Leaving a legacy

Everyone wants recognition. Some people want fame and fan mail and the adoration of thousands, while others just want to be recognised for who they are and what they’ve achieved. Most (or maybe just me!) only want others to recognise them as a worthwhile person, someone they want to know. Either way, it’s not always possible to have full control over the kind of recognition you have in life, and it’s even more uncertain in death. Often, people are remembered long after their life is over for some rather unusual things – things I am sure they would have found odd, bizarre or unimportant during their lifetimes, such as where they once lived for a few months, or where they used to socialise. I can’t imagine anyone in 100 years time wanting to fix a memorial plaque onto the 1970s bungalow I grew up in (assuming I achieve something to warrant such a thing), but this is what has essentially happened to the dwellings of many of the famous deceased. In some cases it is the event of death or place of death itself that brings about the recognition and remembrance. I am sure that John Lennon never conceived that thousands would pay homage to his life and music by visiting a spot in a park in New York City. And I am equally certain that some receivers of the Darwin Awards (posthumous acknowledgements of those who have died without offspring for doing something absurdly dumb) would not want to be remembered and laughed at by the rest of the world for dying in pretty stupid ways.

It strikes me that it is often the legacy of the non-famous and largely forgotten that can provide a fascinating snapshot into another time and another life and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Success of TV programmes such as the now defunct ‘Meet the Ancestors‘, or  ‘Who Do You Think you Are’, and the fact that so many of us have had a go at tracing our family tree belies this fact. Why are we interested in learning about long lost and forgotten lives, ancestors, and relatives of people on TV we haven’t even met? Why is it that we want to know where our great great great uncles wife was born, or what great granddad Fred did for a living?

People fascinate me and people are fascinating; all of them, famous or not. Who doesn’t like sitting in a café or park and just people watching. Who can truly admit that they never gossip about others, or enjoy listening to a bit of gossip, or feel a sense of ‘wow’ learning about something amazing that an individual has achieved. And the lives of people long dead and long forgotten are equally intriguing. As an archaeologist I encountered the graves and effects of the dead on an almost daily basis, and today I work with a lot of archives so I’m in the privileged position of gaining a snapshot of these lives – just seeing for a moment how others lived and died, in a world very different from today. I spend a lot of my free time roaming the streets of London town and see traces of the forgotten everywhere. I wonder about the people who constructed the old stone buildings, those who laid the original cobbled roads sometimes visible where the tarmac has crumbled away, and those who dug the tube tunnels beneath my feet and worked in the shops, pubs, prisons and market stalls that have stood on those spots for centuries. Rarely, however, these people are named, but the city is littered with blue plaques, epitaphs and engravings remembering those who most of us have, today, never heard of. This is one I came across the other day embedded in a bandstand in Lincoln’s Inn Fields;


Near this spot was beheaded Ι William Lord Russell Ι a lover of constitutional liberty Ι 21 July AD 1683

The internet is a truly wonderful thing – two minutes of research revealed that Lord Russell was a politician who opposed the succession of King James II during the reign of King Charles II, ultimately resulting in his execution for treason. Here is another wonderful plaque, placed near a dock in Southwark;


Legend suggests that before the construction of London Bridge in the tenth century a ferry existed here. Ferrying passengers across the River Thames was a lucrative trade. John Overs who, with his watermen and apprentices, kept the “traverse ferrie over the Thames”, made such a good living that he was able to acquire a considerable estate on the south bank of the river.

John Overs, a notorious miser, devised a plan to save money. He would feign death believing that his family and servants would fast out of respect and thereby save a day’s provisions. However, when he carried out the plan, the servants were so overjoyed at his death that they began to feast and make merry. In a rage the old man leapt out of bed to the horror of his servants, one of whom picked up a broken oar and “thinking to kill the Devil at the first blow, actually struck out his brains”.

