The secret history of Chislehurst by Joanna Friel
What has Chislehurst and the island of St Helena got in common? Not a question often posed but one curious fact that gave rise to my writing Secret Chislehurst. Both places have empty Napoleonic tombs! The body of Napoleon Bonaparte was exhumed and reinterred at Les Invalides in Paris in 1840, nearly 20 years after the former Emperors’ death. In 1889 the body of his nephew, the last Emperor of France, Louis Napoleon III, was removed from its resting place in St Mary’s Church, Chislehurst and taken to a mausoleum at St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire where it lies to this day.
It’s a bizarre thought that the last monarch of France, his wife and his son lie on English soil and their sojourn as exiles in England created a lasting legacy on our little Kent Village. When Amberley approached me to write Secret Chislehurst I had already enjoyed the task of producing Chislehurst Through Time for them, a book of old and new pictures, but this new ‘Secret’ series required a greater search for stories and images which accounted for my photographer getting lost on more than one occasion!
I thought we were on safer ground when we set out to spend the morning with Father Charles at the little Catholic Church of St Mary’s where Louis Napoleon and the Prince Imperial had originally been laid to rest amidst great pomp and ceremony, attended by the Prince of Wales, deputising for Queen Victoria. We captured our images of the tiled floor and the eagle emblazoned eaves and prepared to depart when the softly spoken priest asked if I wanted to see his toilet in the presbytery! How could I refuse, he wasn’t enquiring if I needed to use the facilities, rather he wanted me to admire the pretty secret floor; there it was, in all its glory, adorned with the left over Napoleonic tiles, complete with Imperial eagles. A secret that had to be revealed in the book.
The churchyard too holds secrets, the grave of the illegitimate daughter of Charles Stewart Parnell and Katherine ‘Kitty’ O’Shea, a baby that sparked a scandal and lead to the downfall of the Irish political leader. I’m often to be found in graveyards and grateful for the secrets they have revealed. I love telling the story of how President Theodore Roosevelt sent 7 warships to rescue a kidnapped Greek playboy thinking he was an American citizen. The headstone of Ion Perdicaris proudly reveals his former addresses; Trenton, New Jersey, Tangiers, Morocco and the Manor House, Chislehurst. Quite an adventure and a story worthy of the book.
I was bemused by the fact that Amberley first listed the book as detailing the clandestine past of Chislehurst life, I changed that to covert for fear of confusing or even upsetting some of my local readers, we really don’t have spies amongst our midst, though that’s not exactly true, back in 1871 the Lord of the Manor had spies placed in a local windmill to spy on the exiled French Emperor, though they were apparently also being spied on by French courtiers placed there by the Emperor!
All in all it’s been fascinating uncovering and telling the lesser known stories of Chislehurst’s past.
Joanna Friel and Adam Swaine's Secret Chislehurst is available for purchase now.