Brompton Cemetery is part of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ group of cemeteries in London. Opened in 1840 it was consecrated by the Bishop of London on the 12th June and the first burial took place on the 22nd. It was originally known as the West of London and Westminster Cemetery and covers over 39 acres and is a great place to see examples from many art movements such as Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts as well as examples of ceramics, stone craft and other decorative work.
Its designers’ aims were to create a peaceful garden setting that would be pleasing for visitors and mourners alike. The cemetery was the brain child of The West of London & Westminster Cemetery Company and architect Stephen Geary, a member of the London Cemetery Company. Later a competition was announced for a design for the cemetery. This was won by another architect Benjamin Braud and the job was given to him (later Geary, who was eligible for the competition, would try and sue the company after he was asked to resign. He lost). Baud’s vision was to create a sort of open-aired and symmetrical cathedral with a central avenue (lined with lime trees, which can still be seen today) to represent the nave, leading to a ‘high alter’, the chancel, in the form of a domed chapel modelled on the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Baud wanted his grandiose cemetery to outshine all of the others and planned to build two additional chapels (one for Roman Catholics and the other for Non-Conformists). These, however, never materialised as the project soon ran out of money. Defects were then found in several of the buildings and Baud was fired. To add to Brompton’s woes, the catacombs that were built to house over a thousand bodies beneath the colonnades mostly went unsold. Within a few years of its opening the cemetery was haemorrhaging money with less than 500 of the loculi sold and shareholders seeing no return for their investments; luckily the Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850 gave the government the opportunity to purchase the cemetery so it could be saved and turned into the Grade I listed marvel that it is now.
For the last 50 years Brompton has been managed by the Royal Parks (with the help of the Friends of Brompton) and remains the only cemetery to be nationalised. They have done a good job of it too as there is none of the neglect that you will see at Highgate (which I personally think is Highgate’s charm) and the Friends work tirelessly to conserve the cemetery. Thanks to Lottery and Heritage Fund money, Brompton is due to undergo a major facelift over the next few years including the addition of a visitors centre.
The cemetery has witnessed over 200,000 interments since its opening and is home to many notable figures such as Ernest Thesigar (actor from films such as ‘The Old Dark House’ and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’), Henry Augustus Mears (founder of Chelsea Football Club) and Brian Glover (actor and wrestler). Perhaps the most famous grave is that of Emmeline Pankhurst, political activist and leader of the British Suffragette Movement. Her grave, which is on the left hand side of the cemetery a few paces from the entrance, is very feminine with a Celtic Cross, angels and art nouveau style figure raising its hand to heaven adorning it. There is no epitaph on her headstone, just her name, date of death (14th June 1928) and that she was the wife of RM Pankhurst LLD. Perhaps this is a fitting tribute to Britain’s most political activist whose story is etched in British history and therefore needs no introduction.
Apart from the Courtoy Mausoleum (which I will be expanding on in a later post), my favourite grave in Brompton is that of Frederick Richards Leyland, a large shipping company owner and art collector. This Grade II* listed tomb was designed by Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphaelite artist of whom Leyland was a patron. Leyland was also a patron for other famous Pre-Raphaelite artists including Rossetti and Albert Moore.
Surrounded by wrought iron railings with its stunning copper floral filigree pattern and pitched roof it pulls the eye of every visitor who walks by. Though it is a beautiful grave it holds a bit of a dirty secret. While Leyland was married to Frances (neé Dawson) he had several affairs (fathering children with a few of them). Frances eventually forced him to accept a formal separation. She died in 1910, 28 years after Leyland, and was buried with him. Her name and date of birth and death can be found in small lettering at the bottom of the tomb almost as a footnote to his sordid past.
The catacombs are a fascinating feature of the cemetery which I was lucky to see first hand very recently. Flanked with large black cast iron doors bearing inverted torches, entwined serpents and winged hourglasses these were the backdrop for ‘Lord Blackwood’s Tomb’ in the 2009 Guy Richie film Sherlock Holmes featuring Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. The cemetery has been featured in several other films including 2004’s Finding Neverland starring Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp and 2003’s Johnny English featuring Rowan Atkinson.
At the time that Brompton was built catacombs were an alien concept to the English. The idea was already well developed in Italy (Rome) and France (Paris) and was then later adapted in the UK by the Victorians. Death, as in life, involves status and the catacombs were introduced to the cemetery as a cheaper alternative to burial in what some Victorians saw as cold and inhospitable earth. You had to be extraordinarily wealthy to afford a plot for a mausoleum and being laid to rest in a catacomb was, for some, a sort of halfway house. People would save for years to make sure their loved ones received the proper burial. The catacombs, like today, were not open to the public and access was strictly regulated with only members of the family allowed access. It also allowed the Victorian conduct of ‘communing with the dead’ where a member of the deceased’s family, for example a widow, would sit in front of the coffin (sometimes for a few hours) to recite poetry, read passages from books and letters to the departed. This was a very important part of trying to keep in contact with the dead and keep their memory alive. The English have always followed examples set by Royalty and this idea likely came from a precedent that Queen Victoria set through the mourning of her husband Albert.
Entering the catacombs now you can still see fully intact coffins with some of the embellishments on them. A few even have wreaths that were left there. Although now they have turned to dust barely holding together over time.
Although there is no one particularly famous interred in the catacombs there is one of note that is connected with one of the most sensational and notorious murder cases in Victorian England. The casket of Alexander Louis Ricardo, an officer in the Grenadier Guards who died in Germany in 1871 under suspicious circumstances was linked with the death of a man in 1875 called Charles Bravo in an elite Victorian household in Balham called The Priory. Bravo was found dead after swallowing a poison akin to arsenic. There were two inquests into the death and the last returned a verdict of murder. Although no one was named as the murderer, suspicion fell on the widow of Alexander Louis Ricardo, Florence, now the wife of Charles Bravo. She was revealed to be having a love affair with prominent physician James Gully. Having one husband die suspiciously is one thing but to have two and a lover to boot suggested murder! Although Florence walked out of the inquest a free woman she could never shake the allegations and 18 months later she drank herself to death. To find out more about this case there is a book called ‘Death At The Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England’ by James Ruddick which may be of interest to those wanting to know more about this scandal.
Getting to Brompton is very easy by taking the District Line to West Brompton and the entrance to the cemetery is to your left as you exit the station. It is open from 8am to 4pm (although check the Royal Parks website for seasonal opening hours) and is free to the public. Almost all of the areas are accessible to the public bar the catacombs which can only be visited on open days via a guided tour (these can be found on the Friends website by clicking here). The cemetery is also host to many events over the year and plays a prominent role in The London Month of the Dead calendar.
Brompton is as much for the dead as it is the living and I think this is why it is my favourite of the Magnificent Seven. After being reopened for interments in 1966 (it was closed to burials between 1952 to ’66, except family interments) it is probably the most accessible of all the Magnificent Seven and it is not unusual to see children riding their bikes and people walking dogs or talking on their mobile phones on the paths amongst the two hundred thousand graves (several of which are listed as Grade II). There’s also some interesting trivia in that Beatrix Potter lived in nearby Old Brompton Road and may have taken names from the tombs to use in her stories (amongst the buried are a Mr. McGregor, Mr. Todd and even a Peter Rabbett) found by James Mackay, a member of the Friends of Brompton Cemetery committee. Since the land was once used for growing vegetables for markets wild garlic and sometimes cabbages can be found amongst the headstones. During the day you will see crows hopping from grave to grave and of a night you will see and hear bats swooping overhead. In my opinion it is the epitome of ‘The Great Garden of Sleep’.
by Amy Peters