Shadows move on the coffins and walls. Above you the glass orbs set into the high ceiling admit a little light into the depths but you prefer the intimate illumination of the flame. It reflects on the brass fittings and the patterns of the nails on the coffin on the shelf beside you. Your loved one now rests eternally in Brompton catacombs as you sit by the head of the coffin in its space or lochulus. Family news, world events: you talk to them as if they were alive with your voice the only sound in the silence. Then you open the book that you have brought with you at the bookmarked page, and then read the next chapter of what was their favourite novel. It’s almost like having your own private mausoleum.
Finally, almost reluctantly, you close the book, after having marked next week’s chapter and pick up the candleholder. As you walk towards the cast iron entrance gates, your footsteps echo behind you and the candle finally goes out as you open them. The sun outside temporarily blinds you as you pull the gate closed and then lock it with your own key. The symbols of eternity and mortality on them remind you of the other world behind. Then you ascend the flight of steps and return into Brompton Cemetery and the noisy world again. You have been ‘communing with the dead’ as our guide, Nick, explained.
Brompton Cemetery isn’t holding an Open Day in 2017 due to the ongoing restoration project but, instead, on 15 July they held catacomb tours. These are not usually open and I haven’t visited these for some time so eagerly took up the opportunity. It was a drizzly day so it was good to be under cover. The catacombs have the most magnificent cast iron doors featuring snakes, downturned torches, an ouroboros and a winged hourglass – all symbols of mortality and eternity. You know that you are entering the realm of the dead once you step inside.
I have visited several catacombs located in large London cemeteries and what has always remained with me is the special and unique atmosphere that each one has: Kensal Green, Highgate, Brompton and the Valhalla that is West Norwood. One of Nunhead’s catacombs has now become the Anglican chapel crypt and is only open on certain days.
Catacombs never became popular in England and most of the coffin spaces available were destined to only have dust as an occupant. These are known as loculi or loculus in the singular. Even Highgate was unable to sell all theirs in the Egyptian Avenue and I would have thought that they would have been snapped up. However, there is reputed to be a cemetery in Cheshunt which is doing a roaring trade in selling them as they have an Italian and Greek community who view catacombs differently.
There is another set of catacombs under Brompton’s western colonnades with an identical set of doors on the other side of the circle but these have remained unused. The other Western catacombs on the boundary side were never used and when reopened were crammed floor to ceiling with spoil which took a year to remove.
We were visiting the Eastern colonnade crypt and a flight of steps led to the iron doors. As Nick said imagine six pallbearers carrying a coffin on their shoulders down them on a wet day. The coffin would have been triple lined: wood, lead, wood so a heavy load indeed. Brompton, unlike other catacombs, such as West Norwood or Kensal Green, didn’t have a chapel above the catacombs with a handy hydraulic catafalque to transport the coffin down into the darkness.
Nick indicated an interment in the first chamber behind the doors. This was sealed in with a plaque and epitaph dedicated to Captain Alexander Louis Ricardo of the Grenadier Guards. For me, it was a reminder of the still unsolved Victorian Charles Bravo murder. Captain Ricardo was Florence Bravo’s first husband who died young from alcoholism in Cologne. I noticed ferns growing from a family vault beneath him and wondered about damp as a perennial problem.
Lit candles had been placed on the coffin shelves to light our way which added to the ambience. Victorians were fascinated with the idea of an afterlife and seances and mediums were big business. Sir William Crookes of the notorious Katie King case is also buried in Brompton. Nick added the Victorians were a heady mix of hardheadiness and sentimentality.
The glass inserts that allowed some light into the catacomb have long gone and been bricked up. Brompton’s original owners, The Westminster and West London Cemetery Company initially offered 4000 loculi for sale but of these only 700 were sold. So if you have a hankering for going underground they still have at least 3300 spaces available. Nick informed us that the last request for a catacomb space was in 1926.
