Monday, 31 January 2022

180 years of Kensal Green Cemetery - 1841 & 2022

A couple of weeks ago I had a work meeting in Ilbert Street, W10. The appointment was at 10am and Ilbert Street is just around the corner from Kensal Green cemetery, a ten-minute walk at most. So I made sure that I arrived an hour early in West London and was waiting at the cemetery gates when they opened at 9am. It was a glorious morning when I first arrived, cold and crisp but with the sun shining. Within ten minutes it had clouded over and started to drizzle but the light was still good and I managed to get a few decent pictures as I strolled through the cemetery from the crematorium end to the main Harrow Road entrance.


I’ve been reading Chapter 86, ‘London Burials’ in Volume 4 of Charles Knight’s 1841 magnum opus ‘London’. The chapter is the work of John Saunders, a now forgotten novelist and dramatist who was born in 1810 and died in 1895. His work, which was once admired by Bulwer Lytton, Leigh Hunt and Charles Dickens, is now long out of print and completely unread. As you would expect Saunders devotes a few pages to relating the horrors of burials in the city churchyards but then moves on to a description of the new cemeteries, the magnificent 7 all having opened in the previous decade. He devotes most space to an account of a visit to Kensal Green, just eight years after it had opened. The frontispiece to the chapter shows a view of the cemetery – in the foreground a widow and her children tend a grave while another young mother, bonneted and shawled leads two crinolined little girls across an open lawn. At the rear of the lawn is Central Avenue with the tombs of Andrew Ducrow and John St. John Long. With no trees taller than the biggest memorials the Anglican Chapel and the north colonnade are clearly visible in the distance, bookending the view.  

Saunders opens his account of the cemetery by saying that he arrived there following a pleasant three mile amble along the Harrow Road.  Even as late as 1841 London’s urban sprawl more or less stopped in the North-West at Paddington and a pedestrian strolling along the Harrow Road, once they were past the Lock Hospital and Paddington workhouse, had open fields to the north of them and the gracious villas of Westbourne Green on the south side of the road until they reached Kensal New Town. The railway and the canal to the south of Harrow Road had taken all the heavy traffic off the road and the walk to the cemetery would have been a pleasant rural ramble. Not now of course, the Harrow Road is the route of the A404 and you will choke on exhaust fumes and find yourself half deafened with traffic noise if you take this route; the canal is a much better option these days.

“After a pleasant walk of between two and three miles along the Harrow road, the handsome, substantial looking Doric gateway meets the eye on the left, standing a little back; we pass through and the grounds of Kensal Green Cemetery are before us, These are extensive, comprising about forty six acres and are surrounded with a lofty wall on either side of the gateway, now almost covered by a rich belt of young forest trees, evergreens and shrubs; whilst the opposite boundary is left partially open to the eye, so as to admit of fine prospects from different parts over the country round Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith, Notting Hill and Bayswater.” When Saunders talks about the country he really did mean country; south of the cemetery was open fields until you reached Notting Hill or Shepherds Bush. He underestimated the size of the cemetery – originally the grounds occupied 55 acres of land, 39 reserved for Anglican burials and the rest for non-conformists. Spare ground to the west of the cemetery was later absorbed into the cemetery and developed into the crematorium and gardens of remembrance in the 1930’s; the total area of the cemetery is now around 72 acres.   

Saunders described what would have been a very different looking cemetery, a much neater and well-manicured one, not the half wild place we know and love today:   

In the interior the grounds are divided by broad winding and straight walks, the rest being laid out in grassy lawns, relieved by parterres of flowers, clumps of trees and shrubs and, above all, by the glitteringly white monuments of every possible outline, style and size from the simple flat stone, up to places large enough for their owners to reside in whilst living. The chief buildings are the two chapels and the colonnade. The chapel for the Dissenters on the left in the unconsecrated ground, divided from the consecrated by a clearly marked boundary, is with the exception of its front, where the Doric pillars give something like dignity of expression, markedly plain; the chapel for the use of members of the Church of England on the right is, on the contrary, both noble and handsome and the interior with its solemn gloom and single painted glass window rich, though simple.

