7 Secrets Of Brompton Cemetery

By Ann Martin Last edited 27 months ago
7 Secrets Of Brompton Cemetery

Brompton Cemetery sits within one of London's most affluent boroughs and is the final resting place of several notable people. For example, Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement, is buried here. But it's Brompton's lesser-known residents and its unusual tombs that we're interested in here.

Photo: James Guppy.

1. It's got a time machine... apparently

Speculation suggests that the tomb of wealthy socialite Hannah Courtoy is a fully functioning Victorian time machine. Rumoured to be a teleportation device that connects seven different cemeteries, this grand, inaccessible stone tomb nods to the Victorian fascination with time travel and Egyptian culture.

Popular theory suggests that Courtoy, who died in 1849, was friendly with Joseph Bonomi, the well-known sculptor and Egyptologist who designed her tomb.

The interior of this listed monument is said to feature ornate hieroglyphics and some believe that Bonomi, alongside his business partner Samuel Alfred Warner, learned the secrets of time travel during an expedition to the pyramids. Good luck getting this thing to work though.

A time machine. Apparently. Photo: Maggie Jones.

2. One of its residents invented sunglasses...

Sir William Crookes was one of the most famed scientists of his era. He was awarded the Royal Gold Medal (1875), the Davy Medal (1888), the Sir Joseph Copley Medal (1904) and was knighted in 1897.

Unusually for a man of science, Crookes believed in psychic phenomena and held seances in his own home much to the ridicule of his peers. Nonetheless his numerous scientific accomplishments speak for themselves and include the invention of the radiometer, the spinthariscope and a precursor to modern television.

Most notably, his work with ophthalmology led to Crookes's development of sunglasses in the early 20th century. Later he partnered with an optician to develop the highly fashionable 'Crookes Lenses'. If it's a sunny day in the cemetery, be sure to pay him a visit.

Photo: Simon Kimber.

3. ...and the inventor traffic lights is here too

Cemetery resident John Peake Knight designed the first traffic lights in the world. They were situated opposite the Houses of Parliament, at the junction of Great George Street and Bridge Street in Westminster, and were gas powered.

Knight was a railway manager who designed signalling systems which he adapted for use on the road. His lights were consistently manned but a leaky gas main resulted in one of the traffic lights exploding in the face of the policeman. This shaky start meant it was 40 years before traffic lights would reappear.

4. Bees thrive in the cemetery

Worried about the decline of bees? Brompton Cemetery has its own apiary, and delicious honey is available during cemetery open days — plus there are public workshops on bees, so you can learn how to help the buzzy population. Alongside other London cemeteries, Brompton intends to improve bee habitats by reducing the use of pesticides and installing bee 'hotels' to encourage mining and leafcutter bees to nest.

If it weren't for John Peake Knight, this thing might not exist. Photo: Kenny McCartney.

5. It's an architect's dream

Brompton Cemetery is one of the earliest examples of a landscape architect and a traditional architect working together. Designed by Benjamin Baud and John Claudius Loudon, inspiration for the cemetery was taken from St Peter's in Rome, which can be seen in the existing layout of colonnades and a central avenue leading to the chapel.

Baud worked on the rebuilding of Windsor Castle from 1826 to 1840 and won a public competition in 1838 to design Brompton Cemetery, working alongside J C Loudon who was employed as a consultant.

Unfortunately Baud's extravagant ideas led the cemetery into financial difficulties and when serious faults appeared in the catacombs he was dismissed.

6. It's the final resting place of a fashion muse

Marchesa Luisa Casati's tomb. Photo: Robert Stephenson.

Marchesa Luisa Casati was an eccentric Italian heiress and a prolific society muse of the 20th century. Her fiery red hair and white powered skin made her a visual force to be reckoned with, combined with her shocking clothing choices that included (gasp!) sheer dresses. Patron to Picasso, Man Ray and Proust — and friend to Kaiser Wilhelm II — Casati's hedonistic, larger than life journey ended when she squandered the family fortunes on extravagant parties and was forced to move to a small flat in London.

Folklore suggests she was often seen rummaging through bins for scraps of fabric wearing a scarf made of newspaper. Even today, celebrated designers like Tom Ford have cited Casati as an inspiration for their collections.

Photo: Robert Stephenson.

7. Watch out for the ghostly driver

Resident racing driver Percy Lambert — the first person to drive at 100mph — was killed in a car crash when his tire burst at Brooklands race track in November 1913. Visitors to the circuit have often identified the shadow of a silent workman in overalls pointing along the track. On closer inspection the figure vanishes. Lambert broke speed records by driving his 4.5 litre Talbot over 103 miles in 60 minutes, making him a huge celebrity in his day. It can't be a coincidence that his gravestone takes on the form of a tyre.

Last Updated 11 November 2016