My attempt to visit each one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries continued with a trip to Brompton Cemetery. This is the most central of the seven and the easiest one for me to reach, located in west London. However, it is also positioned right next to Stamford Bridge, and the day of my trip coincided with a football match between Chelsea and Sunderland – considering I am a Sunderland supporter I should have probably been aware of this, but I was taken by surprise to find hordes of people clad in blue getting off at Fulham Broadway station. Eventually I managed to disentangle myself from them and made my way over to the cemetery. Many supporters clad in football shirts and scarves were wandering through the cemetery, but the rush of people eventually petered out, to be replaced by cheers and roars from the football ground which punctuated the quiet during the tour.
The cemetery lies between Old Brompton and Fulham Roads, on the western border of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The postal address is Old Brompton Road, London, SW10 9UG and the nearest tube station to the main entrance (the North Gate) is West Brompton, with Earls Court a little further off. However, the tour was scheduled to begin at the South Lodge, so I got off at Fulham Broadway instead.
Brompton Cemetery, which is Grade I Listed on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, was originally consecrated by the Bishop of London in June 1840. The cemetery occupies a rectangular site, and comprises 39-acres (16 hectares) which were purchased from Lord Kensington in 1838.
The cemetery was founded by the architect, inventor and entrepreneur Stephen Geary (1797-1854), who was also responsible for Highgate and Nunhead cemeteries. However, when the company directors held a competition for the cemetery’s design, the lead judge Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766–1840), a distinguished architect, chose a design by his assistant Benjamin Baud (c.1807-1875), forcing Geary’s resignation.
Baud’s design incorporates neoclassical elements but is chiefly notable for its resemblance to a cathedral. The central avenue, or “nave”, leads to the domed chapel, or “high altar”, while a circle of arcades with catacombs below is said to have been inspired by the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome. The North Gatehouse was designed to represent the “great west door”; it suffered bomb damage during World War II and has since been restored.
The cemetery was purchased under the short-lived Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850, which prohibited burial in overcrowded crypts and urban churchyards, and gave the state the power to purchase commercial cemeteries. It was the first cemetery to be nationalised, and remains Britain’s only crown cemetery, currently in the care of the Royal Parks Agency. Closed to burials between 1952 and 1996, it is now once again a working cemetery, restored, maintained and preserved by The Friends of Brompton Cemetery.
I attended a tour run by the Friends. These take place on Sunday afternoons and I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a crowd waiting at the gate. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and I am sure he could have told us much more about the cemetery than he was able to impart during the two hours of the walk.
Brompton doesn’t have the number of famous people that the likes of Highgate and Kensal Green possess within their walls, but there are still several notable individuals buried here. George Salting was an art collector who left considerable legacies to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert and the National Gallery.
Pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement Emmeline Pankhurst is also buried here, though we didn’t get to see her grave.
We stopped off by the chapel, which was open for us to take a look around. It is possible to buy drinks and snacks here too.
I was advised that the best way to take pictures of the chapel’s ceiling was to lie down, so that’s what I did – on a row of chairs rather than the floor.
Just beyond the chapel, two arcades flank more sets of gravestones.
Gilbert Laye was an actor, composer and theatrical manager. I particularly liked his headstone, with the comedy and tragedy masks on either side.
Continuing the theatrical theme, Walter Brandon Thomas was an actor and playwright best known today for his (genuinely funny) farce Charley’s Aunt.
Blanche Roosevelt Macchetta was the first American woman to sing at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House. After an accident, she died at the age of 45. The statue on her grave is of her.
Below the arcades, catacombs are located. We weren’t able to look inside on this occasion but we were able to admire the gates, with their ornate design heavy with symbolism, including the two serpents.
The interesting gravestone with the image of a wolf marks the former burial place of the Native American Sioux chief, Long Wolf, who died of pneumonia while touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In 1997 his remains were returned to his home in South Dakota.
Queen Victoria had the body of a favourite servant, her courier Joseph Julius Kanné, buried here.
Brompton Cemetery has memorials to the Brigade of Guards and the Chelsea Pensioners, as well as the graves of several Victoria Cross holders. One of these is Reginald Warneford, who was awarded the medal for downing an airship but who sadly died just over a week later during a non-combative flight.
The cemetery has an interesting connection with the author Beatrix Potter, who lived nearby as a child and who is thought to have walked in the cemetery frequently. It has been suggested that the names of several individuals buried here influenced the names of some of her best-loved characters.
An interesting-looking sarcophagus on “legs” was bought by the painter Valentine Princep as a 13th-century original. Many years after his death, however, it was found to be fake.
One of the most impressive monuments in the cemetery is the burial place of Frederick Richards Leyland, an art collector from Liverpool. His tomb was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, and is Grade II-listed.
Richard Tauber was an acclaimed Austrian tenor who settled in Britain after the German annexation of Austria just before the Second World War.
John Snow – not that John Snow, not that one either – was a physician who famously proved that cholera was not, as was commonly supposed, spread in the air but was ingested by mouth: he traced an outbreak of the disease in Soho to a particular pump on Broad Street, showing that the disease was transported via the water. I remember learning about him in history lessons at school, so I was rather excited to see his grave.
The cemetery is something of a haven for wildlife.
Like the other cemeteries I’ve visited, Brompton Cemetery has some beautiful architecture to admire, including some impressive gravestones as well as the cemetery design as a whole. Familiar symbols of death, such as urns and broken columns, sit alongside ornate Art Nouveau designs.
The central path ran the length of the cemetery, leading towards the North Gate.
Brompton’s central location makes it an ideal place for a leisurely walk. I would definitely recommend a tour, too, so that you can discover more about the cemetery.
Would I go back?
Yes – I wasn’t able to see Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave and because of the rain I wasn’t able to wander about as much as I would have liked. I’d love to have the chance to explore the cemetery at my leisure, and to visit the catacombs, too.
Address: Old Brompton Road, London, SW10 9UG
Size: 39 acres
Still in operation?: Yes
Official website: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/brompton-cemetery
Owners: Crown Estates, managed by The Royal Parks
Friends group: Friends of Brompton Cemetery (http://brompton-cemetery.org.uk/)
Tours: These cost £6 and take place at 2pm every Sunday from May to August, and on two Sundays a month from September to April. Meet at the South Lodge, at the Fulham Road entrance.