on the similarities to the discovery of the remains of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester, also in 2012.  Although as the story unfolds the similarities between the two seem to end there.  The full article can be found here.

The remains of Friedrich  Branft, 22, make the first complete skeleton to be recovered from the battle of Waterloo 200 years ago

Whilst this is an interesting story in it’s own right and a great example of methodical historical research, it’s the last line of the article – “Brandt’s skeleton will feature in an exhibition to be unveiled at Waterloo in May” –  which leads us into the remarkable outcry seen on social media over the past few days and also the wider debates surrounding the use of human remains in museum collections.

Of course human remains being found in museum collections is nothing new.  The tradition of nineteenth century “gentlemen travellers” bringing back “souvenirs” from overseas formed the basis of many private and public collections, and I’m sure many of you reading this have memories of being dragged around the British Museum as a kid feeling slightly horrified but also strangely curious at the sight of Egyptian mummies and other skeletal remains on display from around the world.  So why the outcry at plans to display the skeletal remains of a soldier, who died 200 years ago, in a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Battle of Waterloo?

The story of #PeaceForFriedrichBrandt touches on many issues, not least of all the ethics of displaying human remains in a museum setting.  In the 19th Century human remains gathered by the “gentlemen travellers” mentioned above were usually seen as curiosities rather than objects of historical, anthropological or ethnographic significance, certainly before the emergence of archaeology as a discrete professional occupation.  Of course today such collectors are widely renounced as grave-robbers whose wanton acts of desecration and destruction have led to many claims for repatriation and reburial of contested objects in their ancestral home.

The Waterloo museum resides in Belgium so the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Code of Ethics apply, providing guidelines on the acquisition, research and exhibition of human remains.(1) The pertinent sections are quoted below:

2.5 Culturally Sensitive Material Collections of human remains and material of sacred significance should be acquired only if they can be housed securely and cared for respectfully. This must be accomplished in a manner consistent with professional standards and the interests and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from which the objects originated, where these are known. (See also 3.7; 4.3).

3.7 Human Remains and Materials of Sacred Significance Research on human remains and materials of sacred significance must be accomplished in a manner consistent with professional standards and take into account the interests and beliefs of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the objects originated, where these are known. (See also 2.5; 4.3).

4.3 Exhibition of Sensitive Materials Human remains and materials of sacred significance must be displayed in a manner consistent with professional standards and, where known, taking into account the interests and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the objects originated. They must be presented with great tact and respect for the feelings of human dignity held by all peoples.

A quick search for Belgian legislation regarding archaeological human skeletal remains reveals there doesn’t seem to be any, or at least I couldn’t seem to find any!  Guidelines were issued in 2004 regarding First World War excavations, and interestingly, the Routledge Handbook of Archaeological Human Remains and Legislation: An International Guide to Laws and Practice in the Excavation and Treatment of Archaeological Human Remains, published in 2011, states that these guidelines can also be used in reference to other military conflicts.  So what are the guidelines?  The basic procedure when finding remains relating to the First World War in Belgium (or other military conflicts as advised above) is as follows:

Remains Found → Notify Police & War Graves Department of Ministry of Defence → Archaeological examination performed in situ → Remains & artefacts collected by police and stored in national military domains → remains interred in military cemetery.  If nationality other than Belgian identified then War Graves Department notify foreign counterpart & remains returned for interment → If identified then efforts to trace relatives made

There have and will continue to be numerous remains found of those who fell in battle during the First World War, who are afforded the respect of a burial with full military honours in the land where they fell.  As recently as April 2015, six British soldiers killed in France in 1914 were reburied, some of the 30 or so bodies uncovered every year according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Whilst in 2013 the unidentified remains of a Coldstream Guards soldier, killed in battle more than 200 years ago in Holland, were laid to rest in the Guards Chapel.   It’s quite horrifying to imagine that in 100 years time those soldiers who fell in the First World War who still lie in the earth of Flanders (my great-uncle included), may not be afforded the dignity of a peaceful final resting place should they be discovered, but rather end up displayed as some grisly curio in a museum display case.

It seems hard to understand why the remains of Friedrich Brandt are considered to fall beyond the remit of the guidelines issued in 2004 and perhaps therein lies another issue.  Perceptions change over time and distance so at what point does a person become an object?  100 years?  200 years?  Arguably never of course, but in the context of a battlefield setting do the skeletal remains of a human body become just part of the material culture of conflict after a certain amount of time, acceptable to be viewed as such along with other objects such as uniforms and weaponry in a museum established as a purveyor of that particular past?

Does the fact that the skeleton has been identified somehow remove the barrier of anonymity and help us to emotionally connect with Friedrich Brandt at a time when we have arguably become so much more de-sensitised to death? A recent visit to the Forensics: Anatomy of Crime exhibition at the Wellcome Collection prompted a discussion as to whether it had actually been gory enough, our own perceptions of death coloured by our exposure to unflinching images of corpses in various stages of decomposition in TV crime scene dramas.

The DCMS (Department for Culture, Media & Sport) 2005 publication, Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, (2) states:

Human remains should be displayed only if the museum believes that it makes a material contribution to a particular interpretation; and that contribution could not be made equally effectively in another way. Displays should always be accompanied by sufficient explanatory material

It seems to me that no-one’s interests are served by the public display of Friedrich Brandt’s remains. If anything it seems to be an exercise in satisfying some morbid fascination with death, violating the sanctity of life and the lives of those who have gone before.  The display of Friedrich Brandt’s remains neither contribute to academic research nor a new interpretation of the Battle of Waterloo and surely a photograph or cast of his skeleton placed in context with “sufficient explanatory material” would more than meet the needs of the viewing public.

German historian Rob Schäfer, @germanarmyresearch, started the Twitter campaign and Andrew Thornton, @TheKnotUnites, set up the Facebook page in a great example of Anglo-German cooperation considering they’ve never met!  And this to me really illustrates the power of social media.  People from disparate backgrounds and locations scattered around the globe are able to come together in a common cause and provoke discussion and media interest far beyond what would normally be expected or indeed available.  It’s great to see social media used for a good cause and I would urge anyone whose interest has been piqued to visit and like the Facebook page or get involved via Twitter using the hashtag #PeaceforFriedrichBrandt.  There is also now a petition on requesting the directors of the Lion’s Mound Museum & Visitor Centre in Belgium to remove Friedrich’s remains from display and ensure he has a dignified burial.

The #PeaceForFriedrichBrandt campaign has gathered such momentum over the past few days that it would seem that it’s not only historians who feel that Friedrich Brandt deserves to be afforded the respect of a dignified burial, one that he was denied on the battlefield of Waterloo 200 years ago. The time has surely come for Friedrich Brandt to finally rest in peace.

(1) “Code of Ethics for Museums”, (accessed 01/06/2015)

(2) “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums”, (accessed 01/06/2015)