One January day in 1879, a Trowbridge man living in London read about the death of the old Chartist Henry Vincent and ‘resolved to go on the morrow to see his grave’. As he told his local newspaper: ‘I went, and as I looked on the newly-turned sods of earth, I blessed the memory of him beneath, for having given a political thirst to Wiltshiremen forty years ago.’
|Memorial to Cleave and the Vincents.
One hundred and forty five years later, almost to the day, I made that same pilgrimage to Abney Park Cemetery, getting off the train at Stoke Newington and walking the short distance down Stamford Hill to the cemetery’s main gates. Much has changed since 1879. Reports of Vincent’s funeral mention the Quakers to be seen on Stamford Hill in their distinctive clothing; these days, it has a large and equally distinctive Hassidic Jewish community. The cemetery gates, which forty years after the cemetery had opened were probably already blackening from London smogs in Vincent’s time, have recently been cleaned and refurbished, and now look magnificent. And the cemetery itself, once a neat parkland and carefully kept arboretum, has since it was abandoned to nature by its private owners in the 1960s become a wild woodland of self-seeded trees and of ivy that grows around and sometimes through the thousands of memorials, tombs and gravestones of long-dead Londoners.
In recent years, Hackney Council and the Abney Park Trust, with funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund, have been maintaining and restoring the cemetery for future generations – and they have been making a great job of it. The paths are clear, the ivy is a little more controlled without any loss of the atmosphere that makes this such an attractive place to be, and work has recently been completed at the Gothic Chapel in the heart of the cemetery. Abney Park is one of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, created and run throughout its life on an entirely non-denominational basis, and it is one of the capital’s hidden green gems.
|Main gates on Stamford Hill.
Henry Vincent is not the only occupant of this particular grave. The first name on the memorial stone is that of John Cleave (1796-1850), who was both Vincent’s father in law, and an equally significant figure in the Chartist movement. A London printer and publisher, Cleave was active in the National Union of the Working Classes in the 1830s, and launched the commercially successful Cleave’s Weekly Police Gazette; he published Chartist material throughout the 1840s, and although out of sympathy with Feargus O’Connor and the National Charter Association, he continued to take charge of financial matters for the movement.
The final name on the gravestone is that of ‘Lucy – wife of Henry Vincent’. Lucy Chappell Cleave (1822 – 1899) had married Henry in 1841 on his release from prison. Still a teenager, she travelled with Henry when he began his new life as a lecturer and preacher; together they had at least five children. But she evidently had strong political views of her own. As she told Vincent’s biographer shortly after his death: ‘In tracing the course of my husband’s eventful life, I feel more proud of his utterances in early days, which alarmed timid people and sent him into unjust punishment, than I am of the expressions of his matured intellectual power. I reverence and cherish the memory of the indomitable courage which made him dare to resist oppression when resistance was dangerous and Nonconformity unfashionable both in religion and politics.’
|Reverse of the memorial. Who are they?
And there is also one significant person missing from all of this. In 1840, John Cleave outraged London radicals by shunning his wife Mary Ann and moving his mistress in to the family home, causing Mary Ann to have a breakdown. The libertarian radical Richard Carlile, who a decade earlier had ended his own marriage to form a new ‘moral marriage’ with another woman, declared that Cleave had behaved disgracefully, claiming that Cleave had sought to put his wife in an asylum so that he could sleep with her servant. What became of Mary Ann Cleave after this I don’t know, but her name is nowhere to be found on the memorial.
A final observation. The Find-a-grave website has a photo
of the gravestone taken a few years ago. It is good to see that the memorial
stone has since been rescued from the weeds that engulfed it; but alarming to realise
how many of the lead letters that spell out names and dates have been lost in
the intervening time. One of the first things I noticed when I found the grave
was how many of the remaining letters appear to be flaking away from the stone
beneath. As Vincent was apprenticed as a compositor and Cleave was a master printer,
it is sad to think that they are slowly being erased from the world one letter
at a time.
1. Trowbridge Advertiser (11 January 1879, p6).
Meet the Kensal Green Chartists offers a self-guided tour of a second Magnificent Seven Cemetery in which lie Feargus O'Conor, Henry Hetherington, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe and other Chartists.
|Map of Abney Park Cemetery. The Vincent/Cleave grave can be found in square E4.
Before the passage of tine makes it impossible to do, here is my best attempt at reconstructing the lettering that would have been on the Cleave-Vincent gravestone (click to be able to read it)👇