Today (July 24) in London History – best funeral ever

The funeral of the great actress Ellen Terry took place on this day – July 24th (1928). It was the best funeral ever. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Sometimes – if you’re very lucky – you come across something that is so perfect, so lovely, so fine, you think “that’s as good as it gets, that makes me very happy, that is so beautiful, I’ll have that, that’s what I want.”

And so it is for this day in London history.

The day is July 24th, 1928. And, yes, I grant you, this “London” story, this day in London history – starts in a tiny village in Kent. But it makes its way to London. It ends in London. Except it doesn’t end – it’s still going on, it’s still being told by my colleagues on their Inside – really inside – Covent Garden Tour.

But, yes, the day starts in the tiny Kentish village of Small Hythe.

We’re standing before a lovely, half-timbered Tudor cottage. On the white gate, there’s a notice.

The notice reads, 

“No funeral gloom, my dears, when I am gone, 

Corpse-gazings-tears-black raiment-graveyard grimness.

Think of me as withdrawn into the dimness,

Yours still – you mine – Remember all the best –

Of our past moments and forget the rest –

And so to where I wait, come gently on.”

It’s poetic perfection, isn’t it? It’s by the Irish poet William Allingham. Aside here, I’ve just found out – literally 35 minutes ago – that William Allingham lived and died in my beloved Hampstead. It’s a lock that these beautiful lines will find a resting place in my Hampstead walk.

Anyway, back to the notice on the gate in front of the Tudor cottage in Small Hythe – beneath the poem were these words:  “I should wish my children, relatives and friends to observe this when I die.” ET

ET – you can probably guess – they’re the initials of the great actress Ellen Terry.

The poem and that lovely, simple request had been found on the flyleaf of Ellen Terry’s copy of the devotional book “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis, published in Latin in the 1400s.

Ellen Terry’s wish was honoured. There was no “black raiment, no graveyard grimness” – it was a happy funeral, a beautiful funeral. The mourners wore their customary dress. At the door of the church was a “Guard of Honour” of farm workers, with hay rakes, and forks and scythes. And sheepdogs. The simple ash coffin, designed by Ellen Terry’s son, Gordon Craig in semblance of an old-time cradle, was covered with a pall of gold made from a dress worn by Ellen Terry in one of her Shakespearean characters. After the simple service the coffin was taken to London for cremation in the afternoon. The ashes remained for the night in an improvised chapel in daughter Edith Craig’s flat, whose windows looked out upon the garden churchyard of St Paul’s Covent Garden, the scene of the public memorial service. There, in St Paul’s Covent Garden, Ellen Terry waits today, while we come gently on. Her ashes are in a very beautiful urn. Standing before it – and hearing the story – is one of the highlights of Karen’s and Adam’s and Claire’s and Simon’s Inside Covent Garden Tour.

And now stepping back for a moment, I’ve been asked a few times about this Today in London History podcast series. People are often shocked when I tell them that each day’s ‘cast usually takes about four hours. “Four hours a day every day – and you don’t get paid for that, why do you do it?” they say.

My reply is, “I do it for myself. I make great discoveries. It’s the same reason I guide. It’s for myself. If my walkers – if other people – are interested in the discoveries I make, well, that sets the seal on the thing. What’s not to like about that happy state of affairs?

Now in this instance, before this investment of about four hours of my time, all I knew was a little bit about Ellen Terry herself and that beautiful urn of ashes. I didn’t know about her funeral, I didn’t know that Allingham poem, I didn’t know Ellen Terry’s daughter had a flat that looked out over the garden of St Paul’s Covent Garden and that she and her mother’s ashes had a last, consoling night together, there, deep in the heart of London. The last stage before Ellen Terry’s final resting place in St Paul’s Covent Garden, the actor’s church. 

That’s why I do this.

Ok, Today in London. Well, it has to be booking and going on Karen’s and Adam’s and Simon’s and Claire’s Inside Covent Garden Tour. Going and seeing that churchyard. And going into the church. Seeing Ellen Terry. 

The walk takes place every Thursday morning at 10.15 am. The meeting point is just outside the exit of Covent Garden Tube.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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