Friday, 11 September 2020

The Great London Grave Quest 2020

So, on Friday the 4th September 2020, I headed off to London in our trusty black Ford Fiesta (very affectionately known as Kaa) in search of graves and homes.

And boy, did I get some.

And none.

Read on.....

I went for a nice early start (7.30am- that's ridiculously early for me) so that I might miss the worst of the traffic. It takes about two and a half hours from our front door in the centre of Norwich to London. Obviously, it's nigh on impossible to predict the nature of the traffic within London itself, and as I was starting my quest in South East London, it meant a steady slog through East London and the Blackwall Tunnel.

But that's okay, I'm something of a seasoned "driving through London" driver, meaning I have no high expectations and accept what will probably be ahead before I've even picked up the car keys.

Anyway, I arrived at my first port of call, Camberwell Old Cemetery just after 10am, the weather was perfect, the temperature was around 18 degrees (I do not like heat!!!), it wasn't too sunny (fair-skinned and bald - I hate the sun at times) and it was dry, though there was a little bit of something for a few minutes that really didn't amount to anything, so I didn't get soaked.

My goal was to locate the grave of Emily Ellen Cull. She is a someone from my maternal grandfathers side of the family and my reason for wanting to find her grave was to:

1. Confirm details we already had.

2. Get a pictorial record of her grave at this moment in time.

3. See if there was anyone in the grave with her or mentioned on the headstone and record any relevant information accordingly.

The graveyard was VERY overgrown in places and I started to wonder if I might experience a high level of difficulty in locating Emily. It took me the best part of an hour, and at one point, I was thinking the grave was either too overgrown or that the headstone was either so damaged it had been removed or was so severely weathered that it was illegible. Working as an undertaker gave me a small advantage in that I have become accustomed to how things are numbered and laid out and how the undertakers and/or their stonemasons, might indicate the plot number and location on the grave surroundings or the headstone itself. This was how I located Emily - I looked at a couple of graves to get some bearing, and one told me that I was in the right area and the number on it meant that I was very close. I checked to each side and just behind, but Emily wasn't there. As the pathway I was on ran directly through the section, I looked to the other side and there, under a small amount of brambles was a little memorial stone indicating the presence of Emily within the grave, along with Joseph Willliam Cull. I now have the details for two people confirmed and added to the family tree.

This was my first success and it was a very satisfying feeling.

Two weeks ago, I had no interest in family history and was busying myself with a minor nervous breakdown. This one single thing gave me such a personal boost and was an example of a bit of work paying off.


When it comes to my late mothers side of the family, it is very important to remember that whatever I achieve on that front will be down to the ground work she had already done over many years. In some respects, I feel a bit like a curator of her endeavours, my responsibility at this stage to collate and present her findings with anything that I may find myself. And I use the word responsibility because at the end of the day, I have chosen to carry on that which she started, there's a lot of work gone into this side of the family already. I quietly wished she had been with me as I trapsed through the undergrowth (more like overgrowth at times!!!), but alas she would never have been able to have walked the miles I did today. However, I like to think she was there in spirit - I have a little something to share later on regarding that sort of thing, was quite spookily fun and made me smile.

So I'm now emboldened and having taken a number of photographs (including the obligatory "selfie" - see above - and get used to it, it's a thing), I was ready to set off to the next part of the quest - the Cull family grave in Streatham Cemetery!!!

It took a good while to get through the South London traffic as there were a lot of roadworks and drivers in London are just plain crazy, rude and stupid - there's no particular order there by the way. It was during this part of the journey that my SatNav decided it didn't want to do anymore work today and shut down. Moral of the tale is "always take the power cable or else just charge the damn thing up". Thankfully, Google Maps is simply fantastic as a SatNav, so I keyed the details into my smartphone and away we went.

I arrived at Streatham Cemetery in good time considering and so I set about the task of locating the Cull family grave.

In the back of my memory, somewhere, I seemed to remember that I had been to this cemetery before with my mother, many many years ago, and when I got to the section where my information had told me the plot would be, I found myself looking at a sparsely populated but large, patch of green. I walked around all of the graves with stones, with the hope that one would be my goal and at the same time, trying really hard to remember what the grave looked like, even though I wasn't certain of my memory. I spent over an hour checking each headstone twice, just in case I missed it first time round, and I even took a look at the next section (even though I knew it was not the right one) to be certain.

I had to call a blank on this one, which was a shame as the information on the headstone would have been good. And this is how it can sometimes go I suppose. So, no point in crying about it, you can't look at what isn't there. The information I have from memorial cards and registry documents is pretty conclusive, so I decided to call a halt and determined to contact the cemetery direct to confirm the removal of the headstone and move on to the next port of call.

Take a look at the pictures below, somewhere in there lay the Culls:

Streatham Cemetery may not have been a success, but my spirits were most definitely not dampened as I drove to Kensal Green Cemetery to locate the grave of my great grandmother, Ethel Kate Fellowes, and two of her daughters. This one I was particularly excited about as finding the details of this grave was one of the first fruits of my own labours and I hoped it would yield some missing information relating to dates of death which were not directly available through the various genealogy sites.

I drove Kaa through the fabulous necropolis-like scenery of Kensal Green Cemetery - elaborate headstones and memorial stones, amazing mausoleums and a vista of graves and burial plots, seemingly covering acres of land. The photographer in me decided that a return visit was definitely happening to capture images of this wonderfully gothic landscape. But today was not about photography, time was starting to slip away and I had to focus on finding the targeted grave.

