The Strangest of Resting Places

As part of Black History Month, we’re republishing a post that celebrates the life of one of Britain’s forgotten Composers. A once household name who’s works were considered as mighty as those written by Handel, his catalogue is now little known. This man overcame deplorable racism and utilised a talent that had him admired by the likes of Gilbert, Stanford and US President Theodore Roosevelt. Whereas many of his contemporaries lie in Cathedrals or Abbeys, ‘the Black Dvorak’ lies in a plain Cemetery in Surrey. 

by Sheldon

Yesterday I paid a visit to Bandon Hill Cemetery, which opened its gates in 1900. Carrying on the tradition set up by the Magnificent Seven, it was part of a second wave of Cemeteries built to deal with a population that was expanding far more in the past one hundred years than it had in the past one thousand. These Cemeteries sprung up in developing suburbs, pre-empting the inevitable demand for the burial of the local population much like the City Churchyards did up to fifty years before.


Bandon Hill is a Cemetery I’ve known since I was a boy, as both my Grandparents are buried there. Despite having known it for over two decades, I knew very little of its heritage. I’d looked into the history of it a few months previously and there was one grave I was particularly interested in finding, as its inhabitant was an immensely talented man who was subjected to racial discrimination throughout his painfully short career.


The grave was that of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a mixed-race composer who was born in Holborn in the late nineteenth Century, in an area that Charles Dickens described as “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for tom cats”. Coleridge-Taylor (as he became to be known, due to an error on his sheet music at the printers) was the son of an English woman and an Sierra Leonean Creole man. His name being a nod to the Poet: his parents were unmarried. His father, a Surgeon, returned to Africa in 1875. He was raised in Croydon, latterly studying at the Royal School of Music under the famous composer Charles Villiers Stanford. His career was bolstered by his contemporaries: in an age where racism was rife it’s heart-warming to see fellow musicians such as Edward Elgar seeing past his colour and encouraging the genius of his talent, referring to him “by far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men.”



In the older part of the Cemetery, a good number of Angelic monuments surround Coleridge-Taylor’s grave

His greatest work is regarded to be the first part of a three piece collection of Cantatas called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Its premier at the Royal Academy was so great that people were refused admission, except Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, who said to Taylor-Coleridge “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried”. The piece was regularly performed until the outbreak of the Second World War, and was considered as highly as Handel’s Messiah.

He often travelled to America where he conducted workshops for Black musicians, and firmly believed in equal rights for Black people. He was welcomed far more in the States than he was in Britain where he was subjected to racial prejudice. His daughter commented that when local youths began throwing abuse at him,  he gripped her hand ever tighter until it hurt her. A year before his death, he was denied the right to conduct ‘A Tale of Old Japan’ and had to pay for his own seat at his own concert.


A combination of pneumonia and exhaustion led to his tragically early death at the age of thirty seven, after collapsing at West Croydon Station a few days beforehand. He was an immensely successful composer: so much so that King George V granted his widow a pension of £100 a year. Like many composers, he saw little royalties from his works and his death contributed to the formation of the Performing Rights Society, which to this day collects fees for the live performing of sheet music. 

The music world mourned him deeply. Yet, today, his words remains largely forgotten and it’s puzzling to me how a man who was once entertained at the White House by President Roosevelt is in this quiet Cemetery in Sutton. His splendid memorial features words by his close friend and Poet Alfred Noyes, and a few bars of music from Hiawatha.

Further reading and references:

Biography and further images from the British library

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was one of the few black classical composers to catch the public’s imagination. Why haven’t more done the same, asks Stuart Jeffries

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Normandy in Colour – A Photo Post

by Christina
Cemeteries can be quite bleak, somber places. Understandable, given what they are and what they symbolise.

When I think about war cemeteries, this is the sort of thing I imagine – somewhere quiet and bleak and sombre.

Recently I went to Normandy with Dan and we visited Bayeux War Cemetery and the Marigny German Military Cemetery. I had been to both before but this time, in late summer/early autumn we were greeted with something I hadn’t experienced on my previous visits – a blaze of colour. 


