Brompton Cemetery is a sprawling necropolis, nestled in the busy – and terribly posh – London Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. One of London’s self-titled ‘Magnificent Seven’ (The informal name given to a group of large, privately-owned Victorian cemeteries within London.) Brompton is a familiar sight on many of our TV screens, having played host to Sherlock Holmes (2009), Goldeneye (1995) and Johnny English (2003), to name but a few.
With beautiful sprawling grounds, famous interments, stunning architecture and a well-stocked café, Grade I listed Brompton is not only a cemetery lover’s dream, but a fascinating day out, offering a wealth of history within its walls.
Opened in 1840, the cemetery contains around 35,000 monuments and approximately 205,000 interments. From basic headstones to enormous mausoleums, the variety of memorials create a striking and undulating environment, bisected by avenues and leading to a central roundel, cemetery chapel and colonnade.
Architect, inventor, and engineer Stephen Geary had established the London Cemetery Company in 1836 and, in 1837, raised the idea for a burial ground in Brompton. Although initially earmarked as the architect, Geary was forced to resign, yet was able to complete work on Highgate Cemetery by 1839.
40 acres of land was secured by Lord William Edwardes Kensington and the Equitable Gas Light Company. Soon, what had once been market gardens quickly became a meticulously planned garden cemetery. Architect Benjamin Baud designed the central chapel and colonnades in the style of St Peter’s in Rome and, although modest by comparison, these striking buildings visually differentiate the cemetery from its magnificent cousins. Beneath the colonnades are a series of beautiful, if small, catacombs that can only be accessed via a tour, but whose gates are particularly impressive in their design. The catacombs were introduced as another method to encourage people to invest in the new cemetery being a cheaper alternative to conventional burial. However, of the thousands of spaces available, only around 500 were ever sold, making them an architectural triumph, but a financial flop.
The cemetery proved not to be the enormous money spinner that was first anticipated, and was bought out following the Metropolitan Interments act of 1850, which allowed governments to buy back private city cemeteries from shareholders.
Like many Victorian cemeteries, Brompton has had to deal with vandalism and disrepair for years, not forgetting significant bomb damage in World War II. However, between 2014 and 2018, the cemetery undertook a substantial renovation project which uncovered many hidden delights within, including the original Bath and York stone chapel flooring. Now owned by the crown, the cemetery is once again open for burials and has several new uses, including as an inner-city nature spot.
Brompton Cemetery has a close and curious link with children’s author Beatrix Potter. Growing up in South Kensington and living there until she married at 47, there are plaques aplenty in the surrounding area. Within the cemetery are several character names form Beatrix’s stories, including several Nutkins, a Jeremiah Fisher, Tomas Brock, Mr Tod and several Mr McGregors. While we can never be sure that Beatrix spent time within the cemetery, the similarities are fascinating.
In an unexpected nod to Squirrel Nutkin, the cemetery is a veritable meeting ground for thousands of increasingly emboldened squirrels. Succeeding in leaving the cemetery grounds without pockets full of screaming creatures is an absolute triumph, and deserves a certificate at the very least.
The cemetery as a whole is now Grade I listed, with each arcade quadrant listed as Grade II. Curiously, Brompton is also home to an amazingly Grade II listed grave monument.
Frederick Richards Leyland (1831-1892) was a successful ship owner and an art collector, with a particular fondness for the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, from whom he commissioned several works. This love for pre-Raphaelite romanticism and the arts and crafts movement is reflected in his stunning funerary monument, which was designed by Edward Burne-Jones (pre-Raphaelite artist) in a stunning and unique memorial.
There are countless stunning memorials in Brompton, telling the stories of the great and good. To fully immerse yourself in the art and history available, I suggest a personal visit (if and when circumstances allow) or take a trip to the Royal Parks website, where many of the key interments are highlighted on an interactive map: HERE.
Consider the following highlights as my personal list of favourites; I’m sure there are thousands of fascinating graves throughout the cemetery, but living at the opposite end of the country, its tricky to pop back for a more thorough walk-through!
Louis Campbell-Johnston (1861-1929)
Campbell-Johnstone was the founder of the British Humane association; an association dedicated to the ‘relief of inhumane activities, the relief of sickness or poverty and providing benefit to local communities’ – through financial grants to UK charities.
