Tuesday 5 October 2010

Kensal Green

My favourite quote on Kensal Green cemetery comes from a piece by Edmund Yates, in which he is being shown the catacombs:

"We go down by a stone staircase, and I am speedily in the centre of a wide avenue, out of which branch other avenues; and on stone shelves on each side of these rest coffins. This is Catacomb B. Catacomb A is away from the chapel, and has long been filled. This present catacomb has room for five thousand bodies, and my companion (who has been custodian of the vaults for the last thirty years) considers it about half full. I am therefore in a village below ground, of some two thousand five hundred dead inhabitants, and I can (not without reproaching myself for the incongruity) compare it to nothing but a huge wine-cellar. The empty vaults are precisely like large bins, and were it not for the constant gleams of daylight from the numerous ventilating shafts, my guide with his candle would seem to be one of those astute cellarmen who invariably appear to return from the darkest corners with a choicer and a choicer wine."
Today, however, we have another piece from The Leisure Hour (1861), an atmospheric tour round the grounds:
"The man, how wise, who, sick of gaudy scenes, 
Is led by choice to take his favourite walk
Beneath Death's gloomy, silent, cypress shades—
To read his monuments, to weigh his dust,
Visit his vaults, and dwell among the tombs."
THE burial yards and nooks within the densely-inhabited confines of the metropolis had been for centuries a reproach to civilization. Unsuggestive of one musing melancholy thought, or of one moral or religious reflection, they were heedlessly trodden by busy feet, and broken up, when occasion required, for the reception of the dead, to expose the utterly disgusting fragments of preceding humanity. None paused tearfully there, to recall the cherished memory of sleepers below; even curiosity ceased to loiter in search of reminiscences of departed celebrity. They were dreary blanks, hardly concealing the horrible wealth of corruption, with the heedless animation of business and idleness recklessly moving upon their surface.
    At last the dictates of decency, aided by the alarm of danger, produced the adoption of cemeteries in rural districts ; and righteous feelings and fears of plague have delivered London from this abomination, and studded the country round about with suitable grounds for the interment of those lost to us on earth, in a manner not repugnant to the soothing emotions of mourning nature.
    In one of these fast-filling places I am occasionally led, from various causes, to take my solitary walk, to muse upon the past and the present, and send my thoughts, I hope beneficially, towards the future ; and if the reader will accompany me to Kensal Green, I trust it may not be without advantage. At the same time, I am aware that any description of gloomy terrors, or of pensive sentiment, would neither be fit for the leisure hour of many readers, nor agreeable to those who, with perfect propriety and good sense, look for more solemn teaching where it is appointed to be inculcated; and therefore, without being light or regardless, I propose to myself to be, as far as the subject will allow, the painter of some of the very miscellaneous features which this cemetery presents to the sight and mind's eye of the thoughtful wanderer within its saddening yet not cheerless bounds. In an age when Young's "Night Thoughts," and Hervey's " Meditations among the Tombs," are almost unopened books throughout the millions of London, I could hardly expect my readers to listen to any imitative gloom or sympathetic sensibility.
    It is a fine day of autumn ; the sere and yellow leaves on the trees are tinting the landscape, and some are flickering down to the earth in withered nothingness. I enter the massive gate, and the white city of the dead is spread out as on a map before me. A vast multitude of monuments and gravestones speak like oracles amid the silence, and the more prominent erections may be conceived to be the temples that raise their heads on high above the ordinary dwellings of living men, as here among the humbler tombs. The impression is solemn, though vague, as all general impressions are; and you must thread your steps through the labyrinth of individual record before you can fully feel the deep interest of the quiet inclosure, wherein so many of the weary rest, so many warm affections are buried, so much misery sleeps! And yet, a few sad signs occur to prove how soon the world can forget, and how poor indeed have been the strongest incarnations of importance, vanity, ambition, and every other self-passion, since even the purer ties of gratitude, veneration, and love have, with a little time, ceased to occupy so marked a space in that inconsolable category which was to last for ever. It is enough if a tender memory remain.
