Rest in distinction: the allure of catacombs

2 05 2013
Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

In an earlier post, I explored the origins of London’s catacombs and one group in particular: those at Kensal Green Cemetery. In November last year, as a favour for a talk I gave at West Norwood, I was guided around the catacombs in this South London Cemetery. Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: those at West Norwood being installed in 1840.

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

The word ‘catacomb’ literally means ‘among the tombs’ and the latter clearly expresses why these spaces are so different from conventional burial sites. In a catacomb the dead are directly accessible: at West Norwood, coffins line the recesses along the brick tunnels (1), many now in an advanced state of decay. In former times, relatives of the deceased would visit these spaces and commune with their loved ones with a sense of intimacy not possible with a conventional grave. Catacombs are spaces where one can literally be among the dead, temporarily sealed off from the life above ground in a private and exclusive space. Yet, as with all cemeteries, there is also a community of the dead here; unless one is important enough to have an isolated mausoleum, places of rest are invariably shared. Certainly, catacombs are no place to be alone; when my guide took me into a tiny, pitch-dark recess filled with the tiny coffins of children, I felt a powerful sense of horror at being almost consumed by the dead, shuddering at the thought of such overwhelming losses.

3. Former grave-digger's spade, West Norwood catacombs

3. Former grave-digger’s spade, West Norwood catacombs

4. Catacombs under St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

4. Catacombs under St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Despite their communality, the catacombs at West Norwood, just like their counterparts in other London cemeteries, nevertheless express the desire for continued social distinction after death. Purchasing a catacomb was a sign of high social (and financial) standing, the signs of which are most clearly expressed in the plaques that mark the individual spaces (2), a forlorn grave-digger’s spade the only reminder of the social ‘other’ that always haunts such a desire for exclusivity (3). In even more exclusive catacombs, like those beneath St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (4), this desire for social distinction generated both horror and absurdity. Once the burial site of nobles, in the eighteenth century these spaces became the general catacomb for all of Vienna’s residents. During the time of the Habsburg Empire, the catacombs were once again transformed into an exclusive space – a pristine stone-arched vault – while the rest of the bones were moved to an ignominious pit. Today, in these catacombs, the pickled organs of the former Habsburg rulers are preserved in copper urns, their mummified bodies preserved in two other sites in Vienna. It is as if this level of social distinction has literally torn apart the bodies, one burial site being inadequate to preserve the idea of an eternal kingdom.

5. Chambers in the St Paul's Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

5. Chambers in the St Paul’s Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

7. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul's Catacombs, Malta

6. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul’s Catacombs, Malta

Yet, in their early incarnations, catacombs were once spaces of inclusivity. The island of Malta is riddled with ancient underground spaces, including the St. Paul’s catacombs, outside the former Greek city of Melite (now Mdina). In a series of deep rectangular shafts flanked by chambers (5), one can still see the evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials. Originating in pre-Roman Phoenician culture, these spaces were taken over by the successive religious groups that lived side-by-side in Malta over the centuries. In these catacombs, Jewish mourners might perform ritualised acts of memorialisation next to Pagan rites of sacrifice, while a faded Christian wall painting displays the same act embodied in another form (6). Walking and crouching in these spaces, their womb-like enclosures and soft, warmly-lit walls (7) seem to speak of the possibility of social unity rather than heightened division, where together we can face the inevitable erasure of distinction that will come to us all.

7. St Paul's Catacombs

7. St Paul’s Catacombs





Death by ornament: the Sailors’ Home gates, Liverpool

9 05 2012

The Sailors’ Home gates, returned to Liverpool in 2011

Until it was demolished in 1974, the Sailors’ Home in Liverpool was a neo-Elizabethan tour-de-force by the Liverpool architect John Cunningham (1799-1873), with invaluable research on its history published by Stephen McKay here. Launched in 1844, the Sailors’ Home project was intended to provide itinerant seamen a place of board and lodging in the city as well as a morally improving environment, with a reading-room, library and savings bank.

