Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Mysterious Fire in Kensal Green Cemetery - 18 August 1865

The Dissenters Chapel, Kensal Green Cemetery - the catacombs lie below the chapel

“On Friday last, between twelve and one o'clock, a constable of the D division, on duty near the Kensal Green Cemetery, discovered smoke issuing from the catacombs situate in the Dissenters’ portion of the ground. He raised an alarm, and several fire engines quickly arrived, but such was the heat which came from the mouth of the catacombs that a considerable time elapsed before the grating could be got up. A brigade man was then fitted out with a fire dress similar to the one now being exhibited at the Polytechnic Institution, and the necessary air was supplied by the action of the steam engine. He descended, and after being absent some time returned, and said the vault No. 16 was in flames. The whole force of the engines was then turned to that spot, and the fire was soon extinguished. When the steam and smoke had, in a great measure, evaporated, a party of men descended to No. 16 vault, which had contained ten coffins, some of which were leaden ones. Five of the coffins were almost totally consumed, and the others, with one exception, were more or less injured. The stench and the sight which presented] itself were horrible in the extreme, and altogether indescribable The wildest conjectures are afloat as to the origin of the fire but no definite conclusions are as yet arrived at. — The Observer supplies the following additional particulars:—"It appears that the coffin which had only recently been placed in the vaults under the Dissenting chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery and which escaped destruction at the fire which look place there on Friday night, contained the remains of the late Mr Joseph Parkes, formerly the celebrated Parliamentary agent. The body was deposited in this vault on Wednesday under the direction of Mr. Garston, the undertaker, of Welbeck Street who conducted the funeral, merely as a temporary measure, it being intended by the deceased gentlemen's friends to have it removed to Hastings when a vault which is being constructed there is completed. It was placed in the vault in the Dissenting ground because its removal would not require a "faculty" but simply an order from the Secretary of State. The vault was exceedingly dry, so much so that some of the coffins which had been there many years were falling to pieces with dry rot and the cloth over the wood work hung in shreds like tinder At the upper part of the vault there is a place for a candle and it is believed that in lighting this candle, either with a Lucifer or paper, to show a light when Mr. Parkes's coffin was being put on the bars on which it rested, the man must have dropped a spark on to the cloth of the nearest coffin and that it smouldered away unobserved until, coming into contact with the gas emitted through some aperture in the lead of the enclosed coffin, that ignited and at once communicated flame to the wood of the outer coffin, and so on to the others on the same tier. There were five coffins completely consumed, with their contents, and a part of a sixth; but although the molten lead dropped on either side and all around the coffin of Mr. Parkes, it was but slightly injured.”

Essex Standard Wednesday 23 August 1865


The son of a manufacturer from the Midlands Joseph Parkes (1796 to 1865) qualified and practiced as a solicitor and then was drawn into reform politics. He was disciple of Jeremy Bentham, married a granddaughter of Joseph Priestley the discoverer of oxygen and was the grandfather of Hilaire Belloc the celebrated writer. His obituary in The Times said ‘Perhaps no man was better acquainted than he with the secret history of politics during the last thirty or forty years. … He held in the great whig army a place, if not of command, yet of trust and influence.’ By the time his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography came to be written the verdict was slightly more dismissive, Parkes was a “busy, enthusiastic, not very able man.” Setting fire to the catacombs at Kensal Green was by far the most interesting thing he ever did.