    Like most public or demi-public resorts in our free country, there often occur some petty matters to jar against the mood in which they are sought. Of this vexing discord I immediately stumbled against an instance. It was a board, by which I was warned of the Act of William IV, (by which the cemetery was sanctioned in 1832,) and requested, therefore, to walk on the gravel walks and not to pull the flowers ; while another placard intimated that I was forbidden to scrape my shoes on gravestones or monuments. What must be the habits of a people who need such prohibitions in such a scene? "Pray, if you please, do not commit sacrilege ; do not be guilty of indecency and mockery among and on the mansions of your departed fellow creatures." It is true, however, that this spot is somewhat of a favourite resort for a gentle drive; also for promenades of children, school marches (spoken of as exercise) of great girls in great amplitude of garments, and even for pleasure parties; and sight-seeing of a lower class. To these groups I am sure I might, from appearances, add several pairs in earnest courtship, notwithstanding they pretended, now and then, to gaze on a family vault and read the inscription. They were, as it appeared to me, not thinking of that family below. With rightly directed spirit, however, I could not object to this ; and the house of mourning might prove to many a better scene for earnest thoughts of life than companionship in the house of mirth and revelry.
    Revolting from the path to which the board was taxed, I struck off to the left—an unconsecrated division, where dissenters, and foreigners of all nations, find a common home. My old friend Dwarkanauth Tagore, a virtuous and learned Hindi, who turned to Deism, lay close at hand; and next, a large stone hut, to contain the body of "a lamented wife," with the dubious prayer, "May she rest in peace ;" which is susceptible of a different meaning from the "Requiescat in pace," so absurdly represented by R. I. P. in newspaper obituaries and on tombs. Flowers are as profusely planted here as elsewhere. There is one small Italic red cross with an unintelligible inscription: "Bad, Wola, Twoja." Another epitaph puzzles the reader: it is "A Terra Lhe ceja Leve ;" and on the catacomb, the name of the late Alderman Harmer is conspicuous.
    Passing into the principal walks, and conning their lessons right and left, it is impossible to describe the various emotions which are awakened by the rapid transition of ideas, all of a sombre nature, yet so strangely commingled with other images and reflections, as to render the alternations somewhat extraordinary and even painful. In juxtaposition with a faithful and beloved friend, are laid the bones of one whom you knew as false and hostile. Here is one mound you could steep in tears ; there is another, in the contemplation of which even Christian charity fails to restrain a sense of indignity. Here, with a simple tribute, the kindest and warmest of hearts has ceased to throb ; there, the pompons monument lavishes lies upon the head of the usurer and grinder of the poor. There are many whom I knew living ; some, whose memories I revere and regret; some, of whom I would say nothing, in spite of the provocation of their epitaphs, now they are dead and have ceased from troubling.
    "I pass, with melancholy state,
    By all these solemn heaps of fate; 
    And think, as soft and sad I tread
    Above the venerable dead,
    'Time was, like me, they life possessed;
    And time will be when I shall rest.'"
    Let us walk on ; and he that walks may read. "Smirnove," Chaplain to the Russian Embassy, aged 85, a good man ; and " Konig," of the British Museum, who was unhappy before he died. A butterfly has just settled on his name. Are theses insect eidolons of natural science, or embodiments of spirits, lent, like the elder Hamlet, to revisit the glowing sunshine, not "the glimpses of the moon?" Numbers, white and golden are flitting about; my imagination follows them: the white belong to the pure, the golden to the rich. Grub and imago : every species might represent a human prototype.
    And some of the earliest slabs are hereabouts — 1834-37-39 — that is almost a generation, above twenty years ago. They look dingy ; lichens overspread them. The grass is straggly about them. The flowers have died too. The evergreens have faded into dry branches. There are exceptions; but alas ! Time has effaced a great deal more than what is visibly defaced can convey to the pondering mind. The clay, or loam, is of a very tenacious kind, to the utmost depth, and the secrets, whatever they are, will be kept. One upright stone is inscribed "Caroline," and the ground about is much neglected, but the date is twenty-three years ago. Soon we arrive at another grand entrance, and it is fronted by one of the more remarkable sepulchral exhibitions which illustrate the Kensal Green. It attracts every traveller along the turnpike road to Harrow, and is dedicated " To HER." Siste Viator to ask who is "Her." A marble medallion portrait, in antique costume, with Brussels lace, (the sculpture is all from Brussels,) denies to tell but go round, and in the pyramidal frame you will see, under an oval glass, an artist's palette and immortelles, and below, in the solid stone, the required information that "To Her" means "To the memory of Madame Soyer. England gave her birth, Genius immortality !" attested by the initials. "A. S." (Soyer) our lately lost cook of Crimean fame ; a singular character, but by no means without good points, and whose remains are no doubt deposited there, though his epitaph is yet unwritten. Close by is J. Silk Buckingham, aged sixty-nine, and after life's fitful fever he sleeps well. His tomb is sweetly tended ; and this is something, four years after being planted; that is to say, if done by pious hands : but I am afraid that nearly all the turfing of graves, and planting of graves, are done by contract with the Company, viz., the former at half-a-crown a year, or four guineas in perpetuity, the latter at per annum a guinea, and in perpetuity ten. The particular inference is disheartening, though the general effect is pleasing. I will exemplify my meaning by a little tale of Pere la Chaise, which touched me when I heard it. A sister of one of two companion Parisian sempstresses died, and was, as usual, laid in that half mournful, half fantastic cemetery, and her lowly bed decorated-with flowers. The sister had to leave the capital, but desired, and got a promise from her bosom friend, that she would do her duty with the floral memorials till she returned. Years elapsed. She did return, but could obtain no intelligence about the cherished comrade of her youth. She went to the grave; it was in beautiful condition, fresh with perennials of glistening foliage. A thought struck her. I will watch on the anniversary of the funeral. She was there, and her lovingly sought friend was there too, to renew the offering "in perpetuity" (henceforward together), with the girl she had left, now a wife and a mother, sacred alike to human virtues and holy sympathies. The sympathy of the heart is too deep a feeling to be worthily expressed by proxy. Under unavoidable circumstances, however, substitution is better than total neglect.