English catacombs were based on the ones in Rome. Cremation was illegal until well into the 19th century so it was either under or over ground burial until then. Catacombs at Brompton were also called upon as a temporary mortuary when necessary. A visitor noticed that one coffin was just under the roof above four other coffins stacked on shelves and asked how the cemetery workers got it up there. Nick indicated the pulley blocks that they could have used to lift it up and manoeuvre it into place. Quite a feat.
Nick indicated the plumber’s diaper mark on the exposed side of one coffin which indicated that he had sealed it properly and there would be no leakages. He also pointed out the wreaths, somewhat desiccated by now, that mourners often left by the coffins, and there was a small elegant urn containing ashes placed on a shelf next to one.
Our visit lasted 30 minutes and we filed out towards the light of the outside world again leaving Brompton’s catacomb’s incumbents to eternally sleep on.
The attractive colonnades of Brompton are above the catacombs and have plaques on their walls. These were to enable friends or other relatives without keys to pay their respects to the deceased at the plaque. These are reputed to be affixed directly above the departed’s place within the chamber.
A word of cautionfor anyone considering visiting a catacomb for the first time: if you feel uncomfortable about seeing coffins, and a lot of people do, then don’t visit or think carefully about it first.
Please note: Photography is not permitted in the Brompton catacombs.
Summer is when you can really appreciate the wild corners and places within cemeteries. Often spaces between tombstones and monuments will be left unmown or unscythed which allows grasses to grow tall. The rapidly expanding bramble stands are good hiding places for foxes to hide in or use to travel between. Already ripe, plump blackberries are dessert for hungry birds and jam makers.
Wildflowers begin to stud the grass and undergrowth with bright dots of colour as they bud and begin to flower under the summer sun’s rays. These create dazzling combinations of colour as they grow together. At Kensal Green one area near the closed catacomb terrace is designated as a meadow. I stood inside it in early July of this year, almost waist high in grass and flowers, surrounded by flitting butterflies and day flying moths, leaping grasshoppers and even a large blue Emperor dragonfly. The latter was a complete surprise. There was even a pair of courting Small White butterflies as well. I just felt so happy to be there with the sun on my face and nature getting on with itself regardless of me.
Ragwort, a bright yellow plant which is rampant at the moment, divides opinion in some quarters. It has been described as a weed and a wildflower. Butterflies love it but it’s poisonous to cattle and horses. I counted 8 Gatekeepers on one Ragwort flower head munching away quite contentedly. The cemeteries that I explored teamed with wildlife and sometimes unusual or uncommon specimens.
I am a Citizen Scientist (not the most catchiest of titles I must admit and it sounds somewhat po-faced)which means that I go about recording wildlife and what I see on my urban ramblings for various websites including irecord and the LondonButterflyProject. Cemeteries are highly recommended by the latter organisation as great places in which to find butterflies and now, I go to a cemetery or graveyard first, in order to do my count.
So here’s a gallery of what you might find on a sunny afternoon wander through a marble orchard.
NB: Be careful and take care if walking through or exploring areas of long grass and wildflowers as monuments can be camouflaged by them. So wear appropriate footwear – not flips-flops – and watch out for kerbstones and the edges of graves so that you don’t trip over them. Also, due to subsidence monuments can also be at odd angles so again take care.
Chiswick Old Burial Ground is a large extension to the old churchyard at St Nicholas, Chiswick, close to the River Thames in west London. The Georgian graves clustered closest to the church (including the grand tomb of the artist William Hogarth) give way to Victorian and more modest headstones, filling a site that’s just under 7 acres in size. Unlike some of London’s larger Victorian cemeteries, most of the memorials here are fairly modest in scale and ornamentation, made from stone or occasionally marble. But one incongrous memorial catches the eye, despite being tucked away near the cemetery’s northern boundary wall: a striking copper tomb turned green by the passing of the years, which marks the burial place of two artists.
