On the 24th December, thanks to a half day holiday granted by my employers, I made what is, for me at least, fast becoming a tradition; the Christmas Eve cemetery visit. We moved offices earlier this year and I am now lucky enough to work in Willesden, a location that my colleagues complain endlessly about as unless you live in North West London it can take be tricky to get to. It is also dirty, dangerous and dismal, they say. I have spent most of my adult life working in the parts of London that most people go out of their way to avoid and to me Willesden doesn’t seem that bad. I live in East London and I can’t say I particularly enjoy the hour and a half trek to and from the office on the overcrowded Central and Jubilee lines every morning and evening. More than balancing out the negatives for me is the fact that Willesden has more cemeteries within striking distance of the office than anywhere else I have ever worked. Within 10 minutes walk of my workplace on the High Road are not one but two Jewish cemeteries as well as non denominational Willesden New Cemetery (opened 1891). Only slightly further away is North West London’s oldest Parish church, St Mary’s founded circa 938 with its churchyard and Willesden’s Old Burial Ground. Paddington Old Cemetery isn’t far away either, virtually a straight walk of not much more than 20 minutes down Brondesbury Park. Or, almost as close but far more enticing, Kensal Green and its two cemeteries, All Souls and St Mary’s, a brisk 30 minute stroll away or a mere 10 minute bus ride on the 302. In London they say you are never more than 6 feet away from a rat or a mile away from a cemetery. Willesden is particularly blessed with both though I’m not sure if there is a connection. My colleagues appreciate neither.
I may have been spoilt for choice but there is only ever going to be one winner for me in any competition between cemeteries; I walked to Kensal Green. It was a dull day, a gunmetal grey sky threatened rain and leached the colour out of what little was left of the afternoon. The weather forecast had promised breaks in the cloud and intermittent sunshine but there was no sign of any relief to the thoroughly depressing day. The cemetery was less busy than last year, there were a few dedicated souls visiting the graves of their departed loved ones but nowhere near as many as last Christmas Eve. Visitors to Kensal Green are, in my experience, always impeccably well behaved. I noticed a solitary rough sleeper in the portico of the old catacombs a couple of years ago but I have never seen discarded drug paraphernalia, had to steer clear of groups of inebriated street drinkers, stumbled across grown men clinched in intimate embraces in the undergrowth or seen any other sign of the variety of ways Londoners find to enjoy themselves in some of more disreputable the cemeteries. It hasn’t always been this way though; a correspondent who signed himself A Mourner for the Dead, wrote to the editor of The Times on April 13 1857. “I, on Good Friday, went [to the cemetery at Kensal-green] to pay a tribute of respect and affection to one not long departed,” the troubled Mourner wrote and “in approaching the tomb I found a large assemblage of persons collected, whose behaviour and language were little suited to the solemnity of the place. The ground was strewn with oranges, nuts, &c, laughter, and opinions passed of those who slept quietly there jarred on the feelings of those who went to weep, to pray. I ask you, is this fit, is this becoming in a Christian country? The cemetery of Pere Le Chaise is not looked on as a tea garden, unjust remarks on the dead are not heard, decency is observed; but with us, how different!” The Mourner beseeched the editor to use his powerful influence to stop “sanctuaries for the dead becoming scenes of riot and disorder.”
Such scenes were probably rare in the 1830’s when the cemetery first opened and the activity of the public was closely monitored by the company’s watchmen. In 1832, the year the cemetery was founded (the first burial was a year later) the Whig Government of Earl Grey had passed the Anatomy Act designed to curb the rampant illegal trade in human corpses by allowing licensed teachers of anatomy access to unclaimed bodies (of the poor obviously) from hospitals, prisons and workhouses. It was common practice before (and for some after) the passing of the act for burial grounds to employ watchmen to make sure that the dead were not disturbed by the activities of the resurrection men and it would have been no different for the new cemetery. The Naval & Military Gazette of 10 August 1833 contains the fascinating titbit that the watchmen employed by the General Cemetery Company were armed. “On Wednesday night,” it says, “as one of the watchmen employed at the New Cemetery at Kensall Green, was discharging his gun as usual on relieving guard, the barrel burst, and blew his right hand off from the wrist. He was immediately taken to a surgeon in the neighbourhood, and thence to the Middlesex Hospital.” As far as I am aware burial ground watchmen were not usually armed with anything more dangerous than a stout cudgel. The General Cemetery Company was clearly determined to discourage body snatching or any other unseemly activity from its new model cemetery.
My trawls through the newspaper archives looking for other stories relating to pistol packing watchmen in the cemetery has failed, so far, to turn up anything at all. For how long watchmen went armed on their nightly patrols is still a mystery. The threat from resurrection men would have receded as the provisions of the new anatomy act started to take effect in the late 1830’s. At some point the danger of an employee blowing his own hand off would have been a greater risk to the company than body snatchers tarnishing the reputation of the cemetery by making off with a newly buried corpse. When that point was reached the management of the cemetery presumably retired its arsenal and took a less belligerent approach to protecting its property. Later press stories relating to guns and the cemetery are generally relating to suicides such as the ‘unknown gentleman’ whose body was found by undertakers conducting a funeral in the cemetery on 11 November 1872. “The body was lying amongst some tombstones,” reported the Scotsman of 12 November, “and a single-barrelled pistol was found near the head of the deceased.” No further details were reported. People who commit suicide in cemeteries generally have some intimate connection with someone buried there and generally kill themselves at the grave side. Sometimes the relationship between the suicide and the buried can be quite surprising; this was certainly true of another unknown man whose story was reported in Wigan Observer and District Advertiser of 11 March 1859. He had taken his own life with a dose of poison. “The wretched man had formed an attachment to a widow, which was not returned,” said the paper “and when his dead body was found it was lying the headstone of the widow’s late husband.” What an interesting conversation the pair of them must have had in the afterlife.