Tag Archives: Brompton Cemetery

Christmas Days: Miss Potter’s House

Beatrix Potter 1882

Today’s post arises from one picture.  We know about the fact that Beatrix Potter lived on the Old Brompton Road when she was growing up in a house in a section of the road called Bolton Gardens. And we know the site is now occupied by Bousfield School and that there is a marker on the exterior wall of the school commemorating the fact that she lived there. But I for one had never seen a picture of the house until I came across this photo in the the Selwyn Papers.

Bolton Gardens 2-7 BP's house - Copy

You can see that Mr Selwyn has marked up the photo with the house numbers. Now unfortunately for my purposes the young Miss Potter lived at number 2 which is only just visible. However, you can also see that number 2 looks like it was a mirror image of number 3 so you can probably fill in the rest from your imagination. Personally I found the picture fascinating. It’s now easy to picture the young Beatrix making her way from left to right in this picture perhaps on her way to Brompton Cemetery, where she is supposed to have noted down names from the gravestones – Jeremiah Fisher, Mr Tod, Peter Rabett (bit of a long shot that one) – for later use as character names.

Although there are many similar houses in the area there is something about the fact that this is the one, where the young Beatrix lived and kept a diary. The picture below is her, her father and brother in the Lake District.

Beatrix Potter with her father and brother 1885

She lived at 2 Bolton Gardens for more than forty years. Although she had friends in London, visited art galleries, lived a normal middle class life, you suspect her heart was in the country. She would have seen something of the old Brompton being absorbed into the city, which is probably why she spent time in the Cemetery.


Sorry, a bit late tonight. We were watching Elementary.

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. (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=50028

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.

Doctor Sleep: fiction in Kensington and Chelsea No.1

This is the first in an occasional series of posts looking at books set in Kensington and Chelsea. But it’s not about Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to the Shining. I don’t know what the authors etiquette for re-using titles is but before Mr King used the title, there was another novel called Doctor Sleep by an American writer called Madison Smartt Bell. He was contemporary with some of those other up and coming American novelists of the 80s and 90s, Brett Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jay McInerney. He wrote a couple of books I liked: Waiting for the end of the world (a title which was also a song by Elvis Costello) and Straight Cut, what you might call an existential thriller set in the world of film editing, which I was very taken with at the time. A few years after in 1991 that he swapped his American settings for London in Doctor Sleep which apart from couple of excursions into Shepherds Bush and docklands is set almost entirely in the Royal Borough. And before William Gibson set the gold standard for Americans writing about London Bell did a pretty convincing job of writing about west London life.


Doctor Sleep is about a few days in the life of a hypnotherapist who suffers from insomnia. His wife leaves him, some former friends come to London and dredge up elements of his former life as a drug addict which he thought he’d left behind and he tries to treat a patient with multiple personality disorder. He wanders around trying all sorts of ways to find sleep, including martial arts and meditating on occult mysteries. And in the background the Notting Hill Carnival is proceeding through the bank holiday weekend, some violent punks are stalking him,  a drug baron mistakes him for someone else, a sinister man from the government uses his services in an interrogation and a young girl has been kidnapped, possibly by a serial killer. Adrian Strother never quite gets to grips with any of this because he is looking for the oblivion of sleep.

Strother lives in North Kensington somewhere in or near Powis Square, seen here in photos from the early 1970s.

Powis Square west side Blake graffitti 1971 KS3442

Powis Gardens west side All Saints Church Hall 1971 KS3531

In the early pages of the book he goes out for some groceries and a live mouse for his pet snake. His journey takes him down Oxford Gardens.

Oxford Gardens North side 40-42 1970 KS399

He sees a couple of patients before he begins to suspect his wife has left him again. As he leaves the house the Carnival is beginning to come to life. He heads south and ends up in Brompton Cemetery.