This is another less well known symbol but, in my opinion, a very attractive one. I found two examples of a grapevine climbing up a cross during a recent visit to Kensal Green cemetery together with another that only featured grapes as decoration and a fourth which had trailing vine leaves on a Celtic cross. The first two in Kensal Green really make good use of the cross on which they are carved to its fullest advantage with the vines sinuously climbing up the stem and then the leaves almost hanging from the crosspiece. In fact the form of a grapevine almost resembles a cross with the long stems stretching up and then branching out horizontally with the grapes hanging from them. I also found a cross in Brompton Cemetery which had a design of grapes and vine leaves as a border around its edges.
For the source of this symbol we have to go back to the ancient Greeks and the god Dionysus. He was also known to the ancient Romans as Bacchus and both of them are always represented in paintings and sculptures as holding grapes. The latter were often depicted on Greek wine cups in tribute to Dionysus. Both of them were seen as the god of the vine and were associated with wine-making, celebration and ecstasy. Dionysus was also associated with rebirth in that, after his dismemberment by the Titans, he came back to life in an echo of the winter pruning of grapevines so they may bear fruit again during the next year. He was unique in that he could bring a dead person back from the underworld.
As you may imagine, the early Christians adopted the less bacchanalian side of Dionysus and Bacchus. There are many similarities between Dionysus and Jesus in that both were supposed to have been born from a mortal woman but fathered by a god, to have returned from the dead and to have transformed water into wine. The early Christians took the latter and transformed it into a miracle. They also used the powerful symbol of the grapevine with Christ calling himself ‘the vine.’ In John 15:5 there is the famous quotation:
‘I am the vine and you are the branches. If a man is in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.’
In fact a vine and its branches are traditionally seen as depicting Christ and his followers, the Church and its faithful. He also uses the analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven as being similar to that of a manager hiring workers for his vineyard. The grapevine was also adopted by the ancient Roman Christian converts and appears on their graves and in their mosaics.
Grapes are an abundant crop and are one of the earliest cultivated crops known to us. It bears fruit for the harvest and so is associated with celebration and good times. The artofmourning website has suggested that there is also an element of birth/rebirth with the representation of the grapes and also a connection with victory.
‘The ripe harvest shows the promise of the fruits rewards being reaped and turned into the production of sustenance for the future.’
An interesting theory within the context of a funerary symbol as it hints at resurrection. There is also the theme of sacrifice. Wine, which comes from the grape, has always traditionally been seen as representing the blood of Christ and this is particularly symbolic during the service of Holy Communion within the Catholic church. Also, during the Last Supper, Christ gave wine to his disciples and told them to drink it in remembrance of him.
But what does this age-old symbol mean within a Victorian London cemetery? As I see it, it can be a representation of the deceased becoming part of an eternal vineyard i.e. the Kingdom of Heaven or that their earthly lives were full of abundance and achievement. But it can also be a motif of resurrection in that the grapes are crushed underfoot to be reborn as wine and this would be highly appropriate for use within a cemetery. In fact I’m surprised that it doesn’t appear more often as it is very eye-catching amongst more restrained classical symbols especially when combined with a cross.
These two fine examples come from Kensal Green cemetery and demonstrate how well a grapevine translates onto a cross. Note the three letters in the centre of the Cross which are IHS combined together. This is a Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ, Man and Saviour which is ‘Iesus Honinum Salvator’ which translates as ‘Jesus the Saviour of Man’.
The first is to Frederick Salmon and the other to George Gordon Moir. I haven’t been able to find out anything on Moir but research is ongoing. However, he obviously liked Salmon’s cross and embellishment as his is identical.
But Frederick Salmon (1796 – 1859) was a renowned and pioneering surgeon and he has a fascinating story to tell.
Salmon was a restless Victorian medical man out to make his mark and improve the lives of his fellow citizens. In many ways he was a maverick destined to rebel against and work outside the medical establishment of the time. As you can see from his epitaph he founded St Mark’s Hospital which is still in existence, based in Harrow and is part of the St Bart’s and the London NHS Trust.