The Association is in existence today, but does not have a website or email account, citing that ‘applications must be made in writing.’
Although a more traditional headstone compared to many graves on this list, I found the design particularly attractive and elegant. His stone features a beautiful relief of a woman holding a shield and laurel wreath, with the latin phrase ‘is est bonos homini pudico, me’minisse officium suum’, ‘This is honour for a person who’s not shameless: to remember his duty.’
Blanche Roosevelt Macchetta (1853-1898)
Blanche was a successful American opera singer who trained at the Royal Opera House in London and was celebrated across Europe, even featuring on a set of 1888 cigarette cards, titled ‘The World’s Beauties’.
According to the Royal Parks,
“She was a favourite of theatrical partners Gilbert & Sullivan, and a distant relative of US president Franklin D Roosevelt. Blanche cultivated a cultural circle, becoming friends with the American poet Henry Longfellow, Italian opera composer Guiseppe Verdi, English writer Wilkie Collins and French artist Gustave Doré. She married an Italian marquis, and later was mistress of famous French writer Guy de Maupassant.”
In 1897 Blanche was involved in a serious carriage accident in Monte Carlo. The driver was killed and Blanche received substantial injuries from which she never recovered. She died a year later, aged only 44. The striking figure above her grave is an enormous Italian marble likeness of the singer herself. Considering that the most common figural choice is an angel, commissioning a life-size likeness of yourself is quite the statement, and a sentiment I particularly enjoy; ‘angels are great, but look at me! I was a little cracker in my time’.
Even within the crowded great circle, Blanche’s stony gaze cuts through a sea of crosses, remaining a beauty long after death had taken her.
Horace Lot Brass (1880 – 1896)
The grave of Horace Lot Brass is not one renowned through fame, but through its striking design. Young Horace, son of Lot and Elizabeth, died aged 16. The Brass grave holds a beautiful depiction of grief and mourning through the art nouveau headstone’s bronze relief. Turned green over time, the sculpture depicts a grieving couple beside a body, presumably representative of their son on his death bed. Stark in its modernistic design, the headstone stands out considerably from its traditional Victorian counterparts.
Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1825-1873)
Harris’ grave is just as elaborate and fantastical as he was in life. Regarded as the father of pantomime, he grew up in a theatrical family with a theatre manager father and opera singer mother. Initially starting out as a comedian, he achieved minor success but found himself in prison for bankruptcy in 1848, which in turn caused him to take up the stage name Augustus Harris.
Harris eventually achieved great successes as a manager of opera and ballet in London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg, also finding time to write a libretto and stage Christmas spectaculars at Covent Garden. He revived the fortunes of the Royal Opera House, curated opera seasons and staged the most grand pantomimes in London. Shockingly, alongside his theatrical achievements, Harris also became a London City Councillor and Sherriff of London! You’ve got to wonder if any of his colleagues took him aside to say, ‘come on love, slow down, you’re making the rest of us look bad.’
As impressive as this may be, his work obsession took its toll and Harris would die of exhaustion, diabetes and cancer aged just 43.
His monument remains an imposing and beautiful sight, however, it would have originally been topped with a bust of the man itself; presumably lost to vandalism or war damage.
Flight Sub-lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford (1891-1915)
Celebrated for his ‘courage, initiative and integrity’, the headstone of Flight sub-lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford stares out across the cemetery with a bright likeness of the young pilot and a striking battle scene beneath.
During WWI, Warneford became the first airman to shoot down a Zeppelin. So great and legendary was this feat, that the act of destruction itself is depicted on the memorial, like an inspirational piece of morale-raising war propaganda.
Warneford, aged only 23, attacked the German zeppelin from above. The airship promptly exploded, flipping the plane and damaging the engine, causing the young pilot to land in enemy territory. In a phenomenal display of heroics, he restarted the engine, flew home and was awarded the Victoria Cross the very next day. However, it was not the daring airship attack that took the young pilot’s life, but an accident when testing a new plane in Paris, ten days later.
The young man’s story was taken to heart by the British public, who raised the money necessary for such a memorial (via a Daily Express appeal) and organised an enormous funeral at which over 50,000 people attended.
