Margaret Jefferson’s Death
and the Cathcart Cemetery Story
BILL CROUCH reports
Stan Laurel’s mother, stage actress Margaret (Madge) Jefferson, born Margaret Metcalfe, died at home at 17 Craigmillar Road, in the Battlefield area of Glasgow at 8.30am on Tuesday 1st December 1908 after a long illness. She was 48 years old and had been married to Arthur for 24 years.
Before moving to Scotland in 1905 the Jeffersons had lived and worked in North Shields for ten years, and on Margaret’s death, the local North Shields press gave a very generous tribute to Margaret and to her charity work, especially for young children in the area.
Margaret was buried in an unmarked grave in Cathcart Cemetery in Glasgow’s south side, two miles from Craigmillar Road. No other person is in the ‘lair’ (grave), and the owner is given as Margaret’s husband Arthur Jefferson, Theatre Manager, Metropole Theatre, Glasgow.
The grave lay forgotten and overgrown for over 70 years until I located it in the mid 1980s by examination of death records in the Parish of Cathcart in the County of Renfrew. Since then it has been respectfully visited by many Sons of the Desert.
Cathcart Cemetery, my local cemetery, is an example of a Victorian garden cemetery. The garden cemeteries movement was a response to the deadly insanitary problems with overcrowded church and town graveyards and the desire to find alternate burial grounds. They became an expression of Victorian municipal pride in the Victorian golden age of pride, aspiration and affluence.
Cathcart Cemetery contains a large number of grand monuments with fine sculpture and fine stones, sheltered, or even hidden under ivy and moss within a landscaped setting.
The Cemetery was privately owned when it opened, thirty years before Margaret’s death in 1878 - and according to press reports at the time there was more than a suspicion of impropriety over the sale of the land from owner Mr Gordon. The site chosen was carved out of the Victorian countryside on the edge of Cathcart and was perfect because of its green setting and its easy access from Glasgow.
The picturesque cemetery was designed and laid out by William Ross McKelvie who was a foremost specialist in cemetery design.
A promotional leaflet at the time said “The cemetery has been laid out and embellished with artistic taste and yielding flowers and blooms for nine months of the year.”
It became an esteemed place to visit for quiet reflection and contemplation and to take a stroll in the fresh air and consider the architectural quality of the grand monuments, and the families who had commissioned them. It was a green space designed for life and wellbeing as well as commemorating the departed.
The main entrance is reached from Clarkston Road through an avenue of mature lime trees and leads to rather impressive stone pillars, iron gates and a Scots Baronial lodge house. The beautiful lodge lay derelict for many years but has been saved and restored to its former glory to now form a large family home. The restoration was of such quality that it won a Glasgow Institute of Architects design award in 2011 and is a listed building.
In front of the lodge house a long well maintained path sweeps up to the left past the World War I Cross of Sacrifice. Where the rise levels off, an uphill path to the right leads to section L of the cemetery. Opposite a section of metal fencing between two headstones, marked Craib and Mackie is the grave of Margaret Jefferson, lair L203. In late Autumn this section in particular, can be rather atmospheric despite much recent neglect.
The cemetery was in Cathcart Parish until local government boundary changes in 1996 which transferred management responsibilities to East Renfrewshire Council.
Over the years many of the memorials have fallen into disrepair and the mature woodland tree roots have tilted many headstones to odd angles, and others the Council have taken action to lay flat for safety reasons.
It is sad to see this irreplaceable historical resource suffer neglect. Recently however, a local group has taken the initiative to help maintain this Victorian garden cemetery and to remind us how important it is to keep history alive.
We wish them well.
The cemetery has a number of interesting memorials, history carved in stone, whose fascinating stories have recently been reaching a wider audience as more people are recognising the value of these headstones which help bring to the fore Cathcart Cemetery’s rich history.
No more than 100 metres from Margaret Jefferson’s grave at the highest point in the cemetery, there is a splendid view of the surrounding countryside, and to the west in the distance the rolling Argyllshire hills. It is here that we find two grave markers which are of particular interest as they involve individuals who were actively involved in the theatre around the time of Margaret’s death.
The first of these markers is set back from the path and surrounded by overgrown bushes. It is a small rose granite headstone with the intriguing inscription:
Mark Sheridan, comedian, died 15 January 1918.
Mark Sheridan (Frederick Shaw) was an English Music Hall artiste. His last performance was at Moss Empire’s Glasgow’s Coliseum Theatre on Eglinton Street. Between 1913 and 1917 it had been successfully managed by Stan’s older brother Gordon George.
According to Baxter, the theatre manager, Sheridan’s 1918 ‘Gay Paree’ Review had not been well received and Sheridan was found dead, shot in the head in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park.
The official verdict was suicide.
Sheridan was a renowned artiste in his day and is perhaps best remembered for singing “I do like to be beside the seaside.”
Nearby ,successful and thoughtful crowdfunding by the Gaelic community has recently renovated and reinstated the rather grand Celtic Cross memorial to Jessie Niven MacLachlan. She was an accomplished Gaelic soprano who was born in the small highland town of Oban but who was celebrated world-wide. She sang for Queen Victoria at Balmoral and toured with Harry Lauder, singing and recording music in Gaelic. She received top billing everywhere she sang.
It is good to see her memorial getting the attention it deserves and it can only be hoped that in the near future the same attention will be paid to Lair 203.