He was born in Bath in 1796 and, at 15, was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary. Somewhere along the line he met William White, one of the earliest surgeons to write on rectal disease. Salmon always credited White with the direction in which his own career went which was in the field of proctology.
However, the medical establishment frustrated Salmon. Training depended on money and influence as posts had to be bought and so were often earmarked for friends and relations of surgeons and physicians. In 1817 he paid £8.15s.0d to become a house surgeon at St Barts and then rose to a surgeon’s post. He also wrote a book on intestinal disease in 1828 which ran to four editions. But Salmon became part of a medical scandal when, in 1833 aged 37, he resigned with other staff members from the General Dispensary in protest. They were angry at the plans of the hospital governors to revert to a system in which posts were up for sale to those who could afford to pay. The Lancet declared in the same year that the practice was ‘one of money, of favour and of family interest.’ Salmon was now a free man and obviously one of considerable charisma and talent. He founded St Mark’s in 1835 with the City of London providing much of the finance. It was in one room with seven beds and 2 other staff members at 11 Aldersgate Street in the City. A plaque still marks its location. It had the less than catchy name of St Mark’s Infirmary for the Relief of the Poor afflicted with Fistula and other diseases of the Rectum. But it soon acquired a nickname: The Fistula Infirmary. Despite several moves and expansions of premises St Mark’s remained in the City until 1995 when it moved to its present location.
From the beginning St Mark’s filled a desperate need for London’s poor to be able to access treatment. Salmon was not only able to attract significant funding but also wealthy patrons and supporters. Sir William Copeland, Lord Mayor of London, was a grateful patient who became St Mark’s first President and Charles Dickens presented several autographed copies of his latest book, The Pickwick Papers, and 10 guineas in gratitude. This was after having undergone a rectal operation without anaesthetics. Salmon was reputed to have performed 3500 operations without a single fatality which was an incredible achievement at a time when antiseptics were unknown and anaesthetics were only just coming into use.
Salmon retired, due to ill health, in 1859 and died at Ombersley near Droitwich on 3 January 1868 aged 72. St Mark’s was his lasting legacy and there is a ward named after him. Today the hospital is one of only 14 worldwide hospitals to be recognised as a centre of excellence by the Worldwide Organisation of Digestive Endoscopy.
Salmon was a vine that bore fruit as did John Edward Taylor (1830-1905)
Mr Taylor’s magnificent Art Nouveau style monument is tucked away on a lower path in Kensal Green Cemetery. It dwarves the far more recent surrounding graves and headstones. Such unashamedly Art Nouveau memorials are rare within cemeteries. There’s one in Streatham cemetery, a lovely gem in West Norwood, another in Hendon and there are undoubtedly others scattered across London.
Here the grapes are carved on the left hand side sidepiece flanking the main memorial. These reflect the Art Nouveau love of natural forms and structures. The movement used the curving, organic lines taken from plants and flowers. But, by the time Mr Taylor’s widow Martha died in 1912, Art Nouveau was about to be replaced by the angular lines of Art Deco.
Taylor was another restless Victorian man who was involved in many areas. He was the second son of John Edward Taylor senior who founded the Manchester Guardian in 1821 backed by a group of local liberals known as The Little Circle. They had successfully lobbied for parliamentary reform in the era of rotten boroughs and as a result of their efforts Parliament passed the Reform Act of 1832. Taylor senior witnessed the Peterloo massacre in 1819 but been unimpressed by its leaders. The Manchester Guardian is still in business but now renamed the Guardian and Taylor edited it until his death at the early age of 52.
After the death of his older brother, Russell, in 1848 Edward became co-owner and then sole owner of his father’s paper in 1856. He also edited it from 1861-1872. Newspaper ink was in his blood and he also became owner and then co-owner of the Manchester Evening News until his death. He was also a philanthropist and believed in education which led him to become a trustee of Manchester College from 1854 until his death. He founded the Manchester Aid Society in 1863, advocated temperance and free trade and was also involved in the British and Foreign Bible Society. On top of this he was also a director of the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway Company.