    Pardon me, reader, for my single digression, and accompany me again, though I lead you to remote parts, in order to associate, as it were, a few of the "remarkable" monuments of the Soyer description. They were sorts of advertisements ; and if there are such things as posthumous advertisements in our philosophy, they are advertisements to this good hour. A massive structure preserves on a bronze door the title and merits of Morison, the Hygeist ; and for a mausoleum, it is so huge among the rest, that it might well be observed - One pill is a dose.* ["Nee prosunt domino, quae prosunt omnibus artes." "No longer his all-healing art avails, But every remedy its master fails." ] John St. John Long has one of the best designs in the cemetery, by Sievier, (what has become of Sievier, a man of great talent and high art?) with a long inscription, concluding, as it were ironically or treacherously, "Read his name without comment." Now, St. John Long was an extraordinary character —a compound, half ignorance, half genius ; and the medical world, that wished to hang the charlatain, has not despised the recognition of his principles. Vis-a-vis is the master piece of Ducrow, the Margaret of which Mephistopheles of the Circus died at the age of thirty-nine, and is thus applauded :—
    "Beloved wife, thy spirit to heavenly vastness flies,
    Though here thy mouldering form in mouldering silence lies;
    A sorrowing husband still shows the parting tear,
    That silent drops, till death has brought him here."
    In despite of grammar, this is dramatic, and, though flanked by bronze sphynxes, tolerably intelligible ; and since done, Andrew himself has been "brought here," as the opposite side testifies; where, amid more broken columns, (not of newspapers,) is tossed a brigand hat and feather, in marble; and we are assured that the death of the wearer of the original beaver, from which the stone was models led, "deprived the arts and sciences of an eminent professor and liberal patron "- two angels in basso relievo, and a beehive, hanging above as witnesses. Over the entrance are clouds of pancakes, with a lady resting upon them, and a horse so atrociously vile in the hind quarters, that I am convinced he could not get on in the circle, even with the wings liberally allowed by the sculptor.
    I may appear to write satirically on this branch of my subject ; but the deplorable absence of all genuine art, or grandeur of feeling, throughout the cemetery, are grievous blemishes, where so much of a superior kind might tend to elevate and improve the beholder. The repetitions of broken columns, draped urns, and other commonplaces, are quite pitiable ; and such devices as the representation of a huge marble hourglass, or a horse with a child at its near foot, are quaint enough to divert us from the healthier inspiration of the surrounding objects. But altogether there is very little absolutely ludicrous to be discovered, and sufficient good taste has prevailed to preserve decorum and the fit attributes of the place. [To be continued.]

REFLECTING on the bygone atrocities of the burial of the dead among the homes of the living, and still more on the interment in the vaults of churches, we are not disposed to be too critical as to the taste displayed in suburban cemeteries. Contrasted with intramural grave-yards, the least attractive of their attempts at rural arrangements are positive blessings. In Kensal Green, the eye is pleased by the planting and gardening by which the general aspect of the place is relieved ; but soon the thoughts are absorbed in the thick-strewn memorials of the dead. Where the sad literature is clustered together in the colonnades of the catacombs, the sensations are intense. Here is a catalogue of departed greatness, and worth, and patriotism, and learning; heroes of the sea and land, legislators, artists, authors, teachers of mankind ; the brave, the wise, the humane, the charitable, the honoured and lamented by their country for their public services ; these are laid side by side with the undistinguished dead, who yet had loving and mourning relatives to record their names and deplore their loss. How much, too, of grace and beauty is here laid in the dust ! Death is a mighty leveller of distinctions. One hurries over the appalling list, ever and anon pausing at some well-remembered name. Alas! "the like event happeneth to all." "All go unto one place ; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." "There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death ; and there is no discharge in that war!"
