The graveyard shift – comedy, tragedy and shipwrecks

1 April 2017

On Saturday mornings you can usually find me at parkrun. If I feel like a brisk walk I march round the 5k course, rarely coming last unless I’m actually walking with the tail runner to keep her company. Two laps of the Common is a touch boring, so I often just go for a wander and come back to cheer once people begin to finish. Occasionally I wander down to London Road or to Highfield campus to grab a coffee, sometimes I poke about on the Common. Today I decided to visit the Old Cemetery, looking for signs of spring and interesting stories. 

Southampton Old Cemetery covers twenty seven acres and has almost one hundred and seventeen thousand graves. There are several gates and many paths going in all directions. To explore the whole place would take days and, although I’ve wandered round many times, I’ve only seen a fraction of it. Today I entered by the gate opposite Cemetery Lake and took the path directly to my right, heading roughly towards Hill Lane.

Almost at once I was rewarded with a blossom filled tree. It’s branches reached out across the path creating an arch of flowers for me to walk through. Beside the gravel path primroses nestled amongst the gravestones, speckled with morning dew. This land was originally part of the Common, used by local people to graze animals. In 1843 an act of Parliament was passed to set aside some of the common land for a cemetery and well known landscaper John Claudius Loudon was paid £37 to design a layout. The Bishop of Winchester wasn’t much impressed by Loudon’s plan, especially as he proposed an Anglican chapel right next to a nonconformist one, and the plans were never used. Instead a competition was held and the design chosen was submitted by William Rogers, a local nurseryman and councillor. Seeing the primroses I couldn’t help wondering if they were part of Rogers’ plan or leftover from when this was grazing land?

Of course I hadn’t just come here to see the spring flowers. Part of the joy of walking through a cemetery is the graves themselves and the stories they tell. The Old Cemetery was opened in May 1846 so the inscriptions on many of the older graves have worn away, their stories lost forever. Beside the path I found a such a stone. The words had mostly gone but it still bore a familiar carving. The H and S entwined was simliar to symbol I’d once puzzled over on the 1988 boundary stones, in this case with the addition of a cross running through the centre.

Once I understood what the boundary stones were I soon discovered the H and S symbol on them stood for Southampton within Hampshire. This was the first time I’d noticed the same letters on a grave but, now I’d spotted it once, I seemed to see it everywhere. Obviously this symbol had been there all along but I’d never registered it before. Whether the two are connected I couldn’t tell.

The grass was still wet with dew and the morning air chilly as I continued onwards. Further along the path a little grave filled glade was sprinkled with bluebells, not quite open yet but a promise for the future amongst all the relics of the past.

Most of the graves are marked by stones of different shapes and sizes. Occasionally there is an iron marker, which seems a bad choice of memorial to my mind as any inscription is quickly lost to rust. Even less permanent was the wooden marker I passed, the rounded top ragged with rot and any words that might once have been on it long gone.

Musing on the permanence or otherwise of grave markers I continued along the path. Every now and then I stopped to look at an interesting grave. Before long I’d reached the boundary wall at Hill Lane. Beyond it I could see the roofs of houses and hear the traffic rumbling past. Here the path swung sharply left and, rather than turn back, I followed it.

Many of the gravestones and monuments mark family plots and, a few times a year there are still new burials here in these old plots. One of the things I find interesting in old cemeteries like this is reading inscriptions and trying to work out the stories they tell. Near the turn in the path the grave of William Culverwell and his wife Eleanor had me scratching my head. Between their names was a third, Sarah Jane Stevenson, and I couldn’t help wondering where she fit in. A little later searching told me the Culverwells had once lived at Castle Place and had three children, Frederick, Caroline and Henry. Of Sarah I could find no mention. She died the same year as James and was nine years his senior, perhaps she was his or Eleanor’s sister?

Another mystery was posed by the grave of Thomas Andrews who was buried with two women called Jane. The inscription on their grave told me James was married to the second of the Janes. The dates and ages suggested the middle Jane was their unmarried daughter. Sadly, both Janes died in the same year, seventeen years after poor James.

