Down a little path, by some flats and opposite a rather inviting looking pub called The Fox under the Hill is one of those intriguing secret gems you can find all over London – unexpected, understated but wonderful! This is the Old Blue Cross Pet Cemetery.
It all began in 1897 when a kennels was opened on Shooters Hill to take in the pets of soldiers serving in the Boer War. The kennels were later taken over by the Blue Cross which opened a hospital there. During wartime, it provided a safe place for service men and women to leave their pets while they served abroad. According to the cemetery’s website, hundreds of dogs were kennelled there, not to mention cats and even guinea pigs!
What remains is a quiet oasis of 240 little gravestones set within a lovely walled garden filled with flowers. Many of the stones are for pets of service personnel from the world wars, however the earliest stone dates from 1906, and while it’s not possible to bury your pet here now, those wishing to pay tribute to their departed companions can buy a plaque for the cemetery wall. Reading the inscriptions on these plaques and gravestones can bring quite a lump to the throat:
“In mind a constant thought, in heart a silent sorrow.”
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the biggest space in your heart.”
“Polly. A dear little cat. The house without you is not a home.”
On August 10th I went along to the cemetery to see the wonderful way in which it has been restored and beautified by The Friends of the Pet Cemetery (FOPC) and to witness the unveiling of three special plaques. The previous day had been a typical British summer’s day, i.e. gale force winds and torrential rain! But thankfully, while it was still pretty breezy, the sun was shining and a good number of visitors attended the event, including some on four legs.
The first unveiling was performed by the Mayor Cllr Mick Hayes. I am always a bit star -struck around Mayoral types. I think it’s the impressive jewellery that does it. Anyway, after an eloquent speech in which Cllr Hayes paid tribute to the role animals played in conflicts for their country (over 16 million served in WW1 alone) a plaque was unveiled which bore a moving inscription from the Animal War Memorial Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne Australia:
They gained no crosses as a soldier may
No medals for the risks they ran
They only, in their puzzled, patient way
“Stuck to their guns”
Next came one of those special stories where things just seem to come together perfectly. Nicola White is a mudlark. Now, despite what I thought at first, that is not some kind of mud dwelling, singing bird(!) but is actually someone who scavenges beside rivers for items of value.
One day, when Nicola was searching on the Thames beach, near Greenwich, she came across a circular item, much corroded. Nicola took it home and, thinking it was a coin or shopping trolley token, left it on a work bench for several weeks. It was only later when she got round to cleaning it up that she saw what it really was: a dog tag for a certain Bonzo Tabner of 21 Pelton Road, Greenwich.
With the aid of the internet, in particular Ancestry.com and good old Facebook, Nicola managed to find out that Bonzo had been a much-loved pet during the Second World War, and amazingly, she even traced his owner, a very old lady, who did indeed remember her dog, Bonzo.
Intrigued, Nicola went on to discover a book by Clare and Christy Cambell called Bonzo’s War. In it the Campbell’s reveal much of what it was like to be a domestic pet during the Second World War. It’s a fascinating, if at times heartbreaking read, since under misguided official advice, 2.9 million dogs and cats were put to sleep in the autumn and winter of 1939. The thinking behind this was that pets would not be able to cope with the aerial bombardment, the noise, possible gas attacks, and all round chaos of war. There were also concerns that animals would be fed food needed for humans.
In fact, it was soon realised that many animals did cope and that dogs, in particular, were of great assistance in helping the rescue services find people buried in the rubble following bombing raids.
Nicola got together with Clare and Christy and they raised funds for a plaque to remember these pets who lost their lives. At the unveiling, was 85 year old Tony Weedon whose dog ‘Fluffy’ had been one of those euthanised. Tony was just 5 years old when he and his mother had gone to the vets, along with so many other pet owners trying to do-the-right-thing. Despite this being 80 years ago, Tony revealed how he still finds what happened upsetting, today.
The inscription on the plaque includes an anonymous quote from the end of he war:
“Dogs have dug into wrecked homes looking for their owners.
Cats have mewed for days outside piles of rubble, telling rescuers their owners are buried there.
Animals have quietened distressed children.
Yet when the history of war is written these things will not be recorded.”
Now they are.
(I happened to mention Tony’s story, this weekend, to my own mother, who is now 93, and she told me how she and her father had taken their cat, Dandy, to the vets at the start of the war in Southampton for ‘a bad eye.’ As they left, Dandy safely cradled in her daddy’s arms, my mother had seen a heap of dead dogs piled up just outside the surgery wall. She has never forgotten it.)
So, there were indeed plenty of poignant moments at the Old Blue Cross Cemetery event, and yet it was also very uplifting. Uplifting to think that we have not forgotten these animals and never will. Uplifting that while times have moved on and many things have changed, we still love our pets just the same, they still play important roles in our lives and we are still, very much, a nation of animal lovers. I suspect we always will be.