A Pilgrimage to the George Arliss Grave

This year we are celebrating Mr. A’s birthday anniversary today (April 10, 1868) in a more significant way. Recently, Tim Beech, a fellow Arlissian (my term, not Tim’s) made a wonderful visit to Mr. A’s gravesite at Harrow Weald Cemetery outside of London. He was representing in a very real sense all of us who have longed to visit the site ourselves and I must say we were well represented. Rather than me blather on, here is Tim’s first-hand account of his pilgrimage.

A Visit to the George Arliss Grave by Tim Beech

I had cause recently to take my wife to London’s Heathrow Airport for a Transatlantic crossing. It’s a journey taken countless times by George and Florence Arliss, though of course by steamship rather than by Boeing.

It also occurred to me that, while Heathrow is more than 140 miles from our home in the Midlands, it’s a distance of only around 10 miles from Harrow Weald. It was there that George and Florence were buried in 1946 and 1950 respectively and, thanks to the sterling efforts of Bob Fells, their previously neglected grave had been restored a few years ago.

This seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

I had never visited the site and was a little anxious I might struggle to find the right spot. Harrow Weald is a very large cemetery next to All Saints Church, a mid-nineteenth century structure where Mr and Mrs A were married on September 16, 1899. As GA noted: “We were married in the prettiest church on the prettiest day that ever was seen.” They now lie only a few yards from where they exchanged vows almost 125 years ago.

Looking towards the Arliss grave located next to the hedge

To make sure I didn’t make the pilgrimage in vain I did an extraordinary amount of preparation. I viewed the approaching roads on Google Street View, worked out where I might park, examined the layout via Google Earth, looked at pictures of the gravesite (it is next to a hedge) and checked in with Bob Fells, who gave me further instructions supplied by GA’s great grandnephew. Armed with such a volume and quality of information I felt confident as I passed the church entrance on the left and then turned into the cemetery off the Uxbridge Road.

A bit closer – can you see it now?

I had dropped my wife at Heathrow before 6 but the cemetery was closed until 9am, so I spent the intervening time making the trip from the Airport (which takes around 45 minutes, despite the relatively short distance), having a quick breakfast at a café and exercising our dog Chase at a local park. Perhaps it was the time I’d spent waiting, or perhaps it was the amount of planning, but I felt a sudden unexpected sense of nervousness as I drove into the cemetery itself.

It wasn’t as if I were there to meet anyone. But it felt that way. Someone I had seen repeatedly on screen, read a great deal about and was now about to “encounter” in a sense. I also admit that I felt a responsibility to represent Bob Fells, who has done so much to preserve GA’s memory but has never had the chance to visit the gravesite. He had asked me to lay a rose on his behalf as well as take some pictures, and I had a few thoughts already in my mind.

There it is to the left of the cross

There is also something deeply personal about visiting the gravesite – the fact it is so little visited makes it more special, and it’s therefore a very different experience in a way that visiting the graves of many other famous people is not.

So there was certainly some nervousness, and a degree of anticipation.

As I drove the very short distance from the Uxbridge Road the cemetery opened out into a wider expanse, with the church mostly hidden to the left. I saw a semi-circular addition to the driveway, which is really only wide enough for a single car, so I turned 180 degrees and parked.

I knew the gravesite must be to my right and not far from the church, but I couldn’t drive any closer to it. The route to the site is via a path clearly intended for pedestrians only. But even from a distance I was confident that I could see the grave around 100 yards away at around “2 o’clock” to my right, and took a couple of initial pictures.

I made my way over towards the grave, which is very close to a hedge that forms the boundary for this part of the cemetery. It was around 25 feet or so off the path to the left and, although it was a beautiful sunny morning, it was October in England and the fairly thick grass was damp under my feet. It was also in shadow, because the hedge runs north-west to south-east, and shielded the site from the morning sun.

I had brought with me some towels and cleaning detergent in the expectation that the grave might need some sprucing up, but it was in very good condition – I later learned from Bob that it is, for the moment, still under a maintenance contract. There was a small scattering of fallen leaves over the grave itself, but it was otherwise clear. However, stepping past the gravestone my toe-end caught the edge of a plastic bottle which went skittering across the grass. It turned out to be a whisky bottle and was accompanied by a few plastic bags lying randomly in the morning dew. Although the cemetery is well maintained and not at all overgrown it seems likely that it may be an attractive and secluded spot for off-hours visitors.

I returned from the car with a large cardboard box I had brought for the purpose of elevating the camera to take pictures; my iPad on which I intended to display some appropriate images; two books (Bob’s biography of GA and GA’s first autobiography); a bucket of water containing some roses I had clipped from our garden at home the night before; a pair of secateurs to trim the stems; and some silver foil in which to wrap them. I also found an abandoned vase lying on its side next to the hedge which I used to display the roses when I left.

The view from the opposite direction taken from behind the Arliss headstone (lower right)

The site is sufficiently far from the Uxbridge Road for most of the sound of the traffic to be muffled. There is a real sense of peace in the location – I could mostly only hear the sound of birds signing and a slight rustle in the hedge from an occasional breeze. There were no other people in sight in this corner of the cemetery, although a workman later arrived and started trimming the grass at the farthest distance opposite. Even though he was perhaps 400 yards or more away, the sound of his machine cut through the air because there was little else with which it had to compete.

I took around five dozen photographs and videos from every angle I could think of, although it was a little difficult at times because of the sunlight. I captured images with the books; with the photograph Bob had digitally made alongside GA; with the roses; and I also played an extract from the House of Rothschild. It’s the sequence where GA, playing Nathan Rothschild, is excluded from a Government bond issue on the grounds that he is Jewish, but then executes a plan to run the market down by selling bonds that force the financiers to pass the entire issue over to him.

It was quite emotional to watch the sequence, hear the voices of Mr and Mrs Arliss, and at that time be at the very spot where they now lie. It was a moment when I felt particularly connected with them, even though both had passed away almost two decades before I was born.

I trimmed the rose stems, wrapped them in silver foil and left them in the vase below the gravestone. I checked I had the photos stored and then took a few more for good measure as I returned to my car. The last view I had as I passed the hedge to my right was the gravestone, standing bright and tall despite the shade, and feeling I’d done everything I came to do.

Even the weather had been perfect. It was a pilgrimage completed.


Thanks very much Tim for the time and effort you put into your visit. I have read of instances where biographers at times sense a personal presence of the individual they are chronicling. I once asked a well-known biographer privately if she ever had such an incident. We were at a ‘meet and greet’ and she told me she was glad I didn’t ask this during the Q&A session. She said she indeed had such experiences but didn’t want to admit that publicly. So perhaps this photo I constructed below may not be all that far-fetched.

I don’t know how I can sufficiently thank Tim Beech for making this visit but perhaps in a small (and corny) way I thought I’d use my dubious photoshop skills to create this little token of my appreciation:

Published in: on April 10, 2023 at 10:06 AM  Comments (1)  
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