The Sailors’ Home with the gates shown spanning the main entrance, c.1900

The ornamental cast-iron gates were installed in 1851, soon after the Home opened, and were designed by Cunningham in collaboration with a local ironfounder Henry Pooley (1803-78), who had already provided ornamental railings and columns for the building’s interior. The gates served the dual purpose of protecting the savings banks attached to the Home and barring entry to seamen who might wish to gain entry to the building after the strict 10pm curfew. The extravagant ornamentation in the upper part of the gates mirrored the motifs in the sandstone carvings above the building’s entrance and included a welter of nautical motifs – sails, entwined fish, scallops and shells, ropes, horns, and wheels – crowned by a Liver bird, the most familiar heraldic motif of the city. Below, the ornament mirrored that of the balcony railings inside the Home with their exotic double-tailed mermaids supporting tridents and anchors and surrounded by a lattice network of rope.

Nautical motifs and the heraldic Liver bird in the upper section of the gates

This extravagant ornament was related to the gates’s function as a bar, protecting the security of the building and keeping out unwanted boarders. As seen in photographs of the gates in situ, the ornament of the upper parts filled the area above the entrance, making access impossible when the gates were closed. In addition, Pooley had originally proposed additional spikes to be installed on top the gates to make them more secure, but this had been abandoned after one of the mangers of the Home had expressed his ‘fears as to the consequences which might result … to drunken belated boarders’.

Exotic twin-tailed mermaid in the lower section of the gates

Indeed the intimating aspect of these ornamental gates would have more serious repercussions than mere symbolic threat. In the year after they were installed, a woman was killed by the gates after one of the lower panels, weighing half a tonne, fell on top of her. The unfortunate victim – Mary Ann Price – was the wife of the Home’s porter and had been standing next to her husband when the gate slid from its grooves because the chain holding it in place had been detached. Although the subsequent death of Mrs Price was found to be accidental, Pooley was heavily criticised for failing to ensure the safety of the gates and for being slow to redress the defect afterwards.

In an extraordinary instance of lighting striking twice, the gates were to kill again: in November 1907, a local policeman was crushed to death by the gates after he sought shelter in the Home’s entrance during a violent hailstorm. Seeing the porter struggling with one of the gates, the policemen went to help but was ‘overpowered by the heavy mass’ which crushed him so severely that ‘he was at once rendered unconscious’ and later died in hospital. Although personally liable for the death, the authorities of the Sailor’s Home wrangled over the compensation to the policeman’s widow, believing that the chains that supported the gates were more than adequate and that human error was responsible for the fatal accident.

The gates outside Avery’s historical museum in Soho, Birmingham.

The tragic history of the gates may have accounted for the decision to remove them from the Sailor’s Home in 1951. After the Birmingham ironfounder W. and T. Avery took over Pooley’s company in 1948, the gates were offered to Avery and installed outside their historical museum in Soho, Birmingham. Here they were altered to swing like conventional doors rather than slide apart, the upper parts of the gates supported by a wrought-iron frame. The gates remained here until 2010 when they were dismantled to be restored before being returned to the Soho site. However, at the same time, a campaign was launched in Liverpool to lobby for the gates to be returned to their original location in the city, despite the fact that the Sailors’ Home itself had been demolished in 1974.

The gates today, restored to their original location in 2011

Unveiled on 18 August 2011 by the leader of Liverpool City Council, the gates now stand in their former location in Paradise Street, painted in green and gold to match their original colouring. Now fitted securely inside a steel frame, they no longer function as gates, but rather as a memorial to a vanished history. For all around the gates, Liverpool has been newly transformed: from a post-industrial landscape of ruin and decay to a glittering array of glass-fronted high-end shops and department stores. Opposite the newly-installed gates, the shiny transparent frontage of John Lewis now fills the space where the Sailors’ Home once stood. If the gates were meant to bring an historical presence back into this radically dehistoricised environment, they also reinforce the absence of that history, the once-deadly ornament now constrained and domesticated within its sanitised framework and hegemonic surroundings.





Ruins as memorials

5 06 2011

B-29 engine at Higher Shelf Stones, Peak District

England’s Peak District is a beautiful area of wild moorland and wooded valleys; but it’s also a graveyard for over 50 aircraft – mainly Second World War planes that crashed in poor visibility on the western edges of the Peak’s bare moorland. These tragic remains now attract ‘baggers’ in the same way that the Scottish mountains do and there are many websites and even books listing the wrecks and their precise positions in the often featureless landscape.

