Despite its Grecian-style buildings, the cemetery is primarily Gothic in character, due to the high number of private Gothic monuments. Due to this atmosphere, the cemetery was the chosen location of several scenes in movies, notably in Theatre of Blood.
Paul, a partner in the London banking firm of Strahan, Paul, Paul and Bates, found and conditionally purchased the 54 acres (22 ha) of land at Kensal Green for £9,500. However, Paul and Carden were already embroiled in a dispute regarding the design of the cemetery, where Paul favoured the Grecian style and Carden the Gothic style. A succession of architects were contemplated, including Benjamin Wyatt (who declined), Charles Fowler (proposal not taken up), Francis Goodwin, Willson, and a Mr Lidell, a pupil of John Nash, before an architectural competition was launched in November 1831. This attracted 46 entrants, and in March 1832 the premium was awarded, despite some opposition, for a Gothic Revival design by Henry Edward Kendall; this decision was, however, eventually overturned.
On 11 July 1832, the Act of Parliament establishing a "General Cemetery Company for the internment of the Dead in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis" gained Royal Assent. The Act authorised it to raise up to £45,000 in shares, buy up to 80 acres of land and build a cemetery and a Church of England chapel. Company directors appointed after the Bill received Royal Assent asserted their control and preference for a different style. One of the competition judges and a company shareholder, John William Griffith, who had previously produced working drawings for a boundary wall, ultimately designed the cemetery's two chapels and the main gateway and 15,000 trees were supplied and planted by Hugh Ronalds from his nursery in Brentford. Founded as the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, the cemetery was the first of the "Magnificent Seven" garden-style cemeteries in London. It was consecrated on 24 January 1833 by Charles James Blomfield, the Bishop of London, receiving its first funeral the same month.
In the early 1850s, after a series of cholera epidemics in London caused an examination of London's burial facilities, health commissioner Edwin Chadwick proposed the closure of all existing burial grounds in the vicinity of London other than the privately owned Kensal Green Cemetery, north-west of the city, which was to be nationalised and greatly enlarged to provide a single burial ground for west London. (A large tract of land on the Thames around 9 miles (14 km) south-east of London in Abbey Wood was to become a single burial ground for east London.) The Treasury was sceptical that Chadwick's scheme would ever be financially viable, and it was widely unpopular. Although the Metropolitan Interments Act 1850 authorised the scheme, it was abandoned in 1852.
A typical statuary detail
The overall layout is on an east–west axis, with a central path leading to a raised chapel towards the west. The entrance is to the north-east and the largest monuments line the central path to the chapel.
The Church of England was allotted 39 acres and the remaining 15, clearly separated, acres were given over to Dissenters, a distinction deemed crucial at the time. Originally there was a division between the Dissenters' part of the cemetery and the Anglican section. This took the form of a "sunk fence" from the canal to the gate piers on the path. There were also decorative iron gates. The small area designated for non-Anglican burials is approximately oval in shape and was formerly made prominent by a wider central axis path that terminated with the neo-classical chapel with curved colonnades. The Anglican Chapel dominates the western section of the cemetery, being raised on a terrace beneath that is an extensive catacomb; there is a hydraulic catafalque for lowering coffins into the catacomb.
It is still in operation today; burials and cremations take place daily, although cremations are now more common than interments. The cemetery is still run by the General Cemetery Company under its original Act of Parliament. This mandates that bodies there may not be exhumed and cremated or the land sold for development. Once the cemetery has exhausted all its interment space and can no longer function as a cemetery, the mandate requires that it shall remain a memorial park. The General Cemetery Company constructed and runs the West London Crematorium within the grounds of the cemetery.
While borrowing from the ideals established at Père Lachaise some years before, Kensal Green Cemetery contributed to the design and management basis for many cemetery projects throughout the British Empire of the time. In Australia, for example, the Necropolis at Rookwood (1868) and Waverley Cemetery (1877), both in Sydney, are noted for their use of the "gardenesque" landscape qualities and importantly self-sustaining management structures championed by the General Cemetery Company.
The cemetery is the burial site of approximately 250,000 individuals in over 65,000 graves, including upwards of 500 members of the British nobility and 970 people listed in the Dictionary of National Biography. Many monuments, particularly the larger ones, lean precariously as they have settled over time on the underlying London clay.
