An Angel in a Tree, a Razor and a Beaver called “Chappie.”
by Adrian Bean
This is a sad story with a glad ending of sorts, and shines a light on some of the things that make an interest in cemeteries so fascinating: an unfortunate accident, a search for a “lost” family grave and an example of how a simple misinterpretation of written records can get in the way of helpful cemetery researchers from quickly finding the answer to queries. And of course, lots of “What ifs.”
THE SAD STORY
Lancelot George Hugh Beaver (quite a name, but to his family he was known as “Chappie”) was born in India on 17 November 1911. His family were tea and rubber planters, and after his father’s death, his mother stayed in Darjeeling and owned a guest house, “Alice Villa.” Chappie was an intelligent boy, attending St Paul’s School Jalaphar in Darjeeling from 1922 and passing the Junior Cambridge examination there in 1927. In September 1928 he left his mother and three sisters and went to Bedford Modern School to carry on with his studies, probably in anticipation of studying at Cambridge in due course.
One day on the late spring of 1929 he tried to cut out a corn on his toe…with a safety razor. It went wrong, and perhaps he kept quiet about it for too long due to embarrassment, but the upshot was that the medical facilities at the school and Bedford were too late to help him. He was transferred to St Thomas’ Hospital in London, but died of septicaemia on 25th of May, aged just 17. His mother travelled from India as quickly as she could, but he was dead by the time she arrived.
His grave was marked with a large Angel, and the wording clearly shows that he was much loved and missed. But as with many burials, it became neglected over time, as the family lived away from Bedford.
THE FAMILY SEARCH
In the autumn of 2013, Rosalind Cunliffe strolled round Foster Hill Road Cemetery looking for an angel.
She had travelled to Bedford to try and find the grave of her great-uncle, “Chappie” who no living member of the family had known. All she knew from her own father was that Chappie had died young, that the circumstances were heart-breaking, and that his grave was marked with an impressively large angel. In all innocence she hoped to find it easily, but of course there were thousands of gravestones, including many angels, and quite a few completely covered in ivy. She got nowhere.
By chance, members of the Friends were at the cemetery that day. They saw her, chatted, and she gave them details of her fruitless search for the angel; they promised her that they would do their best to find the grave.
HELP BY THE FRIENDS
Generally it’s fairly straightforward to find a “lost” grave as long as there is basic information available such as the name and approximate date of burial. So it wasn’t too long before research by Friends into the records at Norse Road pinpointed the grave reference. But when they went to that plot, there was no angel, so they had to report this back to Mrs. Cunliffe who was disappointed but puzzled; after all, surely a big angel couldn’t just disappear could it?
But researchers don’t give up easily, and members of the Friends are by nature helpful souls who want to do their best to give relations the answers they need; they carried on.
It turned out that the problem in finding the grave was that “Copperplate” handwriting may well be attractive to look at but it can be also be borderline illegible. How so?
Well, when burials were recorded, the tradition even in the 1920’s was that it should be in a flowery style, and in this case, the correct burial sector (Q) was written like an S in all the records. This meant that there was no angel on the plot originally “discovered” simply because there had never been one in that place. Chappie, together with his guardian angel, were some distance away in a completely different plot, close to the boundary with Bedford Park.
Even then it wasn’t completely straightforward to find, as the angel was hidden by a large English Holly tree, which even now seems to be holding the angel in place. Nobody knows when the tree was planted or by whom.
To complete the story, the Friends found out much more information for Mrs Cunliffe, as the search became something of a personal task for two Friends with connections with Bedford Modern School, John Gibbons and the late Richard Wildman (a former Chairman of the Friends and quixotic champion of Bedford gone by). In the school records and magazine, they found correspondence between the Headmaster and Chappie’s mother about him coming to Bedford, arranging for him to be met off the steamer “Merkana” on arrival, and for him to be given malt and cod liver oil. She sent the headmaster supplies of tea, and he sent her a New Year’s card in return.
School staff were used to looking after students like Chappie, as over the years there had been many students like him, studying at Bedford schools while the parents were living thousands of miles away somewhere in the then British Empire, so he probably felt “at home” as much as was possible in the circumstances.
He seems to have been an exemplar to other students, as witnessed by the wording used in the school magazine after his death:
“He endeared himself to all in a wonderful way, simply because he was one who would have grown up into the type of man we visualise Sir Philip Sydney to have been.”
What if he had asked school staff to deal with the corn on his toe? What if he had told people sooner about the problem? What if his mother had been able to travel back more quickly? What if he had lived?
Perhaps he would then have become somebody of note. Perhaps he would have served with distinction in the Second World War. He might have had children who might still be alive today, living in Bedford.
What if members of the Friends hadn’t been there on the day Mrs Cunliffe visited? What if they had just ignored her? What if the registrar in 1928 had had less impressive but more legible handwriting? What if the Friends hadn’t been able to access the old school records?
THE FINAL CHAPTER
Quite apart from the tale being a sad one, it shows some of the highs and lows experienced when carrying out research. In this case it ended up with the family query being answered even more fully than Mrs Cunliffe expected, the previously “unknown” story of the family’s forgotten member being discovered… and the icing on the cake was that we found another fascinating monument in the cemetery, one which volunteers still look after and keep tidy: an angel hidden in a tree.
Section Q. Grave reference 291
(Article written using details from articles in Friends Newsletters in June and October 2014, written by Rosalind Cunliffe and Colin Woolf)
February 21, 2021
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