Survey of London: Volume 41, Brompton. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1983.
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The origin of Brompton Cemetery, like that of Kensal Green, lies in the movement to remedy the shocking state of the overcrowded graveyards of the metropolis in the early nineteenth century. (fn. 1) Between 1832 and 1841 Parliament, in order to relieve this situation, authorized the establishment of half a dozen cemeteries near London by commercial companies. Of these the West London and Westminster Cemetery Company was one, and undertook to lay out a large new burial place at Brompton.
This company was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1837, its self-styled 'founder' or 'projector' being Stephen Geary, architect and civil engineer. (fn. 2) In 1830 Geary had designed the monument to George IV at what later became known as King's Cross, and had taken out a number of patents for a variety of inventions. He also founded the London Cemetery Company, which had been incorporated in 1836, and was the architect of its cemetery at Highgate. (fn. 3) At Brompton he acted from 1837 to 1839 as architect to the West London and Westminster Cemetery Company. (fn. 4)
In August 1836 the provisional directors of this intended company were advertising for subscribers to a share-capital of £50,000, (fn. 5) and in February 1837 the Bill for the incorporation of the company was introduced in the House of Commons. One of its sponsors was Thomas Wakley, the medical reformer and M.P. for Finsbury, who provided similar support for several other cemetery company bills at about this time. (fn. 6) The Bill received the royal assent in July 1837 and nominated fourteen gentlemen to act as directors of the company. They were authorized to lay out a cemetery on forty acres of ground in Kensington, build chapels and catacombs, charge fees for burials, and raise a capital sum of not more than £100,000, of which half was to be obtained by the sale of two thousand shares at £25 each. In order to placate the metropolitan clergy (some of whom, being dependent in substantial measure for their income upon the revenues from burial fees, had petitioned against the Bill), the Act also required the company to pay a fee of ten shillings to the local incumbent upon the burial of any person removed from a parish within ten miles of the cemetery. (fn. 7)
The first meeting of the board of directors was held at the company's offices in Essex Street, Strand, on 20 July 1837. Only five of them attended, and after the election of the Honourable Edmund Byng as chairman, the only significant items of business transacted were the appointment of a solicitor and a secretary, and of Stephen Geary as architect. (fn. 8) At the next meeting only three directors attended, and in the first few months of its existence attendance rarely exceeded four. Of these the most important were two barristers, Francis Whitmarsh and Sir Francis Knowles, both of whom had acted as Counsel for the company's Bill as it went through Parliament, (fn. 9) and both of whom acted successively as deputy chairman of the board. Half a dozen of the original directors never attended at all, and in August 1838 Byng, who had only been present at two meetings, resigned as chairman. By this time the bankers Messrs. Bouverie had been appointed treasurers to the company, and it was evidently to provide the board with more efficient leadership that the Honourable Philip Pleydell Bouverie, senior partner in the firm, was in the following month elected first to the board and immediately afterwards to the chairmanship. (fn. 10)
Efficient leadership was certainly needed, for the company at once ran into difficulties over the acquisition of the intended site of the cemetery. By its Act of 1837 the company was empowered to lay its cemetery out on some forty acres of land bounded on the north by Old Brompton Road, on the east by Honey Lane, on the south by Fulham Road and the lands of the Equitable Gas Light Company, and on the west by the Kensington Canal. (fn. 11) Most of this land (reputedly over thirty-eight acres of it) belonged to Lord Kensington, (fn. n1) but a small piece at the south end, fronting on to Fulham Road, had recently become the property of the gas company. During the progress of the cemetery company's Bill through Parliament the provisional directors had signed an agreement with Lord Kensington for the purchase of his land for £20,000, which was to be paid in seven instalments spread over three years. But after the first three instalments had been paid doubts arose about Lord Kensington's capacity to sell the land, his title to it having been severely limited by the marriage settlement which he had made for his heir in 1833. By mutual agreement the question was referred to the Court of Chancery and was not resolved until November 1838. The conveyance to the company was finally made in August 1839. (fn. 13)
The purchase of land from the Equitable Gas Company proved even more troublesome. The cemetery company had originally intended to buy the whole of the Equitable's four-and-a-half-acre estate, with its long frontage to Fulham Road, but the price of £5,000 was considered to be too high, and the directors therefore decided to try to buy only a strip wide enough 'to make a handsome approach' to the cemetery from Fulham Road. Unsuccessful negotiations ensued, and in 1839 a makeshift entrance was made from the south end of Honey Lane instead. (fn. 14)
In 1843, however, the gas company put the whole of its estate up for sale by auction. Two lots were bought for £475 by John Gunter, now one of the directors of and eventually the largest shareholder in the cemetery company, to which he soon afterwards reconveyed them for the same price. An adequate entrance from Fulham Road was thus at last obtained. (fn. 15)
Until possession of Lord Kensington's land was obtained little could be done towards forming the cemetery. In November 1837 David Ramsay, a nurseryman of Brompton, was appointed 'landscape gardener and contractor', but he does not seem to have immediately been given any work to do; (fn. 16) and in March 1838 one shareholder, when pressed to pay the first call on the shares for which he had subscribed, complained that 'although a considerable time has elapsed since the passing of the Act, there are no visible signs of any proceedings to carry it into execution.' By this time the company was already 'considerably in Debt', a special board meeting was needed to discuss ways of 'getting rid of the remaining Shares', and by the end of 1838 only two of the original directors still bothered to attend meetings with any regularity. (fn. 17) This depressing start to its career was certainly one reason for the company's endemic financial problems.