For a while I carried on beside the boundary wall but the noise of the morning traffic was an unwelcome distraction and, when I came to a narrow trail running off the the left I took it. The hum of the road soon receded and I slowed my pace, stopping now and then to admire the spring bulbs decorating the graves.

While most of the graves here belong to ordinary citizens and have stories that can only be guessed at, there are a few with far better documented histories. Amongst these are the sixty graves associated with the RMS Titanic. Turning away from the boundary wall brought me face to face with one of these.

Henry Bowyer was a Trinity House pilot for the Port of Southampton and a Royal Naval Reserve. He was also the Mayor of Southampton in 1912 and, in the wake of the disaster,  he was instrumental in raising money for the Titanic Relief Fund. White Star offered no assistance to the families of the lost crew members and many were left destitute. The fund raised £412,00 to help the widows and orphans and offered a much needed lifeline in such terrible times. Fittingly, Alderman Bowyer’s grave is decorated with an anchor.

The graves on this little stretch of path seemed to be overbrimming with primroses while the graves in the rows behind were a mass of bluebells and daffodils. Once again I wondered if this was all some part of a master plan and part of the original design of the cemetery or just mother nature’s work?

The next grave I stopped at was another connected with a shipwreck. The ship in question was also a Royal Mail Steamship, the RMS Douro and the grave belonged to her captain, Ebenezer C. Kemp. Douro was an iron hulled ship built in 1865. Like Titanic she had watertight compartments. She carried more than three hundred passengers, a crew of around eighty and had a reputation for speed, reliability, lavish accommodations, good food and entertainment. Along with passengers she carried mail, newspapers and cargo, including gold and diamonds.

The story of the Douro is not as well known as that of Titanic but it is nonetheless tragic and bears several similarities. The fateful journey began in March 1882, the route was between Buenos Aires and Southampton with scheduled stops in Brazil, Lisbon and Portugal. when she left Lisbon she was running behind schedule and travelling at full speed trying to make up time. On the evening of 1 April she was passing Cape Finisterre when her fourth officer spotted the Spanish Steamer Yrurac Bat a couple of miles away. He assumed the officer on the bridge would also have seen the steamer and said nothing. His assumption was wrong. Despite a full moon and a good view, the ship went unnoticed on the bridge until it was too late to avoid a collision.

At 22:45 Yrurac Bat hit Douro, cutting two deep gashes in her starboard side. In just thirty minutes Douro sank. Luckily the passengers and crew had abandoned ship and all the passengers and most of the crew survived. There were only six fatalities aboard Douro, Captain Kemp and five officers, who went down with the ship. The Yrurac Bat also sank with the loss of fifty three.

Close to Captain Kemp’s grave I came across another whose occupant enjoyed a degree of fame for very different reasons. The name of Edward Askew Sothern may not ring any bells these days but, in the late 1800’s he was a very well known comic actor. Born in Liverpool on April Fool’s Day, Sothern was best known for his portrayal of Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin, The play Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. The part of the brainless English nobleman Lord Dundreary was small but Sothern made the most of it. His ad-libs went down well with audiences and, before long the part had been expanded until Dundreary and his trademark droopy whiskers, were a central part of the play. It was his most famous role. Sothern was also known for his practical jokes. In fact, when he died after a short illness in January 1881, many of his friends missed his funeral, believing the whole thing was one of his hoaxes.

The narrow trail I was following seemed to be curving back towards the gate where I’d started out. A glance at my watch told me this was probably a good thing as the first parkrunners would soon be crossing the finish line. Even so, I couldn’t resist stopping to look at a military grave as I passed by. This turned out to be a First World War grave belonging to Captain W Anderson, whose parents, William and Morea, lived at Hawthorns on the Common, now the site of the Hawthorns Cafe.

My final stop was at the memorial to yet another shipwrecked Royal Mail Ship, the RMS Rhone. The Rhone was built in 1863 and was the sister ship to Douro. The ship was in in the British Virgin Islands in October 1867 and, along with RMS Conway, had been diverted to Great Harbour, Peter Island for coal bunkering due to an outbreak of yellow fever on the island of St. Thomas.

