As a child growing up in nearby Hatch End, the gravestone of John Port was always a highlight of a visit to St Mary’s Church in Harrow On The Hill.

On the afternoon of 7 August 1838, Port was a guard on the London to Birmingham train and as it travelled through Harrow, he slipped and fell while walking between the carriages to check tickets. Both his legs were severed as the train went over him and he died later that day from massive blood loss.

The coroner’s inquest found that:

the unfortunate deceased started with the Denbigh Hall five o-clock train on Tuesday last from the station at Euston grove, and having arrived within a mile and a quarter of Harrow, as was the usual custom, he dismounted from his seat for the purpose of collecting from the passengers what is termed the ‘excess fares.’ … In the performance of this duty the deceased was engaged on Tuesday, which compelled him to pass from one carriage to the other by the steps, and when in the act of placing his foot on one of them, at the time the train was proceeding at upwards of thirty miles an hour, his foot slipped between the wheels, which as they successivley passed over, dragged his legs in, crushing them inch by inch up to one of his knees and above the other.

His tombstone bears a gruesome poetic account of the incident.

TO THE MEMORY OF
THOMAS PORT
SON OF JOHN PORT OF BURTON UPON TRENT
IN THE COUNTY OF STAFFORD, HAT MANUFACTURER,
WHO NEAR THIS TOWN HAD BOTH HIS LEGS
SEVERED FROM HIS BODY BY THE RAILWAY TRAIN.
WITH THE GREATEST FORTITUDE HE BORE A
SECOND AMPUTATION BY THE SURGEONS, AND
DIED FROM LOSS OF BLOOD.
AUGUST 7TH 1838 AGED 33 YEARS.
Bright rose the morn and vig’rous’ rose poor Port.
Gay on the Train he used his wonted sport:
Ere noon arrived his mangled form they bore,
With pain distorted and o’erwhelmed with gore:
When evening came to close the fatal day,
A mutilated corpse the sufferer lay.

Over the years, the headstone has eroded to the point of near illegibility, despite being Grade II listed in 1983.

Port’s death came only eight years after the first ever British rail fatality, that of William Huskisson MP, who died in similar circumstances.

At the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool railway, he “lost his balance in clambering into the carriage and fell back upon the rails in front of the Dart, the advancing engine” which then ran over his leg, severing it. Huskisson died of blood loss, having “lingered in great agony for nine hours.”

Surprisingly, there is also a memorial nearby for another transport-fatality pioneer.

Two minutes stroll down the hill, on the corner of Grove Hill, is a plaque commemorating the first car  driver ever to die in a road accident.

The driver, Mr E.R. Sewell had been demonstrating the vehicle, a Daimler Wagonette, to 63-year-old Major James Stanley Richer, Department Head at the Army & Navy Stores, with the view to a possible purchase for the company.As they drove down the hill at 14mph, a wheel shed it’s rim. Both Sewell and Richer were thrown from the car onto the road.

Sewell died instantly, and when Major Richer died four days after the accident without regaining consciousness, it became a dubious double-first – the first death of a driver in Britain, followed by the first death of a passenger in a car

The dubious accolade of being the first person to be killed by a car in Britain goes to Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon who on 17 August 1896 was run over by a Roger-Benz car while attending a folk dancing festival at Crystal Palace.

The driver was going at 4 mph (described by witness as “a reckless pace”), and at Mrs Driscoll’s inquest, Coroner William Percy Morrison said he hoped that “such a thing would never happen again.” He was also the first to apply the term ‘accident’ to violence caused by speed.

Since then, some 30 million people have lost their lives in car accidents, but a woman from Croydon is the name which appears at the very top of the list.

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Just to the right of the doorway of St Mary’s Church, at the summit of Harrow On The Hill, is a small memorial tablet dedicated to Allegra, daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont.

The lack of detail on the stone hides one of the most poignant, saddest tales in literary history.

Born in Bath in January 1817, Allegra Byron was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley.

