Jan 7 2013 by Hannah Bewley, Harrow Observer
THERE are more than 250,000 souls lying in the ground in Kensal Rise cemetery, and each one has a story to tell.
Despite a wintry chill and a glittering frost, which would have laid the foundations of any horror film, the cemetery on the day I visited was anything but eerie.
Signe Hoffos, chairman of Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, was so full of information, history and knowledge, that even the catacombs underneath the Anglican Chapel with its crumbling coffins and dark corridors increased the curiosity of the tour group instead of killing it with fear.
The Friends run tours throughout the year and they are always well attended.
We started at the Anglican Chapel in the middle of the large cemetery, which withstood bomb attacks during the Second World War while the catacombs beneath were used as a bomb shelter.
The building itself is in dire need of repair and the Friends are in the process of applying to English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund for much needed grants to fix it up.
Underneath, in the catacombs lie the bodies of people from all over the world. Some have been forgotten by their relatives, who were unable to return or died themselves, and others are visited regularly.
The tradition of interment in catacombs is strongest in Catholic countries, especially Latin America, and in much of Eastern Europe, but there are others, such as a bachelors and whole families who choose to rest forever in the dark and 3,000 of the 4,000 spaces are filled.
The coffins are triple lined, and some date back to when the cemetery first opened in 1833 and even though the wood and fittings are crumbling all that is visible is the lead underneath.
One of the most remarkable stories of the catacombs is Winifred Fowler, a young girl who died in 1917 while the world was at war and it was discovered that the rest of her family were buried in Canada.
Her body had been sent in a triple-lined lead-sealed coffin to the cemetery in a suitcase from a London hotel and rested there until 2006.
Eventually, her lineage was discovered and she was transported back to Canada, where she now lies in New Brunswick with the rest of her family.
Back out in the open air Signe talked us through the numerous links to Charles Dickens in the cemetery.
His friend John Forster lies here as well as his in-laws.
It was not always a place where celebrities chose their final resting place as when the cemetery opened in 1833, the uptake was slow.
Signe said: “Not many people signed up to be buried here originally, but in 1843 we got our first royal, and then it was seen as the done thing. The first of the royals was the Duke of Sussex and later his sister, Princess Sophia. It was all about social standing and part of the reason people put their names and occupations on the tombs was so that people would see them and they would be seen to be setting an example.”
The grounds of the cemetery show an extremely revealing aspect of history in London and there are people from all walks of life.
Signe said: “We have a history of consumer culture here, loads of Victorian history and many characters from European history as well. It is called the cemetery of All Souls and it really is full of all souls. You get aristocracy next to people with money and they are gaining acceptance here which they probably never had in life.”
The inventor of Pears’ Soap, Andrew Pears, lies here, as does the first WH Smith, Harold Pinter, JG Ballard, William Makepeace Thackery, 13 Victoria Cross recipients and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
People from around the area are still being buried here and there are roughly about 300 plots left.
New graves are being carefully placed among the old ones and everything is done by hand to preserve what is already there.
However, a lot of work needs doing as many of the monuments are falling into disrepair.
There are 152 listed buildings and monuments in the cemetery and it takes an extreme amount of care, and money, to preserve them.
The cemetery itself is owned by the General Cemetery Company and has been used extensively for filming television series and films and is home to a wide variety of wildlife as it is a valued green space.
Much work has been done to secure mausoleums as homeless people sheltered in