In June 1838, when possession of Lord Kensington's land was (wrongly) thought to be imminent, the directors decided to hold a public competition for designs for the layout of and intended buildings in the cemetery, and offered a first prize of one hundred guineas. Stephen Geary, the company's architect, had already prepared designs, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy at about this time, and they were specifically stated to be eligible for the competition. (fn. 18) But when in September 1838 the directors serving on a special 'Committee of Taste' examined all the designs submitted, they awarded the first premium to an entry marked 'Windsor', which proved to be by Benjamin B. Baud. The second premium was won by Henry E. Kendall and Thomas Allom, and the third by Frederick Sang. (fn. 19)
Baud had been one of Sir Jeffry Wyatville's assistants in the rebuilding of Windsor Castle, where in 1824 George IV had authorized Wyatville to adopt the word 'Windsor' as his motto. Brompton Cemetery seems to have been Baud's only important independent work, and when he died in 1875, aged sixty-nine, a correspondent of The Building News wrote that he was 'now almost forgotten in the profession.' (fn. 20)
After some 'consultation with Practical Men' (from the evidence of the company's minutes, probably the architect John Shaw the younger), a full meeting of the directors confirmed the Committee of Taste's award of the first premium to Baud. (fn. 21) Geary's services as architect to the company were therefore no longer required, and in January 1839 he was told that his appointment would be cancelled unless he tendered his resignation. (fn. 22) He did so, but soon afterwards he claimed compensation of £498 as the 'Projector of the Company', and when this was refused he took the matter to court. Ultimately he seems to have been paid a very much smaller sum. (fn. 23)
In February 1839 Baud succeeded Geary as architect to the company, but there seems to have been some doubt about his capacity, for the directors decided to inquire from Wyatville 'as to the competency of Mr. Baud' to carry out the works now projected. Yet despite these reservations the directors also decided at the same meeting 'to adopt the General Design of Mr. Baud in its main elements and order of architecture . . . subject to any modifications in detail or extent that may seem expedient'; and shortly afterwards he was instructed to prepare estimates for a portion of his plans, the cost not to exceed £30,000. (fn. 24)
This first stage of building comprised the wall which was to enclose the whole cemetery and the lodge at the main entrance on the north side. Although the question of Lord Kensington's title to the site had been settled in November 1838, further disputes ensued about the precise acreage of ground involved, and work could not start until August 1839, more than two years after the passing of the company's Act. (fn. 25) The contractor for the wall on the east and south sides was John Faulkner, who had completed his work by the end of the year. The lodge, west wall and catacombs there (the last now partly removed), and the brickwork for the north wall were done by Messrs. Nowell, evidently the firm of Philip Nowell, mason to the Queen, of Grosvenor Wharf, Pimlico, and one of the contractors in the building of Belgravia. The ironwork in the north wall was by E. and R. Dewer. Extensive drainage works were also begun, and J. Finnemore (late gardener to Lord Ravensworth and the Marquess of Normanby) was appointed gardener. (fn. 26) In December 1839 J. C. Loudon was consulted about the trees and shrubs best suited for planting on the site. (fn. 27)
Baud's designs for the layout of the cemetery provided for a long carriage drive to lead from the entrance lodge straight down the middle of the site to an octagonal domed chapel near the south end. This drive was to be flanked in its northern half by an avenue of lime trees (which cost 1s. 6d. each and were planted in 1840 (fn. 28) ). In the southern half of the drive there were to be two parallel ranges of round-arched arcades, each with a central bell tower, and these arcades were to be continued into a 'Great Circle', at the east and west extremities of which there were to be two subsidiary chapels in the manner of Greek temples, one for the Nonconformists and the other for the Roman Catholics. At the south extremity of the 'Great Circle' two more parallel ranges of arcades led up to the principal octagonal chapel, the focal point of the whole cruciform design (Plate 105a, fig. 74).
