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.
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.
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.
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.