Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
Established in 1840, Brompton Cemetery is one of the more notable Victorian burial grounds in the city of London. While this garden cemetery is a popular destination with those in search of rest or tranquil contemplation, Brompton is also a notable necropolis, home to almost quarter of a million corpses: spread from the catacombs below, up to the many thousands of monumented graves which line its tree-shaded avenues.
The Magnificent Seven
Brompton Cemetery is a member of the ‘Magnificent Seven’: a series of grand cemeteries that were opened across London in the nineteenth century.
Over the first half of that century London’s population more than doubled, reaching a total of 2.3 million people by 1850. As a result, the capital’s burial sites were full to bursting. There are stories of the dead being buried in gardens, beneath buildings, or bodies cast into the city’s open sewers; the threat of disease was the highest it had been since the Great Plague.
London was crying out for a more respectful system of catering to the deceased, as well as alleviating the obvious health concerns. Besides, real estate prices in the capital were reaching previously unimagined heights – and there was pressure to relocate the dead to make way for new developments.
The first of the city’s relief cemeteries was opened in 1832 by a bill of parliament: the Kensal Green Cemetery.
Another six would follow, forming a ring of new burial grounds around the outskirts of Greater London. West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park and Nunhead; Brompton Cemetery was opened in 1840, to be followed the next year by Tower Hamlets Cemetery.
It wasn’t until much later that these ornate Victorian burial grounds would become known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’. The term was first applied by historian Hugh Meller in his 1981 work, London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer; a reference to the 1960 Western of the same name .
The Brompton Cemetery
Since 1840, Brompton Cemetery has seen more than 205,000 burials. The 39-acre site features a wide variety of tombs and graves, mausolea, over 35,000 monuments and a columbarium for the safekeeping of crematorial urns.
Passing beneath the stone arch of the main north gate, a long thoroughfare bisects the cemetery; extending as far as the domed basilica in the south. Passing through the cemetery gates I lost myself immediately, stepping back from the current of joggers and dog walkers to wander slowly between the silent rows.
The cemetery’s hidden paths and shaded groves are overgrown, ruinous. The tombs have been heavily worn by the years, some of them subsided, others simply falling apart. Angels and cherubs look down from their high plinths missing arms, wings or noses.
Rather than exude an air of neglect however, there’s a delicious quality of romantic decay to be enjoyed at Brompton; green vines and creepers tie one monument to the next, while meadow flowers erupt in wide swathes across the burial plots.
The cemetery was designed by architect Benjamin Baud, who arranged this narrow necropolis in the fashion of a cathedral. The ‘nave’ runs from the entrance on Old Brompton Road to the cemetery’s heart: a domed chapel inspired in part by St Peter’s basilica in Rome. The chapel, itself built in 1939, is approached by pillared colonnades built upon row after row of catacombs.
Brompton is a highly photogenic cemetery, and has made numerous appearances on the silver screen; featuring in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and so on.
Brompton Cemetery was also a favourite haunt of Beatrix Potter. She had lived nearby, and would often wander through the cemetery in search of inspiration for her books. Amongst the list of those interred at Brompton, one can find the names Nutkins, McGregor, Brock and Tod; as well as Peter Rabbett and Jeremiah Fisher.
Scattered about lie a curious collection of symbols, and the associated icons of a variety of ideologies. Many of Brompton’s tombs are topped with obelisks, the ancient solar symbol which appeared so frequently on Hawksmoor’s churches. Other graves are warded with crosses, death’s heads, angels or urns; the draped urn in particular features often, a popular funerary symbol representing the veil between worlds drawn closed to sever the ashes from the soul.
It’s easy to lose oneself in Brompton. Time crawls sluggishly by, and I didn’t need to stray far from the main concourse before I lost sight of other visitors – alone with the pigeons, squirrels and ravens.
In time I reached the colonnades, approaching though the eastern entrance. There was a wonderful – and perhaps surprising – sense of community here, a stark juxtaposition amidst the legions of the dead; all around the sandstone cloisters were people reading books, eating lunches or sprawled in seeming states of meditation.
Here and there stone steps descended to a lower level; the catacombs of Brompton.
These ill-fated catacombs were originally provided as a cheaper alternative to burial at Brompton… although of the thousands of spaces which were made available, only around 500 were ever sold.
I followed one set of steps down to the gate below, an iron portal held shut with a heavy chain. The chain hung loose on its fixtures, and when I pushed against the gates they opened, a little, just enough for me to peer into the gloom.
The musty catacomb was lined with row upon wooden row of shelves, some sagging from their years stacked high with rotten coffins.
The sun was beginning to set by the time I left the necropolis, and I pondered on the number of lives – and deaths – this place had touched.
One part of the cemetery is dedicated to military graves, and in total Brompton sleeps 289 Commonwealth soldiers of WWI; another 79 checked in after WWII. The Sioux chief Long Wolf was buried here, taken ill in 1892 while travelling Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Within the necropolis reside politicians, explorers, actors and scholars; archbishops, authors and athletes.
Brompton Cemetery continues to grow, even now. Although officially closed to burials in 1952, it reopened in 1996 as a working cemetery – with fresh plots for interment, as well as a ‘Garden of Remembrance’ for the scattering of ashes. More than 205,000 people have been buried here over the years; 205,000 different stories, crisscrossing over time, across continents, influencing countless other threads along the way only to wind up tethered to a monument in South West London.
With a little imagination, this city of the dead is transformed into a library of lives.
 Itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 cinema classic, Seven Samurai.
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