Kensal Green Cemetery is truly a Necropolis. A vast nineteenth century garden city of the dead, one of seven built in suburban London to relieve pressure on the overcrowded churchyards of the old city, it sprawls across 72 acres (29 hectares) and is the final resting place of some 250,000 people.
Here, among the aristocrats and politicians, architects, artists, engineers, financiers and factory owners, writers, musicians, doctors, actors and other notables (not to mention vast numbers of rather more ordinary men and women), there can also be found a small gathering of Chartists. They are few in number, barely enough to make a committee quorum let alone a monster meeting, but they probably constitute the biggest concentration of Old Chartists to be found in any cemetery.
Armed with a list and some shaky details of where the Chartists might be found, I visited the cemetery in March 2023 to see how many I could track down. What follows is a mini walking tour taking in all the Chartist graves I could find. Please let me know if you discover any more!
There are other options, but Kensal Green Underground Station on the Bakerloo Line is a good start, and that in turn almost overlooks the cemetery, the boundary wall of which runs down one side of the busy Harrow Road. There are two entrances to the cemetery from the Harrow Road: a right turn up the hill will take you to the Top Gate, which opens into the Roman Catholic cemetery; more usefully if you are in search of Chartists, an appropriately left turn and ten-minute walk down the hill takes you to the Main Gate, which also houses the cemetery offices.
Pass through the arch of the Main Gate (1) and turn left. Everything from here to the bottom of the hill is the dissenters’ cemetery. Follow the path down to the dissenters’ chapel (2), which was restored in 1997 and is managed by the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery. Funeral services are still held there, as they have been since it opened in 1834. Today the building is grade II* listed.
Continue along the main perimeter path as it turns back along the far (south) side of the cemetery, and on your right you will find a memorial to Henry Hetherington, ‘The Poor Man’s Guardian’ (3). Hetherington was an important figure in radical London in the 1830s and 1840s, much influenced by the co-operator Robert Owen, and at the forefront of the campaign against the ‘tax on knowledge’ which imposed stamp duty on newspapers. He had been a delegate at the first Chartist Convention and would remain a radical for the remainder of his life, although his advocacy of alliances with middle class reformers meant he was out of sympathy and out of favour with the mainstream of Chartism.
Hetherington was an atheist, so when he died of cholera in 1849 there was no church service. But old disagreements were put aside, and thousands followed his coffin to the cemetery and stayed on to hear his friends George Jacob Holyoake and James Watson speak at the graveside. The towering memorial to Hetherington was not erected until 1873, nearly a quarter of a century after his death. Read about The ‘somewhat extraordinary’ funeral of the atheist Henry Hetherington.
Before moving on, turn and face the south wall of the cemetery. The narrow stretch of grass between the footpath and the wall was once a public grave for those too poor to pay for their own burial plot or memorial. Somewhere in here, the veteran Spencean ultra-radical and president of the Chartist London Democratic Association Allen Davenport is buried (4).
Carry on around the circuit just a short distance, and set back behind a jumble of graves and memorials you will easily spot two tall obelisks standing side by side. The first is that of the co-operator, trade unionist and utopian socialist thinker Robert Owen (5). Though never a Chartist, Owen was an exceptionally influential thinker – and doer – in his lifetime and later. Henry Hetherington acknowledged his radical debt to Owen, and it is almost impossible to consider the Chartist land plan promoted so strongly by Feargus O’Connor without some reference to the Owenite settlements at New Lanark and elsewhere. Though a magnificent memorial, it does not mark the grave of Robert Owen – he is buried at Newtown in Powys.
The Reformers’ Memorial (6) stands immediately to the side of the Owen obelisk. Erected in 1885, it is, as the name suggests, a memorial monument rather than a grave marker. Chartists listed among the more-than seventy names include George Jacob Holyoake, John Frost, William Lovett and Ernest Jones. It is an eclectic list, co-opting the ultra-radical Thomas Spence along with prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and philosopher John Stuart Mill as ‘men and women who have generously given their time and means to improve the conditions and enhance the happiness of all classes of society’. Some of those named would surely have been horrified by the company in which they find themselves. The memorial is grade II listed.
