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A Grave Myth

21 Apr

My aunt Jean, of whom I was extremely fond, was probably her granduncle Don Roberto’s most ardent devotee; quite a feat given the many who admired him.   She would hear no ill of him; he was her hero.  When she died aged 90, she was indeed one of the last people who had actually known him, though, as Munro points out in his doctoral thesis, she was only 7 when he died, and as she did not live in Scotland, actual contact with him would have been sporadic; much like my contact with my great-aunt Olave (known as Grannie Purr) who died when I was a similar age.

Aunt Jean devoted much of her adult life to promoting him, succeeding her father as his literary executor, and dedicating years to writing an idiosyncratic hagiography, Gaucho Laird, based on family papers and letters.  Due to the difficulty in finding a publisher, her book was finally published when she was 79.  It is a beautifully written blend of fact and imagination, though the latter has a tendency to transcend the former.

That her imagination could get the better of her is perhaps illustrated by her assertion that her great-grandmother, Anne Elizabeth, had lived in the Queen’s House in Greenwich when she was child.  This error was included in Gaucho Laird (p 27), despite there being clear evidence that the house had been converted into a nautical training school in 1807, more than three decades before Anne Elizabeth’s father’s appointment as Governor of the Royal Naval Hospital in 1839 (an institution of which her own Cunninghame Graham grandfather (Don Roberto’s younger brother) was briefly to become Commodore some 80 years later).

If Aunt Jean had a flaw (and which of us doesn’t), it was her absolute certainty that her version of events was correct, come what may, as in her insistence that her great-great-grandmother, Doña Catalina, was buried in Winchester.  So it was in 1986, armed with this information, that I went on a day trip to Winchester, in search of the church where my great-granduncle Malise (who was the youngest of the famous Don Roberto’s  brothers) had been curate in the 1880s, and to look for the graves of Malise, his mother and especially of his grandmother, Doña Catalina.  I knew the church was called St John’s but nothing more.

Having enquired at the Tourist Information, I discovered that there was only one church named for St John in the city of Winchester.  So, following the map, I set off and, after walking up the hilly St John’s Street, reached a beautiful 12th century church which, not unnaturally, used to be known as St John’s on the Hill.  Of course, the church wasn’t open so I traipsed round the graveyard looking for family tombstones, but to no avail.

Fortunately, the Rectory was next door to the church and so I rang the bell.  The then Rector, Robert Teare, who was speaking on a cordless phone, opened the door and greeted me with “Ah, Mr Cunninghame Graham”, which very much surprised me as we had never met.

Once he had finished his phone call, he explained that he instantly recognised me as he gazed on my great-granduncle every time he entered the church.  Malise’s mother (my great-great-grandmother) had commissioned a stained-glass window in his memory, which was installed in the east window behind the main altar.  The scene, which she chose, depicts the raising of the widow’s son at Nain, with the lad’s face being that of the late Malise.

I had long contended that we Cunninghame Graham men have very similar faces, change a wig or hairstyle, add or remove a beard, and the portraits could be of anyone of us.  As I was bearded and Malise clean shaven, the Rector’s unexpected greeting seemed to confirm my theory.

The Revd Teare apologised that he didn’t have time to show me the church but gave me a set of keys so that I could let myself in to have a look around.  He also very kindly gave me newspaper clippings of Malise’s funeral and obituaries that he had garnered for a centenary celebration of Malise’s life and work in the parish, which had been held the previous year.  Reading these on the train home, I learned much about why he had been so admired and later discovered that the two charities founded from his bequest of £2,000 had run until 2018.

The Revd Teare also explained that the churchyard was already full by the time Malise came to the Parish, which is why I hadn’t been able to find his grave.  There was a newer cemetery further up the hill, to which he gave me directions, where I could find Malise’s grave, along with that of his mother, Anne Elizabeth, and the Vicar under whom Malise had served as curate, a Revd Dickins, who had insisted, from the time of Malise’s funeral, that he should be buried next to his “best friend”.  He was uncertain, however, as to whether Catalina had been buried there.

Once I’d finished looking round the church, whose most famous rector was the 17th century hymn writer Thomas Ken, I dropped the keys back through the Rectory letter box as instructed, and set off up the hill in search of the other graveyard.  Following Mr Teare’s directions, I easily found Malise’s grave, with his mother, Anne Elizabeth, buried to his right and the Revd Dickins to his left.  However, there was no sign of Catalina’s grave, which I duly reported to Aunt Jean.

