As part of its major restoration project , Brompton Cemetery held a short series of free walks around the cemetery last month to discuss future plans. I joined one which was led by Nigel Thorne, Project Manager and Halima Khanom, Partnership and Community Engagement Officer for the Royal Parks..
The weather had been dull and overcast all day but, as we gathered at the South entrance project office, blue sky suddenly burst through the clouds and it became a lovely golden summer evening bathing the chapel and monuments in a soft glow. A relief really as we were out in the open throughout. Nigel was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable and began by revealing that Brompton had received an impressive grant of £6.2 of which £4.2 had come from the Heritage Lottery Fund (your £1 lottery ticket does something useful after all even if it doesn’t make you a millionaire) and the rest had come from Parks for People.
He added that he saw cemeteries as another form of public space which I’d not previously considered and an aspect that maybe isn’t emphasised enough. Brompton is already well used as a cut through with joggers much in evidence and people on the edge of the group huddled in so as not to be entangled with cyclists.
This was to be updated. Apparently it hadn’t existed when Brompton had opened and had been just been land owned by British Gas. The ex -assistant cemetery manager’s accommodation and the Friends base was now the Project Office.
Almost opposite was a bijou sized building which had been, of all things, a police box dating from when the Royal Parks had had their own police force. It was now hiding behind a temporary fence.
Nigel stopped by the Robert Coombes monument. This is dedicated to a champion sculler and the upturned boat on top of it with his waterman’s coat draped across it had once had a set of oars attached. These were now long gone and so, sadly, were the heads of the four statues, one at each corner. Cemetery vandals always seem to go for the heads of statues.
Nigel revealed that this monument was to be restored at a cost of around £40k. However, although the HLF grant included £140k for monument restoration, a substantial legacy would instead pay for Mr Coombes. We noticed that there was a tabletop grave very near to Coombes which was being propped up by blocks of wood.
Chapel – mysteries and surprises:
Nigel almost shuddered as he related stories of the horrors of 1970’s restoration. ‘They would have been better off leaving it alone!’ he said with feeling. There is a gap between the inner and outer dome which is accessible but a tight squeeze apparently. A good opportunity I thought , to explore and record areas not normally accessible. It’s envisaged that the Chapel will be open more often once restoration is complete and visitors to a recent art exhibition were very pleased to have an additional opportunity to go inside.
There would be a disabled visitors’ ramp at the chapel entrance to increase access.
Nigel pointed up at the crumbling Bath Stone visible along the top of the East wing’s roof. ‘Very soft.’ he explained.
Two huge basements had been found under each of the East and West wings. The latter was originally the cemetery supervisor’s office. But there was a surprised in the West wing as there were no stairs making it inaccessible.
Another secret had been discovered when investigating the floor. It had always been assumed that it had been made from poured concrete but this was revealed to actually be lino. When that was taken up there was a lovely flagstone floor in a radial pattern – something to see when the chapel is reopened.
Nigel indicated where Brompton’s original owners had run out of money and the lonely cupola above a colonnade marked the spot.
The Western catacombs:
These were never used as catacombs but they form part of the boundary walls facing onto the rail and tube line. A gated and blocked entrance at either end still remains with a far grander one in the centre. Originally it had a promenade over the top on which visitors could walk and admire the fields and canal on the other side but these are obviously long gone. Parts of the promenade still remain but I wouldn’t fancy walking on it now. Some of the wall is now supported by buttresses and one end of the catacombs is now in the new Horticultural team’s area.
When opened the catacombs were found to full of spoil which took a year to dig out. This had to be done as it was pushing out the wall that faced onto the railway line.
Improved paths and access
Nigel told us that all of Brompton’s current paths are made of tarmac. This leads to a uniformity of paths that can be confusing for a visually impaired visitor. As a result, one blind woman had no idea where she was in Brompton. It was now hoped to have a hierarchy of paths to counteract this.
We paused by a rampant area of long grass and wildflowers (or weeds depending on your point of view). Nigel commented that the area needed a tidy up and that grave owners in the area had been given Brompton’s policy and their obligations at the time of burial – no vertical tombstones or planting.
A perennial problem was the planting of small trees and shrubs on graves which are now huge. According to Nigel they reduce light and space as well as damaging and obscuring memorials and monuments. He indicated a somewhat spindly rose bush which looked very untended.