180 years it was the monuments of Andrew Ducrow and John St. John Long which grabbed the attention on Central Avenue, Mulready and Gibson had yet to appear;

The tombs of the greatest pretension at Kensal Green are mostly ranged at the sides of the central walk leading to and from the chapel. Here are Dr Valpy's in the form of a Roman temple, the Rashleigh family's, of Mendabilly, consisting merely of flat and head stones, but of such gigantic size and rude structure that one involuntarily thinks of primeval ages, and men like gods; whilst opposite each other at the junction of four principal walks, the most conspicuous objects in the most conspicuous part of the cemetery, stand St John Long's with a figure of the goddess of health raised on high within an open Grecian temple, and the prince of horsemen's Ducrow's, in the shape of a large Egyptian building, with bronze sphynxes each side of the door and surrounded by a garden with flowering evergreens, standard roses, and sweet smelling stocks with gravelled walks and bronze railings.

Saunders is impressed by how many burials have taken place at Kensal Green since it opened but 6000 doesn’t seem a lot in 8 years. The Directors of the General Cemetery Company would almost certainly have liked to see it a little busier!

Upwards of six thousand persons have been interred here since the opening; a circumstance that in itself shows how great was the want of such a place. Not one of its least advantages is that every private grave is secured from disturbance, forming indeed a freehold which may be bequeathed by its owner. The system of mapping out the ground is ingenious and satisfactory. The whole is divided into squares of 150 feet by 100, for each of which a leaf of a very large, massive looking, and iron bound volume is set apart; here every grave in the square is numbered and the occupied ones marked. This book, and printed plans of the squares, are always accessible to the parties concerned, so that mistakes and deceptions are alike guarded against. There are some points in which improvement may be made. When the cemetery companies obtained their respective acts of parliament, the dangers of burying near the surface, and of burying several bodies in the same grave, one above another, were not so well known as they have been since the publication of the Report of the Committee. Now however, it appears many of the best informed men consider there should be no grave within five feet of the surface, whilst at Kensal Green, and no doubt at the other cemeteries, they bury within four feet.

The Blondin memorial for the man who couldn't resist a tightrope stretched across Niagara Falls

Monday, 10 January 2022

The lost gasometers of Kensal Green and some miscellaneous photos of the cemetery

"Why so quiet
Vitruvius Wyatt?"
"Because I'm dead,"
he said.

Wynn Wheldon - Vitruvius Wyatt, a short poem (2016)

The iconic gas holders that overlooked Kensal Green cemetery from the other side of the Grand Union canal were demolished last year. I was looking through old photos of the cemetery to see if I had any unused ones and came across the two you see here, both taken on Christmas Eve, one in 2018 and one in 2019.  Gas holders no 5 and 6 have been part of the scenery of the cemetery for over 130 years (see Guy Vaes photos from the 1960’s here) and it is sad to see them gone to make way for new apartments (which will have a good view of the cemetery, though this is generally not acknowledged to be a selling point for some reason).  Gas holder No 5, the more diminutive of the pair was built in 1877-79 to the design of Vitruvius Wyatt the constructing engineer of the Gaslight and Coke Company. Vitruvius (to christen him with the name of the Roman architect and engineer, his father must have had his life and career plotted out for him before he was even born) is responsible for other famous gas holders at Bromley-by-bow and Beckton, all of them under threat of demolition. He chose not to be interred in Kensal Green when died in 1897 and so was spared the unpleasantness of watching his work dismantled and taken away as scrap iron. Instead, he was buried in Hampstead Cemetery where Wynn Wheldon no doubt spotted his grave and was inspired to write the short poem above, quite possibly knowing nothing more about his subject than his name. Gas holder No 6, the bigger of the two, was built in 1890-92 and designed by George Careless Trewby who was Engineer-in-Chief at the company and Vitruvius’ boss. He was also buried at Hampstead Cemetery.

The Kensal Green gas works were established in 1845 by the Western Gaslight Company who used bituminous coal brought by the canal produce cannel gas on the site. This was used to power gas lighting for affluent householders in St Pancras, Marylebone, Bloomsbury, Hampstead, Paddington and Chelsea. Cannel gas was more expensive to produce than coal gas but it produced a better flame. The news that the still semi-rural site was to be used for a gas works did not go down well with local ratepayers and businesses. The General Cemetery Company was as alarmed as anyone one else with a financial stake in the neighbourhood by ‘the alleged nuisance and serious injury to health and property’ and the impact a gas works could have on the cemetery. Interested parties met at the William the Fourth Tavern on Harrow Road on Thursday 08 October 1846 “to come to such resolutions as might be deemed expedient for averting the threatened evil.” The meeting was chaired by the vicar of St. Johns, the Rev. A. G. Pemberton, who commenced proceedings “by reading letters which he had received from the Rev. Warden of All Souls College, who was a landed proprietor in the neighbourhood, from the Kensal green Cemetery Company, and Mr. Jacobs and other gentlemen” who all vigorously opposed the opening of the new gas works. It all did no good, not even taking the matter to law, the gas works opened in 1847 and only closed in 1975. 

