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Kensal Green Cemetery
Posted on Aug 30, 2002 - 09:28 AM by Anthony Waldstock

This is one of London's more famous cemeteries. Bizarrely situated between the very busy Harrow Road and the equally busy railway line out of Paddington with a pair of glowering Gasometers in the background, it is, nonetheless, with the Grand Union Canal on its south side, an oasis of peace and greenery in north-west London. It was the first of the great metropolitan cemeteries of the 18th century established in response to the appalling overflow of the parish churchyards which had become a major threat to the health of Londoners.



It was an ancient right, protected by Common Law, of an English subject to be buried in his or her parish churchyard or burial ground. Some exceptions to this were allowed by the Law. Suicides, until 1823, were buried in the public highway, usually at a crossroad, and impaled by a stake. The 1823 Act ended this practise and directed that they should be buried in the usual churchyard but only between the hours of nine o'clock in the evening and midnight. Another exception was made for executed criminals. Their bodies were usually forcibly taken to be dissected by the surgeons or, particularly in the case of treason and piracy, hung in a public gibbet until the body had utterly decayed. Compulsory dissection was abolished in 1832 and the gibbet in 1834.

In London, the small parish churchyards, many dating from the early mediaeval period, were proving increasingly inadequate for their intended purpose. For example, the churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields, now a paved tourist market, was only 200 feet square but in the early 1840's it was estimated to contain the remains of between sixty and seventy thousand burials. By the early nineteenth century the churchyards were so overcrowded that they posed a severe health risk to people working or living close to them. The problem was further exacerbated by the 20 percent increase in the population of the metropolis in the 1820's. In an effort to cope with the increasing lack of space, thousands of bodies were buried in shallow pits beneath the floorboards of chapels and schools so that the congregations and pupils had to endure the smell of rotting human flesh. Private Burial Grounds were started by non-conformists in the sixteenth century, and many more were established in the eighteenth century, but these, by their very nature, had little or no impact on the overall problem.

Some parish churches managed to acquire land for overspill churchyards but these were few and far between and, in any case, land prices were generally prohibitive for a small parish with few funds. One ingenious suggestion was put forward in 1824 by Thomas Willson. He unveiled, at the Royal Academy his plans for a Pyramid Cemetery for the Metropolis. This was to be built at Primrose Hill and the base of the pyramid would cover a full eighteen acres, which

"being multiplied by several stages to be erected one above the other will generate nearly 1000 acres, self-created out of the void space overhead as the building progresses above the earth".
The pyramid was to contain five million loculi and the final cost was precisely estimated at 2,583,552.
A rival scheme was put forward in the following year by Francis Goodwin who designed a Grand National Cemetery which would echo the architecture of Classical Greece. Occupying 150 acres at Primrose Hill, the buildings would be modelled on those of ancient Athens and there would be a strict demarcation of burial areas. The distinguished public figures of the metropolis would be interred in the central zone. The tombs of the wealthy Burghers would occupy the central zone whilst the ordinary citizens would be relegated to the margins. In 1827 Augustus Pugin exhibited more orthodox plans, which are said to have been drawn up in association with Marc Isambard Brunel, in the Gothic manner for the Primrose Hill site.

A more viable solution was set in train in 1824 by George Frederick Carden when he began a campaign in The Penny Magazine. This called for the formation of public cemeteries and culminated in 1830 with a petition to parliament which called for the removal of graveyards

"to places where they would be less prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants".
In the same year Carden and others formed The General Cemetery Company and in 1831 bought fifty four acres of land south of Harrow Road for 9,4000. Some 800 trees were planted on the site and a competition was announced for the best designs for a chapel and entrance gates. The prize was a hundred guineas and was won by H E Kendall who produced a Gothic design. However, the Chairman, Sir John Dean Paul the scheme's financial backer and Governor of the Bank of England, urged a Greek Revival plan and he eventually had his way. The internal layout of the cemetery itself was Carden's inspiration. On a visit to Paris in 1821 he had been impressed by La Cimeti re du P re-Lachaise and was at once determined to produce an English version. With the establishment of All Souls Cemetery at Kensal Green in 1832 his determination was rewarded. It had been enabled by the 'Act for establishing a General Cemetery for the Interment of the Dead in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis' which had its final reading in July 1832. It was passed unanimously by the House of Commons because of a cholera epidemic in that year which killed so many people that it had been necessary to re-introduce the system of burial in "plague pits" last seen in 1665.

The Act authorised the Company to raise up to 45,000 in shares of 25 each. Amongst other provisions, it guaranteed a burial fee of between 1s 6d and 5s which was to be paid to the incumbent of the parish in which the deceased had lived. This was to ensure that Church of England clergymen did not suffer a loss of income because of the new burial provisions. The Company sold the plots in perpetual freehold which was intended to guarantee the deceased a burial which would not be disturbed until the Day of Final Judgement! The Company's shareholders and other prominent people purchased plots in the new venture which was backed by a large number of public figures. In 1833, 39 acres were consecrated by the Bishop of London, Charles James Blomfield, and the remaining 15 acres were set aside for the burial of dissenters or non-conformists.

