Kensal Green: Tombstone Tourists Explore A Historic London Cemetery

 By  Rosalie E. and George Leposky

Why would anyone visiting London squander the scarce treasure of time to explore a cemetery?

We did it to recall our literary and historical heritage. Strolling through Kensal Green Cemetery amidst the graves of famed novelists and playwrights, Victorian royalty and colonial overlords, we felt the occupants and their times leap (figuratively, of course) to life.

Credit: George Leposky
Mary Gibson's Monument

Those lying in repose on this bucolic North Kensington hillside include:

            Three descendants of King George     
            Wyndham Lewis (d. 1838), first husband of Prime Minister  Benjamin Disraeli's wife, Mary Anne.
            Novelists Wilkie Collins (1889), William Makepeace Thackeray (1863) and Anthony Trollope (1882).
            Frederick Albert Winsor (1830), originator of public gas lighting.
            James Cobbett (1842), a celebrated cricketer.
            John Gibson (1892), architect of the Houses of Parliament at  Westminster.
            Mary Gibson (1872), once thought to be John Gibson's sister but now believed not to be.  She lived in the West Country and died at age 18 at the Great Western Hotel, perhaps while in London for a medical consultation.  Her mother's executor was a marble merchant, which could explain why she lies beneath one of the cemetery's most impressive momuments.

In all, Kensal Green contains the remains of some 250,000 individuals in 65,000 graves -- including 500 members of British nobility and 550 people mentioned in the Dictionary of National Biography.

           "Kensal Green is England's most important cemetery," says Dr. Julian Litten, president of Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, a volunteer organization. At the time of our visit, he was curator in public affairs at the Victoria & Albert Museum; he has since retired. 

By selling a guidebook and charging fees for guided tours on Sundays, the Friends raised funds to restore the 77-acre cemetery's monuments and landscaping, nonconformist chapel buildings, and colonnade catacombs. The restoration repaired damage done in 1940 by German bombs and more recently by vandals and grave-robbers. Now plans are underway to restore the Anglican Chapel.

The oldest of seven private Victorian cemeteries in outlying districts of London, Kensal Green was an early manifestation of the "garden cemetery" movement. Early in the 19th Century, churchyard cemeteries in the hearts of European and American cities were filling up and prohibiting additional burials. On both sides of the Atlantic, private entrepreneurs solved the problem by creating suburban burial grounds with ample, lovingly-landscaped acreage. In an era before the existence of large urban parks, these garden cemeteries became popular places for a carriage ride or a stroll.

Kensal Green Cemetery was incorporated in 1832 (the year after America's first garden cemetery, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA) and consecrated in 1833.

"Kensal Green is the only Victorian cemetery created by an act of Parliament," Litten notes. "Its entrance must be open free of charge, and its bodies may not be exhumed and cremated or the land sold for development. When  filled in about 25 years, it must become a memorial park."

The most desirable grave locations were on the higher grand avenues, where the gentry bought larger plots and built opulent monuments. However, some of the most famous denizens of Kensal Green are interred off to the side in graves with relatively modest markers. One such, Anthony Trollope, lies beneath a low brown-granite marker with a cross in relief. "He was a loving husband, a loving father, and a true friend," proclaims his epitaph. An American named Kennedy "pays to keep the Trollope grave neat and tidy," says David J. Burkett, secretary for the General Cemetery Company, which has managed Kensal Green since its inception.

            Burkett says Kensal Green became popular with the aristocracy after the third son of King George III, Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, decided to be buried there rather than in the royal plot at Windsor. He died in 1843, and was joined in 1848 by his sister, Sophia, and in 1904 by his son, George William Frederick Charles, Second Duke of Cambridge. The latter's wife, Sara Fairbrother (d. 1890), and several of their children are also buried at Kensal Green.

            Many at Kensal Green requested burial in England after careers in the far-flung colonial reaches of the British Empire. The cemetery's most prominent colonists include Major General Sir William Casement (1844), a member of the Indian Supreme Council and governor general of Bengal; and Sir James Law Lushington (1859), 26 years a director and three times chairman of the East India Company.

Ironically, the cemetery also holds remains of expatriates from 27 foreign countries, including members of the Ethiopian and Indian royal families who died in exile in London.

Although Charles Dickens ended up in Westminster Abbey, he attended many funerals at Kensal Green for members of his intellectual circle, including his sister-in-law and perhaps mistress, Mary Hogarth (1837); humorist and poet Thomas Hood (1845); and Thackeray.

Credit: George Leposky   
William Makepeace Thackeray's Grave  

Among the more bizarre denizens of Kensal Green are two physicians, James Barry (1865) and John Saint John Long (1834).

