Skip to content

Grave Humour from Harrow

June 27, 2011
by the gentle author

Last year, I paid a visit to St Paul’s in Shadwell, overlooking the basin – once known as the sea captain’s church – in the hope of photographing, or at least transcribing some of the tombstones in the graveyard commemorating those whose lives were spent upon the seven seas. But to my disappointment, I discovered that all the stones had been erased by the elements and I was confounded in my quest.

And so – as you can imagine – it rang a bell for me when a beautiful, hand-printed, slim volume of inscriptions from tombstones mysteriously arrived in the mail, collected by the distinguished poet Leonard McDermid in Harrow churchyard.

As a trawlerman, artist, poet, typesetter and bookbinder of over fifty years experience, Mr McDermid is obviously a whizz with the display fonts and these epitaphs afforded the ideal opportunity for him to pull out all the drawers in his comp room. With typography of exemplary elegance, bound in austere black covers and hand stitched by the author, this collection, entitled Northwest Passage, is an honourable tribute to those seamen who might otherwise be forgotten – as the Earl of Ruislip outlines in his brief introduction.

“THE AUTHOR of this collection has done an admirable service in deciphering and recording some of the inscriptions which I am told were to be found until quite recently in the churchyard at Harrow. Unfortunately there is little point in visiting the churchyard now if one is bent on reading the original inscriptions. The effects of the weather, acid rain and Health & Safety Legislation have ensured that no traces remain – The Rt. Hon. Rupert Glance-Chalmondley P.C., C.B.E., R.N.V.R., J.P., The Earl of Ruislip, Ruislip Manor.”

As both poet and seafarer, Mr McDermid has unlocked a certain mordant lyricism in these neglected epitaphs. It has been said of Leonard McDermid’s work that he “wraps his meaning within a shell and hides it in the sea, where it may happily be discovered.” and these nautical inscriptions evoke a rich and strange poetry of seaborne jeopardy, which offers the ideal light relief whenever melancholic tendencies strike.

Texts copyright © Leonard McDermid

Copies of Northwest Passage, written, handprinted and bound by Leonard McDermid at The Stitchil Marigold Press can be obtained from

You may also like to read

A Dead Man in Clerkenwell

At Bow Cemetery

Spring Bulbs at Bow Cemetery

12 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    June 27, 2011

    These pocket-sized narratives are priceless. Many thanks for them.

  2. paul permalink
    June 27, 2011

    I must say I find the stories in some of these epitaphs most harrowing.

  3. Chris F permalink
    June 27, 2011

    Amazing that in each case the person who died had a name that rhymed with that of the ship!
    I wonder if there was a Seaman Banyon on the Tori Canyon? Or an Albert Hose on the Mary Rose? Or a…… I think you get the picture! Are these epitaphs real or are did they surface from the depths of the poets imagination?

  4. June 27, 2011

    Having only just found your blog through ‘Down th Earth’ an Australian blog. This comment is not on the above but to do with Mr.Pussy getting you up from your bed at an early hour. We have 5 of the darlings and this morning I was up at 4.11 a.m. after suffering the very same treatment as you.
    Wonderful blog, so glad I have found you.

  5. Chris permalink
    June 27, 2011

    Chris F asks ‘Are these epitaphs real or are did they surface from the depths of the poets imagination?’


    and I think the ‘Earl of Ruislip’ sounds like an East End pub.

    Chris S

  6. Will Hill permalink
    June 28, 2011

    Lovely collection,

    May I add:

    Henry Higgins
    Fell from the riggings
    In Yokohama Harbour
    he hit the deck
    and broke his neck

    I have this from Keith Reid but I’m not sure where he got it from

  7. Alan permalink
    June 28, 2011

    Poor Edwin Plannic
    had a place on the Titanic
    but spotted the rhyme
    in time.

  8. Chris F permalink
    June 28, 2011

    Dear Will, I laughed out loud at your posting and Alan, I pondered for ages to come up with a rhyme for Titanic…. Well done. Years ago I read some epitaphs from ‘Wild West’ cemetaries and the humour ran along similar lines.

  9. June 29, 2011

    Having been brought up on and around boats throughout New England. And, although dad was a Captain that had severe words for those who tried crossing his right-of-way at sea… he did impress the following on me… when all else fails – GIVE WAY!! For years as a grade school youngster on boats I actually thought the following saying that dad repeated about “Give Way” (when all else fails) was from a burial ground head stone! Then as I got older I figured it was just a marine saying. Now from this post – I not so sure from whence it comes! LOL

    Here lies the body of one Michael O‘Day. He died defending his right of way. He was right… dead right… as he sailed along! BUT – He’s just as dead as if he were wrong!!

  10. John Campbell permalink
    April 29, 2012

    Just discovered this fantastic blog recently and i am enjoying reading back over older posts. Have to add my comment to this post as i grew up in Harrow, Middlesex and can assure your readers these wonderful epitaphs are cetainly not fom the hallowed grounds of St Marys atop the hill. As most of you already guessed they are ficticious, also nautical Harrow is a good 80 miles from the coast 😉
    Finding Spitalfields Life is like that wonderful book you accidently discover and just cannot put down – Wonderful!

  11. Jennifer Read permalink
    November 21, 2012

    At last, something to brighten my day.

  12. December 30, 2014

    I love your blog. There is so much to look at and read.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS