by Sheldon K. Goodman
If you’ve ever loved the roar of traffic and the screaming engines of passenger aircraft, there is one cemetery that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Located near the idyllic Chiswick House and the beautiful A136 dual carriageway, behind the stout iron railings and red brick pillars, is probably one of London’s least tranquil and restful cemeteries, next to a train line and directly under the Heathrow flight path.
Loren very kindly invited me to write about a Cemetery which is special to me. I have a choice of two. Out of the hat, I’ve decided to go for Chiswick New Cemetery.
Chiswick. Where’s that? If you’re a Doctor Who aficionado, you may be aware it’s where Donna Noble, companion of the Tenth Doctor, lives. Chiswick New Cemetery opened in response to Chiswick Old becoming full – the likes of William Hogarth and Whistler are buried there – so in 1933, a former water meadow was redeveloped into a municipal cemetery to serve a borough facing the prospect of war.
Chiswick New is not in the same league as Highgate or Brompton, which, you may be aware, are part of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London (a ring of death that circled the Capital and receive its dead to the present day, to varying degrees). The Magnificent Seven’s success spawned further places of burial. By the time Chiswick opened, mourning had changed from the pomp and grandeur of those original Seven and it was all a much quieter affair.
Despite this, there are some things to look out for, such as the striking chapel built out of the same stone as St. Paul’s Cathedral, interspersed with red brick for good measure and echoing the Art Deco style that was so popular at the time. There are also a good number of Russian crosses, reflecting the Russian community that settled in Chiswick over the years, as well as the large Irish Catholic contingent, who drape many graves with rosary beads and images of Our Lady.
One of the things I learnt when visiting Chiswick New was that John Sullivan wrote something other than hit UK TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Here, beneath an intricately crafted iron floral cross and a vast mass of lavender swarming with honey bees, is the actor Ralph Bates, best known for his role in Sullivan’s short-lived Dear John sitcom. Born in Bristol in 1940, he was the great-great nephew of vaccination and microbiologist Louis Pasteur and became a key actor in the later Hammer Horror films.
Another actor of stage and screen is here: Bonar Colleano, who hailed from an Australian circus family but was himself born in New York in the mid-1920s. Moving to London to tour the music halls and work in stage and radio, his decision, when war was declared in 1939, to entertain the troops meant that he was not called up for active service by either British or American forces.
His best-known work was appearing opposite actress Vivien Leigh in the London run of A Streetcar Named Desire. A car crash in 1958 cut short a promising career.
Then there’s also the Car Lady of Chiswick, Anne Naysmith, who made the headlines a few years ago for living in a shelter behind Stamford Brook station after being evicted from her house. A formidable concert pianist in her youth, she experienced heartbreak in the 1970s, which pushed her to willingly living on the street. She accepted no charity and lived on £10 ($14.50) a week. Her clothing was a mixture of different materials and her shoes were made of supermarket carrier bags, pigeon feathers, and elastic bands. Despite her poverty, she had a stockbroker in the City and an investment portfolio. Her story bears a strong resemblance to Alan Bennett’s Lady in the Van, featuring the marvellous Dame Maggie Smith.
Toward the back of the cemetery, by a very tall Leylandii hedge, is the grave of Havildar Lachhiman Gurung VC of the Gurkha Rifles, who won the army’s highest accolade in World War II by repeatedly throwing grenades out of the trench he was sharing with his comrades. The third grenade exploded as he held it, blasting off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding his face, body, and right leg. Despite this, he kept on fighting, singlehandedly repelling an attack by the German forces, killing 31 of them by firing a machine gun with one hand.
I met a delightful cat at his grave.
Chiswick New has a particular interest for me because one of my grandmothers is buried there. The grave she’s in has been a place of pilgrimage ever since I was born; it’s where my grandfather and great grandparents are buried. This was the only grave that I was allowed to see when we visited. Whilst people such as Ralph Bates and Anne Naysmith were nearby, I never got the chance to see or explore their lives, as I was far too young to be wandering around on my own.
Now, the blog I co-write with Christina and others seeks to open up these places of the dead and show you the lives once lived. And it partly started from here.
Clare’s grave photo © Stephen Roberts 2013. All other images © Sheldon K. Goodman 2015.
Sheldon K. Goodman is a City of Westminster guide with a passion for exploring the environment around us. He has an extensive and deep interest in cemeteries and the people buried within them, which he shares at www.cemeteryclub.co.uk. Sheldon also leads tours around London: regularly around Tower Hamlets and Brompton Cemeteries, as well as upcoming walks around Soho and Bloomsbury in Summer 2016.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.