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Unravelling the Mystery of Tannaker Buhicrosan buried Ladywell cemetery

Drawing of a curiously reticent Tannaker Buhicrosan, c.1885 sporting a Chonmage- a traditional Japanese topknot haircut worn by men Source: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News: (Wikipedia).

Japanese Village, which was built in Hyde Park in 1885. Tannaker Buhicrosan had relocated 100 Japanese men women and children to London to populate his village and made sure everything was traditional. The village stayed open until June 1887, and hosted over one million visitors. On March 14th 1885, The Mikado premiered at the Savoy Theatre in London. W.S Gilbert enlisted the assistance of Japanese woman from the village to help some of his performers with dance, deportment and use of the fan. (Image : Wikipedia)

Located aside the inner pathway adjoining Ivy road in Ladywell cemetery is a headstone that until recently had been an undiscovered gem, its inscription had been mostly erased due to weathering, until that is Foblc stalwarts Mick Martin and Phill Barnes-Warden chanced to notice due to a serendipitous solar ray , what appeared Japanese lettering and the faint outline of the name Chiyo. After they had shared this information I was immediately intrigued to discover that another person with the wonderful name of Tannaker Buhiscrosan was also buried here. On further researching who exactly was this personage who had died in 1894 in Hither Green was (Chiyo was his four year old daughter who died in sad circumstances in 1891) I noted that there are lots of online references to Tannaker Buhicrosan, many historically inaccurate, but there is no doubting in particular his pivotal entrepreneurial role in 1885-1887 in creating the Japanese Village Knightsbridge, which was a commercial venture that demonstrated the life and crafts of Japan to thousands of inquisitive Londoners.

It was only when reading Paul Budden's fascinating and tantalisingly readable 2020 biography 'Paper Butterflies Unravelling The Mystery of Tannaker Buhicrosan' that a fuller picture of his complex life emerged, which helped flesh out this truly picaresque 19th century character. There are no extant photographs of Tannaker (adding to the mystery ) which may be due to the transformative identity change that emerged following his journey to Japan in the 1860's, at a time when Japan was emerging from its isolationist foreign policy, and perhaps his keen desire to suppress or evade compromising biographical details from his early troubled life growing up in some of the harsher streets of the great port city of Liverpool.

Aside from baptismal certificates from c.1840 details of the early life of Tannaker are sketchy , but significantly instead of a background identified as drawn of Dutch-Japanese extraction called Frederick Blekman in many online accounts, his father was believed to have been a surgeon called Dr. William Bellingham Neville who is recorded as emigrating to Australia in 1843. A William Neville enlisted in the 18th Hussars in 1858 and deserted in 1860. Further to this in 1862 he was sentenced to one years hard labour for Bigamy and re-enlisting on release, accompanied his new regiment to Yokohama, Japan in 1864. He met his future wife a Japanese lady called Otakesan in Nagasaki, they married in 1879, most likely after deserting the Army for a second time. In the memorable words from Paul Budden's book: 'The time has come in our quest where we must say goodbye to Mr William Neville aka Nevill, Nelson. Sailor, bigamist, convict, watchmaker, groom, clerk, merchant and Englishman and turn our gaze onto Mr Tannaker Bellingham Neville Buhicrosan; Dutch, Japanese entertainer, proprietor and businessman ' p 88.

Certainly a troupe of Japanese performers employed by Tannaker arrived in Australia in 1867 and his chameleon like adaptation to Japanese customs and dress, and use of ' broken English ' appeared to authenticate his new found identity with audiences, although deftly keeping his shady past to himself whilst successfully promoting his showman qualities, prior to the opening of the Japanese village in London in 1885. The librettist W.S.Gilbert requested that some of Tannaker's 'native ladies' teach his Mikado cast (the famous comic opera's opening was in the same year) how to perform some of their dances and the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde offered him the accolade of a 'man of good business'

The Japanese village closed in 1887, having left Tannaker for a time a wealthy man, residing at the imposing 'Yeddo Grange' in Lewisham Park. Although still touring the country with some of his troupe of entertainers, he moved to more modest accommodation in 44 Hither Green Lane with his wife and children. His daughter Chiyo aged four sadly died after accidentally ingesting morphine whilst it appeared that her father was lost in the stupor of alcohol. A drinking condition that progressively worsened and led to his early death aged 54 years on the 10th August 1894. On the death certificate his occupation was described as that of a 'Japanese Merchant'. He was interred in Ladywell cemetery alongside his beloved daughter, Chiyo the following day.

A fitting conclusion perhaps to his remarkably enigmatic and versatile life is penned again by Paul Budden in his exhaustive search to unravel the mystery of Tannaker Bellingham Buhicrosan. 'I now intend to let this bigamist, rogue, clerk, merchant, Mason , entrepreneur, showman, husband, businessman, friend, rest at least from my tampering invasions, in peace' p 193

But I doubt if this stricture will apply to future guided cemetery walks when he will be remembered as a flawed scoundrel who successfully reinvented himself and brought two cultures together now forever entwined in an unforgettable life story.

The almost indecipherable Headstone of Tannaker Buhicrosan and his young daughter, Chiyo in Ladywell cemetery (author's photo)

Paul Budden's long standing fascination with the strange and mercurial life of Tannaker Buhicrosan is limpidly evident in his 2020 biography. The image above on both sides of the book is by the Japanese artist Yoshio Markino d.1956 who for a time also lived in Lewisham.

Martin Connolly offers an insightful account in his 2019 book 'The Murder of Prime Minister Spencer Percival: A portrait of the Assassin'.

John Bellingham was hanged three days in Newgate prison after the briefest of trials for this assassination in 1812. He was the grandfather of Tannaker Buhicrosan!