East Sheen Cemetery and the “Angel of Death”

Opened in the early 1900s in a well-heeled area on the edge of Richmond Park, East Sheen Cemetery seems at first to be an entirely typical 20th Century burial ground, its paths lined by stone and marble monuments, sheltered by pine trees.  Sadly, it’s suffered from vandalism over the years and a number of crosses and headstones have fallen or been pushed over.

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However, there is a dramatic surprise waiting for visitors to this otherwise unassuming cemetery.

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Described by English Heritage as being “one of the most significant examples of 20th Century funerary sculputre”, the stunning angel that marks the resting place of George and Louisa Lancaster dominates the burial ground.  It is far and away the most ornate memorial in the cemetery and towers above the neat gravestones nearby.  When I visited the cemetery, every single passer by I saw stopped to admire this incredible sculpture.

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Cast in bronze, the sculpture of the grieving angel was created by Sydney March, who was also responsible for a number of war memorials around England in the years after the First World War.  He also collaborated with his similarly artistic brothers and sister to create the National War Memorial of Canada.  He and his siblings worked in the grounds of the family home in Kent, where they had a metal foundry as well as studios.  As well as war memorials, March also sculpted royalty and military figures in bronze – the Lancaster tomb is one of his more unusual works, although he also created a bronze angel for his family’s own grave.

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The people whose final resting place is marked by the spectacular tomb seem at first glance to have been simply a wealthy couple, with George Lancaster’s money having been made through mining interests in his native Lancashire. However, it was only after Louisa’s death that something of a scandal was revealed about her relationship with George.  They had never been legally married, and after Louisa died George’s legal wife Emily took Louisa’s son Arthur to court, accusing him of falisfying his mother’s details when registering her death.  Louisa had previously been married to a Mr Jones, but as a result of her relationship with George, Louisa’s husband divorced her in 1896 – something of a rare occurance at the time.

George Lancaster was also married when he began his relationship with Louisa – he had separated from his wife Emily, but they never divorced.  George and Louisa set up home as man and wife and were even recorded as being married on the 1901 census.  Louisa inherited the majority of George’s wealth upon his death, with only a much smaller amount going to the legal Mrs Lancaster.  Perhaps it was this that compelled Emily Lancaster to take her husband’s stepson to court.

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Another angel at East Sheen, marking the grave of an Iraqi-born couple
Another angel at East Sheen, marking the grave of an Iraqi-born couple

Gravestones featuring angels are a fairly common sight in Victorian cemeteries, but at the end of the 19th Century a famous sculpture began something of a fashion for more dramatically-depicted angels, such as our bronze angel at East Sheen.  The Angel of Grief, marking the grave of sculptor William Wetmore Story and his wife in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.  The angel was sculpted by Story himself and it has become one of the most well-known funerary monuments, being reproduced many times in graveyards around the world, particularly in America.  It’s also been used as an image on album covers, most recently by the Finnish band Nightwish for their album Once.  Like the Lancaster angel at East Sheen, Story’s Angel of Grief conveys a huge amount of emotion.

William Wetmore Story's Angel of Grief, dating from 1894, at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome (image via Wikimedia Commons)
William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief, dating from 1894, at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome (image via Wikimedia Commons)

As a rule, 20th Century graves are usually less ostentatious than their Victorian forebears.  Many Victorian symbols lingered into the new century, and at East Sheen one can find here and there a broken pillar, clasped hands or a stone angel, but the draped urns and Gothic ornamentation that were popular in the 19th Century are nowhere to be seen.  Graves are plainer, but often feel more personal – one example is that it’s much more common to find pet names, such as the one on the grave pictured below.

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Among the toppled graves and fallen pinecones of East Sheen Cemetery, the other gravestones may be less ornate, less dramatic than the angel marking the Lancaster grave, but nonetheless they also tell their tales of grief.

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References and further reading

The Lancaster Monument, East Sheen Cemetery, British Listed Buildings http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-438030-the-lancaster-monument-east-sheen-cemete

Marriage is just a piece of paper – George William Lancaster and Louisa Mary Wilkinson (East Sheen Cemetery), The London Dead, 6th October 2014 http://thelondondead.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/marriage-is-just-piece-of-paper-george.html

Cemetery Statues of Grief, A Grave Interest, 31st January 2014 http://agraveinterest.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/cemetery-statues-of-grief.html

20 thoughts on “East Sheen Cemetery and the “Angel of Death”

  1. Andrew January 23, 2015 / 11:10 am

    Well researched and interesting sculptures. I like the Iraqi couple’s angel.