I had to drive up and down a few track ways before I finally got my bearings and found the section within which the grave was situated. I parked Kaa up and then proceeded on foot through the myriad of headstones and memorials. Kensal Green Cemetery had sent me two very detailed maps, one showing me the section I needed and the second showing me where the plot was within that section - many of the plots on the map had the family names of the occupants and it was this that proved to be the key to finding my great grandmother and aunts.

I spent a good half hour or so stumbling through the graves, my brain was clearly not firing on all thrusters as I just couldn't tally the map with what lay before me - I'm usually quite proficient at map reading, but not today it seems. It was when I thought to use the names on the map to try and pin-point my actual position within the section that I finally found what it was I had come in search of.

And the bloody thing was right behind me!!!

The headstone was not in perfect condition. The metal lettering was starting to come away from the headstone in a couple of places and it was almost impossible to read because of what I thought was weathering along with moss and algae. I applied a little water to the stone to loosen the solidified moss and that enabled me to make out my great grandmothers name and the date of her death. This one thing was a major step forward as I now had a definite date of her death, which in turn would help to strengthen the integrity of future searches. I was just about able to make out the names of the two daughters, which again gave me clarification that my research was working in the right direction.

I was now in a good place, two out of three searches had been successful, and the information gained was solid. I knew that I would be returning to London within the next week or so to scatter my mothers ashes at Golders Green Crematorium, so I made the decision to look into how to clean a headstone with a view to returning here, cleaning the stone and seeing what else it might tell me.

Soon enough, it was time to head off to the fourth and final grave yard, Willesden New Cemetery and the burial plot of the Soanes family.

This journey wasn't too bad as Kensal Green is quite close to Willesden compared to the first two cemeteries I visited and it wasn't long before I was driving around the cemetery in search of the plot, and that didn't take long either as I have good and clear memories of visiting Willesden New Cemetery when I was younger as my mother and her parents lived but a stones throw away, quite literally.

I parked Kaa up on the side of the track and walked over to the Soanes family plot. You'll see from the photograph below that the grave was originally white in colour:

Not so now:

But what it lacked cosmetically, it certainly didn't lack in terms of information. The grave contains an additional family member as well as memorials to several other relatives who were cremated instead of being buried, including my grandfather, Arthur Soanes and my great aunt Margaret ("Marge") Soanes, whose memorials were added by my mother soon after their deaths. As a side note, I did ponder about having my mothers name added. I have since had other ideas, however, I may still do it for the sake of continuity. The grave next to it (to the right of the main grave on the photograph below), I believe, is of another member of the Soanes family, but I need to do a bit more research before I commit the information on that grave to what has already been gathered. Once I've ascertained the deceased is indeed a Soanes, then I will update in a future bloggy post thing.

The information that this grave holds has proven invaluable, verifying much of what was already known - I like this kind of back up as it provides me with on going proof that I'm on the right pathway with how I am going about my family research.

And that was the grave quest element completed. Three out of four is a good result in my book and I was really happy with what I had discovered, not just the information and verification, but also that my research methods are working.

I bid the Soanes family a quiet farewell and decided to take a walk along Ambleside Road which runs alongside Willesden New Cemetery. As I mentioned earlier, my mother and her parents lived on this road and I have many memories of the house in which they lived and the road upon which I walked with my parents and grandparents many times when I were but a wee lad. Nostalgia at the moment is a good thing for me and is helping me come to terms with the shift in my life as it is at the present. My memories of this area are generally very good ones and I recall many happy times playing in Roundwood Park. I walked past the house that was home to my mother, pausing briefly to remember how it looked more than 40 years ago - very obviously, it has been painted up since that time.

I returned to Kaa and keyed into Google Maps my fifth and final destination for today, my fathers childhood home in West Hampstead.

My father's childhood was very different to my mothers in almost every respect. Whilst my mothers childhood was not the happiest by a long stretch, she had a more than comfortable life as her homes in both London and Edinburgh were not without money. On the other hand, my fathers upbringing was not one of money or comfort it seems. The Fellowes family in West Hampstead lived in poverty, my paternal grandfather died of tuberculosis at the age of 42 in 1954 when my father was 15 years old. As his older brother was away in the army doing National Service, it fell to my father to take over. He gave up the prospect of becoming a professional footballer (for Hendon) and playing cricket for Middlesex Cricket Club to work in a pencil factory to support his mother and his younger sister who was still at school. Going back in time, when he was born in 1938, the family lived in a three-storey house along with three or four other families and money was non-existent as my grandfather had apparently been in poor health for most of his life. And it was to this house that I travelled, a mere 15 minutes from Ambleside Road in Willesden.

To see the house now, you would find it difficult to imagine its past. The area doesn't look so bad, the house looks smart and has clearly been modernised. It's still flatted, but it seems with students and professional people. The two houses in the photograph below were linked by the fact that my paternal grandmother, Annie, lived in the house next to the one she occupied with her husband before they got married.

The house on the left was where the Coker (my grandmothers maiden name) family lived, and the house on the right is where Annie and my grandfather, William, lived and into where my father, Ronald, was born.

I mentioned earlier about a slightly spooky but fun little thing that happened. The black car you can see in the photograph above is Kaa and once I had taken my photographs and had my moments of thought and remembering, I was sat in the car keying my route home into Google Maps on my smartphone. So, please keep in mind that my father died in 2006 (14 years ago) and my mother died in July of this year (2020), not even 2 months before my visit here, my emotional state is bordering on fragile and I'm outside my fathers childhood home (to which I don't really have any emotional attachment to as I've never been inside it).

When Google Maps calculated the route home, it informed me that I would reach my destination at 19.38.

The question you may very well be asking is "and?" or "so what?"

My father was born in 1938.



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