I began my tour of all seven garden cemeteries in London – the “Magnificent Seven” – with a trip to the first of them to be established, Kensal Green Cemetery. It was a lovely day: dry and warm, cloudy at first but the sun came out later.
The cemetery is located in North West London; the address is Harrow Road, London, W10 4RA. Nearby Kensal Green tube station is on the Bakerloo Line.
A rapidly increasing population in London meant that parish graveyards were becoming dangerously overcrowded, and new solutions were sought for the burial of the dead. In 1830 George Carden, a barrister, formed the General Cemetery Company (which still owns the cemetery); an Act of Parliament in 1832 enabled the company to establish a cemetery on land beside the Grand Union Canal. It was originally known as the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green.
An architectural competition was launched in 1831 to find a design for the Anglican Chapel in the centre of the cemetery. Henry Edward Kendall’s Gothic Revival design won the competition, but the owners – who preferred the classical style – overturned the decision (at least Kendall still got his prize money). The cemetery gateway and the two chapels were eventually completed to designs by John William Griffith, a company shareholder.
Originally there was a division between the Anglican section of the cemetery, comprising 39 acres, and the smaller Dissenters’ area of 15 acres. This distinction was very important at the time.
I had been to Kensal Green cemetery before, but only for a quick look round. The place is so huge that I had only managed to see a relatively small part of it. I decided to go back for a proper tour, getting there a bit early to have another look round by myself. Completely by accident I came across the grave of John Cam Hobhouse, close friend of my favourite poet Lord Byron.
Tours, which are run by the cemetery’s Friends group, start at the steps of the Anglican Chapel.
After a quick background introduction to the cemetery and London’s garden cemeteries in general, we got to go into the chapel, which is cold and in need of some repair. The ceiling is still beautiful, though.
The raised platform is where the coffins are placed, and rollers help the bearers to slide it on. The platform turns around so that coffins can be taken out head first, as is custom.
The raised structure also happens to be a hydraulic catafalque for lowering coffins into the catacombs. Sadly we couldn’t go into the catacombs because of Health & Safety risks (mould, apparently), but we could see the entrance from outside the chapel.
We had a comprehensive tour of the cemetery which took over two hours. The time went very quickly, however, and our guide was very knowledgeable. Even then, we didn’t see all of the notable tombs here: it is so big and there are so many significant people buried in Kensal Green.
Uniquely for a public cemetery, three members of the Royal Family have been buried here: Prince Augustus Frederick and Princess Sophia, children of George III, and Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, grandson of George III and commander-in-chief of the British Army. Royal burials helped to make Kensal Green a popular and fashionable place to be buried.
A significant number of important authors have been buried at Kensal Green, including Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hood, Harold Pinter and William Makepeace Thackeray. As a lover of nineteenth-century literature (and twentieth-century theatre) I was thrilled to see these. My favourite was Anthony Trollope’s. I don’t know if he chose his inscription himself or if a family member selected it after his death, but either way it is astoundingly modest and deeply moving. It simply reads, “He was a loving husband, a loving father, and a true friend” – no mention of his (hugely underrated, in my opinion) forty-seven novels, written alongside his full-time job in the Post Office (he is credited with introducing the red pillar box to Great Britain).
I’d already heard of many of the famous figures buried in Kensal Green, but one person new to me was Jean-François Gravelet Blondin. Blondin, who is buried with his wife, was a French tightrope walker and acrobat. His most famous and impressive feat was crossing the Niagara Falls, not once but repeatedly. On different occasions he crossed blindfolded; in a sack; and carrying a man on his back. Once, he even carried a small stove: halfway across, he stopped, lit the stove and proceeded to cook an omelette.
Charles Babbage, the polymath who created the concept of a programmable computer, is buried in the cemetery, as are Marc Brunel and his son Isambard, two of the most important and prolific engineers in British history. One of Marc’s great achievements was the Thames tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, while Isambard’s accomplishments include the Great Western Railway and the designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.
George Carden, founder of the cemetery, rests inside it.
The cemetery is of interest not just because of the individuals buried here, but because of the varied and rich architecture of the different tombs and mausoleums. One of the most significant graves in this respect is that of circus performer Andrew Ducrow.
Our tour ended at the other end of the cemetery, with a visit to the Dissenters’ Chapel. We didn’t spend much time in this part of the graveyard, though it is interesting to me because my ancestors on my dad’s side, as Methodists, would have been classed as Dissenters, and if they had lived in London and been buried here, this is the area of the cemetery where they would have ended up. The chapel is similar in design to the larger Anglican chapel at the centre of the cemetery, but it has been restored more recently, with facilities for us to view displays and enjoy a hot cup of tea and some biscuits.
Finally we were allowed to look inside the catacombs. They are smaller than those beneath the Anglican chapel, and the coffins there have been moved, but the space was still atmospheric. Plans are afoot to put on exhibitions and other events down here, which I think would be quite exciting.
We were let out of a side gate leading to Ladbroke Grove, and I made my way home.
A visit to Kensal Green cemetery is a must for anyone interested in cemeteries and the history of burials in London. It’s also a beautiful and peaceful space for a walk. Entry is free (unless you take a tour) and there is so much to see – it would be easy to go back again and again.
Would I go back?
Yes – it’s a lovely place for a relaxing walk, and I would particularly like to see Lady Byron’s grave and Terence Rattigan’s memorial stone, neither of which we had time to see on the tour. A booklet produced by the Friends, which I purchased for £2, has a map with the locations of significant graves, and this would be useful to take with me when I return.
Address: Harrow Road, London, W10 4RA
Size: 72 acres
Still in operation?: Yes
Official website: http://www.kensalgreencemetery.com
Owners: The General Cemetery Company
Friends group: Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery (http://www.kensalgreen.co.uk)
Tours: 2 pm every Sunday March to October and the first and third Sundays of the month November to February. Cost £7 (£5 for concessions/English Heritage members)