Jemima Ayley

Today, folks, I bring you a mystery. Or at least part of one.

While, it seems, virtually the whole of South London was visiting Nunhead Cemetery’s Open Day last week, I was trudging in the opposite direction.

That’s not to say I don’t want to visit Nunhead – I really, really do, but the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries of London need, for me, at least, to be visited in relative silence and solitude, sans book stalls, tea-urns and face-painters and, according the the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery the graveyard is open every day of the week. So I’ll go, alone, another day, but at two quid a head to join the Friends I may sign up anyway. It’s not a case of being antisocial – just of seeing something at its most atmospheric…

But back to my own trip. I went to Charlton Cemetery. It’s not one of the “great” cemeteries of London, and as far as I can see it doesn’t have any organised ‘Friends’ but it had plenty that both fascinated and moved me. I turned left and walked clockwise – and some day I’ll get onto some of the quirkier graves and memorials, but today I want to concentrate on the very last tomb I enjoyed that day (though of course it would have been the first if I’d turned right…)

A large Classical canopy, complete with columns and capitals covering a sleeping young woman’s effigy, dressed in a flowing stone gown, covered with a carved shroud, ivy and sadness, peacefully mouldering away under years of dirt and acid rain, it’s a monument worthy of any of the great cemeteries, and the only true ‘mausoleum’ tomb in the place. As far as I can see, it’s also the only one that covers a family vault.

The mystery is that, frankly, I can’t read the inscription. Pollution and not a few accidents have seen the stone worn or broken away from its brick base then clumsily repaired. Perhaps stories of buried treasure circulated among the local youth, or something, and it was broken into.

Certainly, in the place where it feels like the entrance is supposed to be there’s just grass now, though I suspect there were once stone steps leading down under the tomb – there’s a grassy bit just in front of it. Against one of the sides, leans a stone slab – though again, whether it was an entrance or is just a bit of monument that fell off is difficult to tell.

At the back, I can just about make out words that look something like “family vault,” and, perhaps, “Willian Mayley.” I noted it down and thought “Oh – that will be easy to look up when I get home…”

Absolutely nothing. I tried books, papers and, of course, the Internet. Besides, this was very definitely a young woman. She didn’t look like a William…

After a LOT of faffery, I finally found London Necropolis , a photography site that explores all of London’s cemeteries, and also includes a handy glossary of tombstone symbolism . Mrs Necropolis (I believe her name is actually Polly) names our sad stone girl as Jemima Ayley, a fact discovered by checking out Hugh Meller’s London Cemeteries – a book I clearly need to get…

According to Hugh Meller, the vault below is twenty-two feet deep and houses a table and chair, for use by mourning relatives – or, presumably, friends of Nobody Owens.

Meller also says that the precise minute of Jemima’s death in 1860 is recorded in the faded inscription on the side and he tells us that her sister died on the very same day in Norfolk. Sadly, since the book was published in 1981, pollution has hit hard – I can hardly make out a single word of the carvings.

In fact that’s all I know about Jemima Ayley. In vain have I searched for the family – to be able to afford a tomb like this they must have had a fair amount of cash – and therefore, one might have thought, been prominent in Greenwich/Charlton/Woolwich Society, but I have found nothing.

Does anyone know anything about this family or young Jemima Ayley?

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