Death on the island

Charles Cowling

 2014-05-04 14

Browner’s memorial, Isle of Portland


The dead of the First World War were tucked up in cemeteries designed and regulated by Those Who Know Best. Edwin Lutyens was one of the architects. Rudyard Kipling was in charge of what was inscribed. The result is, most people agree, fitting and splendid. It was achieved by denying the families of those who had died any form of personalisation save for a few words on the headstone – which had to be approved first.

Good taste can be very inhibiting, so it was refreshing to spend a few days on the Isle of Portland last week and witness an altogether more unaffected approach to the commemoration of the dead — People’s Memorials.

Portlanders like a bit of poetry. We like poetry that rhymes and can be easily understood. I enjoyed this from our latest freesheet by Linda Battely. On the first anniversary of his death, 29 May, it commemorates Darren Clare, a young man famous for his kindness:

Darren was a happy lad
If he could help you, he would only be too glad,
Gardening, shopping, cleaning, anything you name it,
Even if some days he didn’t feel that fit,
Darren would help you if he could…

 On Bank Holiday Monday, 26 May, there was a cricket match to celebrate the life of legendary cricketer Melvyn Tremlin, who died in October 2013 aged 61. He could have played for Dorset if he’d wanted. There was an open-air rock band, plenty of picnicking and a cricket match: “We promise that the cricket will not be too demanding, and there will be a lengthy tea break for those who need it.” Very jolly it looked.

We have memorials to the dead all over the island. Lots of benches, of course, for the dead like to gaze and Portland offers them many vistas –


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We’re littered with boulders, and some are adopted unofficially as memorials –


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The boulder at the top of the page is dedicated to Keith ‘Browner’ Brown, a ‘loveable rogue’ who may have jumped to his death here. It’s always dressed on his birthday in April –


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Portland is the final resting place of foreigners who died in its waters –


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Here’s our Royal Naval cemetery in which 12 German airmen lie alongside British sailors –




Here’s one of our pirates’ graves. They weren’t actually pirates, but islanders mistake the memento mori for brigands’ insignia –




I like our posh memorials. I like our People’s Memorials even more.

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james showers
7 years ago

‘Keep Portland Weird’ is the timeless bumper sticker sported by some of these island folk; the heart too is wonderful – never more evident than in the graveyard at the top of the island, with tall, slim, beautifully carved Portland Stone, intricate and fine. Their craft traveled with them to the pub, where the old table was deeply scrolled with names and patterns – I imagined by the artisan workers as they came off their shifts.
Thank you Charles for a great and evocative post.

7 years ago

I agree about the posh memorials. Your island does them so well. And something we need to remember (on the U.S. side) is just what the cost of the first World War was to your people. Not a village or town untouched by death – and oh, the memorials to the soldiers – how well you remember and how quickly others forget.

David Holmes
David Holmes
7 years ago

It’s a special place – and quite terrifying if you’re sailing past, west to east in search of shelter in Weymouth.

Jon Underwood
7 years ago

Thank you I really liked this post

7 years ago

Lovely Charles. I’m very taken with the idea of just ‘owning’ a boulder – better than benches to my mind.

7 years ago
Reply to  Vale

I like boulders.