General Alexander Anderson CB (1807-1877)
General Alexander Anderson, a senior Royal Marines officer, has one of the most unusual memorials in the cemetery, being a stack of sculpted cannonballs. Three cannonballs have place names carved; namely ‘Beyrout’, ‘Gaze’ and ‘Syria’ (sic).
The pyramid has long been a target for vandals, with the memorial undergoing considerable renovation in recent years. For many years, the memorial was reduced to the lower layer of cannonballs, with loose examples placed into storage. However, following proposed restoration works in 2016, the pyramid has been beautifully restored, firmly affixed atop a pink Aberdeen granite plinth. As effective as the restored memorial is, I can’t help but wonder how long the pyramid will stand before wandering hands pry off a granite souvenir.
George Godwin (1815-1888)
George Godwin was a precocious literary and architectural talent, joining his father’s business (as an architect and surveyor) aged 13. He continued in his youthful success, becoming joint editor of the Literary Union by the age of 20, later editor of The Builder magazine, writing numerous articles, plays and other works of fiction. Again, slow down Godwin! You’re making the rest of us look lazy!
Although I can’t personally vouch for its fascinating qualities, it is said that his essay on the history and uses of concrete remains highly lauded to this day. If you should read a copy, do let me know how you got on.
Godwin remained true to his Kensington home throughout his life, never moving from the borough and conducting most of his architectural work nearby. He would go on to design large parts of Earls Court and South Kensington and leave a bursary after his death, allowing young architects to study different methods abroad.
Godwin’s grave is ripe with symbolism, with the lamp and books atop the column symbolising knowledge and wisdom, with the female figures either side representing the muses of architecture and literature, or Faith and Charity, depending on who you ask! The central medallion is Godwin himself, celebrated by all that surrounds him.
William Crookes (1832-1919)
Having an interest in the Victorian Spiritualist movement, Crookes’ grave was one of the key draws within Brompton. And, despite my keenness, I managed to walk past his grave twice before noticing his family’s plot. For such a fascinating and celebrated man, his resting place is decidedly modest, presumably with its original cross or central feature long lost to time.
William Crookes is best known as a successful scientist, not only working in chemistry, astronomy and modern-day alchemy, but discovering the element thallium. This monumental achievement formed the basis for nuclear physics and the development of X-rays.
Despite his scientific mind, following the death of his brother Philip (who died of Yellow Fever while walking abroad), Crookes developed a deep interest in Spiritualism and the possibilities of spirit contact and the afterlife. After attending several seances and circles, the scientist went on to conduct some of the most important tests of mediumship in the 19thcentury. Applying his scientific methodologies to the new wave of mediums, he most famously became involved with young materialisation medium, Florence Cook. During Florence’s most famous seances, her ‘spirit guide’ Katie King would appear within the séance room, walk about, touch sitters and interact far more than any understanding of a spirit would ever have previously afforded us. Crookes believed sincerely in the legitimacy of the young medium, and he endured much ridicule for his experiments, with many peers suggesting that he was simply infatuated with Florence or had entered into an extramarital affair with the medium. Considering the age difference between them, questions of morality and ethics are arguments for another day.
Subsequently, much of Crookes’ spirit work was destroyed by his family following his death, for fear of further ruining his scientific reputation; this act would be one of the greatest losses to psychical research, making the remaining photographs and papers all the more important.
Crookes continued his scientific and spiritualistic work well into his later years, becoming both the president of the Society for Psychical Research and The Ghost Club, while also working to advance the theory of radioactivity.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)
Little needs to be said about Emmeline Pankhurst. Arguably the most famous suffragette in Britain’s history, she began campaigning for women’s right to vote when she was just fourteen.
Through ‘deeds, not words’, Emmeline and her fellow suffragists fought brutally for the cause, receiving criticism and many prison sentences in the process. The movement was one of the great controversies of the age and through such deeds as setting fires, hunger strikes, throwing stones, marching and protesting, women over the age of 21 finally obtained the right to vote in 1928.
Sadly, Emmeline died three weeks before the law came into play, but her activism, political ferocity and celebration of women has elevated her to the status of feminist icon ever since.
