Kensal Green Cemetery
John Coutts delves into the undergrowth of Victorian life and death in North London.
Whilst a number of small cemeteries existed in London in the early part of the nineteenth century, it was not until 1832 that London's first 'modern' cemetery opened. Contrary to widely held belief this was not at Highgate, which opened five years later, but at Kensal Green, and it was twenty times bigger than anything that had previously existed in London.
Conditions in London's graveyards before 1832 (and for many years afterwards) were scandalous. Many had been in continuous use since the Middle Ages and overcrowding was endemic.
In some places the topographic legacy of this remains. The ground level in many city churchyards is noticeably higher than the floor level within the churches themselves. Coffins were piled up when they could not be buried, a sexton's sprinkling of earth atop the caskets paying tawdry lip service to notions of a 'decent' burial.
Cholera victims were shoehorned into the very graveyards that had helped to kill them in the first place. The parishes felt no particular responsibility for salubrious burial of the dead, despite the protestations of the miasmist lobby, who believed, correctly, that putrifying remains in churchyards spread disease, although it was water contamination, rather than the stench that was responsible.
That there were so few cemeteries in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century is a testament to clerical apathy and greed. They were certainly s not new to Britain. In the great non-conformist centres of Liverpool and Glasgow, large cemeteries already existed.