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Two ‘Public Graves’ in Ladywell Cemetery reveal their secrets

Ladywell Cemetery fits well with the Victorian notion of death, mourning and the middle class ownership (purchase) of a grave or family vault. Here a headstone of choice could be suitably inscribed and placed for commemoration of the recently departed. However not all Ladywell residents could aspire to such luxury and for them it was what was known as a ‘Public Grave’ purchased for a nominal sum and allocated at the discretion of the Cemetery Supervisor. These graves had to shared with at least one other occupant and weren’t allowed any form of permanent marker (Headstone).

Here is the story of two ‘Public Graves’ in Ladywell Cemetery.

Harry Lee Strickland Ransom was born in Hackney in 1898, son of an Irish Nurse Laura and Ambulance Driver/Horseman Harry, both working at the Homerton Hospital, Hackney. Harry was joined in 1900 by a sister, Laura Colleen. By this time Harry senior, a former army horseman, had been called up to fight in Boer War in South Africa. He returned early in 1902 and on Christmas Day the appropriately named Holly Ileen was born. In 1905 they were joined by a younger brother Edgar William. Shortly after Harry senior died from a multiplicity of illnesses. Laura’s life was shattered, she was left destitute with four young children and no income.  Within days young Harry and Laura where taken in by the Wandsworth Union and sent to the Penge Workhouse, Anerley. Similarly within days Holly was taken in at the Mullers Orphan House in Bristol and young Edgar was taken into care elsewhere. Laura senior found work as a live in carer.

By 1915 Laura had somehow managed to reunite her family in Hackney. From here an over exuberant Harry stepped forward as a Kitchener Volunteer onto the stage of the Hackney Empire, to claim the King’s Shilling.  As he was about to leave for France his mother reported him as underage and he was discharged from the army.

The Ransoms in Ladywell 1918, left to right Laura, Harry, Laura senior, Holly and Edgar.

By 1917, Laura senior with her youngest son and her two daughters were now living at 55, Algernon Road, Ladywell. Harry was a Butchers Clerk living in Circus Street Greenwich. From here he was called up, first serving in a Bicycle Battalion in the Hull Coastal area. Britain at this point still maintained two million men under arms at home in case of a German invasion. These were men mainly like Harry, graded as C3, which meant medically unfit for service at the front. However with the German Spring Offensive of 1918 and the vast casualties inflicted on the British Army the main qualification for the service at the Front was literally, a pulse and the ability to fire a rifle. Harry was miraculously upgraded from C3 to A1 overnight and rushed to the Front, now serving with the Durham Light Infantry. Despite the regiment’s poor perception as a UK Garrison Battalion they went on to earn a unit citation for their fighting ability. The medical misfits had come good. By the end of the war though Harry’s poor health had caught up with him and shortly after the 11th November he was sent home with Spanish Flu and other medical complications. He was taken to Didsbury Hospital in Manchester for recuperation. Finally in the spring of 1919, he was discharged from the army and reunited with his family in Algernon Road.

Having polished up his rudimentary French in France, Harry now found employment in the City of London as a shipping clerk in Louis de Foire. An Anglo French import/export company and became the principle breadwinner at 55, Algernon Road. In 1923 tragedy struck again Holly, a machinist in woollen garments had previously been diagnosed with TB. The only known cure for TB then was fresh air.  Lewisham Hospital had great outdoor wards between the main hospital building and the River Quaggy. With nothing more than a tin  roof over them to stop the rain, patients either died or got better. Sadly on 22nd October 1923 Holly died in Lewisham Hospital of TB aged 20. She was buried in a ‘Public Grave’ Plot D3460 in Ladywell Cemetery on the 29th October.

These were tough times for the working class in Lewisham and her sister Laura had also been diagnosed with TB. Laura now found herself in the same riverside, open sided TB wards of Lewisham Hospital. Mother Laura though decided if fresh air was the only cure, she should come home and be cured or die there.  Harry, her son using carpentry skills learnt in the Penge Workhouse built her a small Swiss Chalet style shed in the garden of 55 Algernon Road. There she lived out her last few months, dying of TB early in April 1925 aged 24. She was buried in a ‘Public Grave’ Plot B989 Ladywell Cemetery on the 11th April.

Laura senior went on to outlive another husband, finally dying at her sister’s house at 290 Brockley Road near Ladywell Cemetery. She though was buried at Hither Green Cemetery.

There is a happy ending to this sad story of ‘Public Graves’.  Harry, whilst he was ministering to his sisters in the Lewisham Hospital TB wards met Dorothy Palmer a nurse from Scotland. They married in 1926 and went on to live in Chislehurst.

>> Thanks to Richard Merry for this post<<

The man who burned down the White House and his link to Ladywell cemetery: New Years Day guided history walk

There will be a New Years Day guided history walk (Saturday 1st January) ' More Lock down Luminaries' Based on recent research of some more of the illustrious deceased buried in the cemeteries.

Led by Mike Guilfoyle Vice-Chair : FoBLC.  Meet Ladywell cemetery main gate at 13.00. Walk will last approximately 1-2 hours.

