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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<<