The ferryman’s distressed daughter Mary sent for her lover, who in haste to claim the inheritance fell from his horse and broke his neck. Mary was so overcome by these misfortunes that she devoted her inheritance to founding a convent into which she retreated.

This became the priory of Saint Mary Overie, Mary having been made a saint on account of her charity. During the Reformation the church of St Mary Overie was renamed St Saviour’s Church. In 1905 it became Southwark Cathedral and the collegiate church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.

That is a pretty fascinating story, and quite a legacy. Here is a third memorial, on the Seven Dials monument;


This sundial was built in 1694 by Edward Pierce and Thomas Neale removed from Seven Dials in 1773 and rebuilt 1989

A little more enigmatic that one and immediately I had questions – who were Edward Pierce and Thomas Neale? Were they stonemasons? Architects? What else did they build and does any of it survive? Well, Wikipedia (the fountain of all knowledge, often to be taken with a healthy pinch of salt) tells me that “Thomas Neale (1641–1699) was an English project-manager and politician who was also the first person to hold a position equivalent to postmaster-general of the North American colonies…He was a member of Parliament for thirty years, Master of the Mint and the Transfer Office, Groom Porter, gambler, and entrepreneur. His wide variety of projects included the development of Seven Dials, Shadwell, East Smithfield, and Tunbridge Wells, land-drainage projects, steel foundries and paper-making enterprises, mining, raising shipwrecks, and developing a pair of dice to prevent cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising, and he was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England.” Quite the Jack-of-all-Trades then. Edward Pierce on the other hand was chosen to build the Sundial Pillar because he was the greatest carver of his generation, working in stone, wood and marble.

More information here: http://www.sevendials.com/seven_dials.htm

However, some of my favourite oddities are found on headstones – after all the most obvious memorial of a life. Here are a couple from Highgate Cemetery (east), Camden.


Thomas George Ashford Ι Assistant Officer Ι Stationed at Southwark Ι Died as a result of injuries sustained at the Alhambra Theatre Fire 1882

A unique and fascinating headstone, and also Grade II Listed. The monument takes the form of a high square plinth surmounted by a simple cross with fireman’s tools in high relief; these include a helmet, a belt, two nozzles and two axes with covered blades.

The Alhambra was a popular theatre and Music Hall situated in Leicester Square. It was rebuilt and renamed several times, including after the fire, and was finally demolished in 1936. The site is now occupied by an office building. According to the London Fire Brigades’ website, theatre fires were very common in Victorian times because of the gas lamps used to light the stage. By 1884, 1,200 people had been killed by theatre fires and 41 theatres had burnt down worldwide.

Interestingly, the initial reports in the press stated that there were no victims of the fire, but apparently a collapsing wall did kill two of Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw’s* men and nearly killed the Prince of Wales. The original inscription was carved straight onto the plinth and is now illegible. The current inscription, on a granite plaque mounted over the original, commemorates only the more senior of the two firemen. The original inscription read as follows: ‘In memory of First Class Fireman Thomas George Ashford, aged 34 years, and Fourth Class Fireman Henry Berg, aged 24 years, of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, who both died from the effects of the injuries they received at the burning of the Alhambra Theatre Leicester Square on the 7th December 1882. This memorial was erected by their Officers, comrades and friends to commemorate the loss of two good men, whose lives were sacrificed by their devotion to their duty.’

*Superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, now the London Fire Brigade, 1861-1891.

My final favourite is this one;


Also in Highgate Cemetery (east), this was set into a larger monument dedicated to Ann Jewson Crisp, who died in 1884. The dog’s head is surrounded by the words ‘Her faithful dog Emperor‘. Aww.

Remembrance is a strange thing. I doubt if any of the people above realised that one day people would be taking photographs of their names and the places dedicated to them and then writing about them and sharing it with others. It makes me wonder how I’ll be remembered, and what for. Whilst I probably don’t have any control over my own death, when it comes, it does make me reflect on how I’m living my life right now and what kind of trace I might leave behind, which I think is a good thing for everyone to think about once in a while.