Free - All Welcome

Find out about Rear -Admiral Sir George Cockburn, the man who burned down the White House and his link to Ladywell cemetery!

WASHINGTON BURNING, 1814. Washingtonians fleeing the city during the burning of the White House and the Capitol by the British on 24 August 1814. Illustration by Joseph Boggs Beale

The South London Press has details of some of the other luminaries who will be covered here

George Maydwell Holdich and the haunted church organ of Wiggenhall

The final resting place of the famous Victorian organist and organ builder George Maydwell Holdich lies close to the pathway alongside the boundary wall in Ladywell cemetery with only the residual border containing a faded inscription on a curbstone visible to the knowing observer.

George Maydwell Holdich 

[The only known photograph of George is from the collection of John Maidment]

Intriguingly when researching George's life for this article I lighted on a news report from 2018 appearing in the Eastern Daily Press which seemed an appropriate coda to the traditional Christmas ghost story which referred to a haunted organ built by George Maydwell Holdich at St. Mary the Virgin Parish Church, Wiggenhall, Norfolk which I thought readers would find of interest!

George 's pipe organ inside St Mary's Church at Wiggenhall St Mary. Picture: Ian Burt - undated.

Weird Norfolk: The haunted Victorian pipe organ at Wiggenhall

In the heart of the Fens is a fourteenth-century church which, legend has it, makes its own entertainment thanks to a haunted Victorian pipe organ

An article in Norfolk Fair in the summer of 1986 recalls the strange story of St Mary's haunted Victorian organ. Built by George Maydwell Holdich, the organ was donated to the church by the village squire, George Helsham. 'Quite a different kind of ghost is said to haunt the church of St Mary the virgin at Wiggenhall,' the article reads, 'Now redundant, it is no longer used for services but an atmosphere of unease was said to pervade it when it was in use. What was so astonishing was not any spectral apparition but the fact that strains of organ music would be heard, as if some outstanding performer were seated at the instrument. Upon investigation, however, no-one could be found, although the organ felt warm. In fact, the generation of heat seemed to be one of the manifestations of whatever moved within the building as it would become warm for no apparent reason. This was especially marked at a wedding at which guests became uncomfortably hot and one bridesmaid fainted, yet outside the weather was autumnal and chilly. Sometimes the organ behaved so erratically the organist had to give up playing. Yet two or three days later it would perform perfectly.

On one occasion, workmen carrying out repairs to the fabric were scared out of their wits when the organ started playing of its own accord. They fled the church in panic and only with great difficulty were they persuaded to return. 'Later visitors to the church have spoken of the strange atmosphere inside the church, which is only open to the public at certain times and which is world-renowned for its exceptional collection of early 16th-century wooden benches with ends carved with likenesses of saints, the detail on which is breathtaking – many believe the endearing faces may well have been based on parishioners of the time. Perhaps today they are entertained by spectral music.

George Maydwell Holdich

George was the fourth son of the Reverend Thomas Holdich and his second wife Elizabeth (nee Maydwell). He was born in August 1816 in Maidwell, Northamptonshire. His father, Thomas, was rector of the parish church, St Mary the Virgin. George attended Uppingham School from February 1829 until December 1832 after which it is said he went to Cambridge, although there is no record of this at the University.

However, he became apprenticed to the organ builder James Chapman Bishop of Marylebone and in 1837 started up in business by himself. In 1842 he moved to share a factory with another organ builder, Henry Bevington at 12 Greek Street, Soho. Running off Greek Street is Manette Street, described in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as “… where church organs claim to be made…”

The earliest Holdich organ known of is that at Southwick Northamptonshire. Redenhall is also an early example as is All Saints’ Laxton, Northamptonshire  the organ dating from c1843 and having connections with the Holdich family. The organ at Sparham, Norfolk is another early organ likely to be by Holdich and it was originally in a former school in Laxton.

Between 1848 and 1851 a fire destroyed the Greek Street factory and George moved to 4 Judd Place East, New Road, King’s Cross, which was renumbered and renamed 42 Euston Road in 1858.

In 1851 George built an organ for The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, now in Wiveton. 1861 saw George build his magnum opus for Lichfield Cathedral – an organ of 52 stops. This organ was quite radical for its time, including a comprehensive pedal division of which the cathedral organist, Samuel Spofforth, observed “You may put them there, but I shall never use them!” Sadly, little of this organ survives at Lichfield.

George remained in the Euston Road factory until 1866 when the site was acquired by the Midland Railway Company, and so he moved to 24 Park Place West, Liverpool Road, again renumbered to become 261 Liverpool Road, Islington in 1869. It was from this factory that he built the Hinckley organ in 1867, although of course its original destination was much closer to home – Union Chapel, Islington. It was planned to move this organ to the new chapel, but George seems to have objected to the proposed site. George removed the organ and in 1878 installed it at the Borough Congregation Church, Hinckley. George built well over 400 organs during his career, including one for the English Cathedral on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, as well as instruments for South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and Mauritius. His organs were generally conservative, certainly from a tonal perspective, but as indicated by the Lichfield instrument, at times he could also be forward-looking – he introduced a type of octave-coupler called a diaocton.