 The German cemetery is located about 2km from the village of Marigny, on the D341 – Rue du Cimitière Allemand in the part of Normandy called La Manche. It’s in among fields and is very green – spread out under a blanket of trees, in front of a stone chapel. It’s definitely quiet, and sombre in a way, but mainly peaceful and respectful and beautiful. Stone crosses grouped together in trios with terracotta slates spaced out in the grass, bearing the names of the 11,169 German soldiers who are buried here (and many which say simply ‘ a German soldier’ in German) are ordered in simplistic fashion that stays true to the German spirit. The trees make it seem almost like one of the Woodland cemeteries popular in Germany. On this day it was raining, but under the trees we seemed protected from the misery of cold water falling on us and the rainbow of wild flowers gave a celebratory atmosphere – a celebration of heroes and an optimistic way to remember thousands of men who died far too young. 



The cemetery at Marigny was originally a temporary American war cemetery, used to give a decent burial to the soldiers who fell during Operation Cobra. German soldiers were buried here too, and after the war the U.S. soldiers were removed to a war cemetery just outside Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast, with bodies of German soldiers who had fallen throughout northern France and been buried in temporary graveyards or unmarked graves disinterred and moved here by the German Government, so that they might have a decent burial. Today the cemetery is maintained by the German War Graves Commision. Volunteers look after the site – they are mostly young people, the idea being to teach young people in Germany about what happened here, and the realities of war, as well as to develop a shared understanding with other nations.


The day after we visited Marigny, we drove to the city of Bayeux, famous for the tapestry that isn’t actually a tapestry, and that probably wasn’t made in Bayeux. Just outside the centre of town is Liberation Alleè, the street on which Bayeux War Cemetery is located. It’s the largest World War 2 cemetery of commonwealth graves in the whole of France. Over 4000 men and women are remembered here. Rows and rows of bright white gravestones, bearing the names of those from the UK & other countries in the Commonwealth who died between 1939 and 1945 stand here. And heartbreakingly, some bearing the words ‘a soldier of the 1939-1945 war – known unto God’. Walking around, reading the dates on the stones, I noticed that most who are buried here died in the weeks and months following D-Day (June 6th 1944). And here, again, on the day that we visited (sunshine and showers – big showers that sent us running for cover) were rows and rows of wild flowers, all different colours and growing to different heights – as if refusing to be contained. A haze of colour to celebrate so many lives.



A poppy from last year’s sweeping sea of 800,000 ceramic red flowers at The Tower of London had found its way to Normandy and was touchingly displayed in front of the memorial stone in the centre of the cemetery.
Some of the graves stood shoulder to shoulder in among the evenly spaced stones. Friends? Members of the same company?

Colour was all around. Not what you might expect from a war cemetery but a very beautiful display that acted as a fitting tribute, and a sign of peace and hope and love. 

All photographs Copyright Christina Owen August 2015

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 The Red Coats of Chelsea

The Chelsea Pensioners are one of the first things people think of when the name ‘Chelsea’ is mentioned, alongside the flower show and reality TV programme. The red coats and tricorn hats are an iconic part of British culture. In a quiet part of Brompton Cemetery, a large monument marks the bodies of 2,600 of their number. Remarkably, this memorial only came about because of an outrage concerning the state the Cemetery had gotten itself into by the late nineteenth century.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 23.00.41

I’ve been doing a lot of researching using the fantastic British Newspaper Archive, and a rather peculiar thing has come to light. It’s no secret that Tower Hamlets was quite literally bursting at the seams when it came to burial numbers- a Government report in 1889 reveals an estimated 247,000 people has been buried in its acres since its opening in 1841. That’s hardly a surprise: the proximity of the docks, the poverty of the area, the terrible living conditions and larger families as a result naturally mean a large amount of people were buried there.

