I first found out about the Brompton Time Machine last October when my good friend John invited me to join him on a candle-lit reading event of stories by M. R James in the chapel at Brompton Cemetery as part of the London Month of the Dead in 2015. As we were walking along the dark pathway he pointed out several of the notable graves there and a large mausoleum in the middle of the cemetery covered in Egyptian markings. I had passed this earlier in the day and he explained to me the time machine myth surrounding this imposing structure. I looked up the story as soon as I got home and my interest was piqued; years of being a Doctor Who fan and a youth spent mainly watching the Back to the Future trilogy have instilled a love of time travel and adventure. A few days after this John alerted me to another event held in the cemetery regarding the mausoleum and organised by storytellers London Dreamtime. We went along with our blankets and candles and I was captivated. An obsession was born.
The 40-foot high polished granite mausoleum dominates the landscape around it and is unique as it bears no inscription. It houses the remains of Hanna Courtoy (née Peters) and 2 of her 3 daughters, Mary Ann and Elizabeth. Hannah died on the 26th January 1849 and has been described as a “mysterious society lady with fabulous wealth”. Little is known about her life except she never married and inherited her fortune from an elderly merchant by the name of John Courtoy, from whom she took her name. It’s possible she was his mistress and he may also have been the father of her 3 children (Mary Ann, Elizabeth and Susannah). There are rumours that Hannah may also have been a mistress to royalty and that she forged John Courtoy’s will to get her hands on his fortune.
The tomb was not completed until 5 years after Hannah’s death in 1853. How did the story of the time machine come about then? Rumours had been rife for decades of this mausoleum being a portal to different times, but it wasn’t until October 1998 when journalist Helen Smith wrote an article for the American newspaper Daily News (you can view the original article here) as part of a Halloween feature that myth became legend!. In this article Smith reveals how writer Howard Webster became intrigued by the tomb and decided to do a little research. According to various sources there are no surviving plans or known key to the mausoleum. This in itself is strange as all the other structures in Brompton required planning and schematics to be approved prior to building. Webster also discovered that Hannah was associated with 2 (in)famous men who may have designed the mausoleum; Samuel Warner and Joseph Bonomi (The Younger). Warner was an inventor of naval weapons (although was considered a conman) and Bonomi was a noted Egyptologist, artist, sculptor and museum curator (Hannah financed some of Bonomi’s expeditions to Egypt). Bonomi has also designed many other Egyptian-inspired structures such as the entrance to another of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Cemeteries (Abney Park) and an ‘Egyptian Spring’ for Hartwell House in Hartwell, Buckinghamshire.
The story goes that both Warner and Bonomi were involved in the Occult and that Bonomi had discovered the secret to time travel from hieroglyphs he saw on one of his expeditions to Egypt. Courtoy and her daughters were known as eccentrics and it’s speculated they could have financed the building of a time machine. Warner died in suspicious circumstances in 1853 when the mausoleum was finished. Now here’s where the story differs: some say he died because of what he discovered while working on the time machine and that it is now housed in the mausoleum for safe keeping. Another story is that Bonomi killed Warner to stop the plans of the working time machine falling into the wrong hands. Others believe that Warner didn’t die at all and simply travelled back or forward in time and disappeared.
To fuel these rumours further, both Samuel Warner and Joseph Bonomi are also buried in Brompton. Warner in an unmarked grave and Bonomi only a stone’s throw from the mausoleum, with a large black headstone with a picture of the Egyptian god Anubis, adding to the speculation.
My favourite story about the mausoleum is that it is not a time machine but a portal or teleportation device, and that several other mausoleums that resemble the Courtoy one connect with each other. The most notable of these is located in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris .
Most recently British newspaper The Independent ran an article in December 2015 (you can read the full article here) on the efforts of Ray Godson (great-great grandson of Hannah Courtoy) and Stephen Coates (creator of arts label Antique Beat who curate the London Month of the Dead) to have a key made for the mausoleum by a heritage locksmith so it can be opened – though frustratingly, so far no further progress has been made.
I can see why these stories have risen around this monument: the strange wheel motifs on the bottom of the door, the large circular hole in the top of the tomb with 8 smaller holes surrounding it looks like something is missing from it like a clock or dial. Whatever is behind those bronze doors we may never know. On the one hand I would love to find out (and if Godson and Coates do get a key made I will be first in line for the grand unveiling) but on the other I would very much like the mystery to carry on because as they say; “curiosity killed the cat”.
To read more about Brompton Cemetery click here.
by Amy Peters