Kensal Green Cemetery: A London Cemetery

Kensal Green Cemetery was opened in 1833 in the area of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London England. That was because from the beginning of the 1800s, public attention was drawn to the problems associated with cemeteries and their overcrowding in the midst of London. For instance, one article published in the nineteenth century Lady’s Godey’s Magazine stated:

“Public attention in London has long been directed to the dangers of burying-grounds in the midst of the city. These places of interment have been filled over and over again, and at every opening they send forth the pestilential vapours which issue from the festering masses of corruption beneath. Committees of Parliament have taken an immense amount of evidence on this subject … It forms a long chapter of revolting facts gathered from city sextons, who testify with admirable coolness how that – they did not generally put more than sixteen bodies in one grave! – and how they covered the hideous pit with few boards until it received its full quota, and the ‘last comer’ was sometimes within two feet of the surface; and how they were themselves ready sometimes to faint from the overpowering effulvia during the ceremony of interment, while the more sensitive curate stood a considerable distance to windward, and read the service with a handkerchief to his face and a bottle of Cologne in his pocket! In fact, every house and wall and the very air in the neighbourhood of these city graveyards, had become saturated with putrefaction; and – as we well observed – no man was fully certain, when walking past them, that he was not drawing into his lungs the sublimated particles of his dearest [dead] friend or next door neighbour.”[1]

Kensal Green Cemetery Plan, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Kensal Green Cemetery Plan. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The overcrowding in London became viewed as so enormous and such an evil, a joint stock company was formed. Their goal was to alleviate the problem by opening cemeteries in the adjoining countryside. Kensal Green Cemetery was thus the first of these new cemeteries and was situated on the road leading to Harrow. It was inspired and laid out as a sepulchral garden, similar to Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. Kensal Green Cemetery was also considered the first of the “Magnificent Seven” garden-style cemeteries created in London. The other six cemeteries are West Norwood Cemetery (1837), Highgate Cemetery (1839), Abney Park Cemetery (1840), Bromptom Cemetery (1840), Nunhead Cemetery (1840, and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841). 

Mourners loved Kensal Green Cemetery with its sequestered glens, shady knolls, and wild flowers, but more than that, they loved the peace and their ability to mourn far away from the noise and uproar of London. The new cemetery also had a lofty wall surrounding fifty acres and contained an occasional aperture secured by an iron railing that allowed views of the emerald countryside. Additionally, on the western side of the cemetery was a chapel erected for burial services according to the custom of the Church of England. Another small area was also designated for non-Anglican funerals, and ministers of any denomination could officiate at dissenter burials. Under and adjoining this chapel, extensive catacombs were constructed. These supposedly held as many as ten thousand people and were bound on three sides “by a handsome colonnade for the reception of tablets and busts.”[2]

Ten years after the cemetery opened, one description stated:

“We are struck – first, doubtless, with the surrounding landscape, so rich in cultivation, in character so diversified, in extent so sweeping; next, with the beauty of that Garden of Death which is spread on either side of us, adorned with evergreens and flowers, broken with small clumps of trees, and covered with buildings tastefully designed. … The Cemetery comprises upwards of forty acres of ground. Looking to the right from the entrance, a central walk leads to the church at some distance, in front of which is a large circle appropriated to many of the more splendid and spacious tombs and mausoleums. The north walk, skirting the wall along the public road, conducts us to the Catacombs and the Colonnade, whence there is a branch-walk across the Cemetery; passing which we reach the east walk, and arrive at the south path running on the canal side, which conducts us again to the entrance.”[3]

Many well-known people were buried at Kensal Green Cemetery during the 1800s. For instance, Anne Scott, daughter of Sir Walter Scott was interred there after her death in 1833. Scott’s oldest child and Anne’s older sister, Charlotte Sophia, was also buried there. She married biographer, essayist, and reviewer John Gibson Lockhart. She fell ill in 1837. died in May, and was buried next to Anne.

Detail from painting by Robert Scott Lauder of John Gibson Lockhart and Charlotte Sophia Scott. This is a posthumous likeness. Courtesy of National Galleries Scotland.

Besides Scott’s daughters, Prince Augustus Frederick, the popular Duke of Sussex and son to King George III, was buried there in 1843. He was the sixth son and ninth child of King George III and his consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Prince Augustus Frederick never pursued an army or navy career and was known for his liberal views. In addition, he was the favorite uncle of Queen Victorian and gave her away when she married Prince Albert in 1840. The Prince died at Kensington Palace from a bacterial infection known as erysipelas, but sometimes called St. Anthony’s Fire. He did not have a state funeral and was buried in front of the main chapel, immediately opposite the tomb of his sister, Princess Sophia. 

Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex by Guy Head in 1798. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Other well-known people interred in the cemetery are American inventor Jacob Perkins, British actress Fanny Kemble, acrobat and tightrope-walker Charles Blondin, Thomas Wakely (the founder of a peer-reviewed medical journal known as the Lancet), and, Jane Williams, the notable subject of many of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems. In addition, George Cruikshank was buried there in 1878, which was noted by historian Walter Hamilton who stated:

“On the 9th of February the remains of GEORGE CRUIKSHANK were interred at Kensal Green Cemetery. In the cemetery several thousand ladies and gentlemen were waiting to pay the last tribute of respect to the deceased artist, and nearly every well-known face of the literary and artist world was present … but there are hopes that Cruikshank may yet find a tomb within St. Paul’s Cathedral.”[4]

References:

  • [1] Cutler, Theo. Ledyard, “The Cemeteries of Paris and London,” in Lady’s Godey’s Magazine, January 1845, p. 11.
  • [2] Ibid. p. 12.
  • [3] Blanchard, Samuel Laman, The Cemetery at Kensal Green, 1843, p. 3.
  • [4] Hamilton, Walter, A Memoir of George Cruikshank, 1878, p. 63-64.

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