This conception proved, of course, extremely expensive to realise, and the two subsidiary chapels were in fact never built. In the summer of 1840, however, Messrs. Nowell's tenders for the carcase of the principal chapel (which was to be faced with Bath stone) and for the two southern segments of the 'Great Circle' and the two bell towers were all accepted. (fn. 29) Levelling works, road-making and planting also proceeded, and it was in this scene of busy disorder that the cemetery was consecrated by C. J. Blomfield, Bishop of London, in June 1840. The first burial took place a few weeks later, the east end of the lodge having been fitted up as a temporary chapel. (fn. 30)
By this time money was short, and although it was decided to issue another thousand shares of £25 each, the company had nevertheless to resort in June 1840 to one of its directors, the local landowner Robert Gunter, for a short-term loan of £5,000 needed to pay Messrs. Nowell. The costly conditions laid down by the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers for the drainage of the cemetery were considered by the directors to be so unreasonable that they sought the advice of both George Gutch (who, as district surveyor for Paddington, was well versed in such matters) and of Counsel; but ultimately they had to acquiesce, leaving them with no remedy 'for what the Directors still feel to be an injustice'. Apart from a contract with Messrs. Nowell for the interior of the chapel, building work seems to have come to a halt. (fn. 31)
In the spring of 1841 there were 'Opposing opinions' among the directors about future policy. Some of them attributed 'the inadequate present success' of the cemetery to 'the disorder consequent on building', and urged that 'no further buildings are at present requisite', while others thought that 'the present incomplete execution of the designs has checked resort to the Cemetery.' At a special general meeting held in May to resolve the directors' differences, the shareholders were told that over £61,000 had already been spent, and that the capital so far subscribed fell short of expenditure already engaged for by some £2,640. Despite this depressing news the shareholders decided to press on, and by the end of June Messrs. Nowell's tenders for the completion of the arcades and the 'Great Circle', the completion of the interior of the principal chapel and the building of small wings on either side of it had all been accepted. (fn. 32) (fn. n2)
By early 1842 all this work had been completed. (fn. 34) Apart from the two subsidiary chapels in the 'Great Circle', the only important omissions from Baud's original layout plans were thus the arcades which he had envisaged for the formation of a large courtyard in front of the principal chapel; but it may well be that in their continuous search for economy the directors had reduced the quality and embellishment of his first designs. The British Almanac criticised the open screen of segmental arches filled in with iron palisading which formed the north wall — 'If intended as decoration, arches of that form have no particular elegance to recommend them'; and the design of the entrance lodge, in the Italian Doric manner, was 'without any decided character'. (fn. 35) Today the impact of the long ranges of arcades and of the 'Great Circle' is greatly reduced by the tombstones and monuments which fill all of the space thus enclosed, and the octagonal chapel, despite its claims to be regarded as 'a chaste specimen of Palladian architecture', seems too small in relation to the dominant position allocated to it. (fn. 36) Notwithstanding their considerable cost, the cemetery's buildings seem, indeed, to have a somewhat meagre air (Plates 104, 105, fig. 75).
