Aerial view of Brompton cemetery.

Aerial view of Brompton cemetery.

Memorials at Brompton cemetery.
The main avenue at Brompton cemetery.
The Italian boy on Barbe’s grave at Brompton. (Credit: Greywolf)
Arkady Rzegocki, ex-Polish ambassador to UK, commemorating Polish graves at Brompton

Gothic, classical, pre-Raphaelite, Brompton cemetery in west London, one of the capital’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries that is set in the shadows of Chelsea FC’s stadium and a short stroll from Earl’s Court, has it all in terms of vistas, incredible stories and living legacies of human endeavour in the arts, commerce, politics, medicine, science, sport and military service.

Brompton is literally brimming with stories, as I found out the other day when I ventured down to this corner of west London, which incredible as it now seems was open countryside as the capital grew in the 1830s and 1840’s - with it taking a horse ride to reach The City of London.

Now it was Oscar Wilde who wrote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” (from Lady Windermere’s fan). And, though Wilde is not buried at Brompton - but in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris - his controversial memorial by the British-American sculptor Joseph Epstein would not be far out of place here among architecture and native flora.

Brompton according to Edward Walford, a magazine publisher perhaps best known for his six volumes of ‘Old and New London’ (1878) “was till lately a hamlet to the parish of Kensington…situated on the north side of Little Chelsea, and the west of Sloane Street. It has long been celebrated for its soft air, and for its nurseries and flower gardens.”

Walford’s comments were written some thirty years after the cemetery was opened. The idea of creating a new ‘garden’ cemetery in Brompton was conceived in the 1830s but it opened in 1840, after construction had been authorised by an Act of Parliament (incidentally one of the Acts approved by the newly crowned Queen Victoria.

Like many things - the concept itself was the easy part, but buying the land was much harder. The design by Benjamin Baud, who was involved in the construction of Windsor Castle, was inspired by the symmetrical layout of the world’s great cathedrals, where a long partly tree-lined avenue traversed the site, which is nestled by Stamford Bridge.

One can see the stadium structure rising up as you walk along the western boundary of the cemetery. There is a strong influence from the landscapes around St Peter’s in Rome.

The avenue stretches some 600 meters (c.2,000 feet) from the arched main entrance to a domed chapel at the ‘high altar’. The imposing Great Circle, with its arcaded naive and underground catacombs, is something to behold. Not surprisingly the cemetery is Grade-I listed on Historic England’s buildings. And, the buildings (including thirty listed individual monuments) are of “national significance” according to Loyd Grossman, CBE and Chairman of The Royal Parks.

Among the many films shot here one can list the 1995 Bond movie ‘Goldeneye’  and the use of the Great Circle in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ from 2009. Add to the mix movies Johnny English, The Wings of the Dove and The Gentlemen.

Walking With Angels

A stroll through the avenues and side alleys here – used by fans of Chelsea FC as a cut through to the ground - lets you encounter angels literally at every turn. Some gaze down at the ground whilst others stare hopefully towards the heavens. These silent figures are among 35,000 ornately carved stone memorials that mark more than 200,000 burials.

It still feels like the countryside as birds, bats and foxes flourish amid some abundant planting. In the process one can just marvel at the lives and accomplishments of those who are laid to rest here.

Angels, cherubs and nymphs surround you at virtually every turn and other monuments are embellished with symbols of love, such as hearts, clasped hands and flowers. One can see, for instance, a broken column that indicates a person cut down in the prime of life, a palette for an artist or a theatrical mask to indicate an actor or somebody working in the theatre.

Characters At Brompton

Among the many gravestones, tombs and monuments I saw here are some worth mentioning. Dr John Snow’s monument is imposing; it was physician Snow who proved that cholera – one of the great killers filling London’s overcrowded burial grounds in the mid-19th century - was spread by infected drinking water. The pioneering work of Snow (1813-58), and dubbed the ‘Father of Epidemiology’, has saved thousands of lives around the world today.

Furthermore, his skills as an anaesthetist were so highly regarded that Queen Victoria allowed him to anaesthetise her for the births of two of her children.

As regards inventions and innovations are concerned, there is Percy Pilcher, who may have beaten the Wright brothers to inventing and flying the first aeroplane had he not died trying in the 1890s by crashing a hang glider after a newly invented tri-plane sustained a broken engine.

Among the sporting folks, as one strolls down the main avenue you can quite easily walk past the founder of Chelsea Football Club, one Gus Mears. The club was founded in 1905 at a meeting in the Rising Sun pub opposite the ground. As well as Chelsea’s first chairman, three directors are buried here, but one Chelsea player, goalkeeper Jack Whiteley from 1907-14 and then team trainer.

The grave to John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson, a bare-knuckle fighter and ‘Champion of England’ in 1795 who taught Lord Byron, is marked by a brooding lion. On the cricketing scene, John Wisden, the first class cricketer and founder of the ‘Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack’ in 1864, is also buried in the cemetery.

On the arts front, Sir Henry Cole (aka ‘Old King Cole’), designer and inventor who was key in establishing the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal Colleges of Art and Music in London, is within cemetery. As are suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and two Polish Prime Ministers (although one, General Skladkowski) was later reinterred in Poland.

Note: For further information and a map of Brompton cemetery click this link. Photo credits courtesy of The Royal Parks.