Story for The Read Horse Issue 8: Mist, Landlords & Victorian London.
Southwark Sal stepped astride the bawdy boards of the Peckham Music Hall for her final performance. Her hit song Mudlarkin’ Abowt, was a pungent tale of love, mud and scavenged silver which she performed at four venues a night, every night, for the past ‘alf score years. The lines were simple enough, but on this night she stumbled on the last verse and clumsily rhymed the word ‘dauwghter’ with ‘ouwghta’ and floundered entirely on the word ‘wawter’.
This was surprisingly apt as the song was a cautionary tale about greed which ended, alongside the heroine, at the bottom of Old Father Thames. So nobody in the audience realised that she was in fact, having a heart attack. Years of greasy eel pie and buttery mash washed down with a quart of gin had made her arteries as clogged as that famous aquatic mass of which she sang. The oblivious audience simply applauded all the more loudly for her sterling performance. Her final collapse was met with a standing ovation. It was only when The Great Vance had to drag her lifeless body off the stage to make room for his troupe of tumbling terriers that music hall’s proprietor was alerted. He promptly called for both the doctor and the press (having realised early on in his career the commercial value of alerting a filthy rag about a grisly demise).
Thus The London Herald came to proclaim, on this day in 1899, that Southwark Sal, darling of the drinking classes and general all-round strumpet, met a sticky end in front of a crowd of a thousand faces.
‘It were the gin wot done ‘er in,’ suggested one garrulous bystander; a line later echoed in the italicised sans-serif of the paper’s by-line. Though on the whole and quite contrary to character, the Herald took a much less slanderous tone. Alongside the all too vivid description of her departure the article applauded her long and successful career ultimately mourning ‘the passing of a class act such as she.’
Now, not many a performer is fortunate enough to die at the pinnacle of their career, with many having to undergo the indignity of unpopularity and a spell in the workhouse. Sal however, had both the good taste to kick the bucket at the peak of her popularity and the sense to do it in front an audience. She was rewarded amply.
Having no dependants – or none that anyone knew of – she had put away a reasonable sum for her interment. The press coverage had also drummed up a number of contributions from gentleman benefactors and other well-wishers and the total sum of all pockets amounted to as grand a display of Victorian spectacle as Peckham had ever seen. A horse-drawn carriage adorned with the finest ostrich feathers carted her corpse in the most expensive of lead-lined coffins through the streets to a mass of gog-eyed onlookers.
The procession crossed the gates of the cemetery and gracefully rattled up the lamp-lit avenue of plane trees. It passed the marble statues of angels, obelisks, urns, and all manner of crosses and turned right at the Anglican chapel, built in the gothic style as was the fancy at the time. There she was laid to rest in a plot of earth, neighbour to shipwrights, engineers and other notable dignitaries already at peace in the cemetery’s grounds.
And there she lay for almost 70 years.
Above ground several wars had been fought and won. Other than a few stray German rockets Sal lay largely undisturbed, except by the usual amount of scavenging critters. With every year that passed the cumbersome Celtic cross that was her headstone dipped another degree closer to the horizon. The silver screen replaced the music hall and visitors became scarce; sprigs of lavender tenderly tied were no longer left with care atop her grave.
Employee numbers also fell. In Nunhead’s heyday over a hundred men had regularly patrolled, weeded, raked and tended the grounds but this dwindled to only a single watchman. Then he too was told to find employment elsewhere, and had the solemn duty of locking the wrought iron gates and walking away.
And now it is 1963 and knock-kneed Jimmy Jones is standing at these same gates in his school uniform nervously clenching a brightly coloured garden trowel.
The gates are locked, the cemetery abandoned, but the 6 foot high railings that used to encompass the grounds are gone. They were requisitioned for the war effort, ground up and made into tanks and were now themselves buried deep in soil. So there’s nothing left to stop Jimmy and his best mate Vic, who’s just rounded the corner fresh from detention, from doing what they’re about to.
“What the fuck’s that?” Vic said pointing to the object in Jimmy’s hand.
“Leave off, that’s my mum’s best trowel! Anyway s’all I could find.”
“Good job I nicked this from the caretaker then isn’t it?” he said and proudly produced a pick axe from his kit bag.
“Bloody hell! You’ll not be able to sit down for a year if they find out.”