    I rest upon a sculptured tomb, and, shutting my eyes, press my folded hands upon my heavy brow. The shades of many whose names I have been almost unconsciously uttering, pass before me as in a darkened vision, in their habits as they lived. Hawes of musical note, and official Planta, and Angelo the master of fence, are near together; and Clint, the honest and able artist, (whose bust, a good likeness, surmounts his tomb) ; and Sabine, who made the horticultural garden ; and Marsden, the historian of Sumatra ; and Beatty, the friend of Nelson, who received his last breath ; and Kingston, the trusted secretary of George IV ; and Robert Brown, the prince of botanists ; and Brunel, and Smeaton, and Rendel, and Troughton, the houours of mechanical arts and sciences; and Smirke, and London, "whose works (it is set down) are his best monument ;" and Dr. Valpy, his monument "erected by eleven surviving children ;" and Thomas Tooke, and many more, who so recently adorned or instructed the breathing world, all came like shadows, and so departed.
    A renewal of my walk brought me to royal remains. This solid granite in front of the chapel is "In memory of H. R. H. Augustus F., Duke of Sussex, sixth son of George the Third ;" and across the path is the brave of the Princess Sophia.* [*The reason assigned for H. R. H.'s choice of this site for his final resting-place, was that his wife, the Duchess of Inverness, might, on her decease, be laid by his side, the body being precluded from sepulture in the royal family vaults at Windsor. Why the princess, his sister, selected the same locality is not stated.] Remote from. the Grand Master of Masons is the tomb of a humble Thomson, who was thirty-eight years Deacon of the Grand Lodge over which he so ably presided, to whose worth the brethren have raised this testimony; whilst almost touching the narrow abode of H. R. H. is the last memorial of the indefatigable Joseph Hume, for forty years a useful and justly popular senator. A splendid mausoleum enshrines the remains of Sir William Molesworth, who is stated to have been "taken prematurely away before he could compass his great object, the regeneration of our colonial system;" and the ever active George Robins lies near, with a handsome monument and a dozen lines of fair poetry, to commemorate the good qualities which won him the kindly regards of relatives and friends. Another well-known and esteemed male of the day, Savory, chemist, and gentleman of the royal chamber, is in like manner (not in verse) gratefully embalmed by his worthy nephew and successor ; and while mentioning an instance of becoming gratitude to an uncle, I may notice one unobtrusive stone set up by two ladies, with the motto, "We hope to meet our aunt in bliss." This is not intended to be facetious, though near a curve where rest on either side the relics of some of those who contributed much to the genial enjoyments of social life and joyous amusement.
    But first I must glance with a tearful eye to a fine tablet and eloquent Latin legend under the colonnade, to the memory of Mackworth Praed, one of the sweetest and most playful of the minor poets of our age. Nor in this locality must I omit the monument to the Naval Brigade at Sebastopol, whose names are here preserved for their country's gratitude. In their laborious and perilous service,  latterly with a Keppel to lead them, they lost eight officers killed, three who died of exertion and fatigue, and thirty wounded ; and of men, 116 killed, 41 who died subsequently, and 431 wounded—five hundred and twenty-nine in all, being nearly every second man of this invincible force, which was nominally only 1200 strong. The press may write, and the orators may speak about our national defences. Let us study this most significant of monuments, and learn who and where they "whose rampart is the sea" are to be surely found ! Very near, a medal (the only one I saw) with immortelle suspended over his tomb, bears witness to the individual gallantly of a Lieutenant Leary.
    But onward in our course. "Where be their gibes and their jests now?" What ! can it be that, in this place of solitude and sadness, with not a laugh to reward his comic humour, lies John Liston, with his wife, once " the sweet little wren," Tyrer, and his only son, beneath the same cold stone? And that other is but an empty sound, inscribed with the name of the Scottish vocalist, John Wilson, who so sweetly translated Burns' exquisite lyrics to southern ears, but who rests in Canada, afar off and nearer the roar of Niagara. Tom Cooke, truly engraved, "A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy ; erected by Friends to his musical genius and unblemished character." Private worth beyond the sentiments here expressed justly warranted the tribute; for his jest never inflicted a pain ; and however uncongenial any approach to lightness is upon the gravestone, Westminster Abbey gives us the moral for all poor jesters :-
    "Life is a jest, and all things show it,
    I thought so once, but now I know it !"
