Kensal Green Cemetery is a cemetery in the Kensal Green area of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London, England. Inspired by Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, it was founded by the barrister George Frederick Carden. The cemetery opened in 1833 and comprises 72 acres of grounds, including two conservation areas, adjoining a canal. The cemetery is home to at least 33 species of bird and other wildlife. This distinctive cemetery has memorials ranging from large mausoleums housing the rich and famous to many distinctive smaller graves and includes special areas dedicated to the very young. It has three chapels, and serves all faiths. It is one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries in London.
The cemetery was immortalised in the lines of G. K. Chesterton's poem "The Rolling English Road" from his book The Flying Inn: "For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green."
Despite its Grecian-style buildings the cemetery is primarily Gothic in character, due to the high number of private Gothic monuments. Due to this atmosphere, the cemetery was the chosen location of several scenes in movies, notably in Theatre of Blood.
The cemetery is listed Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It remains in use.
The cemetery is in London's Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Its main entrance is on Harrow Road (west of where Ladbroke Grove and Chamberlayne Road meet). Its other entrance, Alma Place (the West Gate, almost opposite Greyhound Road) is also on the north side. Alma Place leads to the West London Crematorium (whose owner and operator is the same) and St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, which are in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The cemetery lies between Harrow Road and the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal to the south which has long been separated by a wall.
A set of defunct gates is set in the southern wall which adjoins the canal where barges took a proportion of earth from excavating graves and occasionally coffins carried by barge were unloaded.
History and description
Establishment and design
A typical statuary detail
George Frederick Carden had failed with an earlier attempt to establish a British equivalent to Paris's Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1825, but a new committee established in February 1830, including Andrew Spottiswoode, MP for Saltash, sculptor Robert William Sievier, banker Sir John Dean Paul, Charles Broughton Bowman (first committee secretary), and architects Thomas Willson (who had previously proposed an ambitious Metropolitan Sepulchre project) and Augustus Charles Pugin, gained more financial, political and public support to fund the "General Cemetery Company". Public meetings were held in June and July 1830 at the Freemasons' Tavern, and Carden was elected treasurer.
Paul, a partner in the London banking firm of Strahan, Paul, Paul and Bates, found and conditionally purchased the 54 acres of land at Kensal Green for £9,500. However, Paul and Carden were already embroiled in a dispute regarding the design of the cemetery, where Paul favoured the Grecian style and Carden the Gothic style. A succession of architects were contemplated, including Benjamin Wyatt (who declined), Charles Fowler (proposal not taken up), Francis Goodwin, Willson, and a Mr Lidell, a pupil of John Nash, before an architectural competition was launched in November 1831. This attracted 46 entrants, and in March 1832 the premium was awarded, despite some opposition, for a Gothic Revival design by Henry Edward Kendall; this decision was, however, eventually overturned.
On 11 July 1832, the Act of Parliament establishing a "General Cemetery Company for the interment of the Dead in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis" gained Royal Assent. The Act authorised it to raise up to £45,000 in shares, buy up to 80 acres of land and build a cemetery and a Church of England chapel. Company directors appointed after the Bill received Royal Assent asserted their control and preference for a different style. One of the competition judges and a company shareholder, John William Griffith, who had previously produced working drawings for a boundary wall, ultimately designed the cemetery's two chapels and the main gateway and 15,000 trees were supplied and planted by Hugh Ronalds from his nursery in Brentford. Founded as the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, the cemetery was the first of the "Magnificent Seven" garden-style cemeteries in London. It was consecrated on 24 January 1833 by Charles James Blomfield, the Bishop of London, receiving its first funeral the same month.