“Well they won’t know if you keep your mouth shut. But come on, we need get off the street before anyone sees us. There’s some right nosey slags round here. Then we’ve go to find the best pickings before it gets dark. We’ve got our work cut out; don’t wanna go robbing some poor Greenwich dockhand. We want pocket watches, silver cufflinks, diamond rings, rubies as big as footballs, necklaces as long as your pubes…”
“…hundred year old shitty bloomers!” They both laughed and fell into a scuffle on the pavement swinging for each other with jocular punches. The sound of a Morris Minor approaching ended the ruckus, and they quickly pushed their way into the undergrowth aside the gates.
“Fuck me!” said Vic “it looks like the monkey cage at London Zoo in here.”
Apart from the absence of monkeys, he wasn’t far wrong. Passing the crumbling gatehouses and turning up the once-grand drive to the chapel they took in the extent of the neglect. The monuments stood angular to the path; much of the engraving was illegible due to corrosion and moss coverage. Weeds protruded firmly through the pebbled pathway; creepers crawled up the larger monoliths and birds cawed high in the trees. Jimmy felt like the lead character from a Willard Price novel but was reluctant to mention the comparison with Amazon Adventure to a boy who bragged about his extensive collection of titty magazines.
“So which one do we rob?”
“Well, think of it as an episode of Take Your Pick. I’ll be Michael Miles, you be… Maureen from Darlington!” Vic bounded up to the nearest monument and mimicked the quiz inquisitor “for the key to tombstone number one, we will ask you three questions. One: does it look expensive?”
“Well, it looks a bit shitty to me.”
“Bong! Think of what it used to look like genius.”
“Well yeah okay, fancy lettering and it’s bloody big.”
“Correct. Question two: will we break our backs getting into it?”
“Well it looks solid but there’s this hole right here which we could probably pry open.”
“Bong! Well that probably means someone’s got to the good stuff before us, which leads me to question three: is it worth our while sweating over it? And I say no. Let’s split up, go deeper, look for a big one that’s easy enough to get into but previously undisturbed. You take the left.”
They plundered around in the undergrowth by the main path for a while reading one tedious inscription after the other. Deeming all present either immovable or no longer virginal they moved up towards the scout memorial. Nearby Jim piped up “This one! Maureen from Darlington picks this one!” He read aloud the inscription on the lopsided cross “something something Sal…may the star of the south shine on in the sojourn of her days, from the good people of Peckham whom so adored her.”
“Well done Jim, seems you’ve found us a celebrity. Bet she had great tits. We might get some nice lace Victorian lingerie to wank over!”
“Well let’s get going, mum’ll kill me if I’m late back for dinner again.”
Contrary to Vic’s earlier statement, grave robbing was not at all like Take Your Pick: it took a lot longer than half an hour and made you sweat three times as much, particularly if you’re armed with only a dainty trowel and an unwieldy pick axe. After a while they found it easier to use their hands and legs to move the earth so by the time they hit the coffin lid they were covered almost entirely in soil and foliage. As Vic observed, they did indeed look like fucking golliwogs. Then there was the smell: certainly musty, but not as rancid as might be expected from a person nearing 130. The lid of the coffin was covered in fungus and looked a lot like mushrooms on toast, except it didn’t smell like mushrooms on toast. As Jimmy observed “It stinks of feet. Dead feet.”
But when they finally pried the lid open to glance at Sal’s decomposing cleavage all they found was the largest bottle of gin either of them had ever seen. They held its misty contents up to the light.
“What the fuck? Where’s the riches? Where’s the bleeding body?”
Even though they would never realise it, Vic and Jimmy had made a very historic discovery that had hitherto eluded the whole of Victorian London. The events surrounding Sal’s demise had been far too well-timed. In fact they had been strategically executed to secure the maximum amount of publicity and ergo the maximum amount of money from sympathetic pockets. A collaborative effort from the music hall proprietor, undertaker and Sal herself had led to an early retirement for all three. Southwark Sal, riches and all, had actually died one Sylvie of Southend. Known on the prom as ‘smiley Sylv’ she was often seen – after a respectable few years of hiding had passed – lolling in a deckchair by the bandstand drinking pink gins and wearing – no they couldn’t be – rubies as big as footballs and necklaces as long as pubic hairs. But what did Vic and Jimmy care about history when they had drinking to do.