1. Wreckage of Meteor aircraft, crashed 1951 on Siddens Moss, Peak District

2, Memorial in wreckage on Siddens Moss

I came across my first wreck by accident, while trying to find my way over a desolate stretch of moorland in the area around the Black Hill in the far north of the Peak District. First, I came across single pieces of metal (1), shredded and twisted, and then, following their trail, I found recognisable parts of aircrafts – bits of wing, engine and fuselage – heaped together in a shallow gully. Finding this wreckage suddenly invested the landscape with a enigmatic sense of tragedy – an unknown story that obviously involved violent death. More striking was the discovery of a small memorial – a cross and a poppy – embedded in part of the wreckage (2). After returning home I found out the story of the wreckage: two Meteor aircraft had collided in mid-air in 1951 and crashed on the moorland, killing both pilots.

3. B-29 wreckage on Higher Shelf Stones

4. Wooden crosses in wreckage at Higher Shelf Stones

Many of the Peak District’s aircraft wrecks are also memorials. A much larger wreck at Higher Shelf Stones near Glossop is very close to a popular walker’s path and it consists of the ruins of a B-29 aircraft, which crashed in 1948 killing all 13 people on board (3). Amongst the wreckage – including almost intact engines, wings and wheels – are countless memorials, made up of a mixture of crosses, using stones gathered from the moor (4), bits of wood or even parts of the wreckage itself, and poppies arranged around the engine parts in scarlet wreaths (5).

5. Poppy wreath on an engine at Higher Shelf Stones

The iconography of these memorials is the same as those used for war memorials and many of the aircraft were used during wartime or carried veterans when they crashed. Yet, the effect of this iconography amongst these wrecks is very different from its more common counterpart – that is, cenotaphs and poppy-wreaths that form the focus for acts of civic remembrance. Here, unchanging ceremonies present the past as if it were static, undisturbed by the erasing nature of time and the duplicity of memory. In these Peak wrecks the memorials become part of the ruin: wooden crosses are scattered by the wind (6), poppies devoured by rain, stones sunk into the bog. As such, even as they bring to mind past lives obliterated by a violent event they also participate in the inevitable process of ruin itself.

6. Cross and wreckage on Mill Hill, Peak District

7. Mangled radiator at Higher Shelf Stones

We might even argue that the wreckage itself is a more powerful memorial than the later additions. Left where it fell in the landscape, it is overtaken by nature: the metal surfaces become strangely contorted by rust and weathering (7), moss and grass grow through the pierced surfaces, and sheep make use of hard surfaces as convenient places to relieve an itch (8). In its ruined state, this wreckage speaks both of a past event – one that is tragic and violently immediate – and of its subsequent return to a much slower time, where it accumulates the stories of the landscape itself.

8. Sheep's wool on an axle, Mill Hill





The underground at war

5 01 2011

Corridor in Paddock, the alternative war rooms below Dollis Hill

Underground spaces take on heightened significance during times of crisis above-ground, particularly wartime. When cities are threatened by war, subterranean spaces are mobilised in new ways: as places of shelter, secrecy and production. During the Blitz in London in 1940-41, the normal associations of the city’s underground – darkness, danger and death – were dramatically reversed: the workaday Tube became immobilised by crowds of people sleeping on the platforms; new tunnels were dug to house munitions workers; the government built underground rooms to house their war operations; and church crypts, vaults and even coffins were used as places of shelter.

Sleeping in a coffin in a church crypt in wartime London

The Cabinet war rooms – now a popular tourist attraction – were built under the Treasury in Whitehall in 1939 and remained in operation throughout the Second World War. They were in fact the successors to another set of war rooms, constructed in Dollis Hill in north London and known as ‘Paddock’, which can still be visited by the public twice a year. The original war rooms were abandoned in 1939 in favour of a more central site but they remain today in their original state, albeit in the advanced stages of decay. In contrast to the comfortable experience of visiting the Cabinet war rooms, complete with underground cafe, visiting Paddock is disconcerting. Standing empty for 70 years, stalactites now hang from the ceilings and rise from the sodden floor; piles of rubbish and mud fill the rooms, while the furnishings rot and rust unchecked. Without the explanations given in the restored Cabinet war rooms, these spaces take on a nightmarish, uncanny quality: rooms meant for equipment recede into the darkness, their odd-shapes feeling alien and disorientating; and relics from the intervening years – 1970s Coca-Cola bottles and fire extinguishers – speak of other stories of illicit exploration.

