Mention the name ‘Chelsea’ and two things spring to mind; the iconic flower show or the Pensioners who reside in a fine building on the River Thames, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Their 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 not out of respect for the men it remembered, but of an outrage concerning the state the Cemetery had gotten itself into by the late nineteenth century.
Who are the Chelsea Pensioners?
In recognition for their services and inspired by Les Invalides in Paris, it was King Charles II, under advice from this mistress Nell Gwynne, who 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 ‘hospital’ was more a refuge than a place of healing.
From 1691 to 1854 they had been buried in a burial ground next door, however this was now full. A new place of burial was secured in Brompton Cemetery and as the Government maintained this Valhalla, owing to remarkable financial mismanagement which presented itself in its construction and early years, the old warriors were buried in mass graves. Hidden from view was the fact that 2626 men had seen conflict in The Crimea, Peninsular and Chinese Wars and were only commemorated by small headstone sonly a handful of their familes could afford.
Why was there outrage?
Despite Brompton’s placement in the affluent neighbourhood of Kensington and Chelsea; the Cemetery, for a part of its existence, was not kept as immaculatey as it should have been. A Government report in 1889, which gave a stock-take on burials in these fabulous new cemeteries that had been opened but forty years earlier, revealed a staggering amount of usage. An estimated 247,000 people has been buried in the worst offender, Tower Hamlets Cemetery, since its opening in 1841.
What was unexpected 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’.
What really irked people however was the deplorable way in which the Chelsea Pensioners plot was maintained. Littered with personal little stones – public outcry insisted that an official memorial be unveiled to the two thousand or so veterans buried beneath. The Morning Post in 1898 commented:
‘…something should be done to obliterate the traces of neglect that now scandalously disfigure the burying ground of some two thousand five hundred Pensioners in Brompton Cemetery, and that a memorial of some kind should be raised to the memory of the old soldiers who lie there’
A Fitting Memorial in Brompton Cemetery
John Whitehead and Son of Westminster, a funerary sculptors who specialised in undertaking and marble, won the tender in 1899 with the Treasury contributing £250 to the cost. In an event that would seem to be perfectly placed in an episode of the Thick of It, the memorials’ unveiling was delayed until June 1901 as the then Under-Secretary for War George Wyndham MP had failed to write an epitaph in time.
It was eventually installed and much like the Royal Hospital Burial Ground, this too soon reached capacity and now, should they wish to be, the Pensioners can make use of a large plot in Brookwood Cemetery. If you happen to be in Brompton, take a moment to look at it – it’s not too far from Countess Teresa Łubieńska – and think of all the things then men below saw, experienced and took to the grave.