The number of burials in the cemetery soon proved to be disappointingly small — 89 in 1841, producing gross receipts of only £800, and 285 in 1842, producing £1,350. Expenditure was therefore reduced to a minimum, (fn. 37) and (perhaps in consequence) there began early in 1843 a long dispute between Baud and the directors about the amount of the fees due to him. (fn. 38) In the autumn of the same year serious defects in the construction of the catacombs along the west wall were found to be due to the contractors' failure to follow the architect's specifications; but Nowell's, the firm involved, replied that Baud had passed their work. (fn. 39) At about the same time the acquisition through John Gunter of part of the Equitable Gas Company's ground provided access to Fulham Road, and in February 1844 the directors were considering a drawing submitted by a surveyor, Mr. Winterbotham, for a new entrance there. (fn. 40) In March Baud protested at the directors' employment of Winterbotham and reminded them that he had already supplied them with two designs for the lodge at the intended Fulham Road entrance; but by this time the directors had already decided to remove him from the office of architect. In April Baud (through his solicitor) demanded a special meeting of the directors to investigate any charges against him, but when this was held the directors confirmed their decision to dismiss him. (fn. 41) Subsequently he brought an action against the company claiming £4,000, his fees for the design of buildings not yet executed being the main item in dispute; but in 1846 the Court of Exchequer ruled against him, and although the company's legal expenses were heavy, Baud seems to have got nothing. (fn. 42) (fn. n3)
The small lodge at the Fulham Road entrance was designed and erected in 1844 by a builder, Mr. Dawson. At the same time part of the wall on the south side of the cemetery were taken down and rebuilt to enclose the additional land recently acquired. (fn. 44)
Despite rigid economy the company's liabilities amounted in 1845 to nearly £22,000, and in that year the directors therefore obtained another Act of Parliament which authorized them to raise £21,731 by the sale of 3,477 new shares. These new shares were to be of the nominal value of £25 each, but at first they were to be sold for only £6 5s.; they were to confer the same rights as the old shares, and in the first instance they were to be offered to the existing shareholders. (fn. 45) By 1847 most of the liabilities had been paid off, and a dividend of two shillings per share was declared. Three years later, when the number of burials per annum had increased to over seven hundred, the dividend had risen to five shillings per share, (fn. 46) but this still only amounted to one and a half per cent upon the company's total outlay. (fn. 47)
By this time the appalling conditions prevailing both in the metropolitan graveyards and in those of many provincial towns had been grimly described to Parliament in 1843 by Edwin Chadwick, then the secretary of the Poor Law Commission, in his Report on the Practice of Interment in Towns. (fn. 48) But nothing had been done to remedy the situation when the cholera epidemic of 1849 (in which some 14,000 people had died in London alone) again raised the problem in urgent form. During the winter of 1849–50 Chadwick, now one of the members of the new General Board of Health, accordingly prepared another report which inter alia castigated the record of the metropolitan cemetery companies. They had 'effected no appreciable diminution of the existing evils'; there was not even one of them 'in which some of the worst of the old evils are not continued'; entombment (e.g. the provision of catacombs and family mausolea) as distinguished from inhumation was still encouraged; they had 'afforded no relief from the oppressive expense of funerals', nor had they 'effected the slightest improvement of any kind in respect to the interment of the poor.' And the report stated flatly that 'the interment of the dead is a most unfit subject for trading profit.' (fn. 49)
The Government's Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850, which was largely based upon the proposals contained in this report, provided a solution which would, if it had been fully implemented, have extinguished all the metropolitan cemetery companies. The Board of Health was empowered to provide new burial grounds in the metropolitan area, purchase the existing cemetery companies, and in due course close all the old insanitary and overcrowded graveyards. Funeral costs were to be regulated by a series of scales of fees to be promulgated by the Board, which was to make all contracts with the undertakers. (fn. 50)
The Board of Health soon found that none of the cemetery companies was willing to sell its property voluntarily, and in March 1851 the Board finally persuaded its reluctant Treasury masters to sanction the compulsory purchase of all of them, but successively. The first two (and as events turned out, the only) purchase notices issued were in respect of the Brompton Cemetery and the London Cemetery Company's property at Nunhead; and in April Chadwick and the directors of the Brompton company agreed that the assessment of the price to be paid for that cemetery should be referred to an independent arbitrator. (fn. 51) (At this stage Chadwick was hoping to involve his friends Joseph Paxton and the émigré German architect Gottfried Semper in improving the Brompton Cemetery after its acquisition, but this was to come to nothing. (fn. 52) )
