Category Archives: cemeteries

London Day 4: Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

The final stop of my London cemetery day (after visiting Kensal Green, Brompton, and Highgate) was Postman’s Park. The green space was formerly the burial ground of St. Botolph’s Aldersgate church, and is just a short distance from St. Paul’s in Central London. The church has since been demolished and cholera outbreaks and overcrowding encouraged the removal of burials to the new Magnificent Seven cemeteries set up in the 19th century (including the three I’d visited earlier in the day). The ground in Postman’s Park is in fact still higher than the area around it because with no room left for burials, corpses were instead placed on top of existing graves and covered with dirt. However, the existing graves in the churchyards were not necessarily moved to the new garden cemeteries, and relatives had to apply to disinter their family members and could also just take the tombstones. Postman’s Park was opened in 1880 on the old cemetery, and the old tombstones now line its garden.

The story of the small park is interesting enough, yet its the pavilion inside it that brought me there. The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice was created by the artist George Frederic Watts to be an area of remembrance for extraordinary actions by ordinary people, particularly those who died while trying to save someone else’s life. There are now three rows of tablets, with the most recent being added in 2009, each with its own ghastly and fascinating tale. I could have easily photographed them all, but I picked a few as my favorites that I will share below.

London Day 4: Brompton Cemetery

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.

London Day 4: Kensal Green Cemetery

With my fourth day in London wide open to any plans I cared to make, I naturally decided I was going to visit as many of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries as possible. The term refers to seven garden-style cemeteries established in the 19th century in London to alleviate cemetery overcrowding, and all have some haunting Victorian imagery in their statuary. I started my morning in Kensal Green Cemetery, the oldest of the Magnificent Seven, and therefore the oldest public burial ground in London, having been established in 1832.

Overgrown with moss and with walking paths of soft earth, Kensal Green is definitely atmospheric, with a heavy air over its tranquil grounds. It is located in the Kensington and Chelsea borough in West London, a short walk from the Underground on Harrow Road. Above is its mausoleum-like entrance.

The cemetery was once divided between members of the Church of England and “Dissenters,” aka people who had left that church to found their own, but the fences have now been reamoved, although there are still three separate chapels on the grounds. The most visible is the Anglican Chapel shown above, a Greek Revival structure that sits above an extensive catacomb serviced by a catafalque elevator for lowering down the coffins.

On one side of the cemetery is the Grand Union Canal; the circular metal things you can see in the background of the above photos are the gasometers that rise up on the other bank. Apparently coffins were once delivered via canal boats and you can still find the landings if you’re brave enough to walk that way.

While it wasn’t completely in shambles, Kensal Green was in some state of neglect, and I saw tombs definitely toppled by time rather than vandalism, and vines claiming large territories. But it was a tidy sort of disorder, almost like I was on a creepy cemetery film set.

Although worn down, or maybe because of that, there were plenty of beautiful examples of funerary sculpture. This sphinx was one of four guarding the grave of Andrew Ducrow, a circus performer who is considered the father of British circus equestrianism.  Originally his Egyptian-style mausoleum was painted in pastel colors, but these have faded away.

Around 250,000 people are now buried in Kensal Green, although it doesn’t appear that many of their graves are visited. Here you can see how the soft ground is tilting, and I certainly hope that whatever is below is solid enough so that no cemetery wanderers will fall through the earth…

Here is one particular mausoleum that stopped me in my tracks. As you may know, I live quite close to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and have explored it extensively and even give some tours there sometimes (I’ve leading one this Saturday!). If you read the above inscription, you’ll see: “In Loving Memory of My Beloved  Husband Imre Kiralfy: 1st Jan. 1845-27th April 1919. At rest in family mausoleum, Green-Wood New York, USA. Erected for the Interment of our children and grandchildren by Marie Kiralfy.” Okay, so leaving aside that my birthdate is his death date (not the year of course), how very bizarre to stumble upon this inscription about a place I know so well when I am so far from home. Next time I’m in Green-Wood, I definitely have to track down the Kiralfy family mausoleum. I read that Kiralfy was a rather successful producer of stage spectacles, even working on one with Thomas Edison.

This being a Victorian cemetery celebrating the “beautiful death,” there were some beautiful lady mourners in stone, including angels with solemn expressions and this lovely weeping lady, with some incredible detail to the draping of her dress, even to the bend of her knee. The bricked up mausoleum behind the angel is that of Sir Patrick O’Brien, an Irish politician. There are many notable burials in Kensal Green, but as I had arrived with no map and could not find one there, everything I saw was purely serendipitous.

This is the grave of Alexis and Elizabeth Soyer. Alexis was a chef from France who fled to England during the Revolution of 1830, where he later met and married the portrait artist Elizabeth Emma Jones. She died in 1842 during childbirth, and here she is memorialized in the ornate tomb they now share together, although Alexis died some years after.

The elaborate grave of Gen. Sir William Casement includes a Greco-Egyptian stone canopy supported by four giant figures. Beneath is sarcophagus draped in mourning.The highly decorated British Army Major General was a member of the Supreme Council of India.

The monument to John Saint John Long has a lady with a downturned face in the shadows of a column structure. John Saint John Long was something of a “quack” doctor and was even found guilty of manslaughter in the death of one of his patients, although he was acquitted of another charge. However, his former “grateful” patients paid for this ostentatious memorial. But it’s the epitaph that is really something:

It states: “It is the fate of most men to have many enemies, and a few friends. This monumental pile is not intended to mark the career, but to shew how much its inhabitant was respected by those who knew his worth and the benefits derived from his remedial discovery. He is now at rest and far beyond the praises of censures of this world. Stranger as you respect this receptacle for the dead as one of the many that will rest here, read the name of John Saint John Long without comment.”

SO THERE.

The artist William Mulready is memorialized with a statue of him in repose, miniatures of his paintings etched in the base.

General Sir Archibald Galloway KCB of the Bengal Army has both his knighted status and military acclaim eternally on view atop his grave.

Here is my nominee for creepiest grave of Kensal Cemetery, where it seems that a long gone tree that once wrapped its branches on this tombstone’s cross still is in an eternal embrace, the dry limbs coiled on the cold stone.

Also unsettling was this area of columns that seemed to be attached to a building that served as a hostel. Hopefully a very cheap hostel.

I read that there are tours offered by the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery that include the catacombs, which I unfortunately could not make on this trip, but would absolutely love to do sometime. I felt like I got a bit lucky in seeing some of the more interesting graves, but I feel like there is much more beneath the surface. I mean, there literally is more under its physical surface, but I really would prefer not to see too much of that, unless I can ride the catafalque.