Buried a Thousand Miles from Home – Bogdan Janicijevic

Buried a Thousand Miles from Home  - Bogdan Janicijevic

Do you, like me, sometimes think how sad it is when you look carefully at the words on an old headstone and think to yourself that there’s something important that’s missing? Perhaps you look at the top half of a large expensive upright stone that grandly details the passing of the first of a couple to die, and then you see that the bottom half was left blank, leaving room for the details of the other partner for when they died sometime afterwards. But if the bottom half is still blank, what happened?

Was the second person actually buried there? Did they move away or remarried and left instructions that they should be buried elsewhere? Perhaps the family fell on hard times and they couldn’t afford an inscription. Perhaps they argued with their children, and nobody wanted to spend money on their memory. In any event, we’ll probably never know the reason, but it’s reasonable to look on such gravestones as hinting at a life that had sadness or disappointment in it at some point.

By contrast, you occasionally find on a headstone something much more than you’d expected. It’s a nice surprise when you notice a feature that hints at how good human nature can be, where despite the unlikely circumstances of someone’s life, they are remembered fondly whereas you might have thought that they would have just been ignored. The memorial for Bogdan Janicijevic is unique in Bedford cemetery, and as soon as you read the words you sense that there must have been good people involved somewhere in his life.

The words on the stone give a stark idea of his life: born a thousand miles away in Serbia, died aged just 39 at a Midlands colliery, and buried in Bedford. So you take a closer look, and realise that this isn’t a cheap stone. Someone must have paid good money to make sure he was remembered. His sister and brother-in-law helped pay for it….but then you see that his friends from Cannock had contributed as well. They must have been very good friends, you must think.

To find the grave of a Serbian national isn’t surprising in Bedford cemetery. The town has a history of becoming home to people from many other countries. It’s one of the most multi-cultural towns in the country, with vibrant Italian and Caribbean influences especially since the 1950’s. In fact, the very first burial here in 1855 was of a young Italian girl. After the Second World War refugees from Europe were welcomed by a genuinely grateful government as they tried to find a peaceful place to live, escaping from the police states of Eastern Europe. Many came from Poland, but some, including Bogdan, came from the former Serbia (later becoming Yugoslavia, until becoming Serbia again).

Krusevac Lazatica, was a large town, home to an impressive ancient church and fortress, and was in medieval times the capital of the country. It suffered during the Nazi occupation in WWII, with mass executions of patriots. After the communist Partisan Movement took over in August 1944 they carried on the executions, purging about 500 people in Krusevac who they suspected of being disloyal to them. It seems likely that Bogdan (then in his early twenties) and his family fled to England to escape from a home country which had suddenly become a very different and dangerous place, run by fanatics.

There are records showing that in the 1960’s, his married sister Dobrila lived in Bedford with her husband, but it’s not known whether the Janicijevic family came direct to Bedford or whether she moved here at a later date. In any event, Bogdan ended up working in the coal mine at Littleton Colliery, Cannock. He was known to everyone as “Bob.”
Immigrants who came to Bedford in the decades after the war tended to work at the brickworks, in light industry or the NHS, whereas elsewhere they worked in whatever industry was common in that area. In Bogdan’s time there were many productive mines in the Midland counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. They needed labour, so people wanting work went there. We who live far away probably have a stereotypical view of mining communities, thinking them to have been tough, inward-looking and wary of outsiders. Well, it wasn’t necessarily like that. There was just as likely to be an open acceptance of “outsiders” such as Bogdan as long as they joined in, were loyal to their mates and became “one of us.” For example, you might find it surprising to learn that in the 1960’s, the Notts colliery of Gedling was known as the “Pit of All Nations” because of the sheer number of workers from East Europe and the Caribbean. At one time, 10% of the miners were of Caribbean origin.

Littleton was a very deep mine, originally opened in 1872, and in 1902 the shaft was as deep as 1662 feet. It was one of the biggest in the Midlands, and profitable. Nationally, the coal industry was decimated for political reasons from the 1970’s but Littleton stayed productive until it closed in 1993 after having been promised only a year before by the Conservative government that it was a “core” pit to be kept open. Some 800 jobs were lost; only ten years before that, there had been 1900 miners working there.

Coal mining was dangerous, and it still is. At its height in the 1920’s, there were an average of 2000 deaths from accidents each year, and even nowadays it’s the most dangerous occupation for work related accidents in the UK, with some 43 deaths per 100000 employees (by comparison, firefighters and policemen are 0.3 per 100000). The figures don’t include deaths from work related illnesses such as lung diseases. In any event, Bogdan was a victim of an accident. Initial reports said he was killed by a roof fall, but at the inquest it confirmed that he had been caught in a conveyor belt and died from the injuries.

He was 39. He had bought a house locally. He had a girlfriend in Yugoslavia. He was expecting her to come over soon to get married.

The group photo shows Bogdan at the extreme right at a wedding in 1955. Next to him a good friend, Mary Willis, and it was her grandson (the little boy standing at the front) who kindly sent the photo for this article. His name was remembered 62 years after he died, by someone who was just a small boy at the time.

This is a sad story, but one that shows the best aspects of human nature. An “outsider” was respected and remembered by friends in a working-class community a thousand miles from his home. Over the centuries, many ordinary working-class British people have lived, died and been buried far from home, and relations in this country will have hoped against hope that their loved one will have been treated well in death in that far country as well as in life…in the same way as Bob was treated by good-hearted people in his adopted home in Cannock.

Research thanks:
Rachel Gentle and Yvonne Cooper of the Museum of Cannock Chase museumofcannockchase.org for contacting retired miners who might have known Bogdan.
Cannock Library for providing details from local newspapers.
Aleks Simic for his help trying to find information in the Bedford Serbian community.

Grave ref: N.194