The tomb in the foreground of the top photograph belongs to Charles Babbage (1791-1871), mathematician, philosopher and inventor of the difference engine, generally acknowledged as the first mechanical computer. Babbage’s pickled brain now resides, neatly bisected, one half in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the other in the Science Museum in Exhibition Road. I have been meaning to write about him for some time, I really must get my finger out.

The photograph above (like all the others, taken on 24th December in 2018 or 2019, is the tomb of William Mulready, the Irish painter, illuminated by the rays of the setting sun.   Mulready’s "six-poster Lombard Renaissance" monument is made of artificial stone and was designed by Godfrey Sykes who was one of the artists responsible for the decoration of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The monument, which features prominently on the Central Avenue of Kensal Green Cemetery, was exhibited at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, where it won a prize. Mulready reclines, in life size effigy, on plush upholstery protected from the elements by a canopy. The base of the monument has incised representations of some of Mulready’s better known paintings as well as palettes and paint brushes and other symbols of the life of an artist.

The last two pictures are sunset scenes in the cemetery, the one above from 2018 and the one below from 2019. 

Monday, 3 January 2022

I Am Every Dead Thing; St Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green

For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy…
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

 John Donne - A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

Covid has put an end to my traditional Christmas Eve cemetery visit as I’m no longer working in an office and so don’t get let out early for a half day holiday on the 24th.  Instead this year I took the afternoon off on the 21st December, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Before we finally gave in and accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 (after almost 200 years of spirited resistance to the Papists) the Winter Solstice used to fall on December 13, St Lucy’s day, ‘the year’s midnight’ as John Donne called it in his gloomy meditation on the 7 hours 49 minutes and 42 seconds of daylight we get in Southern England on the day of the solstice (but let us not complain, it is at least an hour more than they get in Aberdeen and two more than the Norwegians and Swedes get in Oslo and Stockholm). Sunset was at 3.53pm and the management at St.Mary’s Cemetery in Kensal Green wanted us out of there by 3.45. Cemeteries are always busy Christmas week and St. Mary’s was no exception. The older part of the cemetery was deserted apart from the gravediggers, who were hanging around tinkering with their mechanical diggers and reminding anyone in ear shot about the early closing time. At the bottom end of the cemetery where the newer graves are there was a steady stream of visitors, mainly arriving by car, bearing Christmas wreaths and decorations as a seasonal alternative to flowers. Poinsettias and tinsel adorned many graves, some of them very elaborately decorated for the nativity. I felt too self-conscious to take photos of the newer graves but this relatively recent trend of decking out memorials with holly and fairy lights is quite interesting. When you drive past Chingford cemetery at night at this time of year the place glows eerily with solar powered LED string lights. St. Mary’s isn’t visible from the road and the gravediggers make sure everyone is out before sundown but I bet it presents an equally festive appearance in the dark.    

St. Mary’s was in the news recently for being the location of one of the increasingly senseless murders that seem to be becoming a feature of urban life in London. On the afternoon of 22 November 2020 61-year-old Michael Morris-Owens was sitting on bench in the cemetery close to the Chapel. A stranger, 51-year-old Cornelius Tully engaged him in casual conversation. When Morris-Owens refused to shake Tully’s hand, possibly because this was during one of last years lockdowns, the younger man apparently took offence and produced a bayonet which he rammed in Morris-Owens stomach. The wounded man fled with Tully in pursuit, slashing at him from behind and tried to get into his parked car. Tully hacked him down by his vehicle, inflicting over thirty wounds with the bayonet. Other visitors to the cemetery tried to intervene, at first to stop the attack and then to try and save Morris-Owens but he was pronounced dead by paramedics when they arrived at the scene. Tully didn’t try to escape; he waited until armed police arrived and then gave himself in. He appeared at the Old Bailey on 14 September 2021 via video link from a secure mental hospital in Three Bridges to plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. On November 11 he was sentenced to an indefinite hospital order, meaning that he will only be released if psychiatrists agree that he is no longer a danger to himself or others. After having been murdered there Michael Morris-Owens was buried at St Mary’s on 04 March 2021. 