    Hardly less reconcileable to good taste is the insignificant line beneath the colossal and unrecognisable bust of Thomas Hood, "He sang the Song of the Shirt!" as if, philanthropic, and full of the milk of human kindness as this song is, he had not attained a yet more lofty station, and a title to be recorded amidst the genius of England—a station lasting as his granite sepulchre, with its fine relievings, (designed, I believe, by Gilbert, and modelled by Edwards,) the whole forming one of the most successful monuments in this artistically barren space. A blackbird has run from under the trees across his vault ! Ah me, what a song he would have made of the unlooked-for incident ! How many quips and turns, and curious ideas and pathetic touches, combining smiles with tears, laughter with the gushing heart! Adieu, dear Hood, of most peculiar wit, rare fancy, and natural pathos, "I ne'er shall look upon thy like again."
    I may repeat my observation on the decorousness, in all respects, which prevails over these deep solitudes and awful cells. There are many specimens of bad poetry, but no absolutely ludicrous compositions revolt the softened mind. Simplicity, not far removed from the weaknesses of the Lake school, only provokes a transient smile.
    "As a leaf fallen from a tree,
    Death has parted You and Me."
    This is not the most distinct of similes ; but the following is a clear expression of circumstances and sorrows:
    "Here lies the only comfort of my life,
    A tender mother, and a faithful wife;
    No peace, nor comfort shall I ever have,
    Till I lie by her in this silent grave."
    Such are among the most innocent specimens of the unlettered muse ; unless some of a higher order may be concealed under the antiquated black letter type, with which absurd practice it has pleased many stone-cutters to decorate their works, so as to prevent their being intelligible, except to a few stray archaeologists. Amusing emblems of war disfigure a number of monuments by their ridiculous execution ; and in too many cases the immortelles (a fashion from France) are worn off their woolly and dishevelled circlets. Occasionally, more perishable things tell a more touching tale of cherished regrets. On one flat stone I remarked a geranium in blossom, in a common earthen ware pot, set in a common blue-pattern saucer ; on another an immortelle, but covered by a bell-glass, as if for longer "immortality" than the chaplet could hope for in the open air. These were traits of nature to make the whole world kin. Dear is that geranium to some fond bosom: frangible as that glass is some breaking heart.
    And, no doubt, despite all the world's frivolity and selfishness and obduracy, full many a wasting thought, and many a weeping eye, and many an aching soul, expatiate on this city of the dead, and feel more deeply that such is the place appointed for all living. Its contemplation recognises a wholesome fellowship with death, a communion with that destiny which is the common lot of humanity. Between fifteen and sixteen thousand graves and vaults have been purchased here, and probably fifty thousand tenants occupy the dark chambers how dismally invested it were a horror to imagine, were it not for the bright hope beyond the tomb!
    There are many holy texts to teach the lesson how to live and how to die. For, as the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away, so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more." Alas! "he shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more." But then, to set over against the sad facts of man's mortality, there are the cheering truths of Christian revelation. "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord." "Jesus saith, I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall be live ; and whosoever believeth in me shall never die."
    A funeral has just entered the gate. There are the pale faces of children washed in tears ; there are lovely female features stony with grief; there are manly countenances furrowed with anxieties. What a centre of human passions must be borne within that poor, black, narrow hearse!
    I must leave the sad scene, repeating the words of the pious Hervey, in his "Meditations among the Tombs:"— "Let me employ my little uncertain interval of respite in preparing for a happier state and better life ; that, when my fatal moment comes, and I am commanded to shut my eyes upon all things here below, I may open them again to see my Saviour in the mansions above!"


  1. It's sobering to know that Kensal Green, even in its early decades, had already a sense of elegant decay -- this has certainly accelerated today. I was there in 2009, and posted an item on my blog, Sad State of Arctic Graves, deploring (among other things) the decrepit state of the marker for Lady Jane Franklin. I was later informed, in a somewhat haughty tone, that I had been mourning the wrong monument -- Lady Jane was in fact in "Vault 61 of Catacomb B." Apparently it is still possible to visit that vault, so long as one plans ahead and arrived on the first or third Sunday of each month, or on Bank Holidays coincident with the full moon!

    Of course, I love the overall atmosphere of the place! But it came as a surprise to learn that each individual grave is in fact a piece of freehold real estate, and upkeep (other than grass cutting) the responsibility of the owners!

  2. Lots of photos of Kensal Green online, of course ... see flickr ... http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=kensal+green+cemetery