Stephen Jarvis

Stephen Jarvis was born in Essex, England.  After dropping out of graduate studies at Oxford University, he quickly tired of his office job and began doing unusual things every weekend and writing about them for The Daily Telegraph. These activities included learning the flying trapeze, walking on red-hot coals, getting hypnotized to revisit past lives, and entering the British Snuff-Taking Championship. Death and Mr. Pickwick is his first novel. He lives in Berkshire, England.

The Discovery of Robert Seymour’s Lost Tombstone - a personal account by Stephen Jarvis

 

Robert Seymour was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Islington, London in the spring of 1836.  Sometimes,  books on The Pickwick Papers mentioned this fact - and occasionally, there was the additional observation that Seymour’ s tombstone was missing, with no indication as to what had become of it. A telephone call I made to the Church’s office shed no light on the matter: it was suggested to me that the stone was perhaps destroyed in a World War II bombing raid, but nothing was known for sure.  That was to change in June 2005, when I paid a visit to Islington’s Local History Centre.

The Centre’s archive held a few newspaper cuttings and documents relating to Seymour, and I was astonished to see that one of these noted, in passing, that his tombstone was stored in St Mary Magdalene’s crypt! This was accompanied by the simple comment: “but it is difficult to reach.” So, in July, I made an appointment to visit the crypt – and it was then that I discovered what “difficult to reach” meant.  

When the crypt was unlocked, I was faced with what I can only describe as a “tombstone dump”.  There were seemingly hundreds of crumbling and timeworn stones, stacked against each other. The word “seemingly” is important here – because the Church had neglected to tell me that there was no light in the crypt, and the only clearly visible stones were those stacked closest to the door, with darkness beyond.  No torch was available, and so on that day, I simply had to leave. In October, I arranged another visit to the church, this time accompanied by my wife, Elaine - for I had no intention of wandering around a spooky church crypt on my own.   I am not going to say that I believe in ghosts, but as Dickens himself remarked in a letter to William Howitt of 6 September 1859, I do not say “such things are not.”

We entered the crypt, both carrying a torch, and tombstones were on all sides of us. Many stones were worn blank. Others, even if they bore an inscription, could not be read because they stood in the middle of an unmovable stone stack.  Elaine and I were on the point of giving up, when – almost at the very end of the crypt – Elaine said “Oh my God!” Her torch beam had illuminated an inscription on a tall tombstone. It said:

 

SACRED

TO THE MEMORY OF

MR ROBERT SEYMOUR

WHO DIED 20th APRIL 1836

AGED 38 YEARS

 

 Afterwards, Elaine was to comment: “I felt like Velma from Scooby-Doo.” 

But as she and I stood before the stone, how sad it all seemed.  For all Seymour’s achievements, here was his final tribute:  a filthy, neglected tombstone which had been left to crumble away in total darkness. I resolved then that I would do all I could to give the stone a more fitting final resting-place: the garden of the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London.

Unfortunately, as I was to discover, obtaining permission from the Church of England authorities for this relocation was no easy matter. Suffice  to say that obtaining a “faculty” - the instrument which, under Church law, would allow the stone to be deposited in the Museum - was such a slow-moving process that the joke was even made at a Dickens Fellowship Management Committee meeting: “You’ll be in your own grave, Stephen, before that tombstone gets to the Museum.”  

Indeed, the digitisation of nineteenth-century publications, with searchable texts, revealed that Seymour’s tombstone had first become a matter of public concern over a century before, as can be seen from the following item in The Athenaeum Magazine for 7th September 1889:

 “A very earnest correspondent calls attention to the painfully neglected condition of the grave of Robert Seymour, the renowned satiric draughtsman, etcher and humorist, many of whose designs have added life and light to works which were already animated and brilliant. His personal, domestic and social qualities were of the most amiable and affectionate kind. A blameless and active career ended when he was buried in the grounds of the Chapel of Ease at Holloway. His grave there was desecrated by the neighbourhood of certain dungheaps, but it was some time since delivered from grosser neglect by friends of the artist, who moved Mr Barlow, the Vicar of Islington, and Mr Lambert, Churchwarden of the parish, on its behalf. Later the headstone was broken and the footstone removed to a distant part of the cemetery. These defects were made good by means of Dr Strickland, who endeavoured to remove the stigma of ingratitude in this case. Our correspondent appeals to the public, and we warmly endorse his words, hoping that a permanent memorial, of granite or other durable material, may be employed to mark the resting-place of Robert Seymour. Best of all would be, no doubt, an intramural slab with an appropriate inscription. This might be additional to the external record.”

Finally, after I had made a personal appeal to the Bishop of London,  the faculty was granted. On 27th July 2010,  Robert Seymour’s tombstone was unveiled at the Charles Dickens Museum, along with a commemorative plaque. 

Commemorative chocolate bar wrappers, with Seymour pictures,  commissioned for the plaque unveiling.

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