What I didn’t expect is that Brompton was almost as bad. The same Cemetery which boasts engineers, scientists and other visionaries of the enlightened society had a worringly high number of 155,000 burials since its opening was also regularly being slated in the press for being an utter shambles. WEST BROMPTON writes in the Morning Post of Saturday 2nd July 1898:

Will you allow me to call attention ot the neglected state of the Brompton Cemetery which is a disgrace to the west end of London? It would be greatly to the advantage and health of the neighbourhood if it was closed altogether as it now contains over 50,000 bodies…the cemeteries ought to do their duty in keeping the Cemetery, which is a favourite resort, in proper order’.

This was nothing new. Ten years earlier, SOUTH KENSINGTON observed in the Evening Standard of 26th April 1888: ‘does it need a successor of Charles Dickens, by a fresh description of the evils of intra-mural internment, to enforce the claim of the living, in competition with those of the dead, on the somnolent sanitary authorities?


I had no idea what somnolent meant but it’s a surprise to think a Cemetery, under Royal control, would have let itself go in such a way. What really irked people, initially a Mrs Henry Lee, though was the deplorable way in which the  Chelsea Pensioners plot was kept.

In recognition for their services, and inspired by Les Invalides in Paris, it was King Charles II, under advice from this mistress Nell Gwynne, that he sought to create a home for veterans who’d been ‘broken by age or war’. He consulted his childhood friend, none other than Sir Christopher Wren, to build the hospital – not to be confused with the modern meaning of the word, this simply offered hospitality to the old servicemen.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 23.31.23

© Ministry of Defence 2015

From 1691 to 1854 they had been buried in a burial ground next to the Royal Hospital, however this was now full. A new place of burial was secured in Brompton, and as the Government footed the bill for laying these old warriors to rest, they were buried in mass graves. Alarmingly, no official marker was constructed other than a few small headstones paid for by friends and family. This was seen as a disgrace and the authorities footed the bill out of public duty.

John Whitehead and Son of Westminster, a funerary sculptors who specialised in undertaking and marble, won the prize with the Treasury paying £250. In an event that would seem to be perfectly placed in an episode of the Thick of It, the memorials’ construction was delayed by the failure of the Under-Secretary for War George Wyndham MP to write an epitaph in time.

It was eventually unveiled in 1901.

Loz Pycock, 2010.

Loz Pycock, 2010.

I’ll be talking more about the Chelsea Pensioners and more this coming Sunday as I make my debut as an official guide of Brompton Cemetery! Tickets available here: Meet at the South Lodge on Fulham Road at 2pm.

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Outside London: Looking For Eric

We have a new Guest Blogger, and inductee into Cemetery Club! Patrick Gurden loves a good Cemetery as much as the rest of us, and one of his favourite things to do is find the graves of famous people that mean something to him. Today’s blog post is all about a road trip to meet his long-dead hero.


by Patrick Gurden



I think the appeal of visiting famous graves is that it is the closest that you can get to meeting your heroes, and in the last few years George Orwell has become a big hero of mine.

Unfortunately I live in North Hertfordshire and he is buried in All Saint’s Church in the small Oxfordshire Village of Sutton Courtney. Fortunately for me, my friend Mark agreed to take me there on a road trip to go and visit Orwell’s grave. My brother Tom and friend Alex tagged along for the ride.

All Saints Church, from the south

All Saints Church, from the south

George Orwell died in London, and in accordance with the Anglican Rite, wished to buried in the closest churchyard to where he died. Unfortunately, the churchyards in London were full, that’s why he ended up in a sleepy Oxfordshire village churchyard.

It was quite a long drive down to Sutton Courtney but we left early in the morning and made good time, the guys were quite keen to go on and do something else afterwards. When we got out of the car I raced off into the churchyard ahead of the others to find Orwell’s grave – I was in such a hurry that I raced past the map at the entrance to the churchyard that had the location of his grave on it. Luckily, I found his grave in a couple of minutes – it’s a small churchyard.