A huge laurel plant had had its lower branches lopped but regrowth had already started. There was a monument just underneath it which we could hardly see. I found others examples such as the Mary King grave by the chapel.
There’s a debate between those who like cemetery to look messy to encourage wildlife and those who don’t. I personally like wild areas to encourage this as Brompton is known for its large crow population and I’ve disturbed the odd sunbathing fox. The large bramble stands, in Nigel’s opinion, were of benefit only to the foxes as hiding places.
Garden of Remembrance:
The tall hedges surrounding it are to be reduced in size as they encourage anti-social behaviour. Visitors can buy a 1m memorial tablet under which up to 4 urns can be buried.
Visitors café and centre:
Work on the visitors centre and café is well on schedule – I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the speed at which they are being built. Nigel added that the café was intended to be a social enterprise and not another outpost of one of the chains. It would be staffed by local people and use local produce (blackberry jam anyone?). The visitors centre opposite had all sorts of exciting plans such as allowing visitors access to Brompton’s records of the 200k people buried within it.
A fascinating walk – our thanks to Nigel and Halima – which covered not only Brompton’s ambitious restoration plans but also some of the problems of cemetery maintenance and restoration.
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.
My local allotments are very popular and there’s always half a dozen people working away and getting their hands dirty. They’re watched closely by birds looking for worms in the dug over soil before swooping down for their meal. In summer the allotments burst forth with vegetables: lines of runner beans, rows of cabbages , lettuces and flowers and the occasional fox can be seen strolling through at dusk.
But, if you walk up the slope towards the chain link fence that divides the allotments from the park, you’ll come to a large stone plinth at the top. It nestles amongst the trees that have grown up around it. On one end there is a sculpted swag containing roses for remembrance so it once had a farh more illustrious past. I first saw the plinth from the other side of the fence while on the Kelsey park Woodland Trail looking for fungi to photograph. I wondered what it was. It was far too grand to be an allotment user’s display or flower pot stand. Maybe a small statue had been on top and had since disappeared as the empty pedestal was now in no man’s land. The plinth has also puzzled and intrigued the casual passer-by, dog walker and jogger as they go past. The local legend was that it marked the burial site of a horse which belonged to ‘one of the Burrell girls.’
But it wasn’t until I started researching this article that I managed to source a contemporary engraving of the plinth dating from the 1790’s which was entitled ‘Patch’s tomb’ that I had any evidence for the story. At last I had a name for the incumbent. It looks very grand in the picture with an elegant urn on top which is being admired by a fashionably dressed gentleman with an equally well dressed couple nearby. The perspective looks a little strange as the tomb looks larger than the onlookers. This was a serious monument both in cost and the determination to remember Patch. The location, on a small slope, was no idle choice and can be seen from the lakeside path 150 yards away below if you know where to look. Trees and vegetation have grown up on the small hill obscuring the tomb so it’s much easier to see during the winter die-off.
The Burrells were a prominent, land-owning family in Beckenham during the 16th -19th centuries and some of their descendants are still in the area. They have left a fine collection of monuments in the local church, St George’s.
The Burrells were also connected with Kelsey Park in Beckenham in that the site once formed part of Peter Burrell III’s 600 acre estate and it was a Burrell who built the first manor house there. Confusingly, there were four Peter Burrells and, after exploring their various family lineage, I decided that one of Peter Burrell III’s four daughters was probably the most likely owner of Patch. He also had a son who, strangely enough, became Peter Burrell IV but more of him later. The third Peter Burrell (27/08/1724 – 06/11/1775) was a politician and barrister and in 1748 he married Elizabeth Lewis, daughter of John Lewis of Hackney. There seem to be no pictures of him in existence and, instead, photos of Paul Burrell, Princess Diana’s ex-butler popped up!
Peter Burrell III was called to the bar in 1749, became MP for Launceston in Cornwall 1759-1768 and then MP for Totnes in Devon from 1774 – 1752. In 1769 Burrell was then appointed the Surveyor General of the Land Revenues of the Crown. So he was an ambitious man with considerable connections and wealth. He was also involved with other prominent local land-owning families in Beckenham such as the Cators after whom Cator Park is named. Burrell’s estate in Beckenham is now buried under roads and desirable detached houses with large gardens. But there is a local road called Burrell Row after the family. Peter Burrell I purchased the first Kelsey Park House and estate in 1690. It was extended several times as can be seen in the 1790 watercolour and then became incorporated into the far grander, rambling Victorian Scottish baronial style mansion which replaced it. The original house was a square, modest house which had several later additions.
