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Ian Mole on the Kensal Green Cemetery

By Ian Mole

“He burned the candle at  both ends but oh what a lovely light.”  - Ian Mole, better know on this site for the local rock and roll history articles, writes about the Kensal Green Cemetery.

The Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins is buried here with his wife and also with his mistress, our knowledgeable guide informed us, to which a woman in our group asked, “Who’s on the bottom?” It’s Wilkie himself apparently, as he’d died first but the two women tolerated this deathly menage-a-trois as  long as their names were omitted from the gravestone. 

 

This large necropolis was the first of its kind in London when it opened in 1833 and was a popular spot for a stroll in Victorian times. If, like me, you are interested in the social history of London and enjoy a leafy walk, then I recommend the tours of the cemetery. These are held every Sunday from March to October and on the first and third Sunday of each month from November to February starting at 2p.m. on the steps of the Anglican Chapel. On the first and  third Sunday of each month there’s an additional tour of the catacomb, for which  I’d suggest thick socks and a torch. A mate of mine wants to book a slot in the catacombs and has already had a dream that he was lying in there dead but got up to pop over the road to the William IV for a rum and Coke.  

 

It was and still is a private company and its owners certainly did a wonderful publicity job in the early days as thousands of people who’d never lived in this country chose to be buried there. Its popularity was further enhanced when Sophia and Augustus, two of George III’s children, were buried there and prices of plots were scaled up according to their proximity to the deceased  duo. Many of the tombs and mausolea look like small houses as they were originally intended to contain large numbers of bodies. The Cremation Act of 1902 dramatically changed the method of disposal of mortal remains and so many tombs remain largely empty.  

 

Between the wars the cemetery went largely to rack and ruin and many tombs were overwhelmed by vegetation. Even today volunteer groups known as The Ivy League are uncovering charming examples of Victorian sculpture, though unfortunately criminal gangs are also rather keen on such items. A lot of the tombs are in bad condition but as they were sold freehold, it’s the responsibility of the owners  to maintain them, though some more spectacular examples are being restored with the help of English Heritage. The water-table in the area is very high and our guide informed us that Anthony Trollope "must be pea-soup by now." A few years ago a stretch of the outer wall on Harrow Road collapsed and this still needs to be fully restored. Last time I walked past there in the evening I saw a fox trotting along on a path as if it owned the place. It's a wildlife haven and I think I saw a few parakeets in there once.  

 

Many other celebrities were buried here including Isambard Kingdom  Brunel and Blondin, who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope numerous times pausing half way across on one occasion to fry an egg. Another time he explained to his manager that it'd be a good idea to take someone across in a wheelbarrow and the manager excitedly agreed. He was a bit less keen when Blondin told him to get in the barrow himself, but fair does to him, he did it and they both survived. There’s also James Barry, a Victorian doctor who did much to reform medical practices in the British  army while all the while masquerading as a man. There are politicians, generals, admirals, comedians and circus performers as well as Steve Took from the original Tyrannosaurus Rex who died down the road in Cambridge Gardens. Joe Strummer and Freddie Mercury were cremated here too. My favourite epitaph belongs to a non-celebrity who died in his early thirties and reads, “He burned the candle at  both ends but oh what a lovely light.”

 

The catacomb is under the centrally-located Anglican Chapel and the tour of it takes thirty minutes. The bodies rest on shelves, or in one case on a stretch  of railway track, behind railings and are doubly sealed by thick coffins, the inner one being made of lead. Our guide calmly informed us that there had only  ever been a few cases of coffins exploding, which was a comfort. Back above ground there’s one gravestone which doesn’t bear the death-date of its occupier, and that’s because he’s still alive. This is carrying on the old tradition of taking a keen interest in the construction of your resting-place. Animal lovers are also catered for in the shape of Gib The Crematorium Cat who, after many years service in stress-reduction as he hovered around mourners, was duly rewarded with a full burial and commemorative statue. 

In 1990 The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery was established to help maintain the grounds as well as to do research and give guided tours. There is also a regular series of death-related lectures in the newly restored Dissenters Chapel and a newsletter. Tours last about two and a half hours and cost £5 (£4 concessions). Far from being a gloomy experience I found it stimulating and amusing. The cemetery is close to Kensal Green Bakerloo Line/Silver Link Station and the 18, 23, 52, 228, 295, 316 and 452 buses stop nearby. Apart from the guided tours, it’s open to the public from 9.00 to 18.00 on weekdays (17.00 in winter months) and 10.00 to 17.00 on Sundays. The website is www.kensalgreen.co.uk  

Ian Mole 

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