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Margery Masterson, ‘The green, green grass of home: Victorian landscapes and the remains of war’

2015 January 6
by lucinda matthews-jones

Margery Masterson is a Teaching Fellow in Modern History at the University of Bristol. She specializes in the history of the Victorian army, civil-military relationships, and in the role of scandal in politics. Her current research is on middle-class masculine Victorian violence, including the persistence of duelling in nineteenth-century Britain. This post accompanies her recent Journal of Victorian Culture ‘Bombay Graveyards and British Beaches: The Tale of a Victorian Imperial Scandal’. You can download her article here.

‘Tomb of Sergeant-Major Lilley in the Station Cemetery’, Illustrated London News, 14 November, 1863.

In an absorbing panel on ‘Crimean War Remains’ at the BAVS annual conference last month, Lara Kriegel described the havoc wreaked on British war graves by the brutal Crimean winters. The elements, as much as human looters, broke and scattered the markers erected to commemorate fallen soldiers. Victorian soldiers’ bodies were not typically repatriated but there was a move towards the twentieth-century ideal of marking individual fatalities. This increased obligation to the war dead meant that nineteenth-century colonial and foreign conflicts engaged with alien terrain in two ways. Soldiers fought in a huge range of natural environments, environments that could be allies as well as enemies. Soldiers’ burials required an approach to the conflict site that was still interactive but increasingly inflexible, as a small part of the alien landscape needed to be made ‘British’– practically as well as symbolically.

The popularity of garden cemeteries in Victorian Britain changed what was expected from foreign and colonial graveyards. I noticed this desire to domesticate colonial cemeteries in my own research on a Sergeant-Major Lilley, the furore over whose 1863 death in India is the focus of my article ‘Bombay Graveyards and British Beaches: The Tale of a Victorian Imperial Scandal’. The etching above shows the large tomb erected by Lilley’s fellow soldiers situated in a park-like setting. Other illustrations locate the tomb in a carefully-tended churchyard with meandering paths bound by a fenced perimeter. As a twentieth-century photograph of Lilley’s tomb shows, one hundred years later the former British cemetery was ‘re-wilded’. This wild condition is very much in keeping with images of imperial memorials from former colonized countries around the world, and we see human neglect in this plant growth.

Photograph of the tomb of Sergeant-Major Lilley taken in 1967, © Arthur Hawkey, 1969

But the natural processes of deterioration in foreign and colonial graveyards, and the forgetfulness it suggests, is not an exclusively postcolonial phenomena. Kriegel highlights how Victorian campaigners like W.H. Russell documented the poor state of the Crimean War graves in order to shock and shame Britons into donating money for their repair and maintenance. In other instances, the very process of documentation was an act of preservation. As Trev Broughton has argued in this journal, efforts to copy the epitaphs of British gravestones in nineteenth century India suggest that Victorians were themselves afraid of forgetting their dead.[1] The reproduction of grave images through photography and in newspapers allowed foreign and colonial cemeteries into Victorian homes and preserved them, often by sheer dint of numbers. Graves like Lilley’s became images that were no longer subject to the trespass of foreign vegetation or the battering of extreme weather.

Imported images or tokens of death could testify to survival and endurance as much as they commemorated fallen comrades or enemies. As Holly Furneaux discussed in the ‘Crimean War Remains’ panel, souvenirs taken from slain soldiers and sent to Britain testified to a desire to commemorate survivors’ proximity to death as well as an attempt to domesticate the war experience for families and friends. Some of the mementos of death returning from the Crimean War were themselves alive. In the homecoming parades, crowds sought to pluck hairs from the mane and tail of Ronald, the horse that the Earl of Cardigan rode in the death-defying Charge of the Light Brigade. As this Graphic illustration of his mounted head shows, Ronald’s own death paradoxically allowed him to become a more substantial souvenir of that combat survival.

The removal of animate objects, human or animal, and inanimate object, like gravestones, from their original landscapes was tempting because they could be enjoyed at home, divorced forever from a natural environment that was beyond the control of the memorialists. Upsetting as was evidence of destroyed or unvisited British graveyards around the world, perhaps the thought that disturbed many Victorians the most was that they might leave nothing behind. That there would be no remains.


[1] Trev Lynn Broughton, ‘The Bengal Obituary: Reading and Writing Calcutta Graves in the Mid Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 15:1 (2010), 59. This article can be downloaded here.


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