Writing

Grounds for improvement

My father used to enjoy walking through cemeteries.
He liked to read the epitaphs, and as he said, " It's the one place where nobody answers back!"

I have visited Highgate cemetery more than once; it is venerated because of its Karl Marx monument, but the catacombs and animal carvings are well worth study.
Now overgrown and neglected, many of the London cemeteries offer great photographic opportunities.
First, a bit of history....

                              GRAND PLANS FOR THE NEW CEMETERIES
Until the early Victorian period it was normal practice for churchyards to be used for burials; but the increasing death rate due to cholera and typhoid, the result of poor sewage and dirty drinking-water, combined with the encroachment of railways and roads as traffic increased, meant that smaller churchyards could no longer accommodate the dead.
When, in 1832, the first of a series of cholera epidemics hit London, Parliament granted the newly formed London Cemetery Association the right to open a cemetery at Kensal Green; very quickly other companies were formed, and there were seven private cemeteries around London.
By 1852 there was a new Act which led to the closure of churchyards for burial, and London vestries were empowered to provide new burial grounds of their own.
Victorians loved a challenge, and soon some dramatic cemetery plans were devised.
There were competitions, and some grandiose schemes arrived in response.
Thomas Willson, a member of the General Cemetery Company board, felt himself inspired by the Egyptian pyramids to publish what was probably the most fantastic cemetery design ever seen.
He named it :
                                        THE PYRAMID
It was to be a brick and granite faced pyramid with a base area the size of Russell Square and higher than St. Paul's Cathedral,"sufficiently capacious to receive FIVE MILLIONS of the dead,where they may repose in perfect security" in 215,296 catacombs built on 94 stepped levels.
He planned to put an observatory on the top.
However, the proposed cost of £2,500,000 meant that The St. Pancras vestry would not agree to its erection.
The plans are in the Guildhall Library, London.

                                      WATER TRANSPORT
Another idea was to join all the city of London parishes into one large, rich company, and purchase 300 to 400 acres of land on the bank of the River Thames.
The land would be laid out in winding walks and groves of trees, interspersed with the monuments and statues.
There would be a church in the form of a cathedral,and a large galley would carry the corpses to a reception building close to the river.
The Board of Health at Erith on the Thames actually considered building receiving centres on the banks,with purpose-built steamers fitted up for this purpose.

                                    LEFT TO GROW WILD
However, the Victorian concept of garden cemeteries, to be enjoyed by the public, has long since given way to minimalistic plans based on war cemeteries, easy to keep tidy: and, sadly, the Egyptian catacombs, pre-Raphaelite monuments and veiled angels of Highgate and Brompton have been overgrown by ivy and rocked by elder trees.

                                   
Volunteer groups find it hard to keep the old graveyards, which are full of interesting historical evidence, free of the encroaching jungle.
Much has already been lost under vegetation, or destroyed by vandals.


The next monument, at Camberwell in 1891, was 'on guard' no longer, and by 1990 had completely disappeared.

                   
Many of the large Victorian cemeteries are well worth a visit, however.
Look out for decorative gates, like these at the entrance to Brompton.

                                      
You will find some extraordinary monuments,and epitaphs which range from the pompous to the poetic.
Here are some interesting memorials...

                                        
This beautifully carved veiled angel watches over the tomb of Ann Gardner(1846) at Kensal Green.
The carving of the veil is so clever: it really seems transparent.
At Highgate the Atcheler tomb(1853), topped by a sturdy horse, reminds the passerby that here is the burial-place of the horse slaughterer to Queen Victoria.
I had not been aware of the existence of this royal occupation.

                 
This is the tombstone of a dedicated cyclist who met his death whilst cycling.
He was buried at Streatham Park cemetery, in 1935.
His loving wife set up this thoughtful memorial.

                                    
At Hampstead you will find this impressive stone church organ, complete with music and stool, set up in 1929 in memory of Charles Barritt.

                                
Another musical tribute is this one, over the grave of a music teacher, Gladys Spencer(1931), at the City of London cemetery.
She seems to be taking a rest after a shower, with her head on the keyboard.

                                
One of my favourites is this, of Abe Smith, a gold digger(sic) from New South Wales, buried at Hammersmith in 1923.
He is sitting in his little hut, & the epitaph reads

A kind and cheerful heart
A smile for young and old
A mind content, a cheery word
A heart of purest gold.


Finally, one of many animal sculptures.
This beautiful greyhound is one of two who guard the tomb of Thomas Murphy, owner of Charlton greyhound track, who died in 1932.
The dogs lie at the base of three large Corinthian columns.

                      
I hope you have found these interesting.
I have been searching for information about the symbolic meaning of some of the carvings on old gravestones, and will have some, and some epitaphs, for you, in the next article.

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