18 Jun 1989 21 - Copy

“The cemetery itself was in a phase of dissolution, its crypts caving in, headstones tilting crazily some of them overthrown. Now I remembered: the gods, leaving the earth, will go back to heaven…….I was thinking, not for the first time that the broken crypts suggested the dead had found some way of escape and left their houses vacant”

04 Jun 1989 28 - Copy

“The central circle was tall with weeds……at the lintel of the far colonnade there was a flutter of a sparrowhawk landing….the sound of crickets was suddenly loud among the riot of flowering weeds.”

04 Jun 1989 22 a - Copy

He makes his way down the Fulham Road to a martial arts centre somewhere south of the Chelsea Westminster Hospital. There he achieves a moment of unconsciousness when he is kicked in the head during a private bout with his friend Terence. “I found myself whirling through rings and rings of celestial fire.”

The next morning he is back in North Kensington.

Chepstow Villas north side 52-54 1972 KS2370

The Carnival is in full swing.

I felt the shimmer of the sound start a swirling in  my blood….I was drunk with light and sound and sensation…….”

Mahogany Light 2000 - Sue Snyder 03

Mahogany Light 2000 - Sue Snyder 01

Mahogany Light 2000 - Sue Snyder 02

At some point he is aware of being followed. He gets into a fight with a couple of punks. He sees them everywhere for a while .

The dancers parade past him, and the revellers follow with the police maintaining a wary presence at the edges of the crowds. Are some of them looking for him?

1980 Carnival 02

1973 Golborne Road

The punks catch up with him eventually and as he passes through pubs, a police station and a prison  (not to mention afternoon tea at Harrods) the swirling elements of his life go faster. He tries to walk himself into exhaustion, There are hallucinations, a stage performance of hypnosis and he sees his wife again. I won’t reveal the ending but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say it does involve sleep.


Doctor Sleep was turned into a film by the BBC starring Goran Visjnic and Shirley Henderson. It has been variously known as Doctor Sleep, Hypnotic, and Close my eyes. When I wanted to see it again for this post I had to get a German DVD version.


The film seems to abandon almost everything about the story including the Kensington and Chelsea setting (apart from one scene set in Battersea where the World’s End Estate is visible in the background). The insomnia is gone too but the hypnotherapy remains.

And in a way the hermetic philosophy which preoccupies Strother in the book comes to the fore in a plot about the child’s kidnapping, a form of reincarnation and a strand about churches across London forming a pentagram which is reminiscent of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat. Somehow all this is stylistically true to the atmosphere of the book if not to to the aimless quality of its protagonist’s circular journeys.

All of which makes it sound like a bit of a mess, but the result is actually pretty good, for me at least. Mr Bell evidently believed in the film enough to appear in it briefly as a patient of the hypnotherapist.

25 Jun 1989 23 - Copy

There is such a marvelous patience in things that the hope of return cannot be exhausted and that is the end of the story of the shaikh. “

So don’t forget the other Doctor Sleep and its place on the roll call of novels set in Kensington and Chelsea.


You can still buy Doctor Sleep from online and other outlets. I enjoyed it just as much when I read it again for this post. Madison Smartt Bell went on to write a few more novels but I never got around to reading them.

Thanks to Sue Snyder for her carnival photos. Other photos are by John Rogers, Bernard Selwyn or anonymous photographers from the HistoryTalk collection.

I’m currently reading Lionel Davidson’s the Chelsea Murders. Now there’s a forgotten novel. I’m also on the lookout for more books set in Kensington and Chelsea of which there are many. I recently came across some Chelsea scenes in Mike Carey’s The Devil you know. Suggestions are welcome, the more obscure the better.

Incidentally, no disrespect to Stephen King intended here. I’ve read and enjoyed many of his books, but his Doctor Sleep seemed a bit long for me at the moment. I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in rapid succession so I’m off long books for a while.

Strictly speaking this post should have been my second annual Whitelands College May Queen post (1st here ) but events overtook me and we’ll have to return to the May Queens in a couple of weeks. Next week I hope to return with some previously unseen photos of a familiar place.

