Secrets of a soldier’s grave
- Credit: Archant
A history project to research the names on a Finsbury Park church war memorial has led to the grave of a Great War soldier in Highgate Cemetery.
A history project to research the names on a Finsbury Park church war memorial has led to a grave in Highgate Cemetery. Members of St Mellitus’ Catholic Church undertook the project to mark the restoration of their magnificent Hunter organ, installed in 1920 in memory of 46 parishioners who fell in the Great War. Journalist David Norton chose to research his namesake Arthur Norton, tracking down the family to Islington and Crouch Hill where he lived with his Canadian wife before signing up to the Royal Flying Corps. Help came from Dr Ian Dungavell of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery who during lockdown located the family gravestone where Arthur was buried in March 1917 aged 38. Intriguingly it had been cleaned - offering hope that they might locate a living descendant. Searching the archives, Norton was first sent on a wild goose chase by a “clerical red herring” that wrongly listed Arthur as Canadian. “It can be quite challenging,” said Norton who lives in Tollington Park on the same street as the church.
“I spent a week on his trail after heading off thinking he was a Canadian airman. The records showed two Arthur William Nortons, and it took a while to work out that they were the same man. It’s still a bit of a mystery what he did in the war. We know he was in Farnborough and died in hospital in Aldershot but not what he died of. I was lucky to speak to Ian at Highgate Cemetery and find the grave which was conclusive proof that this was our man. The fact that someone has cleaned the headstone suggests there may be a descendent out there and we would love to speak to them.” Arthur was born in Park Street Islington and grew up on Corbyn Street and Marriott Road before marrying at The New Court Congregational Church in 1913 - which became St Mellitus in the 1950s. Norton, who is now editing and collating the other histories on the memorial, was keen on the project “not just as a list of stories and heroic deeds but as a link to the present.” “Having a strong connection to the people who lived here strengthens our community. We hope to create a map of where all the soldiers lived. It’s poignant because four neighbours with a connection to the church - we don’t know if they knew each other - went off to war and ended up dying in the same place. They are buried in the same cemetery in France. It has really made me look again at my own street.” And it made him think about the traumatic partings of a century ago.
“Those poor soldiers often have a generic description ‘presumed dead’ or ‘died of their wounds’ and it’s unimaginable that 100 years ago their loved ones had to live with not knowing what had happened to them. Some stories are heartbreaking, of people trying to get information about their relatives. One man from Finsbury Park went to Australia and had a girlfriend. He came back to fight in the war and for two or three years after he died she wrote to the authorities to try and find details because she hadn’t heard from him and his family had no idea she existed.” The National Lottery funded Organ Restoration Project continues into 2021 but in the meantime St Mellitus is live streaming a free festive concert to mark the organ’s centenary on December 13 performed by James Orford, Organist in Residence at Westminster Cathedral.