She had relentlessly pursued Byron, and despite thinking her “foolish”, the combination of her advances and his weakness for women was too much: “I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way.”

Byron in 1822

When the child was born, Byron was in Venice, and showed little interest in ‘the little being’ who had been named Alba in his absence. The child’s birth coincided with a time when Byron was at his most dissolute: a time, according to Edna O’Brien in Byron in Love, he was “bargaining with mothers and father for their daughters, brazenly naming his conquests from contessas to cobblers’ wives and claiming to have ‘tooled’ with two hundred women of one sort or another.”

Considering his lifestyle, his decision to have the child sent to him when she was a year old seems positively bizarre. The penniless Claire believed their daughter would be guaranteed a better future with her famous father, and sent him “my child because I love her too well to keep her.” Although she could not have realised it, she would never see her daughter again.

Claire Clairmont

None of her many heartbroken, pleading letters to Byron would ever be answered and worse, his deep-rooted animosity for Claire was passed on to his child.

Byron had decided to “acknowledge and breed” his daughter, albeit in a conditional way – he gave her the surname Biron to distinguish her from his legitimate daughter and renamed her Allegra (its meaning of ‘cheerful, brisk’ couldn’t be a less accurate premonition of the child’s fate.) The first meeting between father and infant daughter was not promising: “My bastard came three days ago,” he wrote. “Heathy – noisy – & capricious.”

Within months, Byron had tired of Allegra and placed her in the care of the British Consul-General Richard Belgrave Hoppner and his wife, neither of whom were very fond of the child. When they left Venice, Allegra was passed on to their servant Antonio and then to the wife of the Danish Consul, “by which time she showed the remoteness of an abandoned child.”

At the same time, Byron was indulging in any romantic encounter which came his way, contracting myriad sexually transmitted diseases and writing his vast blasphemous and bawdy work Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819.

Byron’s feelings for his banished daughter veered between irritation and repulsion. Sent to a convent for her perceived attitude – at three years old, he said she was “obstinate as a mule and ravenous as a vulture” – Byron received a letter from Allegra.

My dear Papa – it being fair time I should so much like a visit from my Papa as I have many desires to satisfy; will you please your Allegra who loves you so?

The abbess of the convent included her own note inviting Byron to come to see Allegra before he left for Pisa and assuring him “how much she is loved.” On the back of this letter, Byron wrote: “Sincere enough, but not very flattering – for she wants to see me because ‘it is the fair’ to get some paternal Gingerbread – I suppose.”

Byron never responded to Allegra’s letter and never visited the child during the thirteen months she was in the convent.

In 1822, as Claire begged to see her daughter again – “I can no longer resist the internal inexplicable feeling which haunts me that I shall never see her anymore. I entreat you to destroy this feeling by allowing me to see her” – Byron sent Allegra even further away, to the Capuchin convent in distant Bagnacavallo.

Shelley and Byron had become friends after Claire had introduced them (their friendship quickly shattered due to Byron’s debauched behaviour), and the poet visited Allegra (who was effectively his niece) at the convent. Bringing her a gold chain as a present, he found the ‘shy and serious’ child expressing the wish that she would one day be visited by her mother or father. Claire was so desparate to see her daughter that she considered kidnapping her, or forging a letter in Byron’s hand directing her to be returned to England.

Sadly, any plans she was devising came too late. During the summer, Byron received word that Allegra had been “ill, dangerously ill” and as he half-heartedly arranged for her to conveyed to a doctor, she died “of a convulsive catarrhal attack” (most likely either typhus or malaria.)

She was just five years old, and had spent the last four of those effectively alone.

Whether it was genuine grief, or deep, unassailable guilt regarding the way he’d acted during his daughter’s short life, Byron was devastated by the news about the detested child he’d completely abandoned. When he was first told:

A mortal paleness spread over his face, his strength failed him and he sunk into a seat…He remained immovable in the same attitude for an hour and no consolation seemed to reach his ears, let alone his heart.

