London's dramatic population growth and its soaring mortality rates greatly increased the need for burial grounds in the early nineteenth century. With churchyards overflowing, a new kind of financial opportunity opened up. Taking the lead from other conurbations like Liverpool and Birmingham, Kensal Green (1833) was the first of the capital's privately owned "garden cemeteries," along the lines of Père-Lachaise in Paris. After an interval, a spate of others followed in different parts of the city, making the so-called "Magnificent Seven." Like Kensal Green, the Brompton Cemetery was one of these, along with West Norwood (1836), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Nunhead (also 1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841).
Two views of the cemetery. Right: entrance to Brompton Cemetery from the Old Brompton Road, London, through the North Lodge. Left: Looking down one of the avenues. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
At Brompton, the first move came in 1837, when Lord Kensington sold nearly 40 acres of land to the private West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company. Lying between the Old Brompton Road and the Fulham Road, where there had once been brickworks and a market garden, the site was flat and nondescript — hilly terrain would have had more to offer as a picturesque setting (see Rutherford 18). But it had the advantage of being more central than either Kensal Green in the north of London, or West Norwood in the south. The eminent architect Sir Jeffry Wyattville was duly appointed to judge a competition for the new cemetery's layout and structures. Not unexpectedly perhaps, he selected the plans of his long-time assistant at Windsor Castle, Benjamin Baud (1807-1875) — plans which showed his own influence (see Brompton Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide, 5). Even though funds ran out and some parts of the plan remained unbuilt, Wyattville proved to be justified. The result was one of the great cemeteries not only of London, but of the the whole country.
To the already current idea of a soothing arcadian setting, Baud added that of making the cemetery a kind of open-air cathedral. This was something he expressed in the names given to the different elements on his l plans. Coming at the head of a wide central avenue and a circle of colonnades, a fine Anglican chapel would occupy the space of the high altar, with smaller chapels for Roman Catholics and Dissenters off at the side, making "transepts" (see Brompton Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide, 7). The idea was to lift the spirits — to make the main chapel a focus of a spacious place of worship, rather than a city of the dead.
For all its grandeur of conception, the cemetery was less successful than hoped. Only 89 people were buried here in the first year (see Hobhouse 250). Financial problems forced it to sell out to the General Board of Health in 1852, making it the first London cemetery to fall under state control. There was considerable controversy about this, with one daily newspaper correspondent protesting that it was a "abomination" that the cemetery should be "a common grave-pit for a large portion of the annual mortality of the metropolis," and that the move would "justly entitle the Board of Health to be called the Board of Death" (qtd. in The Builder, 699). It is still "the first and only cemetery to be nationalised" (Brompton Cemetery).
Hoewever, it is now generally seen as a place of exceptional interest, not only because of its design and buildings, but because of its mausolea and monuments, and the famous people who are buried here. Amongst the many Victorians are John Snow (1813-1858), the doctor who discovered the cause of cholera; Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), who played such a big part in the Great Exhibition, the Victoria and Albert Muuseum, the Royal Albert Hall and so on; the architect and engineer Francis Fowke (1823-1865) who was also greatly involved in these projects; the artist and architect Valentine Prinsep; and the sculptor Matthew Noble. The cemetery is also useful as a nature reserve in this busy part of the capital. It is now managed by the Royal Parks, as the only Crown Cemetery (see Brompton Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide, 2).
"Church of England Chapel, Chelsea." British Listed Buildings. Web. 22 May 2012.
Brompton Cemetery. Leaflet available in the cemetery office.
Brompton Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide. London: Royal Parks, 2002.
The Builder, Vol. 9 (8 November 1851): 699. Web. 22 May 2012.
Hobhouse, Hermione, ed. Survey of London: Southern Kensington — Brompton, Vol. 41. London: Athlone Press for the LCC, 1983.
"Windsor People" (gives details of Baud). Royal Windsor Website." Web. 22 May 2012.
Rutherford, Sarah. The Victorian Cemetery. Botley, Oxford: Shire, 2008.
"Windsor People." Royal Windsor Website." Web. 22 May 2012.
Last modified 22 May 2012