One February afternoon, I cycled through West London along the Grand Union Canal towpath in search of one of London’s most treasured historical landmarks.
Everything was lit up with a thousand lights and the cold breeze slid over the sky-colored water. I knew Kensal Green Cemetery was going to look fantastic in the low winter sunlight – and I was not disappointed.
I carried my bike up the east entrance steps and a host of magnificent monuments lit up all around me. From tombs inspired by ancient Roman and Greek temples to Egyptian pyramids and obelisks, this place wouldn’t be out of place in Rome, Athens or Giza.
After taking an insightful tour of the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, I spoke to our guide, Henry Vivian-Neal, a key member of the Friends who works tirelessly to help look after the place – and the prevent it from decaying. He has been obsessed with the cemetery since he first saw it 30 years ago and has written many books about it.
READ MORE: “I climbed through a secret door and found a lost London Underground station that had been deserted since the war”
More extraordinary than anything, the last time he moved in with her husband, they bought a property a stone’s throw from the cemetery walls so Henry could be nearby. Over coffee in the nearby King William IV pub – Henry shares some of his extraordinary stories.
“I had moved to Kensal Green from central London in the early 90s and wandered around the cemetery and came across monuments to William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope – missed some of the more important monuments of the royal family. [and others]. But by my calculations, it was no ordinary place,” Henry said.
“I was determined to find out more about it. I did a tour with The Friends of Kensal Green, which was in its infancy at the time, and they asked me to join the committee. After that , I was addicted.” Henry soon began to organize visits to cemeteries and research stories about the incredible people buried there. He still goes to the cemetery to do research about two or three times a week.
Asked about his favorite monument, Henry mentions that of Andrew Ducrow – an amazing circus performer and pioneer of equestrian events. He ran a famous venue called Astley’s Amphitheater in London and performed incredible daring feats on horseback.
Henry also loves the story of Charles Blondin (1824-1897) – or ‘Le Grand Blondin’ as he was known – who is also buried here in a magnificent tomb. Henry says, “He was born in France, trained in New York and walked [the] tightrope in a series of breathtaking waterfalls across Niagara Falls on a rope three and a half inches in diameter, 1,300 feet across the chasm.
“Wonderfully, he did traverses with a balance pole, in handcuffs, blindfolded, on stilts and later carrying his manager on his back. Once he even pushed his manager on a wheelbarrow, and he carried a portable cooker with him and stopped halfway through to cook an omelet on the rope over the river – the omelet was then lowered to the rescue team in a boat in below who declared it excellent!”
“It was actually probably inedible,” laughs Henry – who is so committed to his research that he’s actually visited Niagara Falls and taken the boat tour. “It’s absolutely amazing, and he was probably gambling with his life every time he did it,” Henry says. “However, his monument is formidable.”
Henry also reveals what it looks like in the catacombs of the cemetery, beneath the Anglican Chapel which is now closed to the public, but contains some 3,000 coffins in underground burial chambers. “It’s very calm, the temperature is constant. There are coffins on shelves all around you, it’s a very peaceful place. I consider them a bit like distant friends,” he says.
Do you want to stay up to date with the latest news, views, features, and opinions from across the city?
MyLondon The 12’s brilliant newsletter is full of all the latest news to keep you entertained, informed and motivated.
You’ll receive 12 stories straight to your inbox around noon. It’s the perfect lunchtime read.
And what’s more, it’s FREE!
The MyLondon team tell London stories for Londoners. Our reporters cover all the news you need – from City Hall to your local streets, so you never miss a moment.
Don’t skip a beat and sign up for The 12 newsletter here.
“I was there doing research one day, and there are air ducts at the end of every aisle. On one occasion, children were dropping stones in the catacombs, so I didn’t I couldn’t resist. I put my clipboard aside and appeared with a torch under my chin making scary noises.
“They ran and hid. Then they came back to see if the ghost would return. I reappeared making ghostly noises. I guess they told their compatriots at school the next day that they had seen a ghost. I’ll come on tour and I can tell them that it was actually me making ghostly noises to scare them off,” laughs Henry.
Being buried in the catacombs is a matter of personal choice – and there are still 1,000 places available there. But Henry says many Londoners who moved from the countryside originally chose the vaults because at home they might have opted for the vaults under their own parish churches. So here, the Anglican Catacombs, was the second best thing. It was also cheaper because you could buy a smaller space than in the main cemetery.
“There was also a fear of body thieves,” Henry says intriguingly. These are men who literally dug up buried bodies and sold them to the medical profession for dissection. It was a roaring trade in Victorian England. Henry says the practice had been virtually banned by the time Kensal Green opened in 1833, but people were still afraid of it. It was also one of the reasons why large cemeteries like Kensal Green were set up outside central London – because London cemeteries had become completely overflowing, putrid, filthy and prey to body thieves . Sometimes people were even murdered so that their remains could be sold.
So, what are the most asked questions of Henry during his tours? “People often ask what happens when a body decomposes – which isn’t really my area of expertise,” Henry shrugs. “But they are also curious to know why it became a ‘natural Valhalla’”, he explains.
What does it mean? Well, Valhalla was a mythological place ruled by the god Odin, where warriors supposedly went when they died. What Henry means here is that people want to know why Kensal Green has become such a popular place for the rich and famous.
As he explains, this all has to do with the fact that a number of royals were buried here in the first years after it opened, including two children of George III. It helps explain why so many artists, (George Cruikshank), writers (William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope), politicians (Lord Robert Montagu PC) and engineers (Isambard Kingdom Brunel), are buried here.
So why does Henry still love the place after 30 or more years? “It’s an amazing place. I like to share it with people who guide and do research to find out who is buried there,” Henry says modestly.
But there is something I still want to know. And the ghosts?
Henry says he was never aware of the ghosts in the graveyard, even when he was working there alone, and he says he doesn’t get many questions about them. “Ghosts tend to be mostly associated with where people lived rather than where they are buried,” he says. He has a point, but I still wouldn’t want to hang around here at night.
For more information on booking tours or joining the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery click here
To learn more about the history of the cemetery, click here. You can order Henry’s cemetery books here.
If you work in a historic place and have a story to share with us, please email [email protected]