I had seen a picture of his grave on the Internet, but was still surprised upon actually seeing it. He has a very modest headstone and the epitaph is simply ‘Here Lies Eric Arthur Blair’. He was buried under his real name as opposed to his pen name…this piece of knowledge may one day prove useful to you in a pub quiz. You would have no idea that you are looking at the resting place of one of the greatest minds the English speaking world has ever produced. There is even a rose bush growing through it now.


I felt that the great man should be buried somewhere of prominence with a large ornate tombstone, even if that was against his wishes. Surely there should be some reference to him being the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm at least, two books that will surely echo through the ages. As I think about this, I remember reading that Thomas Jefferson had what he considered to be his greatest achievements engraved on his tombstone… and being the American President is not one of them!

Aside from us, there were three older men in the churchyard who had also come to see Orwell’s grave. I was pleased to see other people had come to visit him. I found myself wondering how many people in the village actually knew that such an important figure was buried in their local church. I also wonder how many people come to visit Orwell’s grave, given its out-of-the-way location. You would have to be a big Orwell fan or real cemetery enthusiast to go there.

We stayed for a few minutes, long enough for me to get some photos and savour the moment. If I ever got round to drawing up my bucket list, I think visiting Orwell’s grave would be quite high up on it.

As we left to check out the church itself, we noticed a much grander grave that turned out to belong to the former Prime Minster Herbert Asquith. I had no idea he was buried there.

I wanted to check out the church to see if there was any mention of Orwell in there. On the wall there was a simple stone tablet stating that his mortal remains were near this spot. Again I was underwhelmed by this, surely the resting place of this literary giant deserves more recognition than this. But I guess it is more important that his books are still on the shelves in all good book shops and people continue to read them.


We went off to have something to eat and later ended up in Oxford. I uploaded the pictures of our trip to Sutton Courtney later that day and waited for the inevitable question…who’s Eric Arthur Blair?

Patrick and George

Patrick and George


Patrick Gurden is a registered Mental Health Nurse. Like his Dad, he is a big Mark Knopfler fan and shares a passion for visiting cemeteries. They can never go anywhere on holiday without looking for the local dead celebrities.

All photographs Copyright Patrick Gurden 2015, except for photograph of Church and photograph of George Orwell wall plaque. 

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Planes, Trains and Automobiles (How Do They Get Their Rest?)

by Sheldon


If you’ve ever loved the roar of traffic and the screaming engines of passenger aircraft, there is one cemetery that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Located near the idyllic Chiswick House and beautiful A136, behind the stout iron railings and red brick pillars is probably one of London’s least tranquil and restful cemeteries, being next to a train line and lying directly under the Heathrow flight path.

This is Chiswick New Cemetery, which opened on former water meadows in 1933. No extravagance is here. It’s Municipal. It’s Functional. It does the job. There are no mausoleums: there are one or two angels, but otherwise it’s mainly low level marble headstones which resemble a conveyer belt of teeth.


IMG_1807There are some things to look out for, such as the very striking chapel made of Portland Stone and red brick and the many Russian Crosses, reflecting the Russian community that has settled in Chiswick over the years, as well as the large Irish Catholic contingent who drape many graves with rosary beads and images of Our Lady.


Oe of the things I learnt when visiting Chiswick New was that John Sullivan wrote something other than Only Fools and Horses. For here, beneath an intricately crafted iron floral cross and a vast mass of Lavender which was swarming with honey bees, is the actor Ralph Bates, best known for his role in Sullivan’s short-lived ‘Dear John’ sitcom. Born in Bristol in 1940, he was the great-great nephew of vaccination and microbiologist Louis Pasteur and became known as a key actor in the later Hammer Horror films.

Other figures buried here include the Car Lady of Chiswick, Anne Naysmith, who made the headlines a few years ago after living in a shelter behind Stamford Brook station after being evicted from her house. A formidable concert pianist in her youth: she experienced heartbreak in the 1970’s which pushed her to willingly living on the street. She accepted no charity and lived on £10 a week – her clothing was a mixture of different umbrella materials and her shoes were made of supermarket carrier bags, pigeon feathers and elastic bands. Despite her poverty she had a stock broker in the City and an investment portfolio.


