Two of London’s most interesting large Victorian cemeteries. Kensal Green and Brompton, are located in Kensington. On Tuesday 16 July, we will be visiting oldest and largest of London’s seven commercial cemeteries that were established between 1833 and 1841: Kensal Green Cemetery, where more than 250,000 bodies have been interned – so far, as it is still “open for business”. Most of those graves have eventually been replaced by new ones, but visitors can look at and ponder over more than 65,000 marked graves.
As London’s population expanded rapidly in the early 1800s, it became clear that existing church graveyards would be unable to cope, so the barrister George Frederick Carden, who in 1821 had visited the enormous Père-Lachaise Cemetery, which had opened in Paris in 1804, thought that London needed something similar: a series of appealing suburban cemeteries catering for the affluent middle and upper classes. In 1830 he managed to gather a group of enthusiasts who set up a committee for the purpose of creating a large commercial cemetery outside central London. They found and bought 54 acres of land at Kensal Green, and after hard lobbying for this radically new idea, their General Cemetery Company was approved by Parliament in 1832 and the building project could begin.
The Church of England was allotted 39 acres and the remaining 15 acres, clearly separated, were given over to Dissenters, a distinction deemed crucial at the time. On 24 January 1833 the cemetary was consecrated by the Bishop of London, and a few days later it held its first funeral.
The cemetery became a real success among the rich and famous when Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (son of George III) asked to be buried there in 1843. His sister Princess Sophia was also buried there five years later, as are three generations Brunels (Marc Isambard, Isambard Kingdom, his two sons Isambard and Henry Marc, and all their widows), William Makepeace Thackeray, the Alice in Wonderland illustrator John Tenniel and, more recently, the Swinging Sixties fashion designer Ossie Clark. Over 550 of the famous cemetery residents can be found in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Between 1836 and 1841, Kensal Green was quickly followed by a further six commercial cemeteries around London. Today, they are informally known as The Magnificent Seven. However, the Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850 and the Burial Acts of 1852-1885 prompted local governments to create municipal cemeteries supported by taxes and managed by civic burial boards, which effectively put an end to the creation of any more commercial cemeteries.
Come with us on a special guided tour, led by two trustees of The Friends of Kensal Green, chairman Jenny Freeman and author and historian Henry Vivian-Neal. We will walk round parts of this beautiful and fascinating cemetery (suitable footwear required!) before returning to the Dissenter’s Chapel for drinks – outside if it’s a fine evening, so we can admire the view.
The number of places is limited to 20 so do sign up early! This is a very special visit, as the cemetery will be closed to the general public by the time we arrive.
Kensington Society members £15, non-members £20