The Founding of Kensal Green Cemetery

Kensal Green 1843

Kensal Green Cemetery from The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, Saturday 18 November 1843

The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, was the most fashionable burial ground in Victorian England, its social heyday defined by the funerals of HRH The Duke of Sussex in 1843 and that of his nephew HRH The Duke of Cumberland in 1904. Yet its creation was a thoroughly Georgian enterprise, infused by a long interplay of ideas between English poetry and French philosophy, and coloured by a sharp disagreement over modern architecture. The first proposal failed during an economic crisis, and a tip-off probably saved the enterprise from financial ruin a generation later. Its ultimate success came at the cost of a boardroom battle that ousted the man who started it all, and rejected an award-winning architect in favour of one whose greatest achievement would be the building of Kensal Green.

The plan for what eventually became the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, was initiated by the barrister George Frederick Carden (1798-1874). He was inspired by a visit to the garden cemetery of Père-Lachaise in Paris in 1821. From its foundation, in 1804, Père-Lachaise set the standard for the garden cemetery movement -- the beauty of its landscape, the serenity of its atmosphere and the grandeur of its monuments astonished visitors accustomed to the squalor of ancient city churchyards. Indeed, Carden's scheme was initially projected as 'The British Pere La Chaise', and he stuck to that model despite some remarkable suggestions from other quarters.

Carden was also alert to the commercial potential of creating secure, sanitary and gracious suburban cemeteries for the middle and upper classes, landscaped like country estates and far removed from foetid city centres. From the outset, he proposed to raise the substantial capital required for the venture on the London Stock Exchange, appealing to potential investors in emotive terms, but also promising a healthy financial return.

Carden's first Prospectus was issued in 1825, offering shares in the General Burial Grounds Association at £50 apiece, with a view to raising £300,000 at a time when a successful professional might earn £300 per annum, and £50 would keep a working class family for a year. In the event, the market was hit by a financial crisis that year, and the liveliest response to Carden's initiative was a colourful parody, the anonymous Prospectus for the 'Life, Death, Burial and Resurrection Company', which promised "To rob Death of its Terrors, and make it delightful", in amusing rhyming couplets.

Carden maintained a watching brief, and canvassed eminent men of the day for their support. He relaunched his project in February 1830, with an influential Committee that soon included Andrew Spottiswoode MP (whose fortune and reputation were made as partner in a firm that printed Bibles), the sculptor and inventor Robert William Sievier, and the banker John Dean Paul of Rodburgh, Bart.

The new venture was soon astutely repositioned as the General Cemetery Company, a title that projected a more progressive image than the erstwhile Burial Grounds Association. ('Cemetery' was then a relatively new word, carrying resonance for the educated of Greek and Latin terms for 'dormitory' or 'sleeping place', at some distance from the unsavoury associations of 'graveyard' and 'burial ground'.) The private, commercial, joint-stock company was the business model pursued by virtually all the early cemeteries, until the Burial Acts of the 1850s prompted local governments to create municipal facilities supported by the rates and managed by civic Burial Boards. Pioneering ventures such as the Liverpool Necropolis offered a good return, but there were many opportunities for investors in the 1830s, and the GCC had its work cut out to raise sufficient capital.

For over two years, the Company and its supporters lobbied the great and the good, in Parliament and the Church of England. Commercial, non-denominational, public cemeteries were a radically new idea in the 1830s, and it was only by stages that the Bishop of London gave his assent to the venture, and a Bill was moved through Parliament to establish the cemetery formally. In the event, the final reading of 'An Act for establishing a General Cemetery for the Interment of the Dead in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis', on 11 July 1832, coincided with Britain's first epidemic of Asian cholera -- an implicit argument for the urgency of reform

The Act authorised the Company to raise up to £45,000 in shares of £25 each (something of a come-down from the original scheme for £300,000) and work began in earnest. The Bishop of London declined to consecrate that portion of the ground dedicated to the Church of England without at least a temporary Anglican chapel, so the opening was delayed from November 1832 to January 1833. The ground was consecrated on January 24, and the first burial received on January 31 -- of Margaret Gregory, wife of the scandal-mongering journalist Bernard Gregory.

Given that security from bodysnatchers was a vital concern, and a strong selling point, of this and other early cemeteries, it is ironic that the Anatomy Bill that effectively ended the trade for 'resurrectionists' -- by allowing medical schools to use unclaimed corpses from prisons and workhouses for dissection -- was passed a week after that which established Kensal Green as London's first private garden cemetery.

Kensal Green's Royal Connections

Although there was general agreement that urban church yards and vaults were no longer adequate for the dignified, secure and sanitary reception of the dead, tradition and circumstance also bound many people to burial near home, or in the company of their ancestors. Suburban, non-denominational (and frankly commercial) garden cemeteries such as Kensal Green ran contrary to the long tradition of burial in the local churchyard or family vault, and there were only 192 interments in the first 18 months.

But Kensal Green's fortunes changed decisively in 1843 with the impressive semi-public funeral of Augustus Frederick, HRH Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), sixth son of George III and Queen Charlotte. A free-thinker to the end, the duke was dismayed by the disorderly interment of his brother, George IV, in the family vault at Windsor in 1837, and so became the first member of the British royal family to be buried outdoors in a public cemetery.

The duke's decision was also influenced by his irregular marriages. Although both his wives were daughters of peers, both weddings were undertaken without the formal permission of Parliament, in contravention of the Royal Marriage Act of 1772. His second wife, Cecilia Letitia Gore (technically, the Widow Buggin at the time of their union, although a daughter of the Earl of Arran) was eventually awarded the courtesy title of Duchess of Inverness by Queen Victoria, who counted the duke as her favourite uncle and accepted his marriage as a fait accompli. Thus, the Duchess of Inverness (c1793-1873) now lies with her husband, the Duke of Sussex, at Kensal Green.

Duke of Sussex

HRH Duke of Sussex (1773-1843)

HRH Princess Sophia

HRH Princess Sophia (1777-1848)

HRH Duke of Cambridge

HRH Duke of Cambridge KG (1819-1904)

The duke's sister HRH Princess Sophia followed his example in 1848, thus sealing Kensal Green's social cachet for the rest of the century. Fifth of the six daughters of George III and Queen Charlotte, she was one of the brightest, and most bookish, of the fifteen royal children, admired in her youth for her unconventional beauty and independent spirit. A mother but never a wife, she had a brief and necessary clandestine affair with her father's equerry; her natural son, Thomas Garth, was reared by his putative father, and received a pension from the royal family to the end of his days. Princess Sophia's ornate Florentine sarcophagus stands opposite her brother's austere Cornish grey granite monument in pride of place in front of the Anglican Chapel.

The last royal funeral came in 1904, with the equally independent-minded HRH George William Frederick Charles, Duke of Cambridge KG, a man whose destiny was settled some 700 years before his birth, when England rejected the notion of male primogeniture as the sole authority for royal succession. Although a boy and the elder by two months -- and thus, the first-born legitimate grandson of George III -- Prince George was the scion of a younger son, and thus subservient to his cousin Victoria, whose early marriage and nine healthy children quickly put him and his line out of any hope of succession. The royal duke served for 39 years as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, as a resolute opponent of military reform. Like his uncle the Duke of Sussex, he had an irregular union, with the actress Sarah Louisa Fairbrother, a celebrated exponent of 'trouser roles' or 'breeches parts' who was politely known as 'Mrs Fitzgeorge', and who is buried with him.

Royal patronage set the seal on Kensal Green, which now boasts no less than 500 members of the British aristocracy, and over 600 individuals with entries in the Dictionary of National Biography.

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