Many tourists to London visit the wonderful parks here, but most would not consider visiting the cemeteries unless they wanted to see the grave of a relative or famous person. I think the Victorian cemeteries are well worth a visit as they were places that were used as recreational spaces when they were opened and even today, they are places of natural beauty and wildlife, as well as of historical value with amazing crypts, tombs and gravestones. We have seven large cemeteries in London, which are often referred to as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ and they were all opened between 1833 and 1841. In the decades preceding this time, the population of London had literally doubled and the local parish churches, which is where burials usually took place, were extremely over-crowded. There literally was nowhere to put London’s dead and piling body on body was regarded as a disrespectful way to treat the deceased. Even more than offending people’s sensibilities, the sheer number of bodies was causing disease and sickness. The cemeteries that make up the ‘Magnificent Seven’ are:
- Kensal Green Cemetery (1833)
- West Norwood Cemetery (1837)
- Highgate Cemetery (1839)
- Abney Park Cemetery (1840)
- Nunhead Cemetery (1840)
- Brompton Cemetery (1840)
- Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841)
Technically these would have been planned and two of them even opened just before the beginning of Queen Victoria, but it was the Victorians who first buried their dead in these cemeteries.
I have had a fascination with cemeteries ever since my class in high school visited a local church. We were outside sketching the front of the church when I looked down and saw that I was standing over the grave of someone who had died almost a hundred years before but at the same age as I was then. It was the first time I ever considered a graveyard in the context of anything other than the location of a horror story or haunting. I found myself thinking about the kind of life that teenager must have lived all those decades earlier. Since then I have visited several cemeteries when the opportunity has arisen. Some people might find this strange or even morbid, especially as I come from a culture where the dead are cremated and not buried. Then in 2010 I moved to Earl’s Court in London and due to an unplanned shortcut when I was out exploring one day I came across Brompton Cemetery. It is a place I often go for walks. There are also some truly amazing crypts and gravestones there. It is a beautiful and peaceful place and I always leave feeling better about any worries or problems I may face and thinking about the lives of the people who were buried there so long ago.
Brompton Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in the UK and definitely one of the most distinguished and it is the final resting place of over 200,000 people. Like the other cemeteries that make up the ‘Magnificent Seven’, Brompton Cemetery was privately owned, but now it is the only one managed by The Royal Parks. It is very popular for people strolling or walking their dogs (although dogs are only allowed in certain areas) and it is also used as a shortcut by many. If you visit on a day that Chelsea FC are playing at home, you can see crowds of supporters walking from the north end, which is located near Earl’s Court tube and West Brompton rail stations to the stadium, which is on Fulham Road, as is the south entrance of the cemetery. Beatrix Potter, who also lived nearby in Earl’s Court, apparently got the names of the characters she created from the gravestones in Brompton Cemetery and in recent years it has been used as a location in many movies, such as the 2009 ‘Sherlock Holmes’ movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.
Highgate is the most popular of these cemeteries, and it was my favourite before I visited Brompton. After all, Highgate is the final resting place of many famous people such as Karl Marx and Douglas Adams and it is also an amazing wildlife reserve where visitors even spotted some Wallabies. It is beautiful, but you cannot just roam about and explore. If you want to see the famous gravesites, then tours with guides are available. That is not something that appeals to me. I like the atmosphere of Brompton Cemetery and I love the meandering paths. For me, it is a place to go and think. I love to read the gravestones and wonder about the lives the people buried there lead, or to marvel at the magnificence of many of the crypts and ornate stone memorials. There are some that even prompted me to research them further, like this amazing looking crypt which is rumoured to be a time machine (I am serious!) but that is another story for another time.
So, these were some thoughts, but what I would like to get into in more detail at a later date is the whole subject of the way Victorians saw death and the beliefs and superstitions they attached to this.