Category Archives: Magnificent Seven

The very evil custom of interring the dead in towns

I love this article from the Penny Magazine of August 2nd, 1834. It was published 18 months after the first burial took place in Kensal Green Cemetery. It's a great bit of PR, and Mr Carden, the General Cemetery Company and whoever was responsible for their marketing are to be roundly congratulated, even from this distance.

The very evil custom of interring the dead in and near the places devoted to public worship is, to the best of our knowledge, peculiar to Christian countries. Its introduction seems to have been very early; for we find interments in cities altogether prohibited by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius, in which is very truly stated that such a practise is very injurious to the public health, while monuments by the way-side present salutory memorials to the traveller. A person infringing this law forfeited a third of his patrimony; and an undertaker directing a funeral contrary to this prohibition was fined forty pounds of gold.
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Brompton Cemetery’s damp open day

It was, it must be said, a somewhat soggy day for Brompton Cemetery's Open Day. But the Friends are an incorrigibly cheerful bunch, and soldiered on, with or without umbrellas.

I had an excellent tour of the above-ground cemetery with David, and saw a few things I'd never seen before in Brompton: Sioux chief Long Wolf, who died in London while on tour with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and was buried in Brompton until he went home in 1997; Director of Continental Journeys to Queen Victoria, Joseph Julius Kanné's stone erected by the Queen and Prince of Wales; professional soldier Colonel Henry Byrne, who fought in three campaigns and rather nicely has replicas of his medals on his tomb.

Then it was time for a (yes, I'm going to use the s-word) spooky look at the catacombs with Terence. Kensal Green's catacombs have electric lights fitted, at least in the bit you're taken to see. Brompton's, on the other hand, have tea lights. It is very, very dark and my imagination jumped immediately to tripping in the dark and putting my hand through the side of a coffin, and wondering just what, exactly, I was standing on. Fun, all the same - and my guess from KG that catacombs are never a commercial success with the English was bourne out by the swathes of empty space in Brompton's.

Exhibitors included the Met's "stopping drugs and cottaging in the Parks" department, who were all very jolly - as well as the Friends of Nunhead and the Friends of Kensal Green. All in all, a fun day out, if only it hadn't rained quite so hard.

Inevitably, there are more photos...

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Putting the fun in funereal: Kensal Green Cemetery Open Day

An Evening Standard columnist once said of Kensal Green's annual open day: "It was like a cross between a funeral, a gig by the Cure and a village fete." He wasn't wrong. For me, it's one of the highlights of the cemetery calendar.

The open day centred around the Anglican Chapel, with a range of stalls: most were Etsy Live, with artisans selling everything from jewellery and jams, to cemetery photographs and books. Gingerbread coffins, complete with iced skeletons, were much in evidence, and classic hearses lined the main avenue. Death, Goths and a man on a penny farthing milled about. It was magic.

Top of the bill for me were the tours. The Friends of Kensal Green run tours regularly on Sundays, but Open Day has many to choose from, including the opportunity to go into the catacombs. The latter are fascinating: please go if you have the chance. At 2,000 deposits in the last 170-odd years, they're not exactly a commercial proposition, but they are still being used. And seeing 150-year-old coffins with their red velvet covering still intact and even a trace of gilding left on the coffin furnishings is amazing.

Special hat-tips: Dr Julian Litten for the most excellent tour of the above-ground cemetery (and his equally excellent pre-need gravestone); the guys from Silent Cities: great to finally meet you; all the Friends for their amazing work and such a good day out.

Inevitably, there are more KG photos...

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Kensal Green opens for burials

From The Times, 1st February 1833

General Cemetery Company, Kensall-Green, Harrow Road. The Directors hereby inform the public, that the cemetery is now ready for interments. The ground has been surrounded by a lofty wall and duly consecrated by the Lord Bishop of London. A spacious catacomb has been constructed, with accomodation in separate chambers for families, or a depository for an individual as may be required, and mausoleums, vaults or common graves may be treated for at the office, on Great Russell street. A regular register will be kept, by which coffins deposited in the catacombs may be at any time visited or inspected by relatives of the deceased and the Directors offer the fullest security against exhumation or any other disturbance of the solemnity of the grave. The terms for the sale of the catacombs, as well as the vaults and graves will be found on enquiry to be considerably below the prices usually charged. All communications to be made at the office, 95 Great Russell street, Bloomsbury to Mr Bowman, the Clerk of the Company, who will give every information that may be required.
C B BOWMAN, Clerk of the Company, 95 Great Russell street, Bloomsbury

I can't help thinking there's mixed messaging here. It's secure and you can have your own chamber in the catacombs... but it's also cheap. If I'd been selling it, I'd've made it expensive, and exclusive, at least at launch: I wouldn't have mentioned common graves in that copy at all.

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Tower Hamlets Cemetery chapels

I discovered some pictures of the Tower Hamlets Cemetery chapels in the Illustrated London News for 24th March, 1849. As the actual buildings are long-gone, it was rather nice to see what they were like.

There's a very short accompanying article; here it is in its entirety.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Anglican Chapel

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Anglican Chapel

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Dissenters' Chapel

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Dissenters' Chapel

At this period, when public attention is so universally directed to the sanitary condition of the metropolis, and when the suppression of intramural interments may shortly be anticipated as the law of the land, a sketch of the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery, which has been recently completed, cannot fail to be interesting.

To the inhabitants of the City of London especially, it must form a matter for congratulation, that within two miles of the Royal Exchange, a suitable resting-place has been provided for the remains of those who once formed its busy occupants, so preferable in every respect to the already over-crowded churchyard burial-ground.

This cemetery was incorporated by act of Parliament in the year 1841, and a considerable portion of the ground has since been consecrated by the Lord Bishop of London. It comprises an area of upwards of thirty acres, most eligibly situated, being close to the high road leading to Bow.

The chapels, which form the subject of our Illustration, have just been completed from the designs of Messrs. Wyatt and Brandon, and are greatly admired for their purity of style and propriety of arrangement. That erected in the consecrated ground is in the early Decorated period, with a belfry at one angle, in which are some nicely ornamented windows; and at the sides are attached cloisters for the reception of mural tablets, so contructed as to afford an effectual screen from the weather. The chapel appropriated to the use of Dissenters is of octagonal form, and in the Byzantine style of architecture. Beneath both chapels are dry and extensive catacombs, arranged so as to accommodate single coffins or to form family vaults.

The grounds have been judiciously and effectively laid out by the same artists, and inclosed [sic] by high walls and ornamental iron railings; and the drainage, which is effected by means of an artesian well, to a depth of 210 feet, and tributary drains running through the land in various directions, is, we understand most successful — a depth of twenty-six feet having in many instances been obtained without moisture.

The chapels apparently suffered bomb damage in the war (shrapnel damage can still be seen on some of the gravestones towards the front of the cemetery near the Soanes Centre). They were demolished in 1967, following the 1966 purchase of Tower Hamlets by the Greater London Council. Meller notes that there was also a "little Egyptian style mortuary"; I'd dearly love to see a picture of that.

I got to wondering today, how did the new cemeteries go about marketing themselves? (Marketing's what I do when I'm not wearing a cemeterying hat.) Some digging about in old newspapers may be in my near future...

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