But before then I’d just like to mention an event taking place at Leighton House Museum on May 29th, an evening in the spirit of one of Lord Leighton’s own  musical evenings, featuring music by Debussy, Schubert, Arne and Howard Blake. I don’t normally do current events on the blog but my colleagues at Leighton House have provided two images showing the room as it is now and how it was in Leighton’s day which are worth a look:




Copy of studio 1896 -1927

Further details at: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/leighton-house-museum-1156202155

Now go back and find the missing girl.

Wild, wild west: Buffalo Bill in Earls Court

The pleasure gardens at Cremorne were the kind of mass entertainment enjoyed by Londoners in the mid-Victorian period. There was still something of the 18th century about them, something a little anarchic and risky, not to mention illicit. Cremorne lost its licence because of perceived or actual immorality. But the appetite for spectacle and large-scale attractions hadn’t vanished, it had simply moved onto newer forms of entertainment.

The Earls Court Exhibition owed its existence to chance. A triangle of empty land had been created by a confluence of railway lines. One developer tried to build a Catholic Public School there but was defeated by financial problems. There was another scheme for housing, but even in the 1880s developers could see that the land was not especially desirable for that purpose. Finally John Robinson Whitley came up with the idea of the Exhibition. He had intended to put on an American Exhibition showing goods and products along the lines of the Great Exhibition and its successors such as the British Colonial and Indian Exhibition which took place in South Kensington in 1886. He postponed his opening for a year because of that event and many of his partners dropped out.  This worked to his benefit. That year he went to Washington to try and interest President Grover Cleveland in the project, and while he was there he saw Buffalo Bill’s Roughriders and Redskin Show.  He booked them for Earls Court’s first season and changed the nature of the Exhibition completely.

The troupe performed in the original triangle of land accessible from Warwick Road. An open arena and stand were created for them.  A second area accessible from Lillie Road and by bridge from the grounds contained a single long exhibition building. This was connected to a third area where there was a pleasure gardens with a switchback railway, a toboggan slide and a large bandstand.

The shows introduced the idea of the Wild West into public consciousness, in this country at least.

The shows were immensely popular and were even visited by the Queen, the Prince and Princess of Wales and William Gladstone (then in opposition, so he must have had some time on his hands).

You can see from the programme that the show contained all the familiar tropes of the Wild West – Indians attacking the stagecoach, gun battles with cowboys, the Pony Express – but also had a more rounded view of  Native American culture such as buffalo hunting and village life on the plains. Not to mention Cossacks and Gauchos.

(These two images are from one of the later shows).

William Cody himself of course had become a fully fledged media figure.

Along with Annie Oakley who fell out with Cody after the first shows but returned later having established herself as a star in her own right.

The Wild West show came back to Earls Court several times and there were other versions after Cody’s last show such as the Golden West / Red Man Spectacle of 1909. The cowboys look a little more like showmen in this picture:

But we get the idea.

The other well known name from Buffalo Bill’s show was Long Wolf, an Oglala Lakota Sioux warrior who had originally joined the show as part of a group of prisoners of war turned over to Cody by the American War Office.

Long Wolf and his family stayed with the show and came back to England in 1892 but the Chief caught scarlet fever on this visit and died at the West London Hospital in Hammersmith. His doctor had the macabre name of Maitland Coffin. Long Wolf was buried with due ceremony in Brompton Cemetery.

The design on his headstone was based on a drawing he made on his deathbed for what he hoped would be a temporary resting place. He was right. Although he lay amongst strangers for a long time his remains were disinterred in 1996 and moved to a burial place in his ancestral lands.

The heyday of the first Exhibition was as brief as Cremorne’s. By 1914 the Wild West shows had departed, the Great Wheel was demolished and the grounds were being used as a camp for Belgian refugees. The new Exhibition was 20 years in the future. But we can still remember the days the Wild West came to West London.

This picture is of the Deadwood Stage. Now where did I put that Calamity Jane DVD?

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