The West London and Westminster Cemetery Company, as it was known, was established in 1836 and then opened in 1840. Its founder was the architect, inventor and entrepreneur Stephen Geary, who had previously created Highgate and Nunhead cemeteries. Brompton's original 39 acres was purchased from Lord Kensington in1838.
It is regarded as one of the finest Victorian Metropolitan cemeteries in the country, with it's formal layout of a central avenue leading to a chapel based on St Peter's Basilica in Rome.
St. Peters Basilica, Rome
Brompton Cemetery, London
The cemetery company directors held a competition for the design of its buildings, judged by the distinguished architect Sir Jeffry Wyattville. He chose a design by one of his assistants, Benjamin Baud c.1807~1875, as the work was strongly reminiscent of Wyatville's own and they had also worked together at Windsor Castle, which can be seen in the background of this portrait of him.
With Baud as the designer, Geary's own preposals were rejected and forced him to resign from the board of directors.
The site had been a featureless brickworks and market garden, but Baud's design used this to create an immense Open-Air Cathedral with a central ‘Nave ~ Central Avenue' 2000 ft. to a spectacular ‘High Altar ~ the Domed Chapel’, through the 300 ft. Great Circle, inspired by the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome.
The original plan was to have kept the Great Circle of Brompton cemetery clear of graves, with the burials taking place outside of the Colonnades. However it's huge popularity soon meant that these spaces eventually became used too.
The Great Circle
The Cemetery planting was completed in 1846, and it was recorded that there was once a double avenue of Limes flanked by Pines lining the central drive, these appear on Ordnance Survey maps of 1865 and 1895. Only the Limes now remain.
Central Avenue looking toward the Domed Chapel
Central Avenue looking toward the Main Gate
Two prominent colonnades flank Central Avenue and the Great Circle, with catacombs beneath, entered by impressive cast-iron doors.
Matching bell towers were planned for either side of the arcades, but financial constraints meant that only the western one was actually built.
The Bell Tower
Originally there were plans for ‘Transepts’ on either side, with dedicated chapels for Roman Catholics and Dissenters, but financial constraints and social prejudice foretold against both.
A failed attempt to purchase a plot on which to build a chapel, caused an independent group of Roman Catholics to secure a site adjacent to Kensal Green Cemetery, where they established the Roman Catholic Cemetery of St. Mary's. As a result of this, several monks were then exhumed from Brompton for reburial there. The present chapel was initially reserved for the Church of England, but later re~dedicated for Nonconformist use.
The Domed Chapel
The directors pushed ahead with Baud’s grandiose scheme, despite concerns that the project was proving far more expensive than the estimated £30,000 for the whole job. By 1841, £61,000 had been spent with the work not yet completed.
Building was still in progress when the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, consecrated the cemetery in June 1840. Using the northeast lodge as a temporary chapel so that the first burial took place on 18 June 1840.
The builder, Philip Nowell, advanced the cemetery company large sums of money to continue working, due to a resession at that time and business being slow. The management then noticed structural defects, for which Nowell and Baud blamed one another. The directors owed Nowell so much that they took his side and Baud was dismissed, he later attempted to sue the Company, as previously Geary had done, but both men were unsuccessful.
Uncertainty then arose over Lord Kensington's entitlement to have sold the site, which appeared to have already been transferred in a marriage settlement. The matter was resolved through litigation, which lasted until 1854.
The Interments Act of 1850 prohibited burial in congested urban churchyards and crypts, giving the state the power of compulsory purchase over commercial cemeteries such as Brompton. The Act was repealed by the 1852 Metropolitan Burials Act, but not before an official offer had been made for the cemetery. Brompton Cemetery became the only private cemetery purchased under the 1850 Act, and also the first ever to be nationalised. It is still Britain's only crown cemetery, held for the last 50 years in the care of the Royal Parks Agency.
People from all walks of life are buried here, including thirteen holders of the Victorian Cross and Chelsea Pensioners. The cemetery provides a haven of peace, beauty and tranquillity where 'The public are permitted to walk daily'.
Brompton Cemetery's burial archive, has been transcribed onto a computer data base from the 140 registers. Original cemetery records, are held in the Public Record Office at Kew.
Brompton Cemetery was originally designed to accommodate some 60,000 plots in a combination of common and private graves.
Plots on the east side were sold in perpetuity as 'Private Graves' with heritable deeds.
Private Grave of A.B. Smith
These graves could be up to 19 ft. deep and contain brick-lined vaults beneath for large monuments or mausolea to be placed above.
This encouraged wealthy families to build grand monuments which could accommodate several generations, as a lasting symbol of their status.
Plots on the west side, large sections of cheaper 'Common Graves' accommodated several unrelated coffins in one deep cut with no right to erect a monument above. Some were dug almost 22 ft. deep, taking up to ten adult burials. There are very few actual 'Pauper's Graves'.
From 1854 until 1939, Brompton also became the London District's Military Cemetery, after the churchyard used by the London Garrison was closed by the Interments Act.
The War Ministry paid reduced fees and servicemen were often buried in unmarked common graves. However, the Royal Hospital Chelsea purchased its own plot near the north west corner, and the Household Cavalry and the Brigade of Guards laid claim to sections due south of that.
Brigade of Guards
There were some 155,000 interments by 1900, but little more than 50,000 followed before the cemetery was closed to new burials in 1952. Over the next 40 years, Brompton Cemetery only received interments in established family and military graves.
In 1996 it was re~opened again for new burials, with provision for single and family burials, leased for a period of 75 to 100 years and the deposit of cremated remains, leased from 30 to 75 years or more.
Amongst its shady walks are over 35,000 monuments - many of historical importance.
Headstone of Emmeline Pankhurst
leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote
Many thanks go to the Friends of Brompton Cemetery for their valuable information. Please click on the bold type for further info and dates and timings of guided walks and events.