Today I am delighted to welcome an authority on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, Etienne Daly, whose name you have probably seen in previous articles about Dido. As part of his research into her life he has been taking a closer look at her death, more specifically where she was buried and with that I’ll hand you over to Etienne to tell you more.
On a dull, grey, bitterly cold, 6 January 1969, just after 8.00am rolled off the trucks in Albion Street, bulldozers and diggers. The residents nearby were made fully aware that big changes were coming through a plot of land formerly known as St George’s Fields Burial Ground, the noise of the machinery being offloaded would have awoken even the deepest of sleepers, but the residents had been expecting this.
Over the previous 6 months as notice of development into a housing association was made known to them all, that is not the case of course for the incumbents buried there, some for over 200 years!
Now things were going to change on the five acre site. Following the machinery would be wooden boxes to pile all the bones, skulls and skeletons intact, with lime powder to be scattered on them ready to be taken to the crematorium in South London for incineration and final disposal.
Local residents expected an efficient job to be done with respect and sensitivity for the dead, but it didn’t work that way according to the local paper of the time, The Paddington Mercury which ran the story on Friday 24 January 1969, saying that digging and drilling went on till 8.00pm, even on Sundays and vibrations were felt in certain properties causing consternation.
But bones were also found in the street which had to be picked up and boxed by the many labourers given the task of clearing the site. The weather being atrocious from January to the end of March meant the workers would have been as speedy as possible, allowing corners to be cut to get the task done. In fact it was took the best part of 1969 before most of the site was cleared and with it went the history of Saint George’s Fields.
So from the time the land was sold off and boarded up just the previous month, December 1968 until a year later trucks were coming and going, loading up the bones of the deceased and off to one of these crematoriums: the Lambeth crematorium, Streatham or West Norwood Crematoriums.
All history of this site was to go with it, a site which had opened in 1765 as an over-spill burial ground for the parish of St George’s Hanover square – the very church in which Dido married in December 1793.
And of some important people worth noting like Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), Paul Sandby (1721-1809), Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and General Thomas Picton, of Waterloo fame, who were buried in the vault at the graveyard and many others.
But there were also body snatchers around which is why the boundary had two walls built and vaults were made underground for the wealthier, these faced the then Uxbridge Rd (now Bayswater Road) in the first class plot.
The others were middle class plots and paupers plots and were located to the rear of the site which often became waterlogged.
This, however, did not deter the body snatchers who had some success in removing corpses to sell on to the medical profession for dissection!
The ground was eventually closed in 1858, but unofficial burials took place up until the mid-1860s. By 1885 the ground was mainly cleared, leaving headstones lined up on the perimeter wall with the area becoming a park for people to walk through, that is till after the Second World War during which the Chapel of Ascension was hit by a doodlebug in 1944 putting an end to that.
With land prices raised since the 1950s it had by the end of the 1960s become a prime target for building speculators.
Full circle on after three years of development, the housing association consisting of 300 flats was accommodated by June 1973. It became a private block when the residents bought the freehold in the early 1980s. However, since that time bones have been recovered at certain parts of the development when new works have taken place such as light laying cables etc.
I discovered that the vaults haven’t been fully examined because of access ability i.e. power cables are nearby.
My research took me to Saint George’s Fields as I knew that Dido was buried there late July 1804 and took an interest in layout and plans of that side both historic and pre/post development. I made grids of the site based on the first second and third class plots, and the first phase of development as the foundations went in. Without boring you with all the calculations, suffice it to say that an area of the site looked as if it was not developed and based upon all findings matched up, so with this plan I made of the area I approached an expert of the site and development who was able to say that area was not touched, in fact it was outside of the buildings footprint. But area I discovered was in the first class plot (best ground) facing the now, Bayswater Road.
Once armed with this knowledge I did further work and discovered in fact two probable burial plots where Dido may have been buried. Two you think? Well, you have to know that burial sites were also a business, and the best plots made the most money, so after many years graves were moved as spaces filled up. This, my experts agreed on as being common practice in the 18th and 19th century.
The image of the site is from a photo taken around 1949 which shows the two marked areas in pink, the top one was the original burial plot and the other is further back, but both were ‘path side’ in the first class plot.
Now, I know Dido was not placed in the vaults and was buried above ground in the first class plot, and there’s a chance that the plot was brick lined for added preservation and would have been quite deep around 12 feet to 14 feet deep in order to deter grave robbers, it was also a favoured method of the upper classes.
I noted that Dido’s death was number 56 of 73 deaths that month of July for the parish of Saint George’s and a high rate of child mortality that month as many months in the 18th and 19th century.
There’s also a possibility that Dido’s twin son John, who was born in May 1795 with the other twin Charles, who died in infancy was buried there around 1796-8. There’s no exact record of when John died or was buried, but most likely it was at the burial ground and Saint George’s. Only a deep scan of the designated areas would prove conclusive and if we could find they are buried together and I would very much welcome such a scan to prove or disprove my theory, as I think is seems highly likely that Dido, is still be buried there, only time will tell.
It is also feasible that when Dido died, the family used the undertakers, or upholders as they were then known, France and Beckwith, who were responsible for organising all royal burials including those of King George III, King George IV, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg and more. William France trained as an upholsterer initially and undertook work at Kenwood House, where he supplied table legs, frames and mouldings which were described as being ‘Gilded with Burnish’d Gold in the most perfect manner’.