Paradise By Way of Kensal Green

Kensal Green was the first of the Magnificent Seven to open and set the template on how to open a beautiful, peaceful setting to deal with the ever growing population of dead Londoners.

Kensal Green

The opening in 1833 was preceded by years of staunch debate and ideas on how to improve burial and general sanitation.  The idea for reform hearkens back many hundreds of years: even during the consultation for the rebuilding of the City of London, Sir Christopher Wren called for:

‘…cemeteries seated in the Out-skirts of the Town… This being enclosed with a strong Brick Wall, and having a Walk round, and two cross Walks, decently planted with Yew-trees’ 

in a letter to the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches in 1711.

With Paris opening the Père Lachaise in 1804 as a result of the same issue in France, the United Kingdom followed suit after a range of ideas ranging from replica Pyramids to promoting land reclamation in the Thames estuary using the bodies of the dead. Eventually the formation of a sweeping park-like space, echoing Wren’s idea from days gone by, was settled on and expanded on in the 1850’s – again, a post for another time.

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What I love about Kensal Green was its grimness.  I’m sure the Cemetery founders would rather I would see it for what it originally was –  a paradise, promoted by the likes of G.K. Chesterton. But the vast overcast blanket of grey that carpeted the sky and the muddy conditions underfoot betrayed the fact that this is an old cemetery, ironically, approaching the end of its useful life. A few parts of it did resemble a bog: a few lawn graves scattered in-between the grand Victorian obelisks were partially submerged in pools of water.

Like all cemeteries, many notable characters and people of the day chose this place as their final resting place. I’m still looking into which cemetery was more desirable, Highgate or Kensal Green, and certainly what influenced people from afar to be buried there – prestige?  Family connection?  Because they could?

We were walking past this grave and the 'Beckenham' caught my eye - this is close to where I live in south-east London.  The residence still stands, it's now flats.
We were walking past this grave and the ‘Beckenham’ caught my eye – this is close to where I live in south-east London. The residence still stands, it’s now flats.

Notably, it boasts more members of the Royal Society within its walls than any other Magnificent Cemetery, including John Hall Gladstone and Charles Babbage (who has half of his brain on display at the Wellcome Institute, worth a look!).   There are also monuments to Robert Kennard MP and a staggeringly defiant, huge tomb marker to notorious quack Doctor John St. John Long, which garnered a collective ‘this man sounded like a real douche in life’ from both me and Christina.

Two fingered gesture, even in death
Two fingered gesture, even in death

The Cemetery itself still operates and under the terms of its original mandate, when it will become a memorial park with interments to remain in situ for perpetuity.  The older part which houses the mausolea and graves is in good condition, unlike the wooded forests of Highgate or Nunhead – here you get a real sense of what it was like in the nineteenth century. Yes, parts have gone wild, but the Cemetery no longer boats the army of gardeners that once maintained its grounds.  Certainly a lovely place to have a stroll.

Photographs by Iris Jones Photography, colour ones by Sheldon K. Goodman.

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