Tag Archives: Nunhead Cemetery

Running with W. G. Sebald

Today’s run was on a gloomy, miserable afternoon with little bits of drizzle in a slight breeze, but that didn’t matter as it was mainly through two of my favourite places in South East London, Nunhead and Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries.

Had there been some sun, the last of the autumn colours would have been fantastic, but, without that, my focus was more on the gravestones and memorials.

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It brought to my mind a quote from W G Sebald’s fantastic ‘Austerlitz’ wandering through another of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, Tower Hamlets in the East End:

In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked along the paths of the cemetery, past monuments erected by the Victorians to commemorate their dead, past mausoleums, marble crosses, stelae and obelisks, bulbous urns and statues of angels many of them wingless or otherwise mutilated, turned to stone, so it seemed to me at the very moment when they were about to take off… Some of the graves themselves had risen from the ground or sunk into it, so that you might think that an earthquake had shaken this abode of the departed.

As for the rest of the week’s running I ought to start with an apology to Veterans AC. That I was able to run a decent interval session on Monday rather suggests that I should have run a somewhat faster cross country race last week at Epsom, I doubt the places that I would have gained will make much difference come the end of the season in the club’s promotion challenge though (we are currently next to bottom of the league….) I also managed a tempo run on Friday in addition to around 9 midweek miles.

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The Scottish Political Martyrs Memorial

With the Scottish Independence Referendum happening tomorrow, it is perhaps worth reflecting on a group of men who are commemorated at Nunhead Cemetery, not by gravestones but by a large memorial – the Scottish Political Martyrs.

It is a large granite obelisk is unlike anything else in the cemetery and acts as a memorial to five political radicals from the late 18th century – Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald who were all transported to Australia.

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The backdrop to their protests was the French Revolution, which led to universal male suffrage in France in 1792, abolishing all property requirements as a prerequisite for allowing men to register and vote. It is not surprising that events on the other side of the English Channel inspired British radicals wanting similar rights and Societies for Political Reform were set up in many places in the country.

Muir was a Glasgow lawyer who had set up the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People with William Skirving, a Midlothian farmer, in July 1792, and seems to have been attempting to bring together the disparate groups across England and Scotland. The “new Tory” Government of Pitt the Younger was determined to stamp out these views, infiltrated the groups and arrested the leaders. In a series of trials with hand picked, unsympathetic juries Muir, Fyshe Palmer and Skirving were all sentenced to transportation, along with Margarot and Gerrard who were delegates from The London Corresponding Society.

Of the five, Muir escaped from Australia but was wounded on his tortuous trip back to Europe and died in France in 1799; Margarot returned to Britain but died in poverty; Fyshe Palmer died of dysentery on his return voyage; Skirving died in Australia of yellow fever; and Gerrard died of tuberculosis soon after his arrival in New South Wales.

They were not the only trials relating to campaigns for universal male suffrage – three of the other leading London Corresponding Society members – Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were tried, unsuccessfully for High Treason in 1794.

The memorial itself came out of the next significant organised demands for political reform – the Chartists – at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor in Clerkenwell in 1837 it was decided to commemorate the Scottish Martyrs with memorials in both Scotland and London, although it took until 1851 for the Nunhead memorial to be completed.

Cemetery Running

Today’s post thunder and lightening run took in two places I never tire of – Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery and it’s older counterpart at Nunhead.

The geraniums in one of the overgrown parts of Brockley and Ladywell caught my eye as I ran past as did the angel with broken wings and a slightly eroded face.

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Nunhead has some rather more ostentatious memorials and is much more overgrown. It has one of my favourite views in London – a tree framed vista of St. Paul’s Cathedral which was very clear indeed today after the morning’s heavy rain.

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After yesterday’s D Day anniversary commemorations, I paused by the low walled WW2 memorial, which is very different to the rest of the Nunhead, but a peaceful reminder of the sacrifices made.

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As for the other running, the speed and tempo sessions this week were slightly easier than last week, but only just…

Finally, one thing I forgot to post last week which was slightly embarrassing, I was out-paced by a man pulling a tyre. In my limited defence, it was alongside the athletics track in Ladywell Fields where Kent AC’s top sprinters were doing a resistance session.