Nonetheless, Aunt Jean was insistent that it had to be there and sent me a photocopy of a picture of the grave, though she conceded that it was perhaps, not as she had thought, near the graves of Malise and Anne Elizabeth.  I duly sent a copy of the photo to the Reverend Teare asking If he could locate the grave.  He replied in September 1987 that he had personally looked for it without success and further informed me that a recent cataloguing of the 900 graves in the parish had proven that Catalina was not buried in any of the three burial grounds pertaining to St John’s.

Accordingly, I sent a photocopy of the letter to Aunt Jean arguing that I could see no grounds for Catalina to have been buried in Winchester as, when she died, Malise, though a Wykehamist, had already gone up to Oxford two years earlier, and it wasn’t until three years later that he was appointed to the “cure of souls” in the parish.  I further argued there was no evidence, unless she knew otherwise, that Catalina, or either of her husbands, had any link to Winchester, let alone to the parish of St John the Baptist.  As I heard no more from her, I assumed she had been convinced.

Yet, on page 361 of Gaucho Laird, we read of Anne Elizabeth, “…her second wish was to be buried beside her beloved youngest son, Malise, at Winchester…in the Churchyard at St John’s, where her mother was also buried.” (emphasis mine).  While it is true, according to both Faulkner West and Tschiffely, that Anne Elizabeth wanted to be buried next to Malise – as indeed she was – neither mentions Catalina’s being buried there.  Moreover, she would have known that the Churchyard had been closed for burials for some time before Malise’s arrival in the Parish, as she had seen him laid rest in the new burial ground.

Further evidence against Catalina’s being buried in Winchester can be found in Anne Taylor’s scholarly biography, The People’s Laird, which was published a few months after Aunt Jean’s Gaucho Laird. Taylor cites correspondence between Admiral Sir Angus Cunninghame Graham (Jean’s father) who, as Don Roberto’s literary executor, was taking issue with some of the assertions made by Herbert Faulkner West (Don Roberto’s first biographer).  In response to West’s claim that Don Roberto had learnt Spanish from his grandmother, Catalina and her family in Spain (a myth which still persists today), he somewhat testily stated that, as far as he knew, she had lived on the Isle of Wight, died there and was buried in the Anglican churchyard in Ryde (p 327).  Thus, Aunt Jean’s unshakeable belief that Catalina was buried in Winchester was contradicted by her own father, though, in fairness, she may have been unaware of the correspondence as it is held in the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and not in the Scottish National Library or National Archives where most of the family papers are stored.

Moreover, in Gaucho Laird, Aunt Jean herself has Catalina and her second husband James Katon (known in the family as the two Khats) living in Ryde, Isle of Wight (c.f. Don Roberto’s sketch A Sailor (Old Style) which is a pen portrait of his step-grandfather, Vice-Admiral J E Katon).  Indeed, she goes on to record Doña Catalina’s death at Ryde (p 238), and, astonishingly, just a few pages further on she quotes from a letter Anne Elizabeth wrote to Don Roberto about her staying at Ryde to help Khat sort everything out: “As long as I remained in Ryde I kept the grave covered with flowers” (p 241).   This surely must be a reference to Catalina’s grave.

There is one possible, though highly improbable, solution to the contradiction, which would be that Catalina was first buried in Ryde and then exhumed and reburied in Winchester.  But for the life of me, I cannot imagine any logical reason for such a costly and pointless exercise.  Therefore, I blame the contradiction on poor editing, as a good editor would surely have spotted it and asked for clarification from the author as they did elsewhere (one of their questions being accidentally printed with the book).

Finally, though I am convinced that Catalina is buried in Ryde and not Winchester, I have to admit that when, I visited Ryde on another day trip some years later (2005), I was unable to find the graves of Catalina or Khat.  However, I believe my failure owes more to the size of the cemetery, which must hold 2 to 3 times as many graves as the three burial grounds of St John’s combined, and the briefness of the time I had available to search for them.   The journey was not entirely wasted, though, as it yielded a doggerel verse, with which I’ll leave you:

Elegiac Reflections

Walk soft, sir, amongst the sleepers;

let your tread be light over where they lie,

in slumber awaiting the angelic alarum,

God’s last trump, their call to arise.

Tarry a while, sir, amongst these stones,

sun-warmed and weather-worn monuments,

standing silent sentinel over worthies,

forgotten for an age, in their deep repose.

Stop, sir, and peruse these headlines,

scant remnants of stories long mislaid;

reflect upon their faded glories and pause,

just pause a moment, in silent prayer.                               ©  WRBCG    2005