The four daughters were:
Elizabeth Amelia (1749-1837) – married a gentleman from Cambridgeshire. Richard Henry Alexander Bennett
Isabella Susanna (1750 – 1812) – married Algernon Percy, Ist Earl of Beverley, ancestor to the Dukes of Northumberland
Frances Juliana (1752 – 1820) – In 1779 she married Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland
Elizabeth Anne (1757 – 1837) – She married twice – firstly to Douglas Hamilton, 8th Duke of Hamilton and then secondly, to Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter.
Marriages at that time were rarely for love but mainly for the joining of great houses, the exchange of land and also heirs. Frances had eleven children and Isabella had seven who all went onto more illustrious marriages and careers.
The Burrell girls seem to have been the ‘It’ girls of their day with their brilliant marriages into the aristocracy. Peter Burrell IV, the son, achieved even more dizzying heights as he became the Lord Chamberlain of England and the 1st Baron Gwydir of Gwydir Castle.
But it’s the eldest one, Elizabeth Amelia, who may have been Patch’s owner. Peter Burrell III built a house for her on his Kelsey estate where she lived with her husband, Richard Bennett. He was the MP for Newport from 1770-1774 but didn’t seem to have the same illustrious career as his father-in-law and the notes on his political career are brief. Elizabeth would have seen Patch’s last resting place from the house every day of her life as a reminder. I haven’t been able to find a picture of Elizabeth as it would have been interesting to see what she looked like. There’s no clue on the contemporary engraving as to the architect of the tomb and I wondered if Burrell paid for it or did Elizabeth?
So was Patch a young girl’s pet or a teenager’s source of freedom? We’ll never know and I was unable to source any pictures of Patch. It may seem strange to us to lavish such attention and money on a horse’s memorial. But in those days a horse almost certainly gave its owner a certain amount of freedom and independence. An earlier form of horsepower and being a good horsewoman at the time was a major attribute.
I like to think that, maybe when Kelsey Park’s closed and the lights have all gone out in the surrounding houses and apartment blocks, a spectral galloping can be heard. A passing badger or fox may prick up their ears at the sound as a young girl shouts ‘Hi, ho Patch and awaaay!’
I was looking for butterflies, the Marbled White to be exact, on a side path in Brompton Cemetery when I found this memorial. Should I rub one of the Aladdin style lamps and see if a genie appeared to grant me three wishes? I was intrigued as to why they were on the stone and so began my research for this month’s symbol – The Lamp.
The grave is that of Marie Cordelia Winfield who died young at the age of 19. There is another family member commemorated on the headstone who is called James Alfred Winfield. But it’s very lowdown on the stone and the encroaching summer vegetation obscured it making it difficult to read.
Lamps are an unusual symbol to see in a cemetery but Light as a motif in itself has been used in many forms. Often it’s represented by the eternal flame or a downturned/ upturned torch but lamps are rare. Obviously now I’ve said that, I’ll see lamps in every cemetery on every tombstone but so far it’s just been this one.
The Winfield lamps appear to be oil lamps and these have been used as illumination for thousands of years. In Arabian folklore a genie’s lamp contained a magical spirit known as a djinn or genie. This mythical being could help or hinder those who were brave enough to rub the lamp as in the story of Aladdin.
In this story the lamp was seen as a gateway to another world of mystery and other gods. The symbol of the lamp was later adopted by Christianity as many pagan motifs were and it came to symbolise Jesus as the ‘light of the world’. There is a famous passage in the New Testament in Matthew 25:1-13 of the parable of the 10 virgins:
‘Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.
King James version
There are several other references to lamps in Matthew 6:22-23, Revelation 22:5 and also John 5:35 in which John the Baptist is described as
‘he was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.’