In the early 1850s, after a series of cholera epidemics in London caused an examination of London's burial facilities, health commissioner Edwin Chadwick proposed the closure of all existing burial grounds in the vicinity of London other than the privately owned Kensal Green Cemetery, northwest of the city, which was to be nationalised and greatly enlarged to provide a single burial ground for west London. (A large tract of land on the Thames around 9mi southeast of London in Abbey Wood was to become a single burial ground for east London.) The Treasury was sceptical that Chadwick's scheme would ever be financially viable, and it was widely unpopular. Although the Metropolitan Interments Act 1850 authorised the scheme, it was abandoned in 1852.
The overall layout is on an east-west axis, with a central path leading to a raised chapel towards the west. The entrance is to the north-east and the largest monuments line the central path to the chapel.
The Church of England was allotted 39 acres and the remaining 15, clearly separated, acres were given over to Dissenters, a distinction deemed crucial at the time. Originally there was a division between the Dissenters’ part of the cemetery and the Anglican section. This took the form of a "sunk fence" from the canal to the gate piers on the path. There were also decorative iron gates. The small area designated for non-Anglican burials is approximately oval in shape and was formerly made prominent by a wider central axis path that terminated with the neo-classical chapel with curved colonnades. The Anglican Chapel dominates the western section of the cemetery, being raised on a terrace beneath that is an extensive catacomb; there is a hydraulic catafalque for lowering coffins into the catacomb.
It is still in operation today; burials and cremations take place daily, although cremations are now more common than interments. The cemetery is still run by the General Cemetery Company under its original Act of Parliament. This mandates that bodies there may not be exhumed and cremated or the land sold for development. Once the cemetery has exhausted all its interment space and can no longer function as a cemetery, the mandate requires that it shall remain a memorial park. The General Cemetery Company constructed and runs the West London Crematorium within the grounds of the cemetery.
While borrowing from the ideals established at Père Lachaise some years before, Kensal Green Cemetery contributed to the design and management basis for many cemetery projects throughout the British Empire of the time. In Australia, for example, the Necropolis at Rookwood (1868) and Waverley Cemetery (1877), both in Sydney, are noted for their use of the "gardenesque" landscape qualities and importantly self-sustaining management structures championed by the General Cemetery Company.
The cemetery is the burial site of approximately 250,000 individuals in 65,000 graves, including upwards of 500 members of the British nobility and 970 people listed in the Dictionary of National Biography. Many monuments, particularly the larger ones, lean precariously as they have settled over time on the underlying London clay.
The cemetery is distinguished by three catacombs for the deposit of lead-sealed, triple-shelled coffins and cremated remains. Catacomb A, beneath the North Terrace Colonnade is now sealed. Catacomb Z, beneath the Dissenters' Chapel at the eastern end of the cemetery, suffered significant bomb damage during World War II, and is also closed to further deposits.
Catacomb B, beneath the Anglican Chapel in the centre of the cemetery, has space for some 4000 deposits, and still offers both private loculi and shelves or vaults for family groups. The catacomb extends under the entire footprint of the chapel and its colonnades. There are six aisles, within which each vault is also numbered, running consecutively to number 216 at the south-western end of aisle 6.
Deposit within the catacombs of Kensal Green has always been more expensive and prestigious than burial in a simple plot in the grounds of the cemetery, although less costly than a brick-lined grave or mausoleum. Without the further expense and responsibility of a monument above the grave, the catacombs have afforded a secure, dignified and exclusive resting place for the well-to-do, particularly the unmarried, the childless and young children of those without family plots or mausolea elsewhere.
The cemetery contains the graves of 473 Commonwealth service personnel of the First World War – half of whom form a war graves plot in the south-west corner, the remainder in small groups or individual graves scattered throughout the grounds – and 51 of the Second who are all dispersed. In the First World War plot, at Section 213, a Screen Wall memorial lists casualties of both world wars whose graves could not be marked by headstones, besides five Second World War servicemen who were cremated at Kensal Green (also known as West London) Crematorium. The highest ranking person buried here who is commemorated by the CWGC is General Sir Charles Douglas (1850–1914), Chief of the Imperial General Staff in early months of the First World War.