George nonetheless enjoys a reputation for building fine Victorian organs. Many of his smaller works survive, particularly in East Anglian rural churches. George retired on 10th January 1894 and his business was sold to the organ builder Eustace Ingram. The business traded from the same premises for a while under the name of Holdich & Ingram before being sold to Gray & Davison. On his retirement George lived in a nursing home at Forest Hill where he died on the 30th July 1896 aged 79. George who never married was interred in Ladywell cemetery on the 1st August 1896.

( Source : The Holdich Family History Society)

For a fuller account of George's life and work as an organ builder this 2013 biography most likely offers the definitive account.

Footnote :

George is in good musical company in this section of Ladywell cemetery as two other noted organists are buried nearby :

Dr William Joseph Westbrook (1831-1894) Composer, who for many years was the organist at St. Bartholemew's Church, Sydenham. His arrangement of In dulci jubilo ( In sweet rejoicing) one of the most recognisable and joyful melodies of the middle ages became a huge festive hit when released as an instrumental version by musician Mike Oldfield in 1975.

Elizabeth Stirling /Bridge ( 1819 -1895) Organist and Composer, who in 1856 passed the examination for the degree of Mus.Bac. at Oxford (her work was Psalm 130 for 5 Voices, with Orchestra.) but, ironically, her earned degree could not be granted to a woman!

Article by Mike Guilfoyle, Vice-Chair FoBLC

The grave of Inventor Alfred Charles Brown located in Ladywell cemetery

One of the singular delights of undertaking cemetery research are those serendipitous moments of discovery when the headstone of a long forgotten luminary is located. Such was the experience of finding the broken headstone of Alfred Charles Brown ' Inventor of the London fire alarm' in Ladywell cemetery.

Born in Holborn in 1858, Alfred Charles Brown completed his education at the City of London College and worked for four years in the telegraph section of the London, Brighton & South Coast railway. Leaving in 1878 to take up experimental work with Alexander Graham Bell (best known for his invention of the telephone). Alfred subsequently worked for Bell Telephone Company entering the service of the inventor Sir James Anderson, who captained the SS Great Eastern on the laying of the Transatlantic submarine telegraph cable in 1865 and 1866. His collaborations with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison led to him spending time in America.  It was whilst there that he superintended the laying of the first telephone line between New York and Chicago.

Letter from A.C. Brown to Alexander Graham Bell, October 4, 1878 ( Library of Congress)
Letter from A.C. Brown to Alexander Graham Bell, October 4, 1878 ( Library of Congress)

In 1880 he married Georgina Alice Maude Cole and for many years lived at 129 Algernon Road, Ladywell with his wife and daughter.

But Alfred Charles Brown's chief invention was the street fire -alarm which originated when he became increasingly troubled at the tardy response of the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade when attending blazes in the capital. The fire alarm system became known as that of ' Saunders and Brown',

The first public alarms had a direct line to the fire station, where a bell would ring showing which alarm had been set. A ‘watch room attendant’ at the fire station could then get the Vestry Hall to ring its bell for the volunteers, and when they arrived he could tell them where the alarm had been set off. This system was an invention of A.C. Brown and was widely adopted across London. By 1936, the London Fire Brigade area had 1,732 fire alarm posts. Of the 9,000 calls made with these posts, around 6,000 were genuine and 3,000 false. Of the false alarm calls, nearly 1,000 were due to electrical faults!

Alfred laid claim to a number of other inventions in motor vehicle design and became an expert in horology (clocks) inventing one of the earliest machines for ' clocking -in' in the workplace! The first person in the country to take out a wireless licence, he also made improvements in gramophone technology, introducing a 'pick up' to enable radio loud speakers to be used to reproduce sound. During World War One he joined the London Electrical Volunteers and his improvements to the transmission of the vibrating telegraph were greatly welcomed by the War Office.

Noted for his many philanthropic endeavours he appears to have been a modest and self-effacing inventor whose his final recorded words were 'I think I have been of some use to the world'!

Alfred was living in Granville Park , Blackheath at the time of his death in February 1931. He was interred in Ladywell cemetery in March 1931 and is buried in the same grave as his wife Georgina ( d.1931)

Alfred deserves to be better known for his pioneering work - Maybe a campaign to have a maroon plaque in Ladywell for this gentle genius could feature as part of Lewisham Borough of Culture 2022?

Mike Guilfoyle , Vice -Chair of Foblc next to the toppled headstone of the Inventor Alfred Charles Brown in Ladywell cemetery-
Mike Guilfoyle , Vice -Chair of Foblc next to the toppled headstone of the Inventor Alfred Charles Brown in Ladywell cemetery- (Photo courtesy of Phil Barnes-Warden)

Alexander Graham Bell Invents the Photo phone, the First Wireless Communication System ( 1880)

Significantly Alexander Graham Bell accorded the credit for the first demonstrations of the transmission of speech by light to a Mr A. C. Brown of London 'in September or October 1878.

The essential ideas underpinning Alexander Graham Bell's photo phone were not his own, as in a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on August 27, 1880, he freely attests to the fact that following a confidential correspondence from London, with a Mr A. C. Brown of Ladywell and others who had all anticipated his invention!