It was a “stunning and unexpected” blow, Byron told Shelley, but he refused to publicly admit his feelings or conduct towards Allegra had been anything but perfect.

Three years after Allegra died, however, he told the Countess of Blessington that her death had filled him with retrospective grief:

Let the object of affection be snatched away by death, and how is all the pain ever inflicted upon them avenged! The same imagination that led us to slight or overlook their sufferings, now that they are forever lost to us, magnifies their estimable qualities … How did I feel this when my daughter, Allegra, died! While she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her.

Having never visited the convent while she was alive, Byron made a pilgrimage to it after her death, and gave what remained of her clothes for a statue to be erected on the grounds.

Allegra’s tiny body was sent back to England – “the body is embarked – in what ship – I know not’ – and a ghoulish rumour circulated that the child was sent back to England in two parts to save money. Whilst untrue, it’s existence hints as just how depraved the people of England believed Byron to be.

In fact, Byron lavished more attention on Allegra’s corpse than he ever had while she was breathing. She was conveyed from the London Wharf in a fine hearse and mourning coach, drawn by horses festooned with feathers and velvet; her destination was St Mary’s Church on Harrow-on-the-Hill.

The church was chosen as Byron spent many boyhood hours in the churchyard while a schoolboy at Harrow between 1801-1805, and it inspired his 1807 poem Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow.

He knew exactly where he wanted her to be laid. “There is,” he wrote in May 1822, “a spot in the church’yard’, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the ‘church’.”

Byron composed a eulogy to be carved on a marble tablet inside the church door, commemorating “the memory of Allegra, daughter of George Gordon Lord Byron” and quoting a verse from Samuel: “I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.”

But the Rector of Harrow, the Revd John William Cunningham, and the churchwardens considered Byron so immoral, they refused the stone, citing Allegra’s illegitimacy which was compounded by the identification of the father’s name (it’s also likely Byron’s imfamous immorality helped sway their decision.) As such, Allegra was buried in an unmarked plot outside the door of the South Porch.

It was only in 1980 that a memorial tablet was erected on the side of the church near to the place she was interred.

Following Byron’s death from a fever in Greece, his remains were returned to England and a squabble broke out as to where he would be buried – his reputation was such that no one wanted him.

Westminster Abbey refused him burial, as did St Mary’s Church, something which Byron acknowledly sadly at the time of Allegra’s death.

The spot he had chosen for her grave, he wrote in a letter to his publisher John Murray, was the very one “where I once hoped to have laid my own.”

Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph Denis Odevaere (c.1826)

The first sign that a vigil is ongoing in Camden Square comes on nearby Murray Street. Someone has added something to the road-sign in pen: “Amy”, followed by an arrow pointing towards the house in which she lived.

Since her death sometime in the early afternoon of Saturday 23rd July, the small strip of grass opposite No. 30 Camden Square has transformed into a shrine to Amy Winehouse.

Three days after her death, the road is choked with TV vans with vast satellites on their roofs. Spanish students lounge around, hugging one another and making peace signs into iPhones. Cyclists slow down to look at the crowd. Despite the hundred or so people standing around – waiting for something, but quite what it is, no-one seems sure – it’s incredibly quiet.

The main voices to be heard are those of TV reporters – no British ones on the scene by Monday, just American and Australian entertainment stringers filing back reports to unseen studios.

It’s not funereal as such, but there are no MP3 players, no radios, and no one singing any of the songs so intimately associated with the woman whose death has brought them here. Instead, there’s a sullen, hugely respectful line of people filing by the 18ft of mementoes that have collected at the entrance to the park which Amy Winehouse’s home looks directly out on.

The singer’s face beams back from dozens of photocopied photographs taken with fans over the years; with drawings of her famous beehive and thick kohl eyelashes; with handwritten notes; and with the occasional large painting celebrating the icon she’d become some time before her untimely death.