On 29 October Robert F Worley, Rhone’s Master, noticed the barometer dropping and dark clouds gathering but, with the hurricane season over, he wasn’t unduly concerned. What he’d seen though, was the beginning of the San Narciso Hurricane. Both ships weathered the first half of the storm but their anchors had dragged and both captains were worried they would be dashed against the shore once the eye of the storm had passed.

The passengers from Conway were transferred to Rhone, who was thought to be unsinkable and both ships left the harbour. Rhone’s anchor was caught fast on coral so Conway got away first but was caught by the storm and sank off Tortola. All hands were lost. Eventually, Rhone’s anchor was cut loose and she headed for open water. As she was passing Black Rock Point the second half of the hurricane hit throwing the ship onto the rocks. Captain Woolley was sent overboard by the impact and was never seen again. Cold seawater rushed into the breach and caused the hot boilers to explode. It must have been a terrifying scene.

The ship quickly sank. Only 23 survived, all crew members. All Rhone’s one hundred and forty six passengers perished along with an unknown number transferred from Conway. They had been tied to their beds, a normal practice at the time, to prevent them being injured in the rough seas. Today her wreck, off the coast of Salt Island, is a popular dive site and was featured in the 1977 horror film The Deep. The site is also reputed to be haunted. Divers often report feeling someone tugging at their shoulders only to turn and find no one there, along with strange screams and groaning sounds.

As I made my way back towards the gate I pondered on what I’d seen. The graves I found today spoke of comedy and tragedy. In a port city it’s no surprise to find graves associated with shipwrecks and there are undoubtedly many more hidden amongst the bright spring flowers. This will certainly not be my last walk around the Old Cemetery.

Soon I was back where I started. With one final look behind me I left the world of the dead and walked across the grass towards the land of the living. With perfect timing I reached the parkrun funnel right at the moment Commando crossed the line.

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

12 thoughts on “The graveyard shift – comedy, tragedy and shipwrecks”

  1. How odd. I must have walked almost the same route through the cemetery on Saturday. I even noticed Southern’s grave for the first time. I saw the Rhone memorial some months ago, but haven’t seen it since, not that I’ve been looking for it. Sometimes I just follow paths at random. The bluebells are out now.

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever walked the same route twice or see the same graves. Like you, I just wander randomly. It’s beautiful with the bluebells out isn’t it?

  2. “Two laps of the Common is a touch boring” I found the same thing when I tried out running with our local club. For years I’d seen Stainland Lions runners passing through and when I found they ran a beginners course I joined it. I’m glad I did, because at least then I knew that running wasn’t my ‘thing’. Wandering through a cemetery IS definitely my thing, though. And you write about it really well. The bit about Dundreary was particularly well written – I was almost convinced you had met him!

    1. I tried the C25K years ago, before Commando started running. I hated every minute and like you decided id rather go forward at a more sedate pace. I’m glad you enjoyed my cemetery wanderings. Oddly, I’d never spotted Sothern’s grave before and had to research to find out who he was. Every day is a school day, or so they say, especially when you have an innate curiosity.

  3. It’s nice to see all the flowers out and blooming.
    I can’t get over how different our cemeteries look on either side of the Atlantic though. I wish you could have visited one while you were over here. You would have been shocked by the difference.
    How sad that all of the passengers drowned like that, but I wouldn’t think that being tied to your bed on a ship was a great idea. I would rather fall out of bed, I think.

    1. The Old Cemetery is selectively mowed to preserve the wild flowers, so it’s more nature reserve than graveyard really. We do have some nicely manicured cemeteries but i think i prefer the wild ones. I wouldn’t want to be tied to my bed either. Id rather take my chances with the sea.

  4. What an interesting walk, I can’t believe the cemetery is so big with so many graves; I like the angel statue too. I don’t ‘do’ boats at the best of times but if I was on one I certainly wouldn’t like to be tied to my bed 🙁

    1. The cemetery is packed with interesting stories. It keeps drawing me back to find them. I don’t mind boats but I wouldn’t let them tie me to my bed for sure.

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