Kensal Green Cemetery

Report by Julie Shelton of the Guided Tour on 5 November.

Our tour had originally been scheduled for 10 September, but had been postponed following the death of HM the Queen. A glorious Autumn had followed, but those seemingly endless balmy days had just the previous week given way to wet and dreary weather. Furthermore a national rail strike, although called off at the last minute, had scuppered plans for some hopeful participants and seriously inconvenienced others. So far, so inauspicious, but nothing daunted, and equipped with waterproofs, umbrellas and a spirit of adventure, our plucky band assembled on the steps of the crumbling Grade 1 listed Anglican chapel which stands at the heart of the Cemetery of All Souls at Kensal Green, there to meet our guide.

Henry Vivian-Neal is the Chief Guide of the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, a group of volunteers dedicated to the preservation of this “national Valhalla”. Kensal Green is the oldest of the ‘magnificent seven’ cemeteries created in the 19th century to accommodate the needs of London’s rapidly expanding population, the mainly Elizabethan burial grounds in the city having become inadequate, both in terms of capacity and on public health grounds. So it was that Kensal Green welcomed its first resident in 1833 and has been operating uninterruptedly ever since.

Once we had absorbed this background history, Henry, accompanied by fellow guide Irina, led us on a tour of just parts of the 72-acre site which boasts some of the most magnificent funerary monuments in the country – 150 listed buildings and monuments – and whose residents include in their number some 650 who are listed in the Dictionary of National Biography. The cemetery first became a fashionable place to be buried thanks to Royal patronage when the Duke of Sussex, Queen Victoria’s favourite uncle, decided that he would be laid to rest there (in 1843) at the top of the central avenue, followed across the way in 1848 by his sister Princess Sophia and then, in 1904, by the Duke of Cambridge, first cousin to Queen Victoria and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army for almost forty years.

With a great passion for his subject and boundless enthusiasm, Henry introduced us to some of the other residents, including many well-known historical figures such as engineers Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the mathematician Charles Babbage, the novelists Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray, Lord Byron’s wife, Oscar Wilde’s mother, Charles Dickens’ in-laws, the surgeon who attended Nelson at Trafalgar, the creator of Pears Soap, the original WH Smith, the tight rope walker Blondin and the Savoyard George Grossmith (brother of Weedon Grossmith and with him co- author of the “Diary of a Nobody”). We also encountered James Barry, a great medical pioneer, found only post mortem to be a woman. One of the better known recent arrivals was the playwright and Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter.

In our perambulations we learned too of the catacombs beneath the Anglican chapel, able to accommodate 6000 ‘deposits’, and of the coffin lift – one of only three in the country – which enables a smooth transit from the chapel to the catacombs below. Henry also taught us about Egyptomania and the symbolism sported by those mausolea built in the Egyptian style. We witnessed the results and responses to damage caused by vandalism and climate, and heard about efforts to thwart body-snatchers.

As dusk descended and the rain started to fall, the gloom and the tranquillity were pierced by the sudden flight of a flock of parakeets, a reminder that life abounds in that place. The overgrown plots and tumble-down monuments not only make for a romantic backdrop but also provide a haven for wildlife: three species of bats have been detected there, and half of all English species of butterfly.

Retreating indoors, our final stop was in the Dissenters’ Chapel before we enjoyed warming and welcome refreshments in the Friends’ Room. By then darkness had fallen. We left through the imposing entrance, returning to ordinary life after an afternoon walking through history.

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From the announcement is the September e-news :

Join us for a special guided walk of arguably the finest of London’s “Magnificent Seven” commercial cemeteries that were established between 1833 and 1841. Author, historian and chief guide Henry Vivian-Neal will introduce us to some of the many famous (and infamous) figures buried within this great necropolis as we explore this fascinating area of London, which is also a haven for wildlife. There are still a few places available for this unique walk. The tour will last about two hours. Cost £17.50 p.p. including guided tour, light refreshments and admin fee.


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