There was a particularly sad funeral held at the cemetery on Tuesday 08 December 1953. 5-month-old Tomunatanye Davis was buried with just a priest, her mother Veronica, a representative from her mother’s employer, the United Africa Company, and an African nurse from Hammersmith Hospital in attendance. The floral tributes were a sheaf of flowers from the company and a bunch of violets presented by a Girl Guide troop. Tomunatanye had died on 03 December during an operation held at Hammersmith Hospital to separate her from her conjoined twin sister Wariboko. The twins were born in Kano, Nigeria on 25 July 1953 and became an immediate media sensation when they were flown to England to be separated. The operation was carried out by Scottish surgeon Professor Ian Aird who was no doubt hoping to make history by carrying out the first successful surgical separation of conjoined twins. Unfortunately, Tomunatanye died in the operating theatre though Wariboko survived. The funeral of Tomunatanye on the 8th did not stop the Daily Mirror crowing about the operation as a triumph of British imperialism the following day; 

BABIES OF IMPORTANCE   EVERY mother in Britain is keeping her fingers crossed for baby Boko, the survivor of the Siamese twins from Nigeria. She is the most famous baby in the world - the piccaninny who stole the headlines from Winston, Ike and Georgyi.

Boko is noticing people. Hear that, Mum? Boko is sucking her fist, now. Just listen, Dad! This is the battle for recovery that grips all parents. And behind the battle is the other story. Of the twins' journey to London with their mother - paid for by their father's firm. How a Scottish surgeon, giving his services free, separates the twins in a London hospital.

THIS is the " imperialism" we—and Boko's mother—are proud of. Boko is its bonny emblem. And not the only one. For, 2,000 miles away, an important Egyptian baby has been rushed British medical care.

He is Mohammed, son of Major Salem, Egypt's Minister of National Guidance. Salem talks hatred of British "imperialism." But he appealed for help to the British Army in the Suez Canal Zone when his baby developed infantile paralysis. GOOD FOR HIM! A British specialist and nurses raced to Cairo. An iron lung was flown from this country. Now Mohammed, like Boko, is doing better. Bless them both. They stand for so much decency and humanity between nations. Their stories make CHEERFUL reading. Britain has a right to feel happy about them both.

Wariboko and her mother returned to Nigeria just three weeks after the operation.  Veronica Davis went on to have another pair of twins, not conjoined this time, both of whom in infancy. She later died giving birth to a still born baby before Wariboko was old enough to remember her. Wariboko was brought up by a Mr and Mrs Jituboh and became a nurse. She is, as far as I know, still alive, she certainly was in 2015. Professor Ian Aird committed suicide in 1962. 

Another sad funeral was that of artists model Norine Fournier Lattimore, a story widely syndicated in the newspapers and here taken from the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail of  Friday 10 August 1934; 

ONLY FOUR MOURNERS Funeral of Former Famous Model

Only four mourners, headed bv her father. Mr E. Scholfield, attended the funeral of Dolores the famous model, at Kensal Green Catholic Cemetery, London, to-day. During her stage and studio life Dolores’ friends had been legion. The service at the graveside was conducted by Father Pelors, a French priest. On the coffin was a wreath of lilies from Dolores’ father bearing the inscription. "God rest your soul.— Papa" and a posy of sweet peas. There were two other wreaths at the graveside from friends. The burial was in a public grave. 

Norine Schofield was born in London in 1934 into a theatrical family. She was raised in Islington and a junior Tiller girl before moving to Paris where she joined the company of L'OpĂ©ra Comique where she met Sarah Bernhardt, danced with Anna Pavlova and danced before Kaiser Wilhelm who presented her with a gold powder box. She became an artists model for Jacob Epstein and a clothes model for Norman Hartnell. She married three times and at least two men reputedly committed suicide because of her, her first husband Frank Amsden and the artist Frederick Atkinson. Norine protested “I am not a heartless vampire,” after her conduct came under criticism at Atkinson’s inquest. Her life ended in straightened circumstances at the age of 40, her last public appearance in public being "fasting in a barrel" at a fun-fair in Tottenham Court Road, a position she took over from Harold Francis Davidson the disgraced vicar of Stiffkey who had been defrocked because of a scandal involving prostitutes (he was, I feel impelled to point out, an Anglican priest, not a catholic one). She died of cancer in St Mary Abbot's Hospital, Marloes Road, Kensington, on 8 August 1934.