Leaving no tombstone unturned to find story

Most of us may not have noticed it, but it was recently National Cemeteries Week – and an opportunity for at least one local history buff to bring the past back to life.

Mike Guilfoyle, chairman of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries has long held affection for these two history-filled spaces in adjacent Lewisham plots.

He recently conducted a guided walk to point out some of the more fascinating characters buried in the grounds in a cemetery tales tour grandly entitled Convicts, Cartographers and Captains, which perhaps emphasises the indiscriminate nature of mortality – and the fact so much history lies at our feet.

The graves also include that of tragic Adeline Tanner (died 1890) who needed rescuing by a quaker after being sex trafficked to a brothel in Belgium at the age of 18 and who suffered terrible exploitation in her short and unhappy life.

Mike Guilfoyle conducting a tour of the graveyards Picture: Mike Guilfoyle

Her story has been the subject of a podcast Mike has been involved in and his passion for the diversity of characters whose final resting place is this 37-acre cemetery, which was established in 1858.

“I have become a confirmed taphophile since lighting on these remarkable verdant Victorian cemeteries over a decade ago,” he said, introducing most of us to a word for ‘tombstone tourists’ few of us know.

“I have found in the historical research I have so far undertaken, whether trudging over toppled headstones looking for lucky finds or delving into online burial records such a rich repository of hidden lives.

Grave of Adeline Tanner. Picture: Mike Guilfoyle

“To date, the illustrious deceased have enabled me to write four biographical guide books and narrate 12 podcasts highlighting the lives of some of the denizens buried here.

“They range from reviled serial poisoners, Dickensian actors or arguably the most bizarre demise – that of the stunt man known as the Brooklyn bridge jumper Larry Donovan whose drowned body was recovered from Deptford in 1888.

Headstone of Sir Alexander Nisbet died 1874 Picture: Find a Grave

“As well as sharing such wonderful tombstone discoveries through guided walks, talks and open days and helping to promote and protect the cemeteries – which are still used for burials –as valued biodiverse or reflective spaces open to all visitors, be they the living or the dead.”

One of the first stops on his tour was to a headstone which carried an inscription from the poet Shelley and marks the final resting place of a minor novelist, whose legacy is shaped by a candid observation made by a critic, who described him as “a hard-living journalist much entangled with women.”

Alexander Crawford Lindsay, who died in 1915, was overshadowed by his better-known brother, David Lindsay (died in 1945) who was author of a science fantasy novel A Voyage to Arcturus.

Nearby lies the final resting place of astronomer James Carpenter (died 1899), and an admiral called Howard who featured on the wrong side of a Crimean War naval defeat forms a link to the family vault of Sir Alexander Nisbet (died 1874).

Aside from being one of Queen Victoria’s physicians, Nisbet was an enlightened surgeon aboard a number of convict ships bound for Australasia in the 1830s.

Headstone of Horton Family Picture: Find a Grave

A recent discovery of a historic familial link to the ill-fated Arctic exploration ship HMS Terror, is a war-scarred vault of the Donaldson family – the Blitz having caused damage. Midshipman Donaldson died aboard the ship on an earlier expedition in 1837.

Mike took his tour guests also to the toppled headstone of minor poet and arts patron Francis Bennoch (died 1890), a close friend of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose daughter Rose, lodged with Bennoch.

The cartographer’s headstone is sadly entwined in bushes but Admiralty surveyor Henry Scharbau (died 1902) left behind an impressive body of map-making, and is hailed as far apart as Japan and the Hebrides. He is neatly located between an aristocratic French and German duo.

Captain Richard Douglas is another buried in Ladywell cemetery, who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and now in death he rubs shoulders with the ‘decadent’ poet Ernest Dowson (died 1900) and the First World War poet, David Jones.

At Brockley cemetery, Mike would steer you in the direction of army surgeon, James Henry Horton (died 1917) which informs the viewer of conflicts in Somaliland, North West Frontier and the Balkans, before the messy campaigning in Mesopotamia.

His brother’s untimely demise at the hands of an infamous outlaw in the Punjab in 1924, adds a poignant family footnote.

There are links to the disastrous sinking of the Thames Paddle Steamer, Princess Alice in 1878 and a Deptford whaler’s faded headstone.

There is a reference to the great explorer of the Southern seas Captain Cook on another headstone.

Sad and funny all at once, there is another grave of John Archibald (died 1923) who had the misfortune to die on his honeymoon due to an accident in the Hotel lift.

Life’s rich tapestry all around you.








Pictured: Mike Guilfoyle conducting a tour of the graveyards Picture: Mike Guilfoyle





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