The Legend of London's Time-Traveling Tomb
Swinging open the front gate of Brompton Cemetery is a bit like cracking the spine of a book detailing London history. Famous suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst rests here. Beatrix Potter strolled its 39 acres and plucked names from tombstones to use in her work, including decedents Peter Rabbett and Mr. Nutkins. More than 35,000 monuments in all are present, rich and poor, known and obscure.
In the middle of the grounds and shrouded by trees stands a mausoleum. An imposing 20 feet tall with a pyramid peak, it’s made from granite, with a heavy bronze door secured by a keyhole. Decorative accents line the front, furthering the air of mystery. The door’s margin displays a rectangular band of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Erected in the early 1850s, it was intended as the final resting place of a woman named Hannah Courtoy and two of her three daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.
Courtoy’s tomb would be remarkable for its imposing stature and cryptic veneer alone: It's the largest, most elaborate construction in Brompton. But there’s more to the story. For the many visitors who make moonlight visits to the cemetery and for a small band of London raconteurs, the tomb’s missing key and resulting lack of access has led to speculation that something strange is going on inside—that it's secretly a time machine.
It’s a fantastic notion, but one that London musician and Courtoy historian Stephen Coates is quick to dismiss. “It’s not a time machine,” he tells mental_floss. “It’s a teleportation chamber.”
In order to try and digest the bizarre urban legend that’s been constructed around Courtoy’s tomb, it helps to understand the highly controversial life of the woman who ordered its construction.
Born around 1784 (sources differ), Hannah Peters fled an abusive father at a young age and found work as a housekeeper and as a tavern employee. In 1800, a friend introduced her to John Courtoy, a 70-year-old former wigmaker in poor health who had made a fortune in the lending business. Peters was shortly in his employ as a housekeeper. Within the year, she had given birth to the first of three daughters. She claimed they were Courtoy’s, although some eyes were raised in suspicion that the friend who made the introduction, Francis Grosso, might have been the real father.
Courtoy’s illness is also ill-defined in historical accounts, although it was said to follow a violent run-in with a prostitute in 1795 that left Courtoy—who had been slashed at with a knife—reserved and antisocial. He apparently warmed to Peters, who took his name and exerted considerable influence over many of his decisions. Courtoy’s 1810 will, which left the bulk of his fortune to an ex-wife named Mary Ann Woolley and their five children, was revised in 1814 so Hannah received the majority share.
When Courtoy died in 1818, the contents of the will were disputed, both by Woolley and Courtoy’s French relatives; they argued that dementia had overtaken Courtoy’s better senses. The legal arguments dragged on through 1827, at which point Hannah and her daughters had received most of Courtoy’s money.
According to the account presented in author David Godson’s 2014 book Courtoy’s Complaint, largely based on diaries kept by Courtoy housekeeper Maureen Sayers, Hannah's urge to distract herself from the often-unpleasant Courtoy led to developing a friendship that would prove essential to her later mythology. Like many Victorians of the era, Hannah was intrigued by Egyptian iconography, particularly hieroglyphics. She believed Egyptians had a deep understanding of astrology and their place in the universe, and she invited Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi over for regular visits.
Bonomi and Hannah would spend hours discussing Egyptian lore, with Hannah hoping to one day fund Bonomi’s expeditions to Egypt so he could study their work. The two would also arrange for a 175-foot-tall monument dedicated to the Duke of Wellington to be constructed and insisted that the sculpture resemble an Egyptian obelisk.
When Hannah died in 1849, her remains were set to be placed in an expensive, elaborate mausoleum in Brompton that paid tribute to her interests; Bonomi arranged for the tomb to feature Egyptian characters and a pyramidal top. Later, Mary and Elizabeth, who shied from marriage because they didn’t want men chasing after their wealth, joined her. (Susannah, who married, was buried elsewhere.) When Bonomi died in 1878, he arranged for a depiction of Courtoy’s tomb to appear on his own modest headstone. Whether Bonomi intended it or not, an illustration of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, appears to be “looking” in the direction of his friend’s final resting place.
Things appeared to remain status quo at Brompton for the next 100 years or so. Then, around 1980, the key to the tomb was lost following a visit by Hannah's relatives. And that’s when things took a turn for the weird.
Intending to pique the interest of readers during Halloween, Associated Press reporter Helen Smith wrote a story in October 1998 that may have been the first mainstream article to raise the theory that Courtoy’s tomb might actually be a time machine.
Smith described the monument as a “strange, imposing structure” containing “three spinsters, about whom almost nothing is known” and cited an unheralded author named Howard Webster as perpetuator of the story. Webster claimed his research had excavated a connection between Bonomi and Samuel Alfred Warner, a “maverick Victorian genius” and fraudster said to have attempted to interest the British armed forces in several advanced weapons—too advanced, in fact, to actually exist.
Webster speculated that Warner’s inventive abilities may have led him to consort with Bonomi, who supposedly had knowledge of the Egyptian theories of time travel. Together, the two convinced the wealthy, trusting Hannah to finance their secret project, with Bonomi providing ancient wisdom and Warner adding his breakthrough scientific resources. By placing their device in a cemetery, Warner could guarantee the structure was unlikely to be disturbed over decades or centuries, allowing him to return to London after traveling through time again and again.
