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  • Writer's pictureSheldon Goodman

A Victorian Clerk Goes Walkies

In 1846, a young man travelled from the Richmond Buildings in Soho to Bromley Parish church to have a ‘look about the town and afterwards the churchyard, and took down a few inscriptions most remarkable‘.


The man in question was a diarist called Nathaniel Bryceson, a 19 year old clerk at Lea’s Coal Wharf, Pimlico. Bryceson was a diarist, in the vein of Hooke and Pepys, who chronicled his life events throughout his life until his expiration in 1911. A few years ago the City of Westminster published the one surviving volume of his journal online: updating each entry on the same day he’d have written it in correspondence in 1846.


Bryceson was…odd. I completely realise that that’s rich coming from me, with my jug ears and penchant for calling cemeteries ‘people museums‘, but his diary gives a fascinating glimpse into not only early Victorian society but also, the mind of a young gentleman with his foibles and peculiarities. Obsessed with death, If he were alive today I’d have asked him for a blog post, with the amount of cemeteries and burial grounds he visited on a weekly basis.

Stalking descendants of key figures in Christianity, watching public hangings, being bloody filthy with his own Mrs Robinson, he would regularly walk for MILES on the weekend too. Not just round the corner from his lodgings in Soho, but to places such as Edgware, Harrow and a location detailed in this entry – Bromley. As a resident of this borough myself, and long term Cemetery aficionado, I was interested to see what this historical figure found when visiting the Churchyard of St Peter and St Pauls.


Some of Bromley’s long dead

How different was the building and Churchyard to the one than the visited in the 1840’s?

On the 27th September, he writes:

‘Breakfasted and started quarter before 8 o’clock for Bromley in Kent, through Lewisham and that way. Arrived there half past 11 and looked about the town and afterwards the churchyard, and took down a few inscriptions most remarkable…sallied back to burial ground and fortunately met with the sexton, who let me in the church and very obligingly turned up some of the matting to show me the flat stone with the inscription on Dr Johnson’s wife, composed by himself.’

The Church in the late Victorian era - a couple of decades after his visit but more or less unchanged. Image© Bromley Borough Local History Society

The Church in the late Victorian era – a couple of decades after his visit but more or less unchanged. Image © Bromley Borough Local History Society

From the same location, 2013.

From the same location, 2013. The position of the Church was changed to accommodate a car park.

The Church today is constructed out of the rubble of its predecessor: it was bombed in enemy action in 1941 leaving nothing but the 15th century tower. By looking closely you can see fragments of carved stone scattered hither and yon in the fabric of the building. A more interesting note is that from the wreckage of the old church survives the flat stone which covered the remains of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s wife Elizabeth Porter, affectionately known by Johnson as Tetty, who was buried here after convalescing in the country to overcome an addiction to opiates. It was this stone that Bryceson mentions in his entry for the 10th September and despite what happened in the war, (some of) it remains, the exact stone that Nathaniel himself clapped eyes on all those years ago.

The slab dedicated to Johnson's wife, which Bryceson would have probably stood on.

The slab dedicated to Johnson’s wife, which Bryceson would have probably stood on.

Elizabeth Porter's slab and other decorated headstones

Elizabeth Porter’s slab and other decorated headstones

Nathaniel today upon walking through the lych-gate would only recognise the tower. Headstones have largely been cleared, leaving green open space where previously the old inhabitants of Bromley once resided. Several Bishops of Rochester lay here, as do many generations of the Dunn family, a prosperous clan who started as a removals firm in 1710, diverging into undertaking and home furnishings. The firm was also being one of the first British outlets to sell Swedish furniture to consumers. John Hawkesworth, a writer and former friend of Johnson, is also buried here.

One of the Dunn Family Graves

One of the Dunn Family Graves

Nathaniel then goes on to see the Bishop of Rochester’s Palace (now the headquarters for Bromley Council and arrives home just after half past eight in the evening. Bromley had no railway station until the late 1850’s so I can only assume he took

There are many places in London and nationally I’d like to be able to turn back time and see how they looked in years gone by, be it Highgate or the West Norwood or Kensal Green, but what of their forerunners, the conventional parish Churchyard? Like Bromley itself, the Parish Church has succumbed to modernity and the markers of those who lived here centuries ago are now being used for paving; their memory literally being walked all over. The clearance has made way for lush expanses of green grass that look prettier than old wonky headstones.

I wonder what death-loving sentimentalist Nathaniel would have made of that.

#Bromley #SamuelJohnson #CityofWestminster #Diarist #NathanielBryceson #Diary #Historical #ElizabethPorter

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