Many of the scientific staff who have worked at the Museum over time, have made significant contributions to the world of science and their professional lives has been well documented. For one such individual is was the end of his life, that up until recently, was shrouded in some mystery.
If you research Oldfield Thomas’s time working at the British Museum (Natural History) as we were formerly known, you can see that he was a prolific writer, and his generosity to the Museum is shown by the items he donated during his life and upon his death.
Near the front entrance to the Museum is a small staff lift which has a plaque stating that it was installed using monies from Oldfield Thomas (OT), who served the Museum for 48 years. To many who study mammals he is still a hero but, after his death, he was surrounded in mystery and senior management staff at the time appear to have closed ranks to disclose nothing.
Whispers passed to those who enquire about OT, mention him committing suicide in his office, and that it took months for people to even be granted permission to enter his room. This is what got me interested in determining the truth to OT’s death.
As a keen family history researcher, the only known fact I had was OT’s date of death, 16 June 1929. I contacted Kensington and Chelsea Registry Office to try to obtain his death certificate, but was told that there would be a wait of almost 3 weeks. Eager to get started sooner, I decided to find out where he is buried.
A search of The Times newspaper of the day revealed a message from the family of OT, dated 21 June 1929, thanking those who sent flowers or attended Golders Green on Wednesday 19 June. A quick enquiry to Golders Green Cemeteries advised me that OT was cremated, but his ashes were taken away. Grasping for any more information I asked if there were any other notes on the file. I was told that the only information was that the undertakers who acted were Kenyons.
Thankfully, Kenyons undertakers is still in operation. I rang their office and was told that very little information is kept about a death. Keeping my fingers crossed, they pulled out their register and relayed the information that they had. OT was cremated at 11.30 on 19 June, his remains were then taken immediately for burial at 3.30 ‘at Uxbridge’. That was it!
My email to Hillingdon and Uxbridge cemeteries was answered the very next day, advising that OT is buried in a vault in their cemetery. Now I had to wait to find out if the myth about OT dying in his office was true.
The wonderful staff at Kensington & Chelsea Registry Office finally replied to my enquiry, and I was advised that if they provided a death certificate I would get just a freshly written certificate with limited information, but as I had whetted their interest, they offered me a copy of the page of the actual death register, which gives more information.
Record 164 shows that Oldfield Thomas actually passed away at his London home. However, he did in fact commit suicide by a gunshot wound to his head. This simple line of information ends years of misinformation about the tragic end to this kind and generous gentleman.
It remains a mystery as to why he took his own life but, in May 1928, his wife, Mary, died and so perhaps it was a loss that he never recovered from.
The final part of the story was to find the final resting place of Oldfield Thomas. Was he buried with his wife? Because he committed suicide, was he buried outside consecrated grounds? I decided to visit Hillingdon and Uxbridge Cemetery.
Hillingdon and Uxbridge Cemetery is a very old one, but luckily there was an aged map to direct me to Vault 9, OT’s final resting place.
Even with the map, the graves were completely overgrown so it took a lot of cleaning to prove it was the correct grave.
As with many old graves, OT’s had fallen into disrepair because the top monument stone had fallen forward and the vault was very overgrown. The inscription on the upper parts of the monument had been completely eroded.
After clearing the gravestone entirely one name appeared clear and perfectly readable: Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas! And yes, he is buried with his wife and on consecrated ground.
85 years after his death he may have been forgotten by those outside the Museum, but Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas continues to be remembered for his work and legacy here.
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Written by Lorraine Portch (Reprographics Officer, Library and Archives)