Your first sight of Brompton Cemetery’s Great Circle of chapel and colonnades will take your breath away.
Enter via the Fulham Road entrance for the biggest impact: wild corners and shadowy walkways of a classic Victorian cemetery give way to a dramatic centrepiece that was designed as an ‘open air basilica’ in the style of the Piazza at St Peter’s in Rome.
The main attraction – the chapel – is flanked by colonnades, a vast network of catacombs, and a tree-lined central avenue that defines Brompton Cemetery and sets it apart from the other six cemeteries in London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’.
200 years of history
Brompton Cemetery is one of London’s historic garden cemeteries (along with Nunhead, Highgate, Abney Park, Kensal Green, Tower Hamlets and West Norwood, all built between the Georgian and Victorian eras) and one of the oldest garden cemeteries in Britain.
It was opened in 1840 as both a burial ground and public space by Stephen Geary, chairman of The West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company, who also created Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries.
Like other cemeteries in the Magnificent Seven, Brompton was built to relieve the demand placed on older graveyards; London’s population had increased from one million people to 2.6 million between 1800 and 1850, and this combined with inadequate sanitary conditions meant that death from disease was rife.
Parliament’s answer was a range of seven new garden cemeteries, built ‘as much for the enjoyment of the living as the repose of the dead’. Stephen Geary was commissioned to create Brompton’s addition, however, Geary’s own designs were rejected by the ‘Committee of Taste’ that was appointed to lead the design and Benjamin Baud’s (who worked on Windsor Castle) design was chosen instead.
To help Brompton’s rather uninspiring site compete with the other more scenic cemeteries within the group, plans were drawn up for a dramatic cathedral layout that included a central aisle, a ‘high altar’ (the chapel), and a ‘nave’ (the colonnades). Original plans also included two ‘transepts’ in the form of two temples on either side of the colonnades and two matching bell towers on each entrance to the catacombs (only one of these bell towers was built).
Brompton Cemetery today
Today, Brompton Cemetery’s 39 acres contain 35,000 monuments for over 205,000 people that have been buried here. Its Grade I-listed status and Victorian charm belies the fact that it’s still a working cemetery; more modern burial plots lie on the outskirts of the largely overgrown plots dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Brompton also maintains its original purpose for ‘enjoyment of the living’ as a garden cemetery: original signs on the entrances still remain, informing the public that, ‘The public are permitted to walk in the Cemetery daily’.
Visit on any given day to find Londoners relaxing in the colonnades, eating lunch between the gravestones, and cycling down the grand central avenue. It’s a timeless and personal reminder of London’s history and the lives that have contributed to that history.
28 monuments on the site are also Grade I and II-listed, including the Chapel, the colonnades, the Chelsea Pensioners’ Monument, the Guards’ Memorial, the chest tomb of the ship builder, and two vintage K2 telephone kiosks just outside the gates.
The fact that the cemetery has remained largely unchanged over the past 200 years means it holds a second career as a film set: it’s been featured in Sherlock Holmes, GoldenEye, Johnny English, The Wings of the Dove with Helena Bonham Carter, and Stormbreaker with Damien Lewis.
Brompton’s stories: the people buried at Brompton Cemetery
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)
Suffragette leader who obtained property rights for married women, recruited women to the war effort, and helped bring about the introduction of full and equal suffrage for men and women. Emmeline and her daughter are buried in a grave close to the West Brompton entrance to the cemetery.
Dr John Snow (1813-1858)
He of Broad Street pump fame; Snow tracked an outbreak of cholera to the pump in Soho and discovered that the cause of the infection was passed through contaminated water rather than the air. He helped to save countless lives and was the only anaesthetist who Queen Victoria trusted to administer chloroform to her during the birth of her two youngest children.
Percy Pilcher (1867-1899)
Pioneering engineer who patented the world’s first practical powered aeroplane, seven years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight. He built his aeroplane but when it came to showing it off to investors, its engine failed. He died the same day while demonstrating a glider to compensate for the engine failure.
Charles Collins (1828-1873)
Pre-Raphelite painter and son-in-law to Charles Dickens.
Admiral Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865)
Captain of Charles Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle and winner of the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal.
Percy Lambert (1881-1913)
The first man to cover 100 miles in an hour, killed while attempting another record in south-west London.
Blanche Roosevelt Macchetta, Marchese d’Allegri (1858-1896)
Cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt, singer, and biographer of French artist Gustave Doré.
This tiny grave for a two-year-old known only as “Tom” lies at the Fulham Broadway entrance to the cemetery. Its wooden monument and surround have yet to even start decaying, despite being over 100 years old and underneath a huge tree.
How you can help bring Brompton Cemetery back to life
Brompton Cemetery is a time capsule of London’s history and a unique place of beauty in the heart of our capital. But with time comes decay. So Brompton needs your help in helping to restore its crumbling architecture and to create a fantastic new visitor centre to tell its story.
The Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund has pledged nearly £4.5 million to the restoration project, but £500,000 needs to be raised in order to unlock this funding. Can you help?
Grace Enright, from The Royal Parks Foundation, said the project has been embraced by the local community: “It’s been fantastic watching the local community get behind Brompton Cemetery. People love this garden cemetery for lots of different reasons, but everyone has come together to look after it.
“We’ve raised half of the funds needed to unlock the Heritage Lottery Fund donation, and we’re hopeful that those who love Brompton are going to help us reach our target so we can restore this magnificent cemetery to its former glory.”
For more information on how you can help save Brompton Cemetery, visit the Royal Parks Foundation website.
Nearest Tube: West Brompton / Fulham Broadway
Opening times: Daily, 8am-8pm
More information: Visit the Royal Parks website