Saturday, 18 February 2012

PHOTO DIARY: 35,000 Stories at Brompton Cemetery

Some might find the idea of spending your Sunday afternoon at a graveyard a little morbid, but not me. For anyone with even a whiff of interest in local history, a visit is an absolute must. A Grade 1 listed site laid over 40 acres, opened in 1840 and designed to represent an open air basilica Brompton Cemetery not only has an interesting story of it's own, but plays host to over 35,000 monuments, representing the stories of 35,000 human beings who lived, worked, loved and died in the borough. Some of the names you might recognise, if only by association. John Gunter, for example: the man who gave Gunter Grove its name, and after whose daughter Edith Grove was so called. Gunter was one of the orginal shareholders in the company (yes, company) who opened this municipal cemetery. He also ran the famous tea shop Gunter's at Berkeley Square, which gets a mention in Brideshead Revisited.

Brompton's most famous "resident" is probably the leader of the British Suffragette Movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. The cemetery also provides the final resting place for several sporting greats of the last 170 years. "Gentleman" John Jackson, a famous boxer who later opened a self-defence school for the aristocracy, and credited for teaching Lord Byron how to brawl, has a Grade 2 listed monument here. As does Robert Coombes, a famous skiff rower, and Percy Lambert, an early 20th century racing driver who was the first man to drive at 100mph and sustain that speed for one hour. Percy's story is a tragic one: on attaining his land speed record he proposed to his girlfriend, who accepted him on the condition that he give up racing. Two days later, a Frenchman broke his record and she granted him one final chance behind the wheel to try and regain it. He died in the attempt.

The headstone of Robert Coombes
The memorial for Percy Lambert, replete with car steering wheel. A truncated column signifies a life cut short.

Nonetheless, not all 35,000 monuments can represent heroes of the time. There are plenty of ordinary folk here too. The first person ever to be laid to rest at Brompton Cemetery, in the Summer of 1840, was a young woman of Fulham, Emma Shaw, who died in childbirth at the age of 20. Brompton has a long history with the Army too, counting 13 Victoria Cross holders and 2,600 Chelsea Pensioners amongst its numbers. More exotically, until 1992 a Sioux native American Indian, "Longwolf", who died whilst performing at Bill Oddie's Wild West Show was buried here too. He was repatriated to North Dakota 10 years ago, and his grave has now be filled by a young British gentleman. The headstone still bears an engraving of a wolf however.

The site formerly occupied by Sioux tribesman, Long Wolf

For those with an interest in architecture too, Brompton contains many treasures. From the neoclassical central chapel, to the beautiful and symmetrical Collonades that run above the catacombs in the centre of the graveyard. Over 20 of the monuments have listed status too. If you are interested in visiting, you can join a guided tour several Sundays a month, for the bargain price of £5. Organised by the Friends of the Brompton Cemetery, the guides are incredibly knowledgeable: our guide, Nick, could have told us the story behind practically every grave stone had we had more time. So wrap warmly, the advertised tour time of 2 hours often ends up being extended.

You can find the timetable of tours here. You can tour the catacombs by visiting on their Summer Open Day, which usually takes place in July.

The memorial to "Gentleman" John Jackson, and his adopted daughter. Jackson was the man who taught Lord Byron how to box.

Here lies Emmeline Pankhurst

The "gem" of Brompton Cemetery. This is the cemetery's most valuable monument and it carries a Grade 2* Listing.

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