Head back to the top of the path that loops through the dissenters’ cemetery. Here you will find the grave of John Epps (7). A doctor, phrenologist and homeopath, Epps was involved in a variety of radical causes, from corn law repeal to the abolition of church rates, and worked with many of the great reformers of his time. He was an early honorary member of London Working Men’s Association and supported William Lovett’s ‘New Move’ in opposition to Feargus O’Connor. At the general election of 1847, Epps was one of a number of members of the Complete Suffrage Union to stand for election; endorsed rather unenthusiastically by the considerably larger and more working-class National Charter Association, Epps was barracked at a Chartist dinner for arguing that the working class could only obtain their rights from the middle class.
Turn your back to the religious (and irreligious) dissenters and head west along the main central footpath. Feargus O’Connor’s memorial is set some way back from the path (8). If you have seen a photograph of it, you will not find it difficult to spot – but take care in cutting between the graves that surround it. By the time O’Connor died in 1855, his personal estate was worth less than £20. Nevertheless, his many friends organised a magnificent funeral and tens of thousands turned out to say a final farewell to the man who had come to embody Chartism. Inevitably, however, given the decayed and sectarian state of Chartism in the 1850s, rival committees led by Ernest Jones and G.W.M. Reynolds sprang up to organise a permanent memorial. The story of their rivalry, truce and the eventual surprise erection of the current seven-tonne, twenty-foot high, gothic monument is told by Paul Pickering in his 2008 biography Feargus O’Connor: A Political Life. The tragic death and magnificent funeral of Feargus O’Connor.
Vaults and tombs
Returning to the main central path, head east towards the Church of England chapel that stands at the centre of the cemetery. The closer you get, the larger, more imposing and in many ways more depressing the great temple-like Victorian vaults and tombs become (9). The very obviously multicultural nature of much of the cemetery’s more recent burials is missing here, and the final hundred yards or so is dominated by the hulking memorials and the family vaults of long-forgotten Victorian magnates and the administrators of a past empire. It is hard to imagine that anyone interred here had any sympathy for the Chartist cause.
Thomas Slingsby Duncombe
There is, however, one exception. Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, the louche dandy and spendthrift aristocratic radical who turned out to be Chartism’s best and most consistent supporter in the House of Commons is buried in this very exclusive part of the cemetery (10). In 1842, it was Duncombe who presented the second great Chartist petition to Parliament. After his death, the Morning Chronicle (22 November 1861) reported: ‘The grave of the deceased is of brick, on the open ground on the north side of the cemetery, immediately between the vault where rest the remains of Lord Palmerston’s sister, Mrs Bowles, and the vault of Mr F. Huth, the eminent merchant.’ Duncombe takes some tracking down today: first locate the enormous Huth vault, which though set back from the footpath amidst a jumble of memorials can be identified from the Latin text around the walls; Duncombe’s simple Portland stone slab is behind it. The text, though now almost impossible to make out, reads: ‘Thomas Slingsby Duncombe / MP / During 35 years / For Finsbury / Died in the 65th year of his age / November 13th 1861’. More about Thomas Slingsby Duncombe.
George William MacArthur Reynolds
Return to the central footpath. As you draw closer, the Church of England chapel appears to be something of a cross between a Greek temple and a colonial seat of government. It is at present closed and surrounded by some very unpicturesque temporary metal fencing. Beneath the chapel and its collonades, however, is a vast catacomb, in which is interred George William MacArthur (G.W.M) Reynolds – newspaper editor and publisher, best-selling author of gothic fiction, and a later leader of the Chartist movement (11).
A few notes of caution: Kensal Green is still a working cemetery, so some discretion and a modicum of sensitivity is required. The cemetery permits still photography for non-commercial purposes, but you will need permission for anything more. And finally, gravestones lean at alarming angles, graves subside and paths can be slippery – so take care.