History Of Kensal Green

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.

DUCROW, Andrew 2 (c) R.STEPHENSON-min

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.

Contact Us

If you would like to know more about Kensal Green Cemetery, we can be contact at the following address:

The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery
c/o The General Cemetery Company
Harrow Road
London, W10 4RA
UK

Messages & enquiries: 07530 676151 (mobile)

Email: fokgc@hotmail.com

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