Thursday, 28 February 2008

A sculler's grave

Brompton Cemetery in west London is a riot of extraordinary Victorian graves, and one of the oddest, but also most affecting, tombs is that of the champion sculler Robert Coombes.
It is a chest tomb about seven foot high, guarded by a carved figure of a waterman at each corner. Coombes’s boat lies on top, upturned on shore, with his traditional waterman’s coat lying across it as if abandoned.The inscription reads:
This monument was erected by public subscription
by the warm friends and admirers of
Champion Sculler of the Thames and Tyne
Born in 1808, Coombes was a London waterman, a member of the guild that for centuries had ferried passengers on the Thames. Watermen had always raced, particularly for the prestigious Doggett’s Coat and Badge, a fabulous rigout consisting of a scarlet waterman’s coat with big silver buttons and a saucer-sized silver badge embossed with the horse of the House of Hanover and the word ‘Liberty’, worn on the left arm. Two of the guardian figures are thus arrayed.
In the mid 19th century sculling was really big, attracting huge crowds that bet enormous sums of money at races mainly on the Thames and the Tyne. As the sport was adopted by the universities and schools, watermen found profitable employment coaching the upper classes – Coombes trained the Cambridge crew for the 1852 Boat Race.
But the watermen’s days were numbered. When Coombes was born there were only three bridges on the Thames in London, so crossing the river often meant employing a waterman. By the time he died in 1860 there were seven (I think), and the ferrying business was over. The railways finished them off as London’s water taxis.
The grave is remarkably lavish for a working man who was almost illiterate and died in an insane asylum. But it is now in a shocking condition - wind and pollution have erased most of the inscriptions, and the heads and hands have fallen off the statues. It must be restored – what are the chances of a public subscription to save this remarkable monument to a remarkable man?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I must say I was sufficiently struck by this interesting grave to look it up on google- hence finding this page. It is sadly in a terrible condition, and I wondered how it came to be so badly damaged compared to others of equivalent age. Was it vandalised for any reason? Does anyone know?