Cemetery of the Week #70: Kensal Green Cemetery

Tomb of William Mulready, from a postcard photo by Robert Stephenson

Kensal Green Cemetery
Harrow Road between Scrubs Lane and Ladbroke Grove
London, W10 4RA, England
Telephone: +44 020 8969 0152
Email: fokgc@hotmail.com (Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery)
Founded: 1832
Size: 72 acres (not 77 acres, as some sources state)
Number of interments: 250,000
Open: April 1 to September 30: Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Bank Holidays: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. October 1 to March 31: Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bank Holidays: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

This week, in honor of the 2012 Olympics, I’m going to look at what is the most important Victorian graveyard in London. Founded in 1832, Kensal Green Cemetery was the first commercial cemetery in the metropolis, supported by an act of parliament.

Because London’s population exploded during the 19th century, its 150 parish churchyards were completely unable to cope with the influx of fresh dead. George Frederick Carden visited Paris’s Pere Lachaise and was struck by the cemetery’s park-like aspect. He came home to England determined to create a similar graveyard in England’s capitol. London’s first cholera epidemic in 1832 tipped the balance and Parliament approved removing burial from church controls. Of course, the cemetery had to pay a fee to any clergy who lost money on parishioners’ final disposition.

Kensal Green’s first burial was Margaret Gregory in January 31, 1833. Famous and Curious Cemeteries says, “The directors were so happy to have her that, at their own expense, they erected a tablet to her memory.”

The sarcophagus of Princess Sophia, in front of the Anglican Chapel, from a postcard photo taken by Robert Stephenson

Kensal Green has more mausoleums than any other cemetery in England, as well as separate Greek Revival chapels for Anglicans (Doric) and Dissenters (Ionic). Near the Anglican chapel stand the upraised sarcophagus monument to Princess Sophia, one of the daughters of King George III, who was king during the American Revolution as well as the Napoleonic Wars. Sophia was forbidden to marry and was kept apart from the world against her will, but managed to bear an illegitimate child she was unable to keep. Her burial at Kensal Green – along with her brother Augustus Frederick, who predeceased her – added to the new cemetery’s cachet. Two of Napoleon’s cousins, who’d lived in exile in London, rest here as well.

Author of the novel Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray is buried there, along with novelist Anthony Trollope, who was famous in his day for his understanding of the difficulties faced by Victorian women, and Woman in White author Wilkie Collins, who also wrote The Moonstone, considered the first full-length mystery.

Several showmen made their permanent bows at Kensal Green. Andrew Ducrow, “Colossus of equestrians,” lies in an Egyptian tomb guarded by sphinxes. Emile (or Charles) Blondin, who paced a tightrope over Niagara Falls in 1859, is watched over by a statue of Hope with her anchor. Joseph Richardson, a mason who created a “Rock Harmonicon” which struck pieces of mica schist to make music. You can hear one here.

Perhaps the most remarkable person buried there is Dr. James Barry. Only upon Barry’s death — after 46 years of active army service, some of it as Inspector General of Hospitals – was it discovered that she had concealed her gender. James Barry was the first female doctor.

Darren Beach in London’s Cemeteries (reviewed yesterday) calls Kensal Green “vast, gloriously ramshackle fields of eerie catacombs and Victorian monuments.” Famous and Curious Cemeteries calls it “a marvelous relic of the Victorian age.” Hugh Meller, in London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer goes as far as to state Kensal Green is “one of London’s most important 19th century monuments.” Perhaps Olympic visitors can tear themselves away from the games long enough to explore.

Useful links:

Kensal Green’s homepage

Tours of the cemetery are available from the Friends of Kensal Green

Map and notable burials

A survey by British History Online

A brief history of the cemetery

Video tour of Kensal Green

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Kensal Green Cemetery:

London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide

London Cemeteries

Who Lies Where

Famous and Curious Cemeteries: A Pictorial, Historical, and Anecdotal View of American and European Cemeteries

The Cemetery Book: Graveyards, Catacombs and Other Travel Haunts Around the World

Other London cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Highgate Cemetery

Westminster Abbey

Postman’s Park

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