The lack of a key was crucial to Webster’s tale. Since it had been lost and no one had been inside for years, it could be argued that perhaps Warner was busying himself in a manner similar to an occupant of the TARDIS, bouncing from era to era, while Hannah and her family were either entombed or buried someplace else entirely. Webster also claimed that plans for the tomb were missing, which was rarely the case with other monuments in Brompton.
The story bubbled to the surface periodically over the years. In 2003, an album cover by musician Drew Mulholland depicted the tomb and its eerie structure, which led to some renewed interest. In 2011, Coates, a musician with a band named the Real Tuesday Weld, came across mention of the theory and was intrigued. He wrote a post on his blog positing that the Courtoy tomb was not a means of time travel, but that Warner had the technology to teleport torpedoes and that he later adopted that framework to develop a series of teleportation chambers in and around "the Magnificent Seven," a group of London’s historic private cemeteries.
“It was a way to move around the city,” Coates says. “Warner and Bonomi worked together on ancient Egyptian occult theory and science. I posted that on my blog, and it started to take on a life of its own.”
Coates’s premise is a proper study in how an urban legend can proliferate. With the key still missing, it was impossible to disprove the teleportation idea with any real precision, and the mythology allowed for a great deal of speculation. Was Warner, who died in 1848, killed because he knew too much about revolutionary technology? Why did the tomb take four years to complete following Hannah’s death, which meant she didn’t actually enter it until 1853? Was Hannah duped by the two to fund what she might have believed would be a pioneering mode of travel?
It became, Coates says, “one of the myths of the city.” In 2015, the Independent ran a feature describing his belief, contrasting it with the activities of Hannah Courtoy descendant Ray Godson, who simply wanted access to the tomb to pay his respects to his great-great-grandmother. The feature came just as Coates was busy organizing visitor groups that could come—with the cemetery’s permission—hear the legend of Courtoy, Bonomi, and Warner while standing near the tomb in the middle of the night.
“I fell in love with the idea,” Vanessa Woolf, a professional storyteller based in London who hosts the gatherings, tells mental_floss. “I must credit Stephen Coates. I contacted him after hearing about the myth and told him I really wanted to tell the story. He said to go for it.” Woolf hosted the first event in 2015 and has done several more since. “The first time, we were absolutely overwhelmed with bookings,” she says.
In the story presentation, Woolf tells of a “barking mad” inventor named Warner who connects with Bonomi and hatches an idea for a teleportation network. Hannah, she relates, had an interest in the occult and unexplained phenomena.
“There’s a huge interest in the story in London,” she says. “I think people are just interested in the fabric of places where they live. This is a story rooted in the secret, in the occult, but no one is quite sure what actually happened.”
It can be difficult to corner Coates for a precise answer on whether he believes his fanciful hypothesis about the resting place of Hannah Courtoy. When initially contacted for an interview, he agreed while mentioning that he “came up with the whole teleportation system idea as the background to a short story.” In conversation, he presents the teleportation springboard as a “way for people to make up their own mind” about what the tomb might contain. A breath or two later, he expresses doubt that Hannah’s daughters might still be entombed there, before wondering whether the mausoleum might be home to a secret subterranean chamber.
It’s all “alternative theory based on historical fact,” he says. Reached by telephone, it's hard not to imagine a slight expression of amusement crossing his face.
Performance art or not, the attention has increased awareness over the cemetery's attempts to secure funds for a site-wide renovation. (Courtoy’s tomb was partially spruced up in 2009 following aging, frost-coated chunks of granite sloughing off the side, with costs partially covered by a family trust.) When asked to comment on whether the midnight vigils and sightseers have been disruptive, Brompton officials refer questions right back to Coates, who appears to have become their unofficial spokesman on all things involving molecular disruption and Egyptian time-hopping.
“It’s not something they promote themselves,” Coates says. “They’re very welcoming of people who come if they’re showing respect. The conservation efforts have been going on for years, and the events help that.” At the last Coates-arranged show, tickets went for $8 to $10, with a quarter of the proceeds donated to the cemetery’s rebuilding efforts.
How many people will visit once a key is made is another question. Both Coates and a Brompton Cemetery historian named Arthur Tait say that efforts are currently underway to fabricate a replacement that would allow Hannah’s relatives access to the tomb. After an initial flush of curiosity, wouldn’t the presumably ordinary interior dampen interest?
“Opening it may not establish it’s not a time machine,” Coates hedges. "It may just deepen the mystery.”
For Woolf, who still has regular engagements hosting visitors near the tomb, seeing a key may be a letdown. “It’s much nicer, in a way, not having it,” she says. “It’s really all in the minds of the audience. It’s a slab of rock. The real magic is in their minds.”
Usually. While Woolf normally gets very positive notices from those attending her performances, one reviewer on Instagram does stick out. “It said something like, ‘Oh, I was really excited, but then got really disappointed. She didn’t even open it.’”
Additional Sources: Courtoy’s Complaint.
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise credited.