Kensal Green Cemetery

During a recent visit to London, a friend and I decided to explore Kensal Green Cemetery in the west of the city. Founded as the General Cemetery of All Souls by barrister George Frederick Carden in 1833, Kensal Green was inspired by the garden-style cemetery of Pere-Lachaises in Paris. Comprised of 72 acres of beautiful grounds, it was not only the first commercial cemetery in London, but also the first of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ garden-style cemeteries established to house the dead of an ever-increasing population. Campaigners for burial reform were in favour of “detached cemeteries for the metropolis” and in 1832 Parliament passed a bill that led to the formation of the General Cemetery Company to oversee appropriate measures and procedures concerning “the interment of the dead.”

The company purchased land for the establishment of Kensal Green in 1831 and held a competition in order to select an appropriate designer. Among the prerequisites in the brief provided to entrants, were two chapels with catacombs, a gated entrance with lodges and a landscaped layout for the monuments. Out of the 46 entrants, Henry Edward Kendall (1776-1875) was eventually chosen to design the cemetery, as the panel appreciated the Gothic style he intended to utilise. The Chairman of the General Cemetery Company however, preferred a neo-classical style and managed to persuade the surveyor of the company, John Griffith, to create new designs in the vein of Greek Revival. It was Griffith’s designs that were eventually used, though there are still traces of Kendall’s Gothic style dotted throughout the grounds.

The cemetery was divided into an Anglican section – the ground of which was consecrated on 24th January 1833 by the Bishop of London - and an unconsecrated section for Dissenters. A central avenue, surely one of the most beautiful parts of the cemetery (and one of the highlights of my visit), is lined by neo-classical monuments, including columns, obelisks, sculptures of weeping winged figures, and ornate mausoleums – some the size of small houses. Majestic chestnut trees guide the eye along the avenue and up to a terraced Anglican Chapel, beneath which are extensive catacombs, which dominates the western section of the cemetery.

Amongst those for whom Kensal Green is a final resting place, is Lady Jane Franklin, an early Tasmanian pioneer, traveller and the second wife of explorer John Franklin. She spent much of her life trying to find out what happened to her husband after he went missing in the snow and ice of the North-West Passage of the Canadian arctic; and trying to disprove claims that he and his crew had resorted to cannibalism. A great many literary luminaries are also laid to rest in Kensal Green, among them Harold Pinter, JG Ballard, William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope.

Horror fans and admirers of Gothic literature should note that James Malcolm Rymer (author of the Varney the Vampire Penny Dreadfuls and co-creator of the character of Sweeney Todd, the 'demon barber of Fleet Street') and Wilkie Collins (author of The Woman in White and The Haunted Hotel) are also at rest here, and parts of the cemetery were used as locations for certain scenes of Theatre of Blood (1973) and Afraid of the Dark (1991). Kensal Green was also used as the setting in a particularly creepy short story by Ernest Favenc (1845-1908), a somewhat neglected author of weird Australian Gothic tales. Best known for his History of Australian Exploration, 1788-1888, Favenc was a prolific author and journalist who contributed to some of the most important literary journals in colonial-era Australia.

Favenc’s My Story, published in 1875, is an atmospheric tale of the occult, mesmeric influence and necromancy, which begins in the Australian Outback and culminates with a shocking discovery in Kensal Green: I was leaning moodily over the parapet of London Bridge one night. The hour was late, and the streets almost deserted; the night was dark and cloudy; occasional squalls of drifting rain came up the river. I stood there for some time looking at the lights of the town and the shipping, at the dark water running beneath my feet, listening to the chiming of the clocks, and weakly giving way to melancholy and despondent feelings. I was perfectly sober, and my brain clear. A solitary policeman was watching me a short distance away, as though he thought that I meditated suicide. A female figure hastily approaching from the opposite side brushed close to me, almost touched me; a strange thrill passed through me, an unrestrainable impulse made me spring after her; I overtook her just as she passed underneath a lamp; it was her! – the woman over whose body I had a tomb erected in Kensal Green Cemetery was by my side!

A chilling account of the restless dead in Kensal Green is relayed in True Ghost Stories by Marchioness Townshend and Maude Ffoulkes. It tells of a heartless publisher who is ‘reunited’ with a deceased love after happening upon her grave in Kensal Green. First published in 1936, Townshend and Ffoulkes introduced the tale with the statement, “The facts of this story were vouched for by the late Hon. Alec Carlisle, who told them to Maude M.C. Ffoulkes.” The tale concerns a rather hard-hearted publisher referred to only as L., who, in effort to gain acceptance by the upper echelons of London society, abandoned his former love; a simple but devoted girl named Elise, who was described as being in possession of "no working brains, and no money to speak of." By the time she died and was interned in Kensal Green, he had already forgotten about her. Years later, L. was attending the funeral of a colleague at Kensal Green, and, whilst wandering through one of the wilder, more remote corners of the cemetery, happened upon Elise’s obviously long-untended grave – marked only by a plain cross planted in the bare clay, leaning at a crooked angle, “as if tired.”

The pitiful sight of her grave left him overwhelmed with guilt, and he decided to improve the final resting place of his former love. Still concerned with acceptance in upper society and the potential scandal that would come about if his name was associated with the grave of such a lowly girl, he made the decision to improve the grave anonymously. When he returned home he dialled the operator to request his call be transferred to the relevant agency; but in his distracted, preoccupied state of mind, he found himself reciting a Kensal Green plot number to the operator. Moments later the call was picked up… A voice, at first muffled, then gradually becoming clearer, said: "Yes; who's calling?" L. gave his name. The person at the other end uttered a little gasp of delight and surprise. And L., with his blood turning to water, recognised the voice of Elise. "Why, it's never you, darling! Do you want me? Of course, I'll come!" (Just as she had always answered his one-time calls.) L. wanted to say, "No, no, no", but speech was frozen. "I won't be long," continued the voice; "but I was very far away, darling, when you rang up." Panic fear seized L. There was a click, and the line went dead. He dropped the receiver…

Shocked and more than a little horrified, L. dismissed his servants for the evening and retired to his study for a stiff drink. He had almost consumed an entire bottle of brandy by the time he heard his front door open, followed by footsteps in the hall. The footsteps dragged a little - as if their owner's limbs had recently been cramped - and as they came closer down the darkened hallway, sluggish, stiff and scraping, closer and closer, they were heralded by a current of icy air. L. passed out with fear just as the door to his study began to slowly creak open. L. awoke the next morning to find streaks of dark clay on his carpet, tracing a path from his front door along the hallway to his study. There was clay on the door handle, on his chair, even on his jacket; but no sign of his midnight visitor. L. never again used his telephone, nor attended funerals, and he developed a strong aversion to clay…

The grave of Wilkie Collins

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