    • Caroline January 25, 2015 / 7:22 pm

      Thank you! I loved the Iraqi couple’s angel too – nowhere near as ostentatious as the Lancaster angel but nonetheless another lovely and unique piece of funerary sculpture.

    • Caroline January 25, 2015 / 7:23 pm

      I don’t live too far away from East Sheen either, but this was my first visit to the cemetery there. The angel alone is worth the visit!

  2. bappel2014 January 23, 2015 / 3:48 pm

    Caroline, once again a fascinating and beautiful blog. I appreciate the research and background information you include. Of course, always very well written. Thanks
    Bruce

  3. The London Dead January 24, 2015 / 12:03 am

    Did you spot Roy Kinnear as you walked in through the gate? Not the most interesting of London cemeteries but the Lancaster memorial is definitely one of the best in the capital and makes it worth the trip. Thanks for the link back to the London Dead on this and on your blog roll.

    • Caroline January 25, 2015 / 7:30 pm

      Yes, I did spot Roy Kinnear’s grave! Not sure why I didn’t take a picture. I hadn’t realised he was buried there, but he’s got a good spot right by the entrance! The Lancaster angel is quite superb – one of the most beautiful graves I’ve come across so far.

  4. Alison Weathers January 24, 2015 / 12:24 am

    The last time I saw that amazing Lancaster statue, it had snow on it – oh wait, at this time of year it still could. I got momentarily thrown off the track because I keep refusing to look at calendars, and of course down here at the foul (and mostly interesting cemetery-less) nethers of the world it’s high summer 🙂

    Lovely post – ta – especially the photos! Though I still and always find funerary sculpture to be a microcosm of the egregious arrogance of our species (the whole idea that our lives and deaths ‘matter’ any more or less than anything else in the universe is beyond ridiculous), I do love the odd beauty of so much of it!

    • Caroline January 25, 2015 / 7:34 pm

      Aye, it’s been rather cold in London lately 🙂 We’ve not had any snow for a couple of years, though.

      You’re right – the way so many human cultures build ostentatious graves is really quite odd, when you really think about it, but we humans as a race are rather arrogant and superior about so many things. I love to learn about the different ways humans commemorate (or indeed don’t commemorate) their loved ones. I think the only other creatures that revere their dead and mourn the death of their family members are elephants, who apparently go back to visit the bones of their relatives.

      • Alison Weathers January 26, 2015 / 11:41 am

        elephants are excellent people all around, on the evidence of it 🙂

        When it comes to funeral customs, I think the Tibetan vultures thing may be my favourite. Not so big on the lasting memorials but wonderful in terms of proper recycling!

      • Caroline January 26, 2015 / 1:31 pm

        Elephants are excellent creatures!

        Sky burials freak me out a bit, I think mostly because it’s not something I’d want for myself or my loved ones, but in an environment with rocky ground, no trees and plenty of vultures it makes a lot of sense!

      • Alison Weathers January 28, 2015 / 1:15 am

        More on sky burials and other ecologically sensible procedures: in one article about charnel grounds, it was mentioned that some folk tie bodies to young trees which then grow up entwined around the skeleton. I think that’s wonderful! But barring that, I’d vote to be buried unwrapped *beside* a tree’s main root system, so the process of becoming fertiliser would be hastened 🙂

      • Caroline February 7, 2015 / 7:44 pm

        Yes, I do like the idea of “becoming” part of a tree – I think it’s why I quite like the idea of a woodland burial, with a tree planted over the grave instead of a headstone. But boy are they expensive!

  5. MJ Zander January 24, 2015 / 11:20 pm

    Fantastic as always!

  6. Stephen Cooper June 29, 2016 / 8:34 am

    Great article and I shall visit soon, as I am very local. I wonder have you walked through the less well-tended graveyard by the tennis courts on Rocks lane. I assume it is an extension of the East Sheen cemetery, although sperated by a few hundred yards. Rather neglected, and ‘romantically’ overgrown, although someone (council?) does clear the pathways from time to time. Thank you for the intriguing Lancaster story.

  7. shadowsflyaway July 26, 2016 / 8:00 pm

    High time I made the acquaintance of the Angel of Death after reading your fascinating article. Thank you for reminding me!

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