7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Kensal Green Cemetery

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 10 months ago
7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Kensal Green Cemetery
Photo: DAVID HOLT

Kensal Green Cemetery is the oldest of London's 'Magnificent Seven' burial grounds. Situated in north west London, it's the city's oldest commercial cemetery. The cemetery's designer, George Frederick Carden, based the burial ground on Père Lachaise in Paris, which he was rather infatuated with. The cemetery is home to many famous Brits, from Victorian engineering-mastermind Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to the legendary playwright Harold Pinter. It makes for an interesting day out and we thought we'd look into some of the cemetery's secrets before you hop on the Bakerloo line out there.

A tightrope master

Charles Blondin, the famous Victorian tightrope walker, is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. Blondin walked across Niagara Falls in 1859 and decided it wasn't challenging enough, so did the crossing over 300 more times, with various hindrances (blindfolds, carrying passengers, pushing a wheelbarrow and even stopping halfway to cook up an omelette). Blondin is buried next to his wife Charlotte, and although the grave has a monument, it's sadly not balancing upside down on a tightrope while playing the flute, as would befit the man himself.

It's a conservation area

This might become a regular theme for our secrets of cemeteries pieces, but that's simply because of the incredible amount of wildlife and nature that these places boast. Kensal Green Cemetery was made a conservation area in 1984 and is home to some rare flora and fauna, along with almost a hundred species of bird — so don't forget your trusty binoculars.

Photo: Tom Parnell

Royal trendsetting

One of the most popular monuments in the cemetery is that dedicated to Princess Sophia.  The impressive sarcophagus tomb is one of the cemetery's biggest attractions, but what is less well known is that it's one of the key reasons so many people are buried there.

Sophia lived a rather tragic life, sheltered from the outside world by her father King George III, especially after she bore an illegitimate child she wasn't allowed to keep. Her isolation from the family is what led to her being buried in a public cemetery. This unknown royal perversely gave the newly opened cemetery a mainstream appeal, especially among the aristocracy.

Murderous Coffin

Killed by a coffin

Well if you're going to die anywhere, it's rather fitting to do it in a cemetery. This is what happened to an unfortunate soul named Henry Taylor in 1872. Taylor was a pallbearer for a funeral at the cemetery; as he was carrying the coffin he caught his foot on a stone and stumbled. His fellow pallbearers let go of the coffin, which fell on and killed Henry. The Illustrated Police News reported on the incident and claimed: 'The greatest confusion was created among the mourners who witnessed the accident, and the widow of the man about to be buried, nearly went into hysterics."

Despite it being his place of death, there are no records of Henry Taylor actually being buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. His isn't the only weird Victorian death, just perhaps the most ironic.

Host to risque art exhibitions

Many consider some of the extravagant monuments in the cemetery to be art in their own right, but Kensal Green Cemetery has doubled as a host to some actual exhibitions as well. Photographer Sean Smith exhibited in the cemetery's mysterious catacombs in 2015 making ingenious use of the space. The cemetery's Victorian forefathers might have been rather upset by the explicit nature of the works, but they haven't been able to lodge any formal complaints thus far.

Charles Babbage's left hemisphere

Missing parts

It's no secret that famed scientist and inventor of the first computer, Charles Babbage, is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. What is less widely known is that not all of him is resting in the ground there; he's lying there without his brilliant brain. Half of the organ is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, whilst the other half is on display at the Science Museum. You can read a description of the dissection that the Royal College of Surgeons undertook. Here's a little excerpt to whet your appetite:

The whole brain is small, shrunk by prolonged immersion (36 years) in alcohol

Horror pedigree

Kensal Green's literary pedigree is well noted. From Trollope to Thackeray, some of Britain's finest writers chose Kensal Green as their final resting place. What's less commonly discussed is the cemetery's association with another genre of the arts; horror. James Malcolm Rymer, the co-creator of everyone's favourite demon barber, Sweeney Todd, and Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, rest here.

The cemetery was also used as a set location for horror films Theatre of Blood and Afraid of the Dark. Watch the trailer below (if you dare), and you'll spot the cemetery.

Last Updated 02 November 2016