Here too, towards the back of the Cemetery by a very tall Leylandii hedge, is the grave of Havildar Lachhiman Gurung VC of the Gurkha Rifles, who won the army’s highest accolade in World War II by repeatedly throwing grenades out of the trench he was in with his comrades. The third grenade exploded as he held it, blasting off his fingers, blowing off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding him in the face, body and right leg. Despite this, he kept on fighting, singlehandedly repelling an attack by the German forces, killing 31 of them alone by firing a machine gun with one hand.

His grave is very Victorian, with the Cutlass’ of the Gurkhas carved into the front alongside his war medal and amusingly, an unopened bottle of red wine and a half pint of milk left in front of his epitaph.

I met a delightful Cat at his grave.


Anyway, there’s another reason why I’m writing about Chiswick New and why the post this week is being posted on a Wednesday.

Exactly one hundred years ago today, in the front room of 25 Stephendale Road, Fulham, Florence White gave birth to her second daughter. Later insisting on being called Clare because ‘Clara wasn’t posh enough’, Clare was me and Nick’s grandmother. An ardent animal lover who as a child used to bring home dogs and Cat’s she’d found from South Park (They had owners but that never bothered her), she met our Granddad Bernard at the Hammersmith Palais. His family couldn’t believe he’d bagged this titian haired beauty, and what’s more remarkable is that he didn’t know her true age until she received a letter concerning her pension on her fiftieth birthday, Most people thought she was ten years younger than she actually was. 

Anyway. today would have been her 100th birthday. Clare was buried in Chiswick New in 2001, alongside her husband and parents-in-law. She, alongside my other Nan, was a huge influence on me and her passing was one of the initial things that got me interested in Cemeteries. To mark it, I’m dedicating this post to her and taking a half-day off from work to spend the afternoon at her graveside, with a bottle of Wine and a book, in memory of one of the greatest women I’ve ever known.



Happy birthday, Nanny Clare.

Clare’s grave photo © Stephen Roberts 2013. All other images – © Sheldon K. Goodman 2015.

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A Factfile for a Taphophile: Grizzly Victorian Fun Facts Part 1

by Christina

I learned a new word this week. My friend Patrick taught it to me. Taphophile means ‘someone who is interested in gravestones, funerals, epitaphs and cemeteries’ and I think that describes us here at Cemetery Club quite well. Sheldon doesn’t really like the term, preferring ‘Cemetery Enthusiast’ but I’m enjoying using the new word. I might have some ‘taphophile’ badges made up…I also like the phrase ‘Tombstone Tourist’.

The Bible
Also this week I got lent a book about everything we love here at Cemetery Club – the gore and grime of ye olde London and the dead rubbing shoulders with the living to an impossible and un-liveable extent. All of this is explored in glorious, graphic detail in Necropolis – London and It’s Dead by Catherine Arnold. I excitedly told Sheldon that I was reading it and with a raised eyebrow, he told me he had used it as his Bible when we began the blog and he was surprised I hadn’t read it yet. I replied that my Bible back when we started Cemetery Club was The Twilight Series. But in truth, yes, I am newly discovering this book and enjoying learning new facts about grim London in the 19th Century. I thought I would share some with you and together we can bask in the joys of knowing that it is now possible to traverse London from north to south, west to east without breathing in the stench of a thousand bodies spilling out of overcrowded churchyards. We’ve come a long way since the 1840’s…..

By 1842, the life expectancy of a professional man in London was 30…

…For a labourer, it was 17.

In the early 1800’s, one duty of a church sexton was to ‘tap’ coffins to let gases escape, otherwise they would build up to a dangerous extent and ‘detonate’ from their confinement. Coffins were known to explode due to the build up of noxious gases emitting from the deceased.


