A burial ground and a Titanic tale

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4 October 2016

In the spring I went for a rather emotional walk to have one last look at Moorgreen Hospital before it was knocked down. On the way I stumbled on a graveyard I’d never noticed before but the rain falling on the distant hills looked like it was comming my way so I didn’t have chance to explore properly. After the post was published several people told me the hospital was not being knocked down after all, just converted into flats. Apparently there was a rather interesting grave in that graveyard too. Today seemed like a good day to go back and have a look for it. CJ was intrigued when I told him what I was up to and decided to come along too. 

As we marched along West End Road I noticed the first of the leaves are beginning to take on their autumn hues. Summer is now definitely behind us and, pretty soon, Southampton was behind CJ and I. At the top of Chalk Hill we passed the sign for West End which is also the sign telling us we have entered Eastleigh. At least there was a hint of blue sky this time. A little further on the prickly cases of sweet chestnut littered the ground along with a few fallen leaves.

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There have been people living in this area since the Bronze Age but the village of West End began life much later as a small hamlet on a track between Romsey and Portsmouth. The land was mostly agricultural with market gardens and a flour and paper mill called Upmill and later Gaters Mill. In the early ninteenth century the track became a turnpike road. The village began to grow and, in 1838 St James’ Church was built at the top of the hill overlooking the village. The burial ground attached to it was created at the bottom of the hill.

The St James’s Church we passed today was not the original though. Two years after the first church was built the parish of West End was established and the little hamlet began a period of rapid expansion. Soon the church began to feel a little cramped on a Sunday morning and, when the spire was struck by lightning in 1890 the church was demolished and the present one built. Last time I walked this way the modern church was ensconced in scaffolding. Today the scaffolding was gone and I dithered for a moment, wondering whether to see if it was open. CJ was anxious to get to the burial ground though so, in the end, I decided to leave it for another day.

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As we walked down the steep hill towards the burial ground CJ remarked that it was a long way from the church. In fact it’s just over a third of a mile down what must then have been a long winding lane. Originally the land between the church and the burial ground was woodland with just a few scattered houses. Now, with houses and side roads everywhere, it seems much further removed and somehow disconnected from the church.

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It’s easy to mistake the gate posts and hedges as just another garden, especially when driving past. In fact, until this spring, I didn’t know the burial ground was there myself, although I must have driven and walked past many, many times. Today CJ almost missed it himself until I pointed it out to him.

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Of course, finding the burial ground and finding the grave we were looking for were two different matters.

“At least it’s not as big as South Stoneham,” CJ said, remembering our long hunt for RJ Mitchell’s grave a while back.

There was a notice and CJ thought it might give us a clue but it turned out to be about grass cutting. The area is managed by the council rather than the church these days and they have a rota for grass cutting to encourage wildflowers. To my mind this is a good thing. A graveyard filled with wildflowers and butterflies seems much nice to me than sterile, neatly clipped grass.

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Luckily, I’d found a photograph of the grave in question on the internet so I had a good idea what we were looking for, if not where to find it. We decided to be systematic in our search and follow the path, scanning the graves as we went. Our scanning turned up a few stones that didn’t fit the description but proved too distracting to pass by. One, heart shaped with a weeping statue, captured my attention because it was bursting with tiny cyclamen. CJ found one with a red toy truck sitting atop the stone. The inscription told us this was the grave of a young man, gone too soon. We wondered if he might have been a truck driver.

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On the corner we got a back view of the war memorial I’ve admired many times on walks. Here the path petered out to noting more than a thin line of gravel with the odd paving stone. Someone had abandoned a green watering can near the spigot and it lay on its side looking forlorn. The graves here looked very old, some leaning at odd angles, most covered with lichen and moss. None of them looked like the grave we were looking for so we turned to walk between the rows of graves, heading now towards trees.

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The grass was longer in the part of the burial ground nearest the trees and damp from rain or maybe dew. There seemed to be more stone crosses here than plain stones, perhaps the fashion at the time. One Celtic style cross caught my eye. The carved stone had a hint of pink to it and the lettering was infilled with metal. Many of the other graves had similar lettering, another fashion maybe?

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We’d walked up and down several rows of graves and not found the one we were looking for when I decided it was time for a closer look at the photograph I’d found on line. This was a good move. The hedge in the background gave us our bearings and a general idea of where the grave might be. We turned and walked back and, after a couple of false starts CJ said, “I think I can see it.”

To some people it might seem rather odd to wander around graveyards looking for old graves but this particular grave is a part of the city’s history. Seven hundred and six people owed their lives to the man buried beneath the simple headstone and stone urn. This was the grave of Sir Arthur Henry Rostron, captain of the RMS Carpathia.

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Just after midnight on 15 April 1912, Harold Cottam the wireless operator of the Carpathia, picked up a distress signal from a White Star ship. The ship had struck an iceberg and was sinking. Captain Rostram was asleep but, realising the seriousness of the situation, Cottam ran to wake him. Immediately, Rostram ordered Carpathia to turn towards the sinking liner and posted extra lookouts to ensure Carpathia didn’t hit any of the icebergs in the area. The sinking ship was RMS Titanic and she was fifty eight nautical miles away from Carpathia.