The Cabinet war rooms under Whitehall

Paddock: the first Cabinet war rooms

The battery room at Paddock

Old drinks bottles and decaying doors at Paddock

In fact, the spaces at Paddock feel more akin to the countless post-apocalyptic film sets that have defined cinema since its early-20th century beginnings. They seem to speak of a disaster that is yet to happen, where even underground spaces are no longer safe from destruction. Post-apocalyptic films such as Day of the Dead (1985), Threads (1984) and The Road (2009) provide differing causes of annihilation – zombies, nuclear war and an unidentified cosmic strike – but they all use bunkers as an initial means of escaping apocalyptic destruction. However, in these pessimistic visions of the future, the underground is eventually overwhelmed by the apocalyptic forces above or, alternatively, by social breakdown below. Experiencing the decaying spaces at Paddock reminds us forcefully that it is impossible to escape the consequences of war, even if their sanitised counterparts under Whitehall continue to celebrate that very escape.





Visiting London’s dead

14 10 2010

Visitors in the Kensal Green catacombs

Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: the first at Kensal Green in 1832 with others following at Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton and Nunhead in 1840; and Tower Hamlets, City of London, Saint Mary’s and New Southgate in the 1840s and 50s. They give an important indication of London attitudes not just toward underground space and death but also toward the changing cityscape as a whole.

The oldest precedent for the catacombs of London were those built in Rome, most famously by the early Christians in the second and third centuries. However, the most recent influential precedents were those in Paris, which were established in 1786 when, in response to the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries, the bones of the dead in the Cemetery of the Innocents were moved to what were formerly underground quarries under the Left Bank. Bones were moved throughout the early part of the nineteenth century and it is estimated that around 3 million bodies are now interred in the catacombs. What was unusual about the catacombs was that they made no distinction of social status – the bones  are arranged solely according to the cemetery from which they came. This led many to comment on the egalitarian nature of the space: the skull of an aristocrat might lie next to that of a pauper or criminal.

Democracy in the Paris catacombs

Another unusual aspect of this space was that it was open to the public. In the nineteenth century, public visits were offered twice a month to persons obtaining authorisation from the police. Even today, where visits are possible all year round, the sheer number of bones and their abstract configurations still provoke strong reactions. Visitors see only a fraction of the network of catacombs and they are a magnet for urban explorers and other groups who attempt to penetrate their secret spaces with subversive fervour.

Yet, from the start, the Paris catacombs were associated with revolution. They were constructed at the time of the first revolution in 1789 and remained indelibly tied up with the social upheavals in Paris that occurred sporadically throughout the nineteenth century. Their concealed nature and unknown extent led to a mixing of legends and facts: according to the authorities these underground spaces were used by conspirators to both hide and organize themselves. Revolutionaries even drew on the Christian precedent of the Roman catacombs: they viewed themselves as a persecuted minority, hiding in the depths of the earth, until their hour of triumph or martyrdom came.

The main corridor and catafalque in the Kensal Green catacombs

In contrast with the labyrinthine layout of their Parisian counterparts, London’s catacombs were built on grids.The galleries were constructed in arched brick, the standard architectural form of Victorian London. At Kensal Green these arches are divided into arched insets, with deep cuts at their ends to let in light from above. Within the individual arches, various arrangements occur, the most frequent being a division into separate loculi, one for each coffin, inserted lengthwise to conserve space. Some of the arches are reserved for a single family, or some are empty – never having been used.

A key feature of the London catacombs was a hydraulic lift, or catafalque, by which the coffin would be mechanically lowered at the right moment from the chapel to the catacombs below. The mechanism would be concealed by the coffin drapery giving the illusion of a miraculous descent into the underworld. This was a piece of pure theatre and marked a combination of up-to-date technology with ancient myth. The catacomb gave the appearance of automation within an inorganic man-make environment of brick, lead and iron, with the lead-lined coffins giving the impression of an incorruptible body, even if this far from the reality – today, most of the coffins are badly decayed, infested with woodworm and mouldering in the damp. Yet, today, the Kensal Green catacombs are only three-quarter’s full and you can still buy space to inter yourself or your entire family.

The London catacombs, like those in Paris, were also visited by the public. Family members and curiosity seekers regularly descended into their spaces to revisit the dead – a practice not possible with traditional methods of burial. This subterranean visit transported visitors to another world, albeit one strictly controlled by modern technology. Today, most of London’s catacombs have been sealed off; only Kensal Green and Highgate offer regular opportunities to curiosity seekers who still want to visit London’s dead.








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