The directors calculated that their total expenditure upon the cemetery amounted to £147,685, (fn. 53) (more than double that at Nunhead, the next most expensive cemetery for which figures are available (fn. 54) (fn. n4) ), of which nearly £60,000 was attributed to the cost of Baud's elaborate buildings. (fn. 55) Fortified by the advice of (Sir) William Tite, the architect of the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company's Norwood cemetery, they decided that they were entitled to the sum actually expended by the company, to which 'lost interest may be added', and they therefore demanded £168,762. (fn. 56) The Board of Health, on the other hand, considered that with the exception of the General Cemetery Company at Kensal Green all the metropolitan joint-stock companies had 'as commercial undertakings . . . been failures', the Brompton company (as previously mentioned) only paid a dividend equivalent to one and a half per cent upon capital outlay, and expenditure upon all 'such works as are deemed perfectly useless' was to be disregarded. It therefore offered only £43,836. (fn. 57)
The arbitration hearing took place in July 1851 before Mr. (later Sir) Barnes Peacock, Q.C., assisted by two professional men, one chosen by each party, the architect Philip Hardwick being the company's nominee. (fn. 58) Their award, announced in October, amounted to £74,921, and represented a considerable triumph for the now beleaguered Board of Health. (fn. 59)
Earlier in the year the Board had needed to raise a large capital sum to buy land at Abbey Wood, Erith, for its own proposed new cemetery. But the assurance companies to which it had applied for a loan had refused, principally because the Board's own life was statutorily limited to five years; and the Government refused to help by the issue of Exchequer Bills. The Government was in fact having second thoughts about the whole of Chadwick's grandiose scheme. In July, at the very time of the arbitration hearing, the Treasury had ordered the Board to abandon the purchase of the land at Abbey Wood and had inquired whether it was still 'possible to put an end' to the purchase of the Brompton and Nunhead cemeteries. By December the Government had decided to introduce a new interments Bill based on different principles from the Act of 1850, and the Treasury therefore instructed the Board to abandon the purchase of the two cemeteries 'if the parties consent thereto'. (fn. 60)
The directors of the Brompton Cemetery had, of course, been aware of the Government's change of position since at least October and had at first decided to await events. But after the Board of Health's request for the award to be set aside had been received a special general meeting of all the shareholders was held in January 1852. Some of the directors, and certainly the chairman, Pleydell Bouverie, proposed that the request should be accepted, but most of the shareholders thought otherwise, and by 122 votes to 54 they called upon the directors to enforce the award. (fn. 61)
Brompton was thus the only metropolitan cemetery company to be acquired by the Government, for the owners of the Nunhead Cemetery (who had demanded £99,000, been offered £40,000, and awarded only £42,000) agreed to forgo the arbitrator's decision. (fn. 59) The conveyance of the cemetery, from the West London and Westminster Cemetery Company to the Commissioners of Works and Public Buildings, was made on 5 November 1852. (fn. 62) By the time of the directors' final meeting, on 20 December 1854, all the shareholders had received a total of £11 9s. 5d. per share. (fn. 63) Thus those of them who only held the original £25 shares must have lost heavily, but those who had bought the new shares of 1845 at only £6 5s., or who held some of both issues, must have been well pleased to be rid of a property which had never yielded a dividend of more than 5s. per share and on which far too much had been spent on inessential building works.
By 1889 over 155,000 interments had taken place, and the question of closure was being considered. (fn. 64)
Brompton Cemetery is now managed by the Department of the Environment, and is closed for burials except where old graves can be re-opened.
The monuments erected in the cemetery display much of the wide range of Victorian and later tastes (Plates 106, 107). John Jackson, the pugilist (d. 1845), had an altartomb with statues of athletes (now removed) at either end and surmounted by a couchant lion. Similar in conception is the monument to Robert Coombes, the champion sculler (d. 1860), which is surmounted by an inverted skiff. The second Earl of Kilmorey (d. 1880) is commemorated by a massive granite mausoleum in the Egyptian manner, designed by Messrs. Kendall and Pope. (fn. 65) George Godwin (d. 1888), architect and editor of The Builder, has a more modest and very much more pleasing monument which includes a portrait medallion attached to a column flanked by mourning female figures. Frederick Leyland (d. 1892), ship-owner and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites, has the finest tomb of all, designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. (fn. 66) An ancient Gothic sarcophagus in Sienese marble and supported on eight squat pillars provides a very unusual monument for the artist Val Prinsep (d. 1904), Leyland's son-in-law. The suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst (d. 1928) has a Celtic cross with figures carved in relief in the manner of Eric Gill. Close to the western boundary of the cemetery a granite obelisk commemorates the graves of over two thousand pensioners from Chelsea Royal Hospital; and a separate enclosure nearby for other military graves contains a large memorial to the Brigade of Guards, erected in 1889.
Other notable people buried in Brompton cemetery include George Borrow, author; Sir Henry Cole, first director of the South Kensington Museum; Thomas Cundy (d. 1895), architect; Sir John Fowler, railway engineer; Sir Charles James Freake (d. 1884), the developer of a large part of South Kensington; Sir James KayShuttleworth, educational pioneer; Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help; and John Snow, the anaesthetist who discovered that cholera is water-borne. The ashes of Constant Lambert, composer, are also buried here.