The Open Air Cathedral
Out of all the Magnificent Seven cemeteries we’ve visited, there is one that beckons to us time and time again. It’s the Cemetery that started our journey into the Victorian underworld and sparked our interest into the past. A cemetery that has had remarkably mixed fortunes over its existence, from being founded as one of the ring of seven cemeteries that gave Londoners a lasting, peaceful burial space to being abandoned and becoming a hotspot for the gay community in the late 1970’s to 1980’s.
Brompton Cemetery is located near my ancestral ‘manor’: my maternal side all come from Fulham and I daresay one or two of them are amongst the 205,000 people who are interred here. Opened in 1840, the same year that Nunhead and Tower Hamlets unbolted their iron gates to receive the decaying masses, the site was, according to Catherine Arnold’s Necropolis ‘nothing more than a flat, treeless rectangle, half a mile long’ formerly owned by Lord Kensington.
Stephen Geary, an entrepreneur and driving force behind Highgate, Nunhead and the man who romanticised these places as being THE place to be laid to rest in, was appointed architect in 1837, working on behalf of the West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company. Highgate had its Egyptian Avenue and Cedar of Lebanon, Kensal Green had its celebrities and Abney Park had its acceptance of dissenters. The Board of Directors recognised Brompton was featureless: a landmark was needed make it attractive to potential plot buyers. A competition was held to which Benjamin Baud was declared the winner, submitting a design for an ‘open air cathedral’ focussing on a chapel in place of a high altar, which bears a resemblance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
From the start, the cemetery incurred problems that would blight it for most of its early life. Geary resigned two years after his appointment to devote more time to his darling Highgate. Plans for a canal to bring Coffins in by water were abandoned and upon its consecration in June, the cemetery was, embarrassingly, still unfinished. The catacombs, which were built as a cheaper alternative to conventional burials, were also a failure, with only five hundred vaults being filled.
In 1852, the directors were forced to sell the cemetery to the General Board of Health, making Brompton the first Cemetery to be nationalised. A more stable period followed and the Cemetery is noted for its many notable mausoleums and graves. People such as Joseph Bonomi the Younger (and his heart wrenching headstone which shows that he lost four of his children to Whooping Cough in Easter 1852), Percy E. Lambert (the first man to drive a car to 100mph) and Emmeline Pankhurst. And someone called Montague Fowler.
On a particular visit I made with Nick, we found two Macaws casually sitting on a grave. Nick presumed they were plastic and we both got a shock when they started tilting their heads. Their owner had decided to take them out for a ‘walk’. We looked on, a little bemused…!
On the steps of the McDonald mausoleum
Brompton was in the news recently as it was one of the successful open spaces in the UK to receive funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund’s Parks For People scheme. A total of £3.7 million has been granted for the renovation and restoration of the only Crown Cemetery in the UK: realising a new Visitors Centre, Volunteer base and Cafe. The Chapel will also be repaired, with educational facilities worked into its fabric. In many ways I think Tower Hamlets is a shining example of bringing a literally dead space into active service for the community, and its encouraging to see its siblings adopting a similar approach to ensure it remains relevant to the local area.
While I applaud this move to recognise the importance of such a place, I can’t help but think that there were other cemeteries that could have been assisted with the funding which are just as important but perhaps not as well known as Brompton, and the idea of a play area in a grade II listed Cemetery baffles and worries me slightly.
Despite this, its pleasing to know that the value of places such as Brompton warrants an investment to secure the years that lie ahead of it. And, as I’ve found out, I’ll probably be making many more trips there in the years to come.
The first two photographs and portrait of Sheldon © Nick Richards Photography, 2014. Last two photographs © Christina Owen, 2014.