Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Brompton Cemetery

                                                  Brompton Cemetery

One of my favourite places to go for a walk is a cemetery near where I live called Brompton Cemetery, situated on Old Brompton Road next to West Brompton Station. Yes, I know a cemetery sounds like an odd and creepy place to go for a walk but it’s surprisingly very peaceful and beautiful. It’s huge, with several pathways lined by graves, tombs and mausoleums, set against a backdrop of trees and overgrown plants and flowers. Death and nature go together hand in hand and Brompton Cemetery captures this union in a tranquil space. The Victorians were obsessed with death, and their interest in the macabre revolutionised burials and the mourning process. This fascination, combined with the need for sanitation due to the outbreak of cholera and the surplus of dead bodies resulted in a new kind of cemetery, intended to still be useful to the public after the burial grounds were filled up. I decided to take a deeper look into Brompton Cemetery, and discovered it to be a treasure trove of Victorian history, including being the resting place for some famous Victorians.

During the nineteenth century there was a dramatic increase in the need for burial grounds. Urbanisation and overpopulation lead to a rise in the amount of dead people and less place for them to buried. This need was influenced by ‘the general social need for sanitation and public decency’ which was generated by the public’s disgust at the odour of rotting corpses and the work of grave robbers (Collins, 498). Thus the concern for hygiene and cleanliness in the enclosed, overcrowded city spaces resulted in a move from burials in churchyards, which had no more space for corpses. This struck up a financial opportunity, and privately owned garden cemeteries began to appear. These garden cemeteries were also known as garden necropolis, a word lavish and macabre enough to appease the Victorians.  It basically means a large cemetery from an ancient city. The first cemetery that was designed this way in London was Kensal Green in 1833, inspired by the Pere-Lachaise in Paris, the first garden cemetery of Europe. It was followed by Brompton Cemetery and West Norwood (1836), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Nunhead (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841). This collection of garden cemeteries were known as ‘The Magnificent 7’ in London and were owned by stock companies.

Brompton Cemetery was opened by the West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company in 1840, although the plans for it first began in 1837. It was the largest of the garden cemeteries in London (a good 39 acres), but was sold to the Ministry of Public Building and Works in 1854. It was the first cemetery to be sold into state control. There were financial and architectural problems, and the cemetery wasn’t a success. Nowadays the cemetery is used as a public park and nature reserve, as well as preserving the history surrounding the souls in their resting ground. It is looked after by The Royal Parks and is the only Crown cemetery in England. It was constructed by the architect Benjamin Baud, and was made for public leisure as well as disposing of the dead. The architects of these garden cemeteries wanted the cemeteries to survive as public parks and reserves. They were also meant to be spiritually uplifting spaces designed to give the masses fresh air as well as a taste of class and culture. Walking around Brompton Cemetery, I see Baud’s wish fulfilled. When you walk around you see mothers and their babies in prams, runners, people of all ages enjoying the occasional stroll. Every now and then you see a man doing Tai Chi or meditating; squirrels run up the trees, you run into an occasional fox and birds chirp in the trees. Its atmosphere is wonderful come rain or shine.

Centre of Cemetery and Anglican Chapel and unfinished colonnade

The Victorian architecture of the cemetery showcases an eclectic mix of graves, tombs, mausoleums and monuments in a variety of grand and melancholy designs with obvious Gothic and Classical elements. There are carved figures, engravings, scriptures, and different types of stones used to create a resting place fit for a Victorian if they could afford it. The centre of the cemetery holds an Anglican Chapel, and unfinished colonnades, adding to the dignified yet sentimental vibe of the place. The Victorian graves stand out compared to the more modern graves during and after the world wars. You can see the effect the war had on people and track the progression of history due the changing movements and styles of society. Victorian tombs and structures are more elaborate in design, whereas the simplicity of the post-war graves signify the sad shock of the public to the horror of death and war. Death was no longer a fascination or a spiritual game, it became a cold hard fact of life.

The 'Time Machine'
Hidden amongst the graves and paths is a mausoleum that stands out on its own. It has no name assigned to it and is covered in strange markings. It always intrigued me as it seemed to be shrouded in mystery. Strangely enough, an old man who I’ve only seen there once, saw me looking at it and told me that it was called the Time Machine. Looking into it, I found a lot surrounding this story, including the blog of a modern witch in the UK, which is linked below. It is interesting to note that according to her Brompton Cemetery is unique in having no ghosts compared to other cemeteries, so the dead are resting peacefully, which you feel in the peace blanketing the garden necropolis. I felt this was worth a mention when you connect it to the Victorians belief in spirits and their hobbies such as seances. The tomb belonged to three spinsters, Hannah Courtoy and her two daughters, and was completed in 1853. They apparently provided funding for Samuel Warner, a Victorian inventor, who is buried in an unmarked grave near the mausoleum. Egyptologist Jospeh Bonomi is also buried in the vicinity and was supposed to be Warner’s partner in designing the tomb, or as the story goes, time machine. Bonomi’s gravestone bears carvings similar to the hieroglyphic-like markings on the mausoleum. The Victorians were captivated by the idea of time travel, and loved glittering gadgets and inventions. This is illuminated in the Victorian  science fiction novel The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. The idea that some of the Victorians might have tried to actually build one is not too out there. They believed that the ancient Egyptians might have known about time travel, which connects with the Egyptian markings on the tomb. The story about it being a time machine comes from a 1998 press release. To pique curiosity it is the only structure in the cemetery for which no key or plans can be found. 

Monument over Dr. John Snow's grave

The distinguished cemetery is also the eternal resting grounds of some notable figures from the Victorian era. This includes John Snow (1813-1858), a scientist and physician who contributed enormously to the history of public health and modern medicine. He is considered to be the father of modern epidemiology, due to discovering the source of the cholera outbreak. The cholera epidemic was one of the reasons church burial grounds were overcrowded and urged the building of these garden cemeteries. He was also a leading figure in anaesthetics. A monument was placed over his grave to honour his achievements.  Other noteworthy  Victorian figures are encompassed amongst the deceased, such as Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) who played a role in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. Brompton Cemetery is filled to the brim with Victorian history, and brings to life a culture whose influence still survives today. It is a captivating garden necropolis in the city that is definitely worth a visit. 

Curl, James Stevens. ‘The Architecture and Planning of the Nineteenth-Century Cemetery’ Garden History Vol. 3, No. 3 (Summer, 1975), pp. 13-41 March 2015 <
Penny, N. B.. ‘The Commercial Garden Necropolis of the Early Nineteenth Century and Its Critics’ Garden History Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer, 1974), pp. 61-76 March 2015 <>
Rowland, Collins L.. ‘Review: Review of The Victorian Celebration of Death by James Stevens Curl; Victorian Cemetery Art by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr.’ Victorian Studies Vol. 16, No. 4 (Jun., 1973), pp. 468-470 March 2015 <
Richardson, B. W.. ‘The Late Dr. John Snow’ The British Medical Journal Vol. 1, No. 125 (May 21, 1859), p. 415 March 2015 <
Lawrence, Sandra ‘London’s coolest gravestones’ <>
Wells, H. G.. The Time Machine (England: Penguin Books, 2005)
 Friends of Brompton Cemetery Website <>
UCLA Site on John Snow <>
The Victorian Web and the pages used <> : 

Blog on the ‘Time Machine’ <>
‘Definition of Necropolis’ Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press <>
Images taken by me at the Brompton Cemetery. 

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