A GRAVEYARD TALE….
I am fascinated by cemeteries.
I have visited literally dozens over the years while researching my family history, countless history projects or as is more often the case, just to wander around if I have a spare hour to enjoy the tranquillity and admire the more elaborate homages to the dead.
In my late teens, I went to Cathays Cemetery in Cardiff to see the last resting place of the great Welsh featherweight boxer Jim Driscoll, and finished the day in the nearby town of Barry, where arguably the greatest pugilist that ever wore the leather gloves is interred.
William James ‘Jimmy’ Wilde, who lived and plied his brutal trade in the same coal-bearing valley that I was born and raised in, along with Tom Thomas, Percy Jones, and Frederick Hall Thomas (Freddie Welsh).
All these fighters were my heroes from a very early age.
(Sadly, Jimmy ended his days being cared for in a psychiatric hospital in Cardiff after being given a severe beating by four thugs while waiting at Cardiff Central railway station)
I grew up hearing tales of their exploits from my family, many of whom were huge fans of the noble art as well as some of them being fighters themselves.
I travelled to St Mary’s churchyard, in Port Talbot, to view the memorial that the Welsh Government had placed over the grave of Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn), the first Welsh working class martyr, who was hanged following the part he played in the Merthyr Rising of 1831.
Locally know as the ‘Bread or Blood’ riots, it was the first time the red flag was raised (a bed sheet dipped in calf’s blood) as a symbol of the workers rebellion against the oppression of their paymasters, in this case the Crawshay family, who were the notoriously harsh owners of the Cyfarthfa ironworks and no doubt the town itself.
Dic Penderyn is regarded as the last true ‘Martyr’ of the Welsh Working Classes.
That in turn led me to Vaynor churchyard which rests sleepily in a village above the town of Merthyr Tydfil, where the largest piece of carved red granite you could ever see, sits on top of the grave of the last great Ironmaster, Robert Thompson Crawshay.
You can probably guess what kind of man he was by the simple inscription: ‘GOD FORGIVE ME’.
When I worked in London during the1980’s, I used to eat my lunch while wandering around Highgate cemetery, the final resting place of Karl Marx, Tom Sayers, Christina Rossetti, Jane Arden, Max Wall, George Eliot, Ralph Miliband, the parents and wife of Charles Dickens and more recently Jeremy Beadle and Malcolm McClaren.
As an amateur ‘Ripperologist’ I once spent hours walking around the East London graveyards of St Patricks and Manor Park to visit the five canonical victims of the infamous Victorian killer.
That in turn led me to take a trip the following weekend to visit the grave of Dr William Withey Gull at Thorpe Le Soken, Essex, the personal surgeon of Queen Victoria and still believed by many to be the mysterious Jack himself!
So from that, you may have already gathered, what starts out as single journey can take you down many roads as you attempt to join proverbial ‘dots’.