The Dead Centre of Streatham

An Illustrated Talk by John Brown on 17th July 2009

Back in the Summer John Brown of the Streatham Society gave a fascinating talk to the Society’s Local History Group with the intriguing title ‘The Dead Centre of Streatham’. This was not about urban blight and regeneration, but about the graveyard of St Leonard’s Church, the parish church of Streatham which is situated at the corner of Streatham High Road and Mitcham Lane, at the dead centre of what was once the old village. There are 282 graves in the graveyard. The earliest grave is that of Master Humphrey Townshend, son of Thomas Townsend, a hatter, who died in 1708 aged 12. The last person to be buried there was Eliza Montefiore in 1944, who was 90 when she died. John went on to tell us about some of the people, famous and completely unknown, who are buried in this churchyard. One of the saddest tales is that of Mary West-West. She died aged 17 when she fell off a cliff while on holiday in Llandudno in 1865. Elizabeth Russell, on the other hand, was 103 when she died in 1772. ‘She’ had been Dr Johnson’s seamstress, but turned out to have been a man. George Pratt, the draper and property developer who died in 1890, is there. Many will remember Pratt’s, the John Lewis store which closed about twenty years ago and left a gaping hole in Streatham High Road.

Sir Kingsmill Keyes (died 1830), the only man to have been Lord Mayor of London twice, is buried there and so is William Matthew Coulthurst, one of the founders of Coutts Bank, who died in 1885 aged 85. Another distinguished gentleman buried in the churchyard was Sir Arthur Helps, Clerk of the Privy Council, a confidant of Queen Victoria, the editor of Prince Albert’s correspondence and editor of the Highland Journal. Robert Garrard the jeweller is also there, as is George Trollope, paper-hanger to King George IV and a cousin of the novelist Anthony Trollope. The nineteenth-century artist William Dyce, who designed the chancel extension in the church, and who was responsible for many of the history paintings in the new Houses of Parliament, is also buried in this churchyard. Canon John Nicholl, Rector of the church, who died aged 96 in 1905 is buried there. When old and senile he went out on Tooting Bec Common naked and his embarrassed wife had to fetch him home.

John ended his talk by telling us about the state of the graveyard today. It gets infested with litter, and drug addicts leave used needles there. John works with others as a volunteer clearing up the mess and keeping the graveyard in some sort of order. This was a well-researched talk, attractively presented. The slides complemented the talk rather than hindered the speaker’s flow, as can sometimes happen. The interior of the church is also of interest. It is to be hoped that John will talk to the Norwood Society about that too one day.

Richard Lines

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