10 of London’s most curious (and historic) graves – 4. Sir Richard and Lady Burton…

One of the more uniquely designed tombs in London, that of Victorian explorer, soldier, linguist and diplomat Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890; not to be confused with the actor of the same name) was created in the shape of a Bedouin tent.

Located in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church in Mortlake in south-west London, the Grade II* tomb was designed by Burton’s strongly Catholic wife, Isabel, Lady Burton (1831-96), who is buried in it with him (his body was brought back from Trieste, Italy, where he expired; hers added after he death several years later). The tent’s form was apparently inspired by one the couple stayed in during a visit to Syria.

The tomb, which is constructed of stone from the Forest of Dean and Carrara marble and topped with two gilt stars, looks a fitting tribute for Burton who not only took part in the search for the source of the Nile but also scandalously translated the texts The Arabian Nights, The Perfumed Garden and The Kama Sutra into English.

The coffins of the couple can be seen inside the tomb through a large window in the rear of the roof which is accessed by a short ladder. The interior is also decorated with a range of items including religious paintings, statues and other items symbolic of the Catholic faith as well as strings of camel bells.

The inscription on the front of the mausoleum features a commemorative sonnet by poet Justin Huntly McCarthy as well as the inscription, “This monument is erected to his memory by his living countrymen”.

The tomb was restored in 1975 and more recently in 2012-13.

The interior of the church also features a memorial to Burton (who actually described himself as an atheist). It takes the form of a stained glass window which depicts Burton as a medieval knight.

WHERE: St Mary Magdalen Church, 61 North Worple Way, Mortlake (nearest overground station is Mortlake); WHEN: Reasonable hours; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.stmarymags.org.uk.

PICTURES: Maureen Barlin (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/image cropped)

10 (more) curious London memorials…9. The Speke Monument…

Speke-MonumentWhile thousands walk past this obelisk in Kensington Gardens each day, few probably realise it commemorates the life of John Hanning Speke, a Victorian-era explorer who discovered Lake Victoria in East Africa and named its northern outflow as the source of the Nile.

The red granite monument, designed by Philip Hardwicke and made from stone quarried in Scotland, was paid for by public donations and sponsored by Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographic Society which had paid for two of Speke’s expeditions. It was installed in 1866 and is located near the junction of Lancaster Walk and Budges Walk.

Speke, who had been on several expeditions in Africa, had only died at the age of 37 two years before in relatively controversial circumstances. He was shot by his own gun only the day before he was to participate in a debate with another explorer, Sir Richard Burton, about the source of the River Nile (Speke claimed the source of the Nile was Rippon Falls which flowed out of Lake Victoria; Sir Richard disputed this claim – it was later proven correct). Some have claimed Speke’s death to be suicide; others that it was an accident.

The monument itself was circumspect with regard to Speke’s success – it didn’t directly credit him as being the discoverer of the river’s source. This was rectified in 1995 when a plaque giving credit where it was due was placed on the ground in front of the monument by the Friends of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.