And let’s not forget God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. There is also a famous quotation from Psalms 119:105:
‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’
The lamp as a representation of God and faith appears in other religions including the Jewish Feast of Dedication or Festival of Lights and also Diwali which is the Hindu Festival of Lights. Judaism sees lamps as a way of lighting the way for the righteous and the wise. This is represented by the seven branched ritual Jewish oil lamp which is known as a menorah. Lamps are also an integral part of the Orthodox and other Eastern Catholic churches as they are used on the Holy Table or altar and also to illuminate icons. In Chinese religions an oil lamp is always lit at traditional Chinese shrines before either an image of a deity or a plaque in classical Chinese characters with the name of the deity. Lamps also feature in the Koran. There is also a strong element of self-sacrifice associated with the lamp as it consumes itself in order to bring light to the world.
There is long tradition of lamps representing purity and virginity as well as love. So it’s highly appropriate for the Winfield tombstone which is dedicated to a young girl. When I looked more closely at the Winfield memorial I noticed that both of the lamps were pointing towards the cross in the centre with what I presumed were the rays of the sun coming from behind it almost like a halo. The lamps are obviously lit as fumes are coming from their spouts and, to me, they seemed to be illuminating the way through eternal darkness towards the light of a new life. I thought that it would have been comforting to those left behind to mourn the loss of a daughter who had been taken too soon. As the epitaph says:
‘Greatly loved and sadly missed.’
However, as I explored further in Brompton I noticed actual lamps placed on top of graves or alongside them. These were mainly on the graves of Polish people.
In Poland, there is a long tradition of lighting lamps and candles on their All Saints’ Day which is held on November 1st each year. This is the day before the Christian festival of All Souls Day which is traditionally held on November 2nd. I visited Brompton Cemetery on November 1st 2015 and witnessed the local Polish community’s celebration of All Saints with lit tea candles and lamps on top of Polish and non-Polish graves alike. The lights were again being used as a way to help the souls of the departed on their way and so the tradition continues.
On a recent visit to Brompton Cemetery to research animals on memorials my companion and I decided to explore a side path to find examples. On a corner where it met another side path we suddenly saw a very large gathering of crows perched on various tombstones, graves and memorials. There were so many that passers-by were stopping to look and take photos. My photo doesn’t do the scene justice as I couldn’t fit all the crows that were actually there in the picture.
Brompton’s crows have always been known for their photogenic and obliging qualities by posing on a nearby tombstone in suitably Gothic fashion but I’ve never seen that many gathered together in one place.
A group of crows is known as ‘a murder of crows’ and it only takes 2 crows to make one of these.
The phrase however, appears to date from the late Middle Ages and comes from the Book of Saint Albans or The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms, which was published in 1486. This is a compendium of items for gentlemen of the time and had an appendix which consisted of a large list of collective nouns for animals. These were known as ‘company terms’ or the’ terms of hunting’. These include familiar ones such as ‘a gaggle of geese’ amongst other colourful and poetic names such as ‘a skulk of foxes’ or ‘an ostentation of peacocks’. There were also collective nouns for various professions such as ‘a melody of harpers’ etc. The ones that have survived to this day derive from this book include ‘a subtlety of sergeants’ and also ‘a murder of crows’. A crow gathering has often been the subject of folk tales and superstition and amongst these is the claim that crows will gather and decide the fate of another crow.
There are also other traditions, which considering that this was happening within a large London cemetery, are worth quoting ,
‘Many view the appearance of crows as an omen of death because ravens and crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies, battlefields, and cemeteries, and they’re thought to circle in large numbers above sites where animals or people are expected to soon die.’
Romain Bouchard, Etymology nerd
However, there are birdwatchers who insist that a group of crows should be known as a flock of crows and not a ‘murder’ so the jury’s out on that term.
A Facebook friend identified some of the crows as juveniles by the white patches on their breasts who may have just left the nest and are with their parents. The adults will defend their youngsters very aggressively. Crows are very social, live in tight knit families and they mate for life. They can roost in huge numbers of up to 1000+ as protection from other predators. Crows are also highly intelligent and have a repertoire of at least 250 different calls. A distress call will bring other crows to their aid as crows will defend other unrelated crows. A crow’s black plumage have led to them being associated with death and they are members of the Corvidae family which includes magpies and ravens. They are predators and scavengers and will eat virtually anything including roadkill, snakes, mice, eggs and nestlings of other birds amongst other delicacies. I often see crows inspecting the contents of large waste bins at supermarkets or communal litter bins and have seen them take young ducklings in a flash.
A couple of minutes after I took this photo the entire gathering took flight and scattered and I felt very privileged to have seen it at all.