The village of the dead: wandering in Brompton Cemetery

This week’s post features more photographs by Bernard Selwyn. One of his major obsessions was Brompton Cemetery and he took literally hundreds of photos of it particularly in the early 1990s.  By then the cemetery was part working cemetery, part ancient monument and part wildlife reserve. He (and I) enjoyed the overcrowded and overgrown look of an old cemetery. it’s another form of  the beauty of decay. But instead of the industrial decay that we saw in Lots Road, this is a studied form of neglect. The managed growth of vegetation gives the cemetery an air of calm, like an oasis of countryside in the city.

16 dec 1990 5

A slightly misty December morning.

And a sunny afternoon in August:

26 aug 1990 B12

We have grown into an appreciation of the Victorian celebration of death, the elaborate mourning rituals and even more elaborate monuments. But it’s one of those areas where the past really is another country. The Victorians were closer to death than we are. They died more easily and more frequently. They died at home. They lost children. And when their loved ones were gone they wanted to visit them in a place where they could grieve. The public cemetery movement in the first half of the 19th century was partly a response to public health considerations, as the church yards and burial grounds filled up, but it also filled the cultural needs of a population that was becoming more urbanised.

So as the cities filled up, the dead moved out to the country. This design by Benjamin Baud shows the West London and Westminster Cemetery as a walled garden in the open country.

Brompton Cemetery designby Baud

The great tree-lined central avenue leads down to an circular colonnade beyond which is the Anglican chapel. In the design there were two side chapels for Roman Catholics and Dissenters. These were never executed due to considerations of cost.

Brompton Cemetry & Kensington Canal by Cowen

There were also plans for a water gate on the Kensington Canal for barge-born coffins.

Victorian London was ringed by a series of these cemeteries: Kensal Green, Highgate, Abney Park, Nunhead, and others. The great cemetery in Glasgow is called the Necropolis – a city of the dead. At 39 acres, Brompton is quite compact (the sprawling Kensal Green is 56 acres) – a village of the dead, and as London grew around it it was squeezed by major roads to the north, south and east, with a railway on the east in the filled-in canal.

17 aug 1990 D4

Looking north west across the central circle, with the Earls Court Exhibition Centre and the Empress State Building on the horizon.

12 Jan 1991 23

Looking south at the eastern entrance to the colonnades. The Belvedere Tower at Chelsea Harbour and one chimney of Lots Road power station on either side of the domed chapel and the bell tower.

There are monumental tombs with familiar features:

17 aug 1990 D26

The funeral urn covered in drapery.

17 aug 1990 D33

An angel, with two crosses.

17 aug 1990 D32

A woman in classical dress with a cross carved to look like wood.

There are also some unusual monuments such as this:

06 aug 1990 A24

A sad and weathered lion marks the grave of Gentleman John Jackson,  a boxer. Many famous names are buried in Brompton – Emeline Pankhurst, John Snow, Henry Cole, Fanny Brawne, Marchesa Luisa Casati, to pick a few from the list.

Here for example, in the centre of the picture, is the monument to the musician Richard Tauber:

23 aug 1990 C25

On the right edge though, partially obscured by the undergrowth, is a monument  to someone who isn’t interred at Brompton.

23 aug 1990 C34

When I first explored Brompton in the 1980s I would sometimes sit where that man is sitting. It’s a pleasant spot for eating sandwiches and reading ( I recall reading a lot of Gollancz thrillers) . Wondering who was inside this Egyptian style mausoleum I consulted the Survey of London and discovered that it was built for Francis Jack Needham, 2nd Earl of Kilmorey. (

From other sources I learned that the Earl was apparently dissatisfied with this potential resting place and had another Egyptian mausoleum built for him near his house in Twickenham  Which is interesting enough but you can also discover through the medium of the internet that this mausoleum is the tomb of two spinster sisters (unnamed on the sites I looked at) and is also either a time machine or one of several time portals planted across London for the convenience of temporal travellers. As the custodian of a purely metaphorical time machine I was naturally amazed to hear this.

Also amazing is the fact stated in at least two usually reliable sources: that Kilmorey initially erected the tomb at Brompton and later transplanted it to Twickenham. All  I can say is that I have seen this mausoleum at Brompton over a number of years and that I’m pretty sure it’s still there now.

I like a fanciful tale as much as the next man (more, probably) but the romance and wonder of Brompton Cemetery lies in the solemnity of the memorials and the calm country atmosphere rather than steampunk stories.

26 aug 1990 B18

The sometimes forlorn graves and monuments.

17 aug 1990 A30A

The feeling that you might be in a country lane (so long as you don’t look up and see a tower block.)

You could walk down a dark set of steps into the catacombs. I once went on a short tour of the then partially open circle. It’s very quiet down there.

17 aug 1990 D35

In the colonnades you catch a glimpse of another time when people walked this path to visit a loved one.

17 aug 1990 D15

Brompton Cemetery, which was once a walled garden in the midst of semi rural Old Brompton is now the last reminder of that forgotten part of London’s past.

Brompton Cemetery


I wouldn’t want to be drawn into any arguments so I won’t cite any sources for the strange tales about the Kilmorey mausoleum or its possible movements. As I’ve said I like a fanciful story, and I like to tell stories myself. So no offense intended to anyone. Brompton Cemetery is a place which captures the imagination.

Incidentally the Earl’s daughter-in-law Ellen Constance Needham features in one of the costume ball posts and has her own interesting story.

The indigo wash view of the canal and cemetery is by William Cowen. I’ve used it before but it is appropriate here.

If all goes to plan we’ll only be moving a few hundred yards to the subject of next week’s post, another tale of old Brompton.

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