Barry served as an Inspector General for the British Army Medical Department and was found to be a female only after her death, a fact which her tombstone does not disclose.

Long was convicted of manslaughter and fined after one of his patients died. He made patent medicines but refused to take them himself, and succumbed to consumption. His remarkable epitaph puts forth a spirited defense:

"It is the fate of most men to have many enemies and few friends. This monumental pile is not intended to mark the career, but to shew how much its inhabitant was respected by those who knew his worth and the benefits derived from his remedial discovery. He is now at rest and far beyond the praises, or censures of this world. Stranger as you respect the receptacle for the dead (as one of the many that will rest here.) read the name of JOHN SAINT JOHN LONG without comment."

Although Kensal Green fell from fashion after the close of the Victorian era, notables interred there in the 20th Century include Magnolia Churchill, a daughter of Sir Winston and Lady Clementine who died at age three of a high fever in 1921; and playwright Terence Rattigan, who died in 1979. Many of the newer graves have black marble tombstones bearing small photographs of the people buried beneath them.

What's nice about Kensal Green is that you can, but need not, take a guided tour. By contrast, in Highgate Cemetery, where more tourists visit because Karl Marx (1883) is buried in the east section, you can wander around in the east section but must take a guided tour to see the west section, and pay to visit either or both.  

At Kensal Green we wandered by ourselves, using the Friends' guidebook and a copy of a 1912 General Cemetery Company leaflet to seek out the prominent personages listed. Our leisurely pace also allowed us to notice such unsung heroes as George Cruikshank (1878), an artist, designer, etcher and painter whose epitaph declares that he was "for 30 years a total abstainer and ardent champion by pencil, word and pen of universal abstinence from intoxicating drinks."

             We were surprised to find vegetation overgrowing much of the cemetery. "Only about one percent of Kensal Green's graves have perpetual care," Litten says. "Each plot was sold with a freehold deed, many of which have been lost with other family papers over the last 150 years. Many English families don't know where their grandparents are buried. Grave owners can't expect the cemetery company to spend its funds to keep up a private monument. Further, with so many graves clustered tightly together, it's difficult to keep up maintenance, which has to be done by hand. Grass mowers don't fit between the stones."

            By virtue of being somewhat unkempt, Kensal Green also serves as a declared conservation area harboring flora and fauna rare elsewhere in the urban sprawl of Greater London. Eighty-five species of birds have been recorded within the cemetery's walls, and 33 species nest there. Birders will want to carry a field guide. The cemetery guide lists the best spots to see certain species. Lepidopterists also appreciate the place; half the butterfly species in the United Kingdom have been recorded there.

St. Mary's 

Up the hill from Kensal Green Cemetery is the 29-acre St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, established in 1858, where 165,000 people have been buried.

St. Mary's has fewer mausoleums, and the grounds are less overgrown because the staff there mows and uses herbicides. Signs are posted announcing that sections of the cemetery are about to covered with a layer of fill and reused.

A highlight of St. Mary's is a memorial, in French and Flemish, to Belgian soldiers who were wounded in combat during World War I and died in English hospitals.

Significant Catholics buried at St. Mary's include:

            Mary Seacole (d. 1881), a Crimean War nurse as famous during her life as her contemporary, Florence Nightingale.
            Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (1891), Napoleon's nephew and a classical scholar.
            Poet Francis Thompson (1907)
            Symphony conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1970)

Location

Kensal Green Cemetery is in a working-class neighborhood on Harrow Road. To get there, take bus route 18 or 52, the Bakerloo tube line, or British Rail's Silverlink Metro service from London Euston mainline station to Kensal Green station.

If you come by bus, ask the driver to let you off at Kensal Green Cemetery. If instead you find yourself at the entrance to St. Mary's and the West London Crematorium (which happened to us), just walk downhill along the sidewalk outside the cemetery wall to the Kensal Green entrance. Go to the office to obtain the 1912 leaflet, which is free; and to purchase (for one pound, which goes to Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery) A Guide to The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, published by the Hammersmith and Fulham Amenity Trust.

Kensal Green Cemetery is open to visitors daily, 9 AM (2 PM on Sunday) to sunset from October through March, and 9 AM (10 AM on Sunday) to 6 PM from April through September. The Friends guided tour costs five pounds (four pounds for the unemployed, retired, students, and members of English Heritage). Tours begin at 2:30 PM; on the first and third Sundays of each month, the tour includes the catacombs. (Children under age 12 may not visit the catacombs.)

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner and George Leposky is editor of of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

For More Information

Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery

Kensal Green Cemetery, London

 British Tourist Authority 

(c) Ampersand Communications


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