Inspecting the damage

28 July 2018

This morning, while Commando was running round parkrun, I went back to the Old Cemetery for a closer look at the fire damage. According to the Echo, not always the most factually accurate of local newspapers, two Titanic memorials were damaged by the fire, along with a World War I grave belonging to Kate Trodd, a nurse who served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Whether I’d be able to locate any of these damaged graves remained to be seen. 

So I strolled along very slowly, peering at the stones I passed trying to make out faded and worn inscriptions. This is no easy task. Those that can be read are not always easy to decipher. Nevertheless I tried my best. Hannah and William Summers’ grave looked to be missing a cross, or maybe a cherub but, as both were buried in the early 1900’s, chances are this was more about age than the fire. The grave of Emma Blanche and Ernest Ingram seemed to have fared better. It was certainly newer, dating from the 1950’s, and the black marble was unmarked, although there was plenty of debris on the green granite clippings to show the fire had touched it.

Although the fire had been contained to a relatively small area of the cemetery, I knew I wouldn’t have time to look at every single grave. Not all are easily accessible at the best of times and the scorched, uneven ground, filled with dips and holes, made trying treacherous. Some of the humps and mounds also suggested gravestones had been removed, maybe even destroyed. Then again, it was hard to tell if stones had ever been there in the first place. On the far side of the damaged area, beneath a fire browned tree, one grave looked very white and square. This, I thought, might be a war grave, perhaps belonging to Kate Trodd.

Getting close was far harder than it looked. For some reason, I always feel very bad about stepping on graves but, with everything burned away, it was impossible to tell where the pathways were, or the graves for that matter. At a snail’s pace, I picked my way across the charred and lumpy ground, stopping every now and then to try to make out an inscription. One grave looked especially crowded. As far as I could make out there were no less than five people, all connected to the Edwards family, buried there.

Some stones were in a very poor state, partly collapsed with writing all but worn away. This though, looked more like the work of time than fire. There were odd pieces of stone and grave ornaments dotted about on a landscape that looked more like scorched animal fur than grass. Whether these graves were casualties of the fire or the fire had just exposed decay hidden by vegetation, was impossible to tell.

Amidst all this debris I found two more legible graves. One large and rather rustic cross belonged to Alexander Duncan Ferguson of Glasgow. How he came to be buried in Southampton was a mystery. The other was Samuel Tom Tanner, his wife, mother in law, daughter and two others, whose names and details were covered by ivy. The date 1912, caught my eye and, for a second, I thought I might have found a Titanic grave but I hadn’t.

When I finally reached what I’d thought was the war grave I was met by disappointment. From across the cemetery the stone had looked very white and square, as all the war graves are. When I got close I discovered it was only square because the top had broken off and there was no writing visible at all.

So I kept on walking and looking at graves, hoping to see a 1912 date. The further I went the more signs of fire I saw. There was a great deal of ashy blackness, burnt twigs and blackened grass. Some graves seemed damaged but I couldn’t really tell if this was down to the fire or not. In the centre of this section there were very few graves at all, just humpy, bumpy burnt ground. Then I almost tripped over a small metal marker.

When I stooped to look more closely, I was excited to see the date 1912. This, if I was not very much mistaken, was one of the Titanic graves. In fact, it belonged to James Rous and was also a memorial to his son Arthur J Rous who perished on the RMS Titanic. This must be the grave that, according to the Echo, had a wooden marker which was destroyed in the fire.

Poor Arthur’s story is a sad one. He was born in Southampton in 1886. His father, James, died when he was just seven. His mother, Francis, left with three young children, Agnes Maud, Arthur and Harry Alfred, remarried. James was, by all accounts, a seafaring man and this may have been what drew Arthur to the sea. He was an apprentice at Harland and Wolff in Southampton and later worked in the John Thornycroft yard in Woolston. In 1911 he joined the White Star line as a plumber on the Adriatic and then moved onto the Olympic, the largest ocean liner in the world at the time. His final, fateful, move was on to the Titanic.

He was unmarried and living in Radcliffe Road in Northam on 6 April 1912, when he signed on to Titanic. His wage was £9 a month. Like so many of the crew, Arthur died when Titanic sank. His body was never recovered. Hopefully, his memorial will be replaced.

