John Peachey’s tomb is, even if you did not know the name, a grave that you will likely have noticed if you have passed through our hilltop cemetery more than once. It stands unique in St. Mary’s churchyard in a number of ways – chief among them the impressive view of Harrow that it offers, but also in the iron bars that can now be seen to encase the coffin. That last point, in particular, makes it an oddity, but in unravelling the reason behind this cage, one stumbles upon an even bigger story.
The truth behind the cage around John Peachey’s tomb is a tragic tale featuring one of Harrow’s most famous individuals and a tale whose legacy can continue to be seen in Harrow today.
The famous individual in question is none other than Lord Byron – the famous nineteenth-century poet, regarded by many as one of the greatest this country has ever produced. Byron was the subject of a past Harrow Online article – an article which focused on his time at Harrow School, and his rumoured involvement in a gunpowder plot which is supposed by some to have taken place there – yet this time we join Byron at a later stage in his life after he had left Harrow School behind, and when he had found stardom as a successful poet. This fame came with a number of benefits, least of all a long list of admirers that Byron, now in his twenties, was quick to take advantage of.
It was these circumstances which ensured the birth of Allegra Biron in January 1817. Allegra – initially named Alba – was the product of one of Byron’s exploits, this time with a woman named Claire Clairmont, the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley, the woman behind the likes of Frankenstein. Claire had pursued Byron relentlessly in the months preceding their encounter, with a genuine, if adolescent, admiration which Byron had reacted to only coldly. ‘I never loved her nor pretended to love her,’ Byron said, ‘but a man is a man, and if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night – there is but one way.’
This dispassion did not mellow with the birth of Allegra – indeed, Byron in some ways only grew more malicious. In Venice at the time of Allegra’s birth, Byron would refer to her as merely ‘the little being.’ Nevertheless, Claire, without a penny to her name, believed that her daughter would have a better future only in the care of her famous father. After fifteen months living in the Shelley household, Allegra left her mother’s care for that of an uncaring father instead. It was to prove in many ways a fatal decision.
The first encounter between the two of them did not go well. Upon meeting his child, Byron wrote, ‘My bastard came three days ago. Healthy – noisy – and capricious.’ Adjusting Allegra’s surname to Biron so as to distinguish her from his legitimate daughter, Byron continued to hold his daughter in contempt, and soon enough, he sent her off to an Italian convent – a move bitterly opposed by Allegra’s mother. An enraged Claire accused Byron of having broken his promise that their daughter would never be apart from both of her parents. Byron, however, would have none of it – believing Claire to be of ‘loose morals’ and ‘Bedlam behaviour,’ he did not want her to influence Allegra. At the same time, Byron would ignore the letters he was sent by his now literate daughter. On one such letter, Byron judged that while the letter was ‘sincere enough,’ it was not flattering – ‘for she wants to see me because “it is fair” to get some paternal Gingerbread – I suppose.’
Eventually the desperate Claire – at this point the only person in the world that seemed to actually care for the five-year-old Allegra – would resort to drastic measures, contemplating the likes of forgery or kidnapping to steal Allegra away from the lonely prison her father had left her in. Yet it was all to prove too late. In April 1822 Allegra fell gravely ill – likely typhus or malaria – and soon after passed away.
It was only with the death of his daughter that Byron seems to have grown a conscience. Years after Allegra’s passing, Byron would recount that ‘while she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, that it appeared to me as if I could not live without her.’ Visiting Allegra’s convent for the first time – albeit all-too late – Byron arranged for her body to be returned to England and oversaw its burial, while Claire vented all her anger out on Byron. She would never forgive the poet for his treatment of their daughter, and would always, for as long as she lived, blame him for her death.
It’s here, with Allegra dead and Byron grieving for the daughter that he had never cared about before, that this tragic tale comes back to Harrow, and to the odd grave of John Peachey that we opened with. As a boy at Harrow School, Byron had been fond of the tomb and the view it had sported – having often visited it while writing what would one day become some of his most famous work. Now, wracked by guilt over Allegra, Byron returned to the spot once more, with the intent of erecting a tablet in his daughter’s memory.
Yet Byron, in what could perhaps be seen as comeuppance for his arrogance, was refused by the Rector of Harrow, and for over a hundred years, Allegra’s grave would go unmarked – until in 1980 that a memorial tablet was at last set down. When Byron himself passed away two years after, he too was denied burial at St. Mary’s for his scandalous reputation and was eventually buried in Nottinghamshire instead. This would not stop his fans from visiting Harrow, however, with Byron’s well-known fondness for St. Mary’s, and in particular, John Peachey’s mysterious tomb, drawing admirers even after his death – many of whom chipped away at Peachey’s grave until the parish was forced to erect the cage that we can still see in place to this day.
With that, the story of this unique grave – or at least, the story that is known – comes to a close. Who John Peachey was or how he ended up on the hill remains a mystery, yet what we do have with his tomb is perhaps one of the most tragic historical episodes from the borough. When you next see the grave, perhaps it would be appropriate to reflect on the wretched tale and life of Allegra Biron – the bastard daughter of famous Harrowvian Lord Byron, whose legacy can still be seen to be bound up in this local, and enduring, landmark.