Pankhurst’s headstone was sculpted by Julian Phelps Allan, a female sculptor who was a force to be reckoned with, becoming a colonel in the ATS and the first president of the ATS War Office Selection Board.
The cross is a particularly elegant design and is also Grade II listed. According to Historic England,
“Above the inscription, a haloed figure is depicted in low relief with their right hand raised in blessing, with floral motifs to each corner. The head of the cross has angels to either side reaching down toward each other, holding up an object which may represent Emmeline’s soul. Above them, forming the top section of the cross is the extended open hand of God, which may refer to a phrase from the first verse of chapter three in The Book of Wisdom of Solomon: “The Souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them” (Barnes, 2016).”
Henry Pettitt (1848-1893)
Pettitt’s grave is particularly entrancing, due to the deep and detailed medallion portrait of Henry himself. Captured as though in deep thought, Henry’s pose alone screams out ‘dramatist!’
Pettit was an incredibly prolific and successful dramatist, writing several successful plays and melodramas. With collaborators, he wrote the Broadway-produced play Burmah (1896), In the Ranks (1883), which ran for 457 performances, The Harbour Lights (1885) running for 513 performances and countless other musical burlesques.
Pettitts’ grave is topped by a broken column; a common Victorian symbol for a life cut short. This was particularly pertinent to Pettit, who died of typhoid fever aged 45, at the peak of his career.
Hannah Courtoy (1781-1849)
Of all the mausoleums that scatter London’s largest cemeteries, few of them have ever been accused of being time machines. Shocking, I know.
However, the tomb of Hannah Courtoy is generally regarded, visually at least, as a probable TARDIS.
In life, as in death, Hannah eschewed the norm. She had three daughters with a far older merchant names John Courtoy, but the two never married. However, despite no legal ties between them, she went on to inherit his fortune after his death, going on to enjoy all the indulgencies of society life. Frustratingly, there appears to be little known about Hannah’s life, which has inevitably added bizarre legitimacy to the theories concerning her unusual grave.
The mausoleum, situated a little away from the dense majority of graves, is bedecked in Egyptian symbolism. Considering that an appreciation of Ancient Egyptian history and aesthetics had enjoyed an enormous and fashionable revival in the 19thcentury (as with all Victorian indulgences, there were many problematic and damaging issues arising from this), this is not uncommon in design terms. However, the strong visual impact of such symbolism, especially when found in the anachronistic environment of a London cemetery, continues to provide inspiration for creatives and oddbods alike.
The mausoleum features a pyramid-style top, walls covered in hieroglyphics and solid metal doors, covered in symbols. It is generally regarded that Courtoy was friends with Joseph Bonomi, a popular sculptor and Egyptologist of the time, who is also buried nearby. Although the plans to the mausoleum are missing, it is believed that Bonomi designed the tomb due to the Egyptology links and the designs on his own tomb.
Another mystery that lingers around the tomb, is how to get inside! The key appears to have been lost for decades and would require a skilled locksmith, and a substantial cost, to recreate. However, a relative of Courtoy’s, Mr Godson, spoke in 2015 about his interest in reopening the tomb, to address the curious rumours once and for all. Although he expected to find little more than a lot of spiders and a few dead birds, I’m sure that should he charge by a peek, he’d soon have enough to build a pyramid of his own!
Brompton is a truly beautiful cemetery and a fascinating place to spend an afternoon, or a day, should you be passionate enough. By grabbing a coffee in the café, or catching a tour, the possibilities for engagement within Brompton are enormous. However, considering that this website is a personal endeavour, I would not feel comfortable singing the praises of a site without a full disclosure of my experience. As pleasant as many of the visitors were, and I even passed a few school trips during my wander, like many inner city locations, Brompton does suffer with its share of crime and drug problems. In the more sheltered areas of the cemetery, behind the colonnades, or beside buildings, nefarious activity was clearly in process. As both an out-of-towner and a woman on her own, there were instances where I felt a little unsafe, particularly as the day dragged on. That is not to say that every experience would mimic mine, but I suggest being mindful should you be thoroughly exploring the site, and the outer reaches of the cemetery. Take a friend, bribe them with cakes from the café, and a wonderful experience awaits you!
All Photographs my own, unless otherwise stated.