A MUSICAL GRAVE DISCOVERY AT SOUTH MYMMS

About 20 years ago Mr. Brian Warren of the Potters Bar Historical Society undertook a complete survey of all the graves in St. Giles Churchyard, drawing plans of some 12 sections of the churchyard with all the visible grave plots marked in and numbered. He drew up lists of the names on each grave, so far as they were legible, and the dates of death. These plans have been invaluable to the churchwardens in helping answer enquiries from relatives and descendents of the deceased, many of whom now live far away, and cannot spare time to search through the very large, and sometimes overgrown, churchyard.

When the St. Giles–St. Margaret’s website was set up in 2006 by Patrick Hastings, the South Mymms plans were included, as a link to a machine readable version of the 27 pages Mr. Warren gave the church. Enquirers could check online whether the graves of their relatives were indeed visible in the churchyard. If they could not find a record, they might save themselves a wasted journey.

As noted elsewhere I have been working on a new version of the website. I have been trying to find a way of putting the plan onto this site; it’s not easy, because the original files were rather large. Meanwhile in 2010 Mr. Warren produced revisions of the three areas around the church, and I have used these to update his original plans.

As well as updating the maps of each area and the lists of names, Mr. Warren drew sketch pictures of each grave with their full inscriptions. I don’t intend to reproduce these on the website, but in checking one name, a curious one, Helene Benecke, I looked at his sketch of the monument.

It reads “Marie Pauline Helene, beloved wife of Charles Victor Benecke, daughter of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, born 2 October 1839, died 28 October 1897”.

This is a younger daughter of Felix Mendelssohn, composer and conductor, friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, composer of Elijah, the Fingals Cave Overture, the Violin Concerto, and above all the famous Wedding March, which is played at so many weddings, including many at St. Giles!!!

What connection does an internationally famous composer have with a country churchyard on the northern outskirts of London? If you look at Ancestry.com for Benecke, you find that one branch of this originally German family settled in Middlesex, but presumably a lot nearer to the centre of London – I have yet to discover where. Other Beneckes are found in other parts of the country, including Yorkshire, and Oxford.

The lady in our graveyard had a son, Paul Victor Mendelssohn Benecke, who studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and became a Fellow of the College. He was born in 1868 and died in 1944. He became friends with one Margaret Deneke, a Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall college, and through her, his archive of papers, correspondence and music by Mendelssohn was acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford. When I was a student at Oxford some 50 years ago, the Misses Deneke gave musical parties at their large house in North Oxford (Norham Gardens, near LMH). I forget if they charged, but I doubt it. It was an opportunity to bring young students into contact with their musical friends.

Amongst these was the cellist, Rohan de Saram, and also the son of F.R. and Queenie Leavis (famous in the Cambridge English Faculty). Ralph was a remarkably gifted musician and musical scholar, and well-known for looking like a tramp! I remember him walking gaukily around with a tweed overcoat reaching down to his ankles, his satchel bulging with books and four days stubble on his chin. But I heard him play the solo part in Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto for the University’s amateur orchestra known as “The Grot Band”. He excelled well above the modest capabilities of that orchestra.

I wonder what other stories lie beneath some of the graves in the churchyard? Some of the answers may be found in the books on South Mymms, the one by The Revd. Cass (1876) and that by Freddie Brittain (1932). There’s the imposing Cavendish-Bentinck/Burns Mausoleum, of course, near St. Giles School playground, which is here because the Vicar at North Mymms would not have such a monstrosity in his (much smaller) churchyard. And there’s the tomb of Archbishop Arnold Harris Mathew, founder of the Old Catholic Church in England.

Truly the churchyard at South Mymms is a remarkable place!

William Marsterson