There was an outbreak of Asiatic Cholera in London in 1831, having reached our shores from the far east. By the autumn of that year, 5,000 people in London had already died. The Government response to the epidemic was to call a national day of prayer and fasting. Clerics declared the epidemic a vengeance from God for London’s wickedness. Such was the strength of the illness that it could take hold and kill you in a matter of hours.

Dr John Snow was the first person to establish the link between water and cholera, in 1854. He noted that the disease seemed to affect the alimentary canal (digestive tract) before the patient even began to feel ill, concluding that it must be caught through swallowing in some way. When he died in 1858, John Snow was buried in Brompton Cemetery, one of the Magnificent 7 garden cemeteries to be opened as a response to burial overcrowding.

Graves leaning on one another for support. Beckenham Cemetery and Crematorium, May 2015

Gravediggers’ jobs became unbearable during this time, as part of their workload involved opening coffins to disinter bodies or to make room for the more recently deceased. The more experiences of these would immediately retreat backwards after opening a coffin, to escape the corpse gases until they dispersed. Gravediggers suffered bad health and alcoholism – it was claimed they could not perform their duties without heavy spirits.

Part of London’s sanitary reform was to close inner city burial grounds, and this began to happen in the 1850’s. So great had the problem been that the city continued to stink of death for another decade after that. During ‘The Great Stink‘ of June 1858, a smell rose up from the Thames that was so strong that it forced the House of Commons to adjourn. All the curtains in the Commons were soaked in chloride of lime to try to reduce the smell. Tons of lime were dumped in the river every day, and this was the start of the sewer system that we know today – 83 miles of pipes were built across London to stop raw sewage from being pumped into the Thames – the end of the pipe line emerged far to the east of London and dumped it in the river at a point where the majority of the population would not be affected by it.

Bunhill June 2014

Sheldon and I are by now very well acquainted with the seven grand garden cemeteries that were built on the outskirts of London in the mid 19th century, but you may not be, so here is the complete list of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries, which, that time, all stood within a 6 mile radius of the city of London, surrounding it in a circle, like the figures on a clock:

Kensal Green Cemetery (1833)

Norwood Cemetery (1837)

Highgate Cemetery (1839)


Abney Park Cemetery (1840)

Brompton Cemetery (1840)


Nunhead Cemetery (1840)

Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841)

Tower Hamlets August 2013

Tower Hamlets August 2013

Stay tuned for more grizzly facts about Victorian London in future posts. I have several more books about the era on order, so have no doubt that I’ll be sharing all my new found knowledge of all things dark and decaying in the 19th Century with you as I find it out. Sheldon is our resident expert on Victorian history, and all death-related things from that time, but I’m still learning, and I’m sure many of you are as well. It’s fascinating to know about all of the subjects we cover on the blog. I’m looking forward to discovering more, and making more Cemetery Club visits to places all over London. Please leave a comment and tell me your suggestions for places to go and things to see!

All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2015



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Movement, Migration and Place: Shuffle Festival 2015

by Sheldon

Amongst the dappled shade of the only woodland in Zone 2 are once key-characters in the fabric of the East End. Beneath a pink granite monument is White Hat Willie, builder of Cutty Sark and on Millionaire’s Row – royalty itself – the uncrowned King of Limehouse. From drunk coachmen, Jack the Ripper to the terrible realisation of the First World War, in this dense woodland are some of the nation’s most notable and notorious characters.


We’re very pleased to announce our continued involvement with the Shuffle Festival this year, a community event that celebrates and brings together the cultural diversity found within Tower Hamlets. Due to the runaway success of the walk (over 60 people listening to me talk about a man who strapped people to Cannons and Dr. Barnado last year), I’ve enlisted the help of my fellow Westminster guides Emmanuel, Susie, Dan and Highgate/Abney Park guide Sam Perrin to assist me in running the tour.


The schedule is as follows:

Sunday 26th July – Tours at 1, 3 & 5pm

Saturday 1st August – Tours on the hour between 12 and 5pm

Other events such as films, comedy, cheese tastings and music – provided by headliners British Sea Power can be viewed here.