Taylor remained a lifelong liberal and in 1895 he refused a baronetcy offered to him by Lord Rosebery. But he was also known as a great art collector and a generous one. He often lent out some of his collection to local exhibitions in Manchester or at Burlington House. After his death, Christie’s held a sale of his collection over 12 days and achieved record prices for the time. Taylor lived in London after his marriage in 1861 to Martha Elizabeth, the sorrowing wife, recorded on the monument. The newspapers passed to other members of the extended family.
This is less ornate and, instead, features vine leaves cascading on a Celtic cross with again the very ornate combined letters of IHS in the centre of the cross, or the nimbus, with a dedication below to Matilda Morris who died on 10 December 1881. Again I haven’t been able to find out anything about her but research is ongoing.
This is an example from Brompton Cemetery and here the grapevine and leaves form an intricate pattern around the cross. I may not be able to read the epitaph on the flat slab beneath until the winter die-off.
Of course the use of the grape and vine might just indicate that they liked a drink or two……but that’s something that we will never know…
Yes shadowsflyaway is two years old this month! I’ll just blow out the candles on the birthday cake…
When I started shadowsflyaway in July 2015 I had no idea if anyone would read it although I invited a few like-minded people to view it. But sometimes putting something out into cyberspace with no idea of who, or if anyone, is going to look at it can be very liberating.
But some of my readers and followers have been with me from the start so thank you for staying with me and the blog.
And also welcome to my new followers and readers – it’s great to have you on board!
I really enjoy writing and researching shadowsflyaway as well as taking the photos to accompany the posts. I never know where the research might take me from a simple symbol to an unsolved Victorian murder. I know that Symbol of the Month is very popular and there’s many more out there for me to write about and discover. As a tour guide leading a recent Symbols tour within Brompton Cemetery it was a privilege to share my passion with other enthusiastic people face to face.
Shadowsflyaway started out to support my proposed book on symbols which is still an ongoing project. But the blog has taken on a life of its own and has also encompassed other aspects of cemeteries such as wildlife etc.
So raise your glasses,mugs or cups and let’s drink a toast to you for your support and to the next year of shadowsflyaway……now let me take you by the hand and we’ll explore that shadowy, overgrown part of the local cemetery as I’m sure there’s an interesting symbol under all that undergrowth……trust me I know these things.
Once Spring has sprung it brings with it the start of the Cemetery Open Day season. What better way to spend your time on a sunny day than out in a cemetery?
In London, with the Magnificent 7, it kicks off with Nunhead’s cross between a village fete and a knees-up followed by Brompton, Kensal Green and Tower Hamlets.
However, the Open Days are not, as you might be thinking, an opportunity for cemetery volunteers to measure you up for an eternal des res . But, instead, they’re a good opportunity to wander round and explore. Now you have an excuse to visit that cemetery that you’ve always been meaning to go and have a look round but were worried that you weren’t quite Goth enough.. , There will be undoubtedly be a nice cuppa on offer, the opportunity to go on a tour or just admire the scenery. Each cemetery has its own unique atmosphere and little gems to discover .
Sadly neither Brompton or Kensal Green are holding Open Days in 2017 (boo!) but it’s not only the Magnificent 7 that have them. In 2013 I attended the Friends of Streatham Cemetery’s Open day. Unfortunately for them it rained all day. But there was a newly reopened derelict chapel to explore, interesting angels to see and some excellent refreshments. In the 1990’s Brookwood Cemetery near Woking held an Open Day at which Highgate sold chocolate covered marzipan coffins shaped biscuits on their stall – well worth the trip alone.
So why not support your local cemetery and go and have a look round when you see the Open Day posters on display. . You never know, you might find a long lost relative in the undergrowth or a lovely piece of cake in the refreshments section.
This is a slightly revised article I wrote for the Friends of Kensal Green’s magazine, Th e Telemon, on my fond memories of previous Kensal Green Open Days.