Despite working in music radio for years, I only ever saw Amy Winehouse once – and naturally it was in Camden. Coming down from the private room at the top of the Hawley Arms much too late one Friday night a few years back, I passed her on the stairs, small, tottering on massive heels, resplendent in a clingy black and white checked dress. It wasn’t a special moment by any means – it just seemed like the natural order of things. You went out drinking in Camden every so often and, sooner or later, you’d see Amy Winehouse.

She was one of the few contemporary musical acts to be intimately associated with a specific area of London. Camden and Amy; the two were synonymous. Drugs, vintage clothing, live music, rough boys, late nights, hard drinking – it’s hard to think of another star whose attributes match so exactly the place where they lived.

She was living in Camden when she became both an international star and domestic tabloid dynamite. At the height of her notoriety in 2008, she briefly moved to Bow (leaving Camden was intended to remove her from familiar habit and temptation) but returned after a year, buying the house in Camden Square in March 2010. But as soon as she did, as the Sun put it, “the parasites…crept back in and dragged her into the gutter.”

Three days before her death, her final on-stage appearance was fittingly at the Camden Roundhouse, where she sang with her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield as part of the iTunes Festival. Camden was the melting pot where she created her internationally celebrated work Back To Black; it would also be the last place her majestic voice would ever be heard.

On Thursday, walking back into town after a meeting in Kentish Town, I wandered down Inverness Street. I was thinking of doing an entry on the Good Mixer pub, but there were spits of rain in the air, and I decided I’d postpone snapping away. As I walked back, I noticed one of the stalls in the market had a large airbrushed picture of Winehouse on the back. It read: “Nobody stands between me and my Camden.”

I pondered taking a photo, but as the rain started to pick up, I skipped past and headed for the station.

When I walked back past it today (the record shop immediately behind playing You Know I’m No Good loud enough so that it could be heard by anyone passing by), the stallholder had covered the whole thing with a black sheet. Whether it was a tribute or just to keep the tourists and their pens away from his stall, I don’t know, but it seemed apt.

Further up the road, the probable future of the Amy Winehouse brand was prominently displayed. In the window of Escapade, sandwiched between two Blues Brothers, was the Winehouse fancy dress kit. The tragic story of a phenomenally talented young woman is boiled down to a beehive and a microphone you can wear at a hen party.

The house in Camden Square will undoubtedly become the newest exhibit in the London rock tour, another pilgrimage site filed alongside the residences where Mama Cass and Jimi Hendrix expired.

The graffiti appearing on the road-signs this weekend is just the start.

As soon as the police tape is rolled up, the wall of No.30 is going to be scribbled on by people from all over the world. The residents of Camden Square will have to get used to stepping over half-melted candles and soggy hand-written notes scattered across the square. The house will become as essential a Camden destination as Stables Market and the Electric Ballroom.

Walking round the collection of letters, photos and drawings that celebrate her life in Camden Square, a man in his sixties pointed out a glass of rose to his wife. “She liked a drink, that’s true! She certainly liked a drink!” As he pointed, his voice suddenly cracked and he started to sob.

There is something undeniably moving about the piles of single cigarettes, the half-size bottles of vodka, the nicorette patches plastered onto the trees, and the half-full wine glasses standing up on the grass. It seemed to me like the communal equivalent of everyone getting together in a pub to toast the deceased after the funeral.

It’s just so terribly sad.

There’s nothing else to say.

UPDATE – August 2011

As the days went on, ten of the road signs around Amy Winehouse’s former home (the first photo in this post shows the sign two days after her death) became completely covered in graffiti from fans. The Ham and High reported that four were taken by souvenir hunters, who ignored pleas from Camden Council to return them so they could be passed on to her family.

Camden Council’s environment boss Sue Vincent told the paper: “We are appealling to the good nature and conscience of the person or persons who stole the signs and are asking for them to be returned. We are not concerned with who took them and will not be investigating this if we can get them back. The signs can be returned to any police station in Camden and no questions will be asked. They will then be given to the Winehouse family.”