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International Day of Friendship

Next week sees the celebration of the UN's International Day of Friendship. In this week's blog, I reflect the importance of friendship by looking at some of the ways friend remember each other after death.

The United Nations (UN) proclaimed the International Day of Friendship in 2011, aiming to celebrate the role friendship between people, countries, cultures and individuals can play in leading to peace. The UN encourages governments to mark the day annually on the 30th July with events and initiatives that contribute to international efforts in mutual understanding and reconciliation.

As family historians, we often focus more on biological relationships than on friendships. However, our friends play a big part in our lives and some of our ancestors had companions who were more important to them than family. One problem when researching friendship in our families' pasts is that those relationships are not always recorded. There may be a reference to a friend in a will or diary entry, but there are no civil registration records to mark a great friendship.

Often it is in the records created after death that we discover the true friendships of our ancestors. A will, for example, can be very revealing. So too can a headstone or memorial. Over the years I have come across several examples of friends being buried together. Sadly, in most cases, these are from early deaths in accidents or war.

In previous blogposts I've touched upon some moving signs of friendship after death.

Portrait of Alfred Noyes, by Alexander Bassano, 1922
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in 1905
In my post on Bandon Hill Cemetery, Surrey, I noted the inscription on composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's (1875-1912) headstone. This is a quotation from Coleridge-Taylor's popular work, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, the words of which were written by his faithful friend, the poet, Alfred Noyes (1880-1958):

He lives while music lives

Too young to die -
his great simplicity,
his happy courage 
in an alien world,
his gentleness,
made all that knew him
love him.

While Coleridge-Taylor is remembered for the much-loved works, published togetheras The Song of Hiawatha, Noyes is perhaps most celebrated today for his 1906 poem, The Highwayman. Noyes had a long and successful life, but never forgot his close friend and colleague.

In my post on Blackburn Old Cemetery, I looked at the remarkable life of the "Blackburn Giant", Frederick John Kempster (1889-1918)As the above entry in the burial register on the Deceased Online website shows, Frederick Kempster died in Blackburn Workhouse at the age of 29. Originally from west London, Kempster moved to Wiltshire with his older sister. By 1911 he was over 7 feet tall and began working in show business as a "giant". In 1918, he was working in Blackburn with the circus when he caught pneumonia and died.

Publicity material for Kempster's employer, Astley & Co.'s American Circus, suggested his height was anywhere between 8 and 9 feet. Evidence from hospital records suggest he was around 7 feet 9 inches (2.36 metres). A note in the burial register reads that his coffin was extra large: "A Gaint [Giant] Coffin 9" long".

Although his life was relatively short, he had made a good friend, Billy. After he died, Kempster was buried in an 11 foot long grave under a stone commissioned by this friend. It reads simply:

Queen Victoria on 'Fyvie' with John Brown at Balmoral, by George Washington Wilson, 1863; medium: carte de visite; from the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland
Another treasured friend whose burial record can be found in the Aberdeenshire Collection of the Deceased Online database is John Brown (1826-1883), ghillie and later personal servant to Queen Victoria..John Brown was born in Crathie, Aberdeenshire in 1826, the son of a tenant farmer on the estate of Colonel Farquharson. He was employed as a ghillie, or outdoor servant, first in Crathie and then at nearby Balmoral Castle, which Victoria and Albert began visiting in 1848. After the death of Albert in 1861, the Queen became notably attached to her servant. She particularly appreciated Brown's loyalty. On 29 February 1872, the Queen presented Brown with the Victoria Devoted Service Medal for "presence of mind and devotion" in recognition of his defending her from an attack by Arthur O'Connor at Buckingham Palace earlier that month. When the Queen died in 1901, she was buried with a lock of John Brown's hair, his photograph, his letters and a ring belonging to his mother.

When Brown died in 1883 at the age of just 56, the Queen was distraught. The Times of 29 March 1883 reported that Brown died "in the Clarence Tower at Windsor Castle, after a short but painful illness resulting from an attack of erysipolas in the face, partly induced, it is believed by the recent severity of the weather." 

Although John Brown died at Windsor Castle, his body was returned to his native Crathie in Aberdeenshire to be laid to rest. Not long after the funeral, Victoria commissioned a life-size statue of John Brown that still stands in the grounds of Balmoral, across the water from her friend's grave. Significantly, the Queen used the inscription on the statue to indicate how much she valued Brown as a friend, rather than as a servant. This was perhaps something of which most of her subjects were unaware until it was revealed after death:
Friend more than servant.
Loyal. Truthful. Brave.
Selfless than Duty, even to the grave.
Statue of John Brown in the grounds of Balmoral

Have you come across memorials or headstones that pay tribute to friendship? We'd like to display some of these on our Facebook page and in this blog. Perhaps some of your ancestors were remembered by friends rather than family. Please get in touch via the Comments Box below, or on our Twitter or Facebook pages. We'll reproduce the best examples soon!


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