‘Only 50p.’ said the earnest young Goth at the entrance gate as he offered me a small red plastic coffin. Inside was a pastel coloured candy skeleton in pieces. How could I resist such a bargain?
This souvenir was offered at one of the first Kensal Green Open Days that I attended in the mid 1990’s. I was a little overawed by the cemetery at first as I walked along the main avenue, past the Casement Turks, the four angels and the Princess Sophia’s bathtub – sorry I mean sarcophagus. Kensal Green felt like a huge film set as the avenue swept up to the dramatic Anglican chapel and colonnades. In the courtyard behind the chapel was a flock of glamorous Goths roosting like exotic birds of paradise. In contrast, there were waiters bustling about serving strawberries. I felt that they set the tone but, alas, although the Goths are still visible, the waiters are not.
However, each Open Day has had its own highlights and special memories; a man in period costume enthusiastically riding a penny farthing bicycle around the chapel, Goths peering out from colonnade columns or posing over in the terraces and atmospheric tours of the catacombs, now sadly closed for restoration. The ebony clad throng may have decreased over the years and Medusa, as Aspasia Broome’s heavenward gazing figure was known, has lost her crown of dead tree branches but the Open Day is a permanent fixture in the London cemetery calendar.
One of the most memorable was in 2013 when I encountered this exotic creature in the doorway of an Egyptian influenced mausoleum as I made my way up the main avenue. I assumed that he was wearing a mask but I never saw him take it off so who knows….There was also a wonderful display of vintage cars that year which drove around the cemetery in a stately parade. An old-fashioned pick-up truck announced itself as ‘The Final Cruise’ and carried a black coffin in the back. Several appeared to date from the ‘60’s and came from the USA. Others had been decorated with skulls and signs. It was an impressive sight to see so many in one place.
In fact, the cemetery has been used for filming. My younger sister used to live in the Harrow Road opposite the cemetery and often saw film crews inside in the early morning mists. So it was a real treat when, in 2014, Peter Fuller led the Theatre of Blood tour. I couldn’t miss this one as it’s one of my favourite films. A much loved 1970’s camp horror and film classic with its tongue firmly in its cheek, it told the story of the Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart who apparently commits suicide after receiving bad reviews. If every actor di that we wouldn’t have many left. The much missed Vincent Price played Edward with his customary joie de vivre, sinister air and obvious enjoyment.
But he’s isn’t really dead and exacts an inventive and gruesome revenge on his critics with his devoted daughter, Edwina, played by Diana Rigg. The deaths all have a Shakespearean theme and several key scenes were actually filmed in the cemetery. Peter led us round some of them. We were a motley crew of Goths, film fans and Theatre of Blood devotees as we sat on the chapel steps and read the Shakespearean quotes used in the film. We looked down along the main avenue where one of the critics had been dragged by a horse, the colonnades where Carol Browne and Ian Hendry, two of the film’s stars, had chatted and the Sievier monument where Diana Rigg had mourned her father. Peter related several anecdotes about the film and revealed that it was on this film that Coral and Vincent’s love affair began which eventually led to the breakup of his marriage. They married after his divorce and then entered their ‘kaftan period’. This sounded too horrible for words and I had to go and have a restorative cup of tea.
On one Open Day I was leaving after a lovely day exploring and discovering the shrouded angel on the Gardner memorial only to find that the Ladbroke Grove entrance was locked and closed. I immediately turned around and headed for the West entrance which I hoped was still open. As I hurtled along, a middle aged Goth couple were also heading in the same direction. The male Goth said enthusiastically to his partner ‘If we’re locked in do you fancy sleeping in a mausoleum?’ She replied emphatically, ‘No.’ and quickened her pace. I felt a little disappointed as they had plenty of choice and a mausoleum motel did sound appealing.
Sadly there isn’t an Open Day in 2017 but I still have my little plastic coffin as a memento. Whenever I look at it I remember young girls in Victorian costume, the gleam of a chrome skull on a radiator grille and the best 50p I’ve ever spent.