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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