The cemetery is entered by a large Doric arch which incorporates offices and a residence. There are three main avenues

"gravelled roads of sufficient width for carriages"
two of which follow the northern and southern perimeter walls. The third is a central avenue which leads to the impressive Anglican Chapel with its Doric porch and flanking colonnades. Beneath the chapel there are catacombs which are reached by means of a unique hydraulic lift. More, public, catacombs lie beneath the colonnade along the north wall. The Ionic nonconformist church is situated at the east end of the cemetery but has now become greatly decayed.

The enterprise was a financial success and was already described as "a flourishing concern" in 1839 with the original 25 shares having more than doubled in value to 52. Social acceptance of these gardens for the deceased was signified with the burial of the Duke of Sussex, sixth son of George III, in 1843 and that of his sister, Princess Sophia, in 1848. Neither, however, was the model of Princely behaviour. The Duke was a radical who was so appalled at the confusion and unseemly bickering over protocol at the funeral of William IV at Windsor in 1837 that he declared

"I would not be buried there after this fashion for all the world."
Instead, his will stipulated that he should be buried at Kensal Green. His sister, bore a child out of wedlock and never married. She had become completely blind before her death at the age of 71. In 1904, the remains of George III's grandson, Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge were deposited in the mausoleum that he had purchased in square 140 behind the Anglican Chapel.

A number of famous (and some infamous) people were buried at Kensal Green. Amongst the former are

  1. Nelson's surgeon William Beatty (1842).
  2. The Child prodigy who died in childbirth "occasioned by fright during a great thunderstorm", Elizabeth Soyer, (1842).
  3. The poet who mortgaged his brain with his publishers in return for a cash advance, Thomas Hood (1845).
  4. The Social reformer, industrialist and philanthropist, Robert Owen, (1858).
  5. The engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1859).
  6. The intellectual and mathematically inclined wife of Lord Byron, Lady Annabella Byron (1860).
  7. The Irish operatic prima donna who sang for Queen Victoria and 500 guests in Buckingham Palace in 1849, Catherine Hayes (1861).
  8. The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, (1863).
  9. The Rubber manufacturer and creator of the first toy balloons Thomas Hancock (1865).
  10. The Irish composer Michael Balfe (1870).
  11. The Mathematician, inventor and code-breaker Charles Babbage (1871).
  12. The Victorian Shakespearean actor, W C Macready, (1873).
  13. The artist, designer, caricaturist, engraver and painter George Cruikshank (1878).
  14. The author and post office official who is believed to have invented the pillar box, Anthony Trollope, (1882).
  15. The novelist and inventor of the detective story Wilkie Collins (1889)
  16. The mother of Oscar Wild, who was buried in a pauper's grave during his imprisonment, Lady Jane Francesca "Speranza" Wilde, (1896).
  17. The famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin(1897).
  18. The composer of "A Life on the Ocean Wave", Henry Russell (1900).
  19. The Comedian, and early Gilbert and Sullivan star George Grossmith (1912)
  20. The playwright whose name was never recorded on the family memorial, Terence Rattigan, (1977).
  21. The popular vocalist and musician Freddie Mercury, (1991).
Amongst the infamous buried here are
  1. The Inspector General of the Army Medical Department who, at death, was discovered to be a woman, James Miranda Barry, (1865).
  2. The Quack doctor who ran a lucrative practice treating consumption, rheumatism and similar complaints by application of corrosive liniments and friction; who was three times convicted and once acquitted for the manslaughter of his patients and who died of consumption, refusing to put faith in his own curative methods, John St John Long (1834).
  3. The the last person to be exectuted at the Tower of London, by firing squad after being court martialled for treachery, Josef Jakobs (1941).
Kensal Green was the first of the seven joint-stock cemeteries that now encircle London. Between 1837 and 1841, Parliament authorised the establishment of another six at Norwood (1837), Highgate (1839), Nunhead (1840), Abney Park, (1840), Brompton (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841). However, by 1850 it had become clear that it would not be long before all seven had reached their capacity. In addition, a pressure group, the National Society for the Abolition of Burial in Towns, had been established in 1845 to demand the right of burial in non-profit-making establishments. An "Act to make better provision for the Internment of the Dead in or near the Metropolis" was passed in 1850 and the responsibility of carrying out its provisions was entrusted to a General Board of Health. However, the Board
"after devising several gigantic schemes for providing cemeteries at remote distances from London ... found the difficulties they had to cnetend with insurmountable."
The Act was unworkable and was repealed in 1852 when the Burial Act was passed. This enabled local burial boards, which were elected by the vestries, to take the necessary steps to establish places of burial. The result was that an immense number of parochial burial-grounds, some open to all, others set apart for the use of special denominations, were opened in various suburban districts of the metropolis. From that time, most new cemeteries in London were run by public organisations. Kensal Green, however, remains an exception. It is still owned and managed by the General Cemetery Company and is the only one of the original seven great cemeteries to have remained under the management of its founding company.

G K Chesterton immortalised the cemetery in 1914 when, in The Rolling Road, he wrote:

My friends we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green."
Find Kensal Green on the Map






Note: There are guided tours of the cemetery grounds every Sunday at 2 p.m. - regardless of weather! On the 1st and 3rd Sundays of each month the tour includes a visit to the catacombs. Full details can be found at theFriends of Kensal Green site.


 

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