Sir Arthur Henry Rostron aboard the Carpathia
Sir Arthur Henry Rostron aboard the Carpathia

Knowing time was of the essence, Rostron next went to the engine room where engineers, led by A B Jones, did all they could to speed up the ship, even turning off Carpathias heating to give the engines extra steam. Despite knowing they were rushing headlong into dangerous, ice filled waters those engineers managed to squeeze seventeen and a half knots out of Carpathia, far more than she was designed for. Meanwhile, Rostron made preparations for the survivors they hoped to pick up. Blankets, drinks and food were made ready and the medical crew warned there may be injured survivors to treat.

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Captain Rostron, pausing occasionally to offer up a silent prayer, issued orders and the crew worked together like a well oiled machine. Even so, it took three and a half hours to reach the RMS Titanic. As they drew closer Rostron ordered green starburst rockets to be launched to let Titanic know help was on the way. By this time the ship had already sunk but survivors in the lifeboats must have gained much comfort from the sight of those rockets, although it was an hour before they were found and the first survivors rescued. There were two thousand two hundred and twenty eight souls aboard Titanic. The crew of the Carpathia worked tirelessly for over four hours to save as many as they could. In the end Carpathia’s crew managed to rescue seven hundred and ten.

Carpathia herself had just seven hundred passengers and crew so her numbers were more than doubled. Her passengers selflessly donated spare clothes and even their cabins to those poor bewildered survivors as they headed for New York City. Sadly, three of those pulled from Titanic’s lifeboats were already dead and one more perished aboard Carpathia. All four were buried at sea.

As they sailed back through the ice floe the magnitude of the journey they’d undertaken became clear. In daylight more than twenty five icebergs more than two hundred feet tall and countless smaller ones were visible. Somehow, they’d missed them all. Later Captian Rostron would say, “I can only conclude another hand than mine was on the helm.”

Titanic survivors presented the brave captain with a silver cup and a gold medal in recognition of his efforts that night. He was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the American Cross of Honour and created a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He eventually became the Commodore of the Cunard fleet, retiring in 1931 to live in West End where he died in 1949 aged seventy one.

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We stood for a while in front of Captian Rostron’s grave, thinking about all the people who lived because of his quick thinking and bravery and that of his crew. Of course, all are now long gone but I’m sure many had familes who still a e cause to give thanks for the Carpathia.

For once I was well prepared for our walk and I bought some little cartons of iced coffee along in my bag. We’d spotted a bench on the other side of the burial ground so we slowly made our way towards it, thinking to stop for a drink and a rest. On the way another curiosity caught my attention. A white ceramic jug sat on its side on a saucer on a nearby grave, perhaps a receptacle for flowers although there were none there today. The inscription, or the part of it that was still readable said simply, ‘blessed are the pure in heart.’

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We drank and rested looking over the quiet graves, thinking of all the stories there were laid out before us. A few fallen leaves tumbled about in the gentle breeze, reminding us that summer was well and truly done. The sky over the distant hills was cloudy but not black and stormy today so I hoped we’d manage to make it home without getting wet.

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On our way back along the path we paused occasionally to read an inscription. One seemed particularly poignant. The headstone contained three names, Norman, Rita and Christopher Garvie, but it was the dates that told the tale. These were children, gone long before their time. As each child died another was born only to suffer the same fate and I wondered what had happened to them and how their poor parents had coped with such tragedy? Then I spotted another stone below, from the dates I guessed these were there parents. The inscription ‘loving parents and grandparents’ told me they did at least have other children who survived and I was glad the story wasn’t all sad.

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On the way to the gates CJ found another curiosity, a cast iron headstone. When I was here before I remember seeing a similar one and, at first, I thought this was it. The one I saw before had an inscription though and this one was blank. Obviously there must be two of them here, perhaps another gravestone fashion statement?

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The final find came as I went to walk through the gate. Right beside the gatepost I  spotted something odd amongst the ivy and fallen leaves. Closer inspection showed it to be a part of a grave stone. Quite how it got there and why is a mystery I’ll probably never have the answer to. Leaving a graveyard with more questions than answers is fairly normal in my experience but at least we found Captain Rostrom’s grave and added another piece to the puzzle of the Titanic story. As for the other stories, I guess we will just have to use our imagination.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

10 thoughts on “A burial ground and a Titanic tale”

    1. The passengers on the Titanic had a lot to thank him for. There is another cast iron headstone in the Burial ground somewhere but we didn’t spot it this time. I took photos of it on my first visit. They are very unusual.

  1. I remember West End cemetery with fondness, as my mum and I would often visit (we have relatives buried there and listed on the war memorial), we’d stroll around poignantly looking at the gravestones. My nan, Wavey Dumbleton, nee Cantell, was a West Ender and I remember when the film Titanic was released and the younger members of the family were talking about it, she announced “of course we knew Arthur well, we used to live near him!”. To which we responded, who’s Arthur? She then explained who he was and then finished with “and he’s buried in West End cemetery and you’ll find his grave etc, etc,.” I wish I’d asked more questions before she died, at 7 weeks shy of 100, as the stories she must have know would have amazing, she may even have known something about the cast iron headstone.

    1. It’s an interesting place for a wander. So many stories on those headstones and the cast iron ones are very unusual. It must have been quite something to meet such a brave man. Like you, I wish I’d asked my grandfather more about his life.

  2. Not a big comment. Just want to say how much I enjoyed reading this. I love these urban explorations of the outwardly familiar – and the discovery of fascinating places.

    1. Thank you Micheal. I love discovering interesting little places like these in the city, especially in spots I’m familiar with.

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