The next stop on my London cemetery day after Kensal Green (I’m skipping blogging my short jaunt into St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery that borders Kensal Green, but you can see the photos here) was Brompton Cemetery. Another of the Magnificent Seven garden-style cemeteries that were established in London in the 19th century, Brompton opened in 1840 in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Much more than any other cemetery I’ve visited, it really felt like a public garden (it is in fact managed by the Royal Parks). People use the road in the middle to cut through and there were children bicycling and people walking their dogs. It was definitely the cheeriest cemetery I’ve visited.
There are around 205,000 burials in the 39 acres of Brompton, so it is a bit of a crowded cemetery, although you can really see a lot of different styles of graves contrasting with each other, including all the above different styles of crosses. While burials there were stopped between 1952 and 1996, it is again an active cemetery.
The domed chapel in honey-colored Bath stone in the cemetery is really stunning, reminding me of an old observatory. It was meant to reference St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and its piazza, and from either side are long colonnades with arches framing the views to the graves.
Brompton was originally known as West London Cemetery, and was laid out by Benjamin Baud with the symmetry of a cathedral, with three chapels, as well as a canal, but financial problems and a shift of preferred styles from the Classical to the Gothic resulted in a reducing of the architecture.
Catacombs are directly beneath the colonnades, with metal doors decorated with symbols of death and the afterlife, including snakes, inverted torches, flying hourglasses, and ouroboros. While the catacombs can accomodate thousands, only a few hundred are buried there, as they like the rest of Brompton had little early financial success. If you visit the cemetery on its Open Day, you can see the inside of the catacombs.
Here is a view to the colonnade with one of its cross-topped towers. I read that Beatrix Potter took the names for her characters, including Mr. McGregor and a “Peter Rabbett,” which definitely lends a darker air to those children’s books. Mr. McGregor’s garden may even have been modeled after the colonnade.
There are a few interesting burial stories for people who have since been disinterred. The Sioux chief Long Wolf who was traveling with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was buried in Brompton in 1892 after contracting bronchial pneumonia, and was placed in the same grave as a Sioux girl named White Star who fell off a horse. Long Wolf was finally moved to South Dakota in 1997 to his ancestral burial ground. Paul Eagle Star, also Sioux in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, was buried in 1891 and finally exhumed and reburied in the States in 1999.
A group of ravens was cawing from the top of some of the tombs while I was walking through. Oh, sorry, I mean a conspiracy of ravens was there. That sounds much more fittingly ominous. Here is one stalking along the main path.
The most interesting grave I happened upon was that of Reginald Alexander John Warneford, which had a depiction of an airplane that has just shot a dirigible. Warneford was a British pilot in World War I who gained notoriety for taking down a German zeppelin. He unfortunately died in a test flight only days after his victorious action, when a wing of his airplane collapsed.
Another monument that caught my eye was the tomb of Frederick Richards Leyland, designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Leyland was a ship owner and art collector, especially of work by the Pre-Raphaelites, and this funerary monument is the only one that Burne-Jones created.
Here is another Pre-Raphaelite monument: the tomb of painter Val Princep, who was a friend of Edward Burne-Jones and son-in-law of Frederick Richards Leyland. Princep’s grave is structured as a tomb chest elevated up on rows of columns, with ornate sculptures that have unfortunately much deteriorated. Princep had bought it thinking it was a 13th century relic, but it was probably a fake.
If you are in London and not the type to usually visit cemeteries, I recommend Brompton, as it’s much more of a park atmosphere without any of the more harrowing cemetery vibes. Yes, there are definitely unsettling aspects, but no Victorian cemetery is without its heavy symbolism and looming monuments.