A look at my watch told me I still had a little time before I had to dash back to parkrun so I kept wandering, hoping I’d find the second Titanic grave. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Almost all the graves I found were illegible apart from one, belonging to John Peckham and John Dean Peckham, his son, who, according to the National archives, were both decorated seamen. There were lots of small blackened areas outside the main seat of the fire, perhaps where sparks had caught on the dry grass.

Although I didn’t find the second grave I did find out a little about it’s owner, Thomas Charles Alfred Preston. Thomas was another Southampton lad, born on 1 June 1891, he lived in Millbank Street Northam. His father, Thomas Charles Preston, was a sawyer and later a shipyard worker, originally from Plymouth. His mother,  Annie Mathilda Ridout, was a Southampton girl. The couple had seven children, six, Thomas Charles Arthur, Annie Mathilda, Edith Florence, William Frederick, Alice Maud and Frances Elizabeth, survived infancy.

Thomas signed on to the Titanic, aged just twenty, as a trimmer, the worst and lowest paid job on the ship.  The trimmers worked inside the coal bunkers, close to the ship’s boilers, shovelling coal about and supplying it to the firemen for the furnaces. It was a hot, dark, dirty job. For this he earned just £5 10s a month. Thomas died when the ship went down and his body was never recovered but he has a memorial on his mother’s grave. Hopefully, this too will soon be restored.

Time, as usual, was my enemy today. Finding both Titanic graves and Kate Trodd’s grave was always going to be a big ask and now it was time to head back to the parkrun finish funnel and see how Commando had done. In all probability Mother Nature will soon cover up all signs that there ever was a fire but I will certainly come back another day and continue my search.

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8 thoughts on “Inspecting the damage”

  1. I did read your original post on this and meant to comment at the time but completely forgot 🙁 It’s such a shame that an area of the cemetery and its graves have been destroyed or partially destroyed – I’m glad you found some of what you were looking for anyway, it makes interesting reading. Do you know what caused the fire?

    We had a huge wildfire on the moors not far from home just recently, it destroyed over five square miles of moorland, wiped out many trees, plants, small mammals and young birds, and came very close to the tv mast that’s up there. I wrote several posts about it on my blog with various photos – this one was actually two separate fires which merged into one, and both were started deliberately by two different people 🙁

    1. I’ve just read your posts about the fire. Hopefully the grass will soon be back and nature will repair the damage. When Peartree Green caught fire a few years ago I was surprised at how quickly nature took over again. Within a few weeks it was hard to tell where the fire had been. The cemetery fire was caused by the sun shining on glass, or so the fire brigade say. Luckily it was spotted quickly and the firemen got it under control fairly easily. As the cemetery is on the edge of Southampton Common, 365 acres of grass and woodland, it could have been far worse. It’s hard to say at the moment if any graves have been destroyed but at least no one was hurt, which is the main thing.

    2. People who delberately start these fires should be locked up for an extremely long time. The destruction of trees etc is bad enough. But causing the dreadful death of animals and other wildlife is unforgivable

      1. This is true. In this case, however, the fire brigade believe the fire was started by sun shining on glass, exacerbated by a long period of very hot, dry weather.

  2. If you want to read further gravestones where the inscriptions are difficult to decipher, simply spray or wipe water over the lettering. It doesn’t do the headstone any harm, but it does help in making the letters stand out a little more clearly. It really does work on all but the most weather-beaten of headstones.

    1. Thank you Rod. I will have to try that next time. I had thought about using paper and a big crayon to try a kind of brass rubbing thing. Not sure if it would work though. I think some of the stones here are probably beyond reading though.

    1. For the most part these are very old graves, most dating from the 1800’s. For the vast majority there is no one left alive who knew them, or even knew anyone who remembered them. There are a few newer graves and they are tended by relatives, but the whole cemetery is basically a nature reserve with graves. The area is managed to encourage wildlife and wild flowers, with different areas being mown at different times of the year, some not at all. There are also a lot of large trees in some areas. Most of the graveyards in local churches are tended more regularly, although they too are far more wild than the ones I saw in North America. Our graves are usually higgaldy piggaldy, not in straight rows and most of the graves, even in the churchyards, are very old. People here tend to be cremated rather than buried these days, perhaps because we have so much less land here.

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