Tickets for the tours available here! Come along and see us in action!

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Premiers, Luvvies and Angels: A Touch of Class In Hampstead

by Sheldon

Hampstead Intro

Hampstead Cemetery has always been the preserve of the rich and famous, catering for the prosperous locals that have and continue to live in the surrounding area. After a short walk from West Hampstead tube and cutting through Fortune Green, my first experience of this garden of the dead was through a narrow alleyway with densely packed graves on both sides. A short walk on leads you to a very Victorian and very pretty set up: a long avenue with impressive monuments leading up to a twin Chapel designed by Charles Bell.


Hampstead is the first Cemetery I’ve been to which *feels* like it did back in its Victorian heyday. Opened in 1876 as one of the new wave of burial places after the likes of Brompton and Nunhead, a team of thirty gardeners kept the march of nature to a tidy, ordered, pleasant place to tale a stroll. Although that number has been significantly reduced, its a very ordered place to be which probably explains the sheer amount of people using it on the Saturday I paid a visit.


It’s a good reminder that grand monuments didn’t necessarily come from the reign of Victoria. Charles Barritt, despite his monument suggesting he was musically gifted or involved in Church music was a humourist and known for ‘being funny without being vulgar’. Nearby and more recently, fellow humourist Alan Coren has a simple grave.

AngelBianchiThe memorial to Martha Bianchi is one of the finest I’ve ever seen. An angel looks down on her tomb, with two marble reliefs flanking either side. Martha was an Opera singer who died in childbirth: her husband was so distraught he had this magnificent piece built in her memory. Sadly, the beauty of this piece has been marred by being the target of scrap metal thieves and the knowledge that in death the couple were not reunited: The London Dead has a superb piece on what became of her devastated husband.

Perhaps reflecting the fact that Highgate was approaching capacity, a number of stars from the early 20th century are buried here. Fred Terry, noted actor-manager, known for his portrayal of Charles II, who had three full coaches full of flowers at his funeral has an impressive tomb-cum-colambarium, however where ashes are to be kept, the door is gone and instead a large bag of pebbles and a watering can occupy the niche where he sat for many years. Also here is, bizarrely, Andrew Fisher, who was for three terms the Prime Minister of Australia.


Fisher at the state opening/naming of Canberra

Fisher, in the rather marvellous black jacket on the left, at the state opening/naming of Canberra. Public domain

One of the biggest funerals that the Cemetery saw was that of music-hall superstar Marie Lloyd. Despite dying exhausted and penniless, her passing was felt across the nation. It was interesting to see her grave as I was already acquainted with her husband, the comedian Alec Hurley, who she met whilst she was married to someone else. Beginning to feel sidelined by his wife’s meteoric career, he began drinking and gambling to cope. She began an affair and went off with the jockey Bernard Dillon, leaving Alec heartbroken and dying in Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead. He was laid to rest in Tower Hamlets in his mother’s grave.

Another tragedy happened on Tuesday 13th December 1892, when Robert Dickens, no relation to Charles, was walking through the cemetery with his head full of anticipation at the upcoming Christmas celebrations.  The delight turned to dread as he found the body of Edward Cornelius Scanes draped across a grave, with a gunshot wound to his chest. Scanes, of 77 North Street, Marylebone, had been suffering from depression and in one of the three suicide notes found on him, one rued ‘the poor state of my head’.


The tomb of architectural historian Sir Banister Fletcher, designed by his son, Sir Banister Flight Fletcher. Etched into the bottom are the names of at least a dozen descendants who share the grave with him.



 With the sun slowly cooking me to a crisp, it was difficult not to really enjoy the atmosphere here. It’s interesting to see that it’s still a valuable asset to the community: despite being close to places such as Hampstead Heath and Highgate. The locals are spoilt for choice with green spaces but I recommend paying a visit if you want to experience what one of London’s finest Cemeteries has always done: providing a little oasis of calm from the world that lies just outside its iron railings.

All photos (bar public domain) © Sheldon K Goodman 2015.

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