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.
The 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.
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’.
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.