Gruesome – Or History Made Graphic?

Why go traipsing around a cemetery? Well, it’s no different from going to a museum or an art gallery.

So when I come across historical accounts written by cemetery enthusiasts, I have to share their words as I would my own. The following article originally appeared in the Londonderry Sentinel on  Saturday 1st December, 1956. Its author is unknown, but whoever he or she is raises some really interesting points – and highlights people I’ve never even heard of!

CEMETERIES are a gruesome subject.

Explore a cemetery

Why they should be so is not entirely due to their being full of the dead. Country churchyards are cemeteries, but people in holiday mood walk through them to enjoy the tranquility. Abbeys and cathedrals are often full of graves – even if they are called tombs—yet coach loads of holidaymakers will make a bee-line for Poets’ Corner at Westminster. 
Perhaps the idea that a cemetery is not quite nice, therefore, must be blamed on one of the irrational streaks that go to make up human nature. Yet there is often almost as much history, and nearly as many of the famous and notorious figures of the past, to be found in a local cemetery as in one of the show place cathedrals. 
Karl Marx Grave
Lucho Cooks at Highgate Cemetery

At Highgate, in North London, for instance – among a great number of worthy bourgeois burghers – lies Karl Marx, the man who has probably brought more sorrow to humanity than any other single person, Genghis Khan with his Mongol Hordes excepted.

Some way to the West, on the seedy outskirts of London’s Paddington area, is a district called Kensal Green. A century ago it was green, and in that village – as it was then – near London the solid Victorian opened a new cemetery to ease the strain on older ones inside the capital.

With some time to fill before an appointment the other day, I loitered in Kensal Green Cemetery. There was nearly every type of memorial in it, within reason, that human tastes could choose.

Some recorded people who don’t matter to the world in general any more.

There was a stone erected by the friends of a man who paid tribute to “the benefits derived from his remedial discovery” – whatever it was. There were princes and princesses, admirals, generals, doctors, artists, poets, novelists, essayists, strolling players and vagabonds.

There was a stone recording that George Cruickshank (“30 years a total abstainer,” it said) who was Dickens’ illustrator, had rested beneath it before he was removed to St. Paul’s. By this time I was trying to see how many celebrities I could spot.

The first was William Makepeace Thackeray, author of “Vanity Fair”, that classic which introduced the scheming Becky Sharp, in a setting laid in the London of Napoleonic times. As a small boy, Thackeray was grief stricken at having to leave his mother behind in India when he came to England to be educated. At Kensal Green they are together again. She died a year after him. 

Wilkie
Wilkie Collins

The man who wrote the first English detective story, Wilkie Collins, was not far away. His best known book, “The Woman in White,” is still selling. I came across, too, a G.P.O. official whose popularity as a novelist has had a film from the BBC recently. He was Anthony Trollope, of the Barchester novels, fame. Another man of letters was Leigh Hunt, the essayist and reformer who “discovered” Shelly, Keats, Tennyson, and the Brownings. 

But the men of letters do not have sole possession. I found J. L. Toole, the Victorian “low comedian,” and, just to balance the’ stage’s representation, Charles Kemble, the Shakespearean actor. 

Among the articles I read most avidly as a boy were those about the engineering achievements of Isambard Brunel. He, too, rests at Kensal Green. Brunel built the Great Western Railway, and so sparked off the great “battle of the gauges” which split Britain’s railway system for most of the last century, until the G.W.R. gave up its seven-feet wide track for the standard gauge. He was in charge of the building of the Thames tunnel at nineteen. When he died, it was said to be due to overwork during the building of his unlucky Great Eastern, in its day the largest ship ever built. 

I followed other paths and looked at other memorials. Here was Decimus Brown, the architect who put up the triumphal arch at Hyde Park Corner; here, too, was Blondin, the French rope dancer who caused the world to catch its breath when he crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He did it four times in all – once blindfolded. On one occasion he crossed with a wheelbarrow, and on another carried a man on his back.

He survived it all, to die in his bed at Ealing.

I also found a man, who, in his day, was thought by anxious authority to be leading a British revolution. He was Feargus O’Connor, the Irish M.P. who became a leader of the Chartist movement and presided at their last great meeting on Kennington Common in London, in 1848, when the Government quaked in its shoes. 

KensalMod2
Exploring Kensal Green several decades later

The famous and the notorious were jostling each other among the leaves and grass, the mausoleums and modest gravestones, bordering the broad paths of this cemetery. There were enough “names” here to rival Westminster Abbey as an attraction for those who travel to see memorials to people who made news in their day. And many another cemetery, up and down the country, can boast its roll of fame, thanks to the records which have been left in stone to mark the few feet of earth they occupy.

Gruesome – or history made graphic? 

This article came from the wonderful British Newspaper Archive. Thanks to Luís Costa da Silva for additional photography!

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One thought on “Gruesome – Or History Made Graphic?

  1. I really enjoy reading about your forays into the cemeteries and the stories behind the stones. This post shows we are just the latest in a succession of cemetery watchers. Keep up the good work!

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