Many buildings and structures within Kensal Green are listed.
The Anglican Chapel is at the centre of the cemetery, and contains several tombs. The chapel was damaged during the Second World War but was restored in 1954. Under the chapel is a catacomb, one of the few in London. The catacomb is currently not maintained but can be visited as part of a guided tour. It still has a working coffin-lift or catafalque, restored by The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery in 1997.
Situated in the eastern corner of the cemetery this Greek Revival structure was for the use of all non-Anglican denominations and of non-believers. Only part of the cemetery was consecrated, and Dissenters could opt to be buried in the non-consecrated areas following a service here. The cemetery became favoured by nonconformists, free-thinkers, non-Christians and atheists, and thus this chapel became popular. The Dissenters' Chapel had become derelict and partly roofless, so in 1995 was leased to the Historic Chapels Trust who undertook £447,000 of restoration. The chapel currently serves as the office of The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, but is also available for funeral services.
Detail of the Reformers' Memorial
Robert Owen memorial (with the Reformers' Memorial to the right)
The Reformers' Memorial
The Reformers' Memorial was erected in 1885. It was erected at the instigation of Joseph Corfield "to the memory of men and women who have generously given their time and means to improve the conditions and enlarge the happiness of all classes of society". The monument has lists of names of reformers and radicals on its north and east sides (together with further names added in 1907 by Emma Corfield). It is paired with the Robert Owen memorial, and a second instance of a non-funerary memorial in the cemetery's nonconformist section.
The memorial was amended to include Lloyd Jones to recognise his contribution.
IS RAISED AS A TOKEN OF REGARD TO THE
BRAVE MEN AND WOMEN WHOSE NAMES IT BEARS BY JOSEPH W. CORFIELD,
"THE REFORMERS' MEMORIAL
ERECTED TO THE GLORY OF MEN AND WOMEN WHO HAVE GENEROUSLY GIVEN THEIR TIME AND MEANS TO IMPROVE THE CONDITIONS AND ENHANCE THE HAPPINESS OF ALL CLASSES OF SOCIETY. THEY HAVE FELT THAT A FAR HAPPIER AND MORE PROSPEROUS LIFE IS WITHIN THE REACH OF ALL MEN, AND THEY HAVE EARNESTLY SOUGHT TO REALIZE IT. THE OLD BRUTAL LAWS OF IMPRISONMENT FOR FREE PRINTING HAVE BEEN SWEPT AWAY AND THE RIGHT OF SELECTING OUR OWN LAW MAKERS HAS BEEN GAINED MAINLY BY THEIR EFFORTS. THE EXERCISE OF THESE RIGHTS WILL GIVE THE PEOPLE AN INTEREST IN THE LAWS THAT GOVERN THEM, AND WILL MAKE THEM BETTER MEN AND BETTER CITIZENS."
A great number of people are mentioned on the monument. These are, in order shown on the monument:
BORN MAY 14TH. 1771.
DIED NOVR. 17TH. 1858."
ERECTED BY SUBSCRIPTION
IN MEMORY OF
OF NEW LANARK,
BORN AT NEWTOWN, N. WALES 1771.
HE DIED AND WAS BURIED
AT THE SAME PLACE 1858,
AGED 87 YEARS.
HE ORIGINATED AND ORGANIZED INFANT SCHOOLS, HE SECURED A REDUCTION OF THE HOURS OF LABOUR FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN FACTORIES. HE WAS A LIBERAL SUPPORTER OF THE EARLY EFFORTS IN FAVOUR OF NATIONAL EDUCATION AND LABOURED TO PROMOTE INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION. HE WAS ONE OF THE FOREMOST ENGLISHMEN [sic] WHO TAUGHT MEN TO ASPIRE TO A HIGHER SOCIAL STATE BY RECONCILING THE INTERESTS OF CAPITAL AND LABOUR. HE SPENT HIS LIFE AND A LARGE FORTUNE IN SEEKING TO IMPROVE HIS FELLOW MEN BY GIVING THEM EDUCATION, SELF-RELIANCE AND MORE WORTH.
HIS LIFE WAS SANCTIFIED BY HUMAN AFFECTION AND LOFTY EFFORT.
J. W. CORFIELD"
"MR. OWEN'S WRITINGS
REPORT TO THE COUNTY OF LANARK.
NEW VIEWS OF SOCIETY.
LECTURES ON MARRIAGE.
LECTURES ON A NEW STATE OF SOCIETY.
THE BOOK OF THE NEW MORAL WORLD.
SIX LECTURES AT MANCHESTER.
MANIFESTO OF ROBERT OWEN.
SELF SUPPORTING HOME COLONIES.
LETTERS TO THE HUMAN RACE.
REVOLUTION IN MIND AND PRACTICE.
ROBERT OWEN'S JOURNAL.
LIFE OF ROBERT OWEN."
The cemetery has three catacombs for the deposit of lead-sealed, triple-shelled coffins and cremated remains. Catacomb A, beneath the North Terrace Colonnade is now sealed. Catacomb Z, beneath the Dissenters' Chapel at the eastern end of the cemetery, suffered significant bomb damage during World War II, and is also closed to further deposits.
Catacomb B, beneath the Anglican Chapel in the centre of the cemetery, has space for some 4,000 deposits, and still offers both private loculi and shelves or vaults for family groups. The catacomb extends under the entire footprint of the chapel and its colonnades. There are six aisles, within which each vault is numbered, running consecutively to number 216 at the south-western end of aisle 6.
Deposit within the catacombs of Kensal Green has always been more expensive and prestigious than burial in a simple plot in the grounds of the cemetery, although less costly than a brick-lined grave or mausoleum. Without the further expense and responsibility of a monument above the grave, the catacombs have afforded a secure, dignified and exclusive resting place for the well-to-do, particularly the unmarried, the childless and young children of those without family plots or mausolea elsewhere.
The cemetery contains the graves of 473 Commonwealth service personnel of the First World War—half of whom form a war graves plot in the south-west corner, the remainder in small groups or individual graves scattered throughout the grounds—and 51 of the Second who are all dispersed. In the First World War plot, at Section 213, a Screen Wall memorial lists casualties of both world wars whose graves could not be marked by headstones, besides five Second World War servicemen who were cremated at Kensal Green (also known as West London) Crematorium. The highest-ranking person buried here who is commemorated by the CWGC is General Sir Charles Douglas (1850–1914), Chief of the Imperial General Staff in early months of the First World War.
Marigold Frances Churchill, daughter of Sir Winston and Lady Clementine Churchill, who died from a fever in 1921 at age three (the monument by Eric Gill was listed Grade II in 2001) (the remains of Marigold Churchill were exhumed 2019 and reburied in Bladon)
UK Major General Sir Alexander Cunningham KCIE CSI, archaeologist, aide-de-camp to Governor General Lord Aukland of India, executive engineer to the king of Oudh (India), chief engineer of Burma, Colonel of the Royal Engineers.
Ann Foster (1827–1882), widow of John Foster of Hobart, Member of the Tasmanian Legislative Assembly. Formerly Ann Dinham, she was transported to Tasmania in 1852 and was one of few Australian convicts to return to her native land (Grave No. 28305)
Maharani Jind Kaur, of the Sikh Empire, mother of the last Punjabi Maharaja Duleep Singh – temporarily deposited in the catacomb below the Dissenters' Chapel following her death in exile in 1863 before her body was allowed to return to the Punjab for cremation. Following the discovery of a slab commemorating Jind Kaur (now in the Ancient House Museum, Thetford), a memorial was erected here in 2009.
Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982), actress (most of her ashes were scattered around the islet of Dannholmen off the fishing village of Fjällbacka on the west coast of Sweden where she spent most summers from 1958 to her death in 1982, with the remainder of her ashes buried at Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm, Sweden next to her parents).
Freddie Mercury (1946–1991), singer in the rock band Queen, is commemorated by a small plinth under his birth name, Farrokh Bulsara.
Although the cemetery is owned and run by the General Cemetery Company, The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery is a charitable organisation whose purpose is the preservation, conservation and restoration for the public benefit of Kensal Green Cemetery. The charity organises tours and other events in the cemetery and has published books about the cemetery. The office of the Friends is in the Dissenters Chapel. The Friends group is a member of The National Federation of Cemetery Friends.
^W. B. Owen, revised by H. C. G. Matthew, 'Reich, Emil (1854–1910)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) online version (subscription required), accessed 26 September 2013