The words of GK Chesterton – penned in 1914 – about the most fashionable of London cemeteries during the Victorian era and early 20th century .
Kensal Green Cemetery, one of London’s so-called Magnificent Seven, opened for business in 1833 on 48 acres of land (now 72 acres) along the Harrow Road to the north of Kensington. Its creation was the result of the urgent need for London to dispose of its dead outside the centre in the wake of severe cholera epidemics. The original plan was to create a massive pyramid in Primrose Hill with a capacity for five million corpses, but this fantastic scheme never came off and suburban cemeteries were adopted instead.
The cemetery’s success was slowly won and it wasn’t until Prince Augustus Frederick – appalled by the brouhaha involved in Royal funerals at St George’s Chapel Windsor – chose to be buried at Kensal Green, that things started looking up. He was interred in a private monument in 1843. This royal was followed by his sister, Princess Sophia, in 1848 and sometime later by Prince George, Duke of Cambridge in 1904 (I wrote about this gentleman, his mistress and his pet earlier this year, here). With the touch of royal patronage, Kensal Green became the place to be seen dead. 650 members of the titled nobility and over 550 individuals noted in the Dictionary of National Biography reside here.
Yesterday, the London Historians took a tour of the cemetery, led by Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery volunteer guides Joe and Henry, hugely knowledgeable gentlemen both. The advantage of going on an official tour is that you gain access to the Grade I listed Anglican Chapel which sits directly above the larger of two sets of catacombs, which we also toured, mainly by torchlight. Torchlight was a bonus, because fortunately, most of the London Cemetery Company’s neon lighting down there doesn’t work! What does work, however, is the original coffin lowering contraption which has been fully restored, one of only two of its kind still in existence. It is powered via a hydraulic hand pump in the catacomb below, which requires two very sturdy operators pumping like billy-o. Coffins for the catacomb had to be made of sealed lead encased in wood: very heavy. Several of them have crumbled away from woodrot and woodworm and you can see the marks on the lead by the plumbers who had done the work, much in the fashion of stonemasons. Some of the posh coffins still have their velvet and silk drapery, fancy tassles and other decoration, much faded and fragile. All very Gothick. It’s quite an experience.
We then took a guided tour of a selection the above ground monuments, 140 of which are Grade I and II listed. Some are interesting because of their style, some because of their incumbents, some both. Among many, the ones I remember and photographed included Blondin the tightrope walker, a favourite because he lived just up the road from me in Northfields; the Brunels; a very recent one, JG Ballard, one of many writers here who also include Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray; from the world of entertainment Terrence Rattigan, Harold Pinter and Andrew Dacrow, trick horse rider and proprietor of Astley’s Amphitheatre.
The monuments themselves are hugely varied, from the plain (eg the Brunels) to the outrageously flamboyant. Most have classical Graeco-Roman motifs, although Egyptian was a very popular choice for many. Unfortunately, those which had bronze decorations have mostly been desecrated over the years by metal thieves. Skanks!
More information at Wikipedia here, but better still, Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery here. Tours are on Sunday afternoons (contact the Friends via their web site to check availability) and cost £7. I thoroughly recommend you go on one.