Literary Locales: Kensal Green Cemetery
This is a part of our “Literary Locales” series here at LT. Check out the first post in the series for more information.
What: Kensal Green Cemetery
Where: Harrow Rd, London W10 4RA
Literary Connection: Wilkie Collins, Trollope, and Thackeray (among others) are buried here
Recommended Reading: G.K. Chesteron’s “The Flying Inn” apparently mentions it and Collins’ The Woman in White seems appropriate for some reason. Alternately, anything about cemeteries, the undead, or Victorian London.
Transgression: A lot of the graves looked disturbed, so perhaps Victorians rising from the dead?
As the oldest of the “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries of London, Kensal Green understandably has a lot going for it. The “notable burials” page on their website goes through about six pages, listing their famous inhabitants by category (one of which is “scandal”!), and the cemetery itself is vast. But for our purposes, Kensal Green Cemetery is remarkable for the large number of literary luminaries buried in its grounds.
I visited the cemetery this past weekend and was surprised by a few things about it: First, there are no maps, so good luck finding anyone you’re looking for. This is a cemetery to be wandered through and enjoyed, rather than purposefully toured.
Second, there are a lot of relatively recent burials in Kensal Green. Despite its heavy saturation with Victorian bigwigs, it is still a working cemetery and you could, if you wanted, still be buried there. So nestled in between random nineteenth-century inhabitants of London are the newly-deceased, their graves still obviously visited by the family and friends they left behind. It’s an interesting contrast between the mossy, largely forgotten graves of nineteenth-century common men (and women) and the lushly floral commemorations to those who died in the last 15 years or so.
On a related point, Kensal Green is a remarkably dense cemetery. Unlike many large American cemeteries that seem to always have open space and trees, Kensal Green is absolutely packed with graves. There are people buried everywhere, so this isn’t a particularly good place to come in hopes of a nice cemetery picnic, unless you’re doing it atop a mausoleum or on someone’s raised sarcophagus.
And, third, the sheer size of the cemetery was surprising. I knew it was big, sure, but it just kept going! Every time you think you’ve reached the end, there’s more to be explored in every direction. My fellow explorers and I were unfortunately forced to leave since the cemetery was closing so we didn’t even make it to the crematorium at the far end of the cemetery (I think Freddie Mercury’s ashes are there), so it’s actually even bigger than I’ve experienced. It’s definitely worth taking a whole afternoon (or day) to explore more fully.
As it was, in the course of our aimless exploration of the cemetery, we happened across caricaturist George Cruikshank, Princess Sophia (fifth daughter of George III), a duke or two, and some impressively opulent mausoleums. Unfortunately, I was unable to find Collins, Thackeray, or Trollope, but I’ll definitely be going back to search for them.
In terms of things to do at Kensal Green aside from wander aimlessly, there are guided tours of the crypt every Sunday and a few walking tour guides are available online to be printed off before you go for more directed wandering. The cemetery itself is absolutely beautiful and well worth the journey out to the far reaches of Western London. And if you can find some of the literary celebrities, well done you!