I have just had the privilege of visiting the Parish of Saint Mary Magdalen, Mortlake, London. As part of a Good Counsel Retreat. The Church has been serving the Mortlake community for over 150 years.
The most interesting tomb in St. Mary Magdalen's churchyard is the mausoleum in the shape of an Arab tent where the coffins of Sir Richard Burton and his wife Isabel Arundell can be seen through a window at the back.
Richard Burton lived from 1821-1890, at a time in history when exploration and scientific knowledge were advancing at a gallop. Full of the spirit of the age, Burton possessed a passionate curiosity about life in the little known Arab world and he persuaded the Royal Geographical Society in London to fund a series of adventures. He was a brilliant linguist, utterly fearless and a master of disguise, and so was able to penetrate the cities of Medina and Mecca. He secretly drew plans of the Great Mosque and its sacred inner shrine, the Kaaba, at Mecca.
Inspired by his part as an Arab pilgrim he then went to Harar, which was totally forbidden to non-Moslems, and made notes about the East African slave trade.
His notebooks were crammed with information, geographical, commercial and anthropological. His travel books were a literary success in London and the Royal Geographical Society agreed to fund the next expedition - to find the source of the White Nile. He set of with John Hanning Speke but the two explorers fell out at Lake Tanganyika. Their dispute over the source caused a furore at the Royal Geographical Society which only ended with the sudden death of Speke in 1864.
Being the British Consul in Fernando Po, West Africa, Santos, Brazil, Damascus and Trieste gave him time to explore and write. He married his Catholic wife, Isabel Arundell, in 1861. She was completely devoted to him, and tried to keep up with his rackety life, obeying his instructions to "pay, pack and follow", as he moved around the world. The Burtons were happy in Damascus, where they mixed easily with Arabs and Christians, but were eventually expelled for their over-enthusiastic involvement in local politics.
His last Consulate was at Trieste, where he spent his last years quietly with Isabel. It was at this time that he privately published his translations from Arabic of the Karma Sutra and The Arabian Nights. He published 27 books in his lifetime.
When he died in 1890, Isabel built this mausoleum and paid for the stained glass Memorial Window in the church.
It seems that he was not much of a Catholic, unlike his Wife who Baptised him when he was very ill!
Of modern interest is the plaque on the south wall of the church, near the entrance, in memory of Sir James Marshall who died in 1889 and his wife Alice.
He was Chief Magistrate of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the plaque was unveiled in his honour on the centenary of his death by a Ghanaian lay organisation, the Knights and Ladies of Marshall.
He is credited with having invited two French priests from the Society for African Missions to come to the Gold Coast to found what was to become the Catholic Church in present-day Ghana. Already prayers are being offered by our African friends for his eventual canonisation. His grave in our cemetery is visited by them every year. And lastly there is an Old Rite Mass, offered by Fr Whinder the PP, in the Parish on the First Friday of each month at 7pm. St Mary Magdalen, 61 North Worple Way, Mortlake, Surrey, SW14 8PR.