Over the last few years I’ve been ‘collecting’ Victorian London cemeteries – specifically the ‘magnificent seven’ which were given the name by historian Hugh Meller in 1981. These large cemeteries were built over a relatively short period in order to alleviate the pressure on inner London graveyards, which could no longer cope with the number of burials required.
The last place to visit on the list is Kensal Green Cemetery in West London which, ironically, was the first to be built in 1832. Amongst the famous Victorians to be buried here are the Brunels, mathematician Charles Babbage and Sir William Beatty, the transvestite Royal Navy surgeon who served under Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. There are many fine memorials, a beautiful Greek-style chapel at the centre of the cemetery and several large mausoleums, with the strangest structure being a long colonnade that sits along one edge of the site, now topped by shops and residential properties. I wonder whether the people living there are aware of the Victorian skeletons piled up beneath them…
Unlike most of it’s contemporaries Kensal Green is still used for burials, so it stands as a piece of living history. I noted when going round that it was popular with the Irish back in the 1960s (their graves are often marked by green gravel and shamrocks on headstones) and more recently the Nigerian and wealthy Italian communities have been interred here. Sadly, amongst the recent burials are several young black men aged in their late teens and early twenties, perhaps victims of the senseless gang violence that we occasionally see on the streets these days.
Maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery is organised by the Friends Of Kensal Green Cemetery, who also put on regular guided walks – at this time of the year these take place on the first and third Sunday of the month. You can find out more on their website.