Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Boulden-Thompson

1766-1828

I’ve been watching the diggery going on in the grounds of Devonport House with interest. When I first saw the workmen in there I was a bit worried that they’d discovered a nice patch of real-estate to build flats on in the middle of town (paaayyyydiiirt!) but as the weeks wore on it was clear they were just building paths. It’s all been lain out there now, with baby hedges and little benches, with paths around each monument.

Personally, I always rather liked a little piece of un-worked land just there. Everything else (and now this) is so manicured that a little shaggy grass was a welcome sight – and went well with the austere building behind it. These paths feel like they’re trying a bit too hard. I almost quite liked that no one was officially let in, though of course I can’t have been the only one who sneaked in occasionally to view the monuments.

Does this mean that it will now be officially opened so that anyone can walk around – or is it going to be a private garden? Who can tell. For the moment those heavy iron gates are firmly locked, but that path goes right down to them. Maybe it’s for show. In the meanwhile, at least it’s less than impressive for their new scheme if they continue to display huge plastic banners advertising cheap conference facilities…

But once more I’m digressing. I’ve been looking into a few of the remaining memorials in the grounds and, if you recall, the one that’s been bugging me most has been the broken column…

I used to have a book about Victorian Funerary Symbolism (a remainder-shop-lovely, which I stupidly got rid of several culls ago. Whenever I have a book-cull, I always regret it…) which was all about the symbolism of graveyards. Ivy is the obvious one – for eternal life. Time is another biggie – scythes, hourglasses and skulls (like those splendid ones at St Nicholas in Deptford) are pretty obvious, as are sleeping babies and cherubs. I knew a broken column was hugely significant but, couldn’t remember quite what it was…

Thank God for the internet. If you are of a similarly warped disposition as me, you will love this dictionary of Victorian Funerary Art – never be without it when you’re walking around a graveyard again. It’s an American website, but I’m pretty sure that the basics are the same – they seem to make sense.

“Column, broken: an early grief, end of life, sorrow. Life cut short too soon. May be girded with flowers. This image represents the decay. It usually represents the loss of the family head.”

Trouble is, the longer I look at it, the less sure I am that it’s just that. There’s deffo a broken column there – but is that a flame too?

“Vessel with flame: the eternal flame or the eternal spirit of man.”

…or is the whole thing covered in a cloth?

“Drapery: Drapery over anything – sorrow, mourning “

And what’s with the wreath?

“Laurel wreath: is usually associated with someone who has attained distinction in the arts, literature, athletics or the military.”

So who was this guy? Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Boulden-Thompson, actually.

“Knight and baronet, and grand cross of the most honourable military order of the bath; vice-admiral of the red; treasurer of Greenwich Hospital ; a director of the chest; and a visitor of the West India Naval School.”

The Annual Biography and Obituary of the Year 1828

Blimey – that sounds crusty. But a closer look at he seems rather more Master and Commander than at first appears. This is the chap described by Nelson as “an active young man,”as he fought at Santa Cruz and was injured, though not as badly as Nelson himself of course, who lost an arm.

Thompson got much more badly-injured captured by the French in a long sea battle not long after, trying to save his ship, The Leander at the Nile. The dastardly French treated them appallingly, plundering everything in sight – including the instruments of a surgeon who was in the middle of an operation. When Thompson tried to remind the French Captain of the way French prisoners were treated by the English, he merely shrugged gallic-ly. “I am sorry for it, but the French are expert at plunder…”

When Thompson was finally freed he was court-martialled for losing The Leander. I’m not sure how he managed to not only get off the charge, but get himself a knighthood in the process, but he certainly went on to have all kinds of honours bestowed on him. It was all going very well indeed.

He continued to fight under Nelson, until it all went horribly wrong at the Battle of Copenhagen, where he lost a leg. “I am now totally disabled and my life is run through, only at the age of 35,” he wrote in frustration.

Well. Not quite. He may not have made it to Trafalgar, but back home his derring-do had not gone unnoticed. He was made Treasurer of the Royal Naval Hospital and became an MP. He became Director of the Chest after the death of Lord Hood.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll be officially allowed in to see Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Boulden-Thompson’s tomb at closer-hand, or whether we’ll have to continue resorting to the time-honoured tradition of sneaking round the back. In the meanwhile, the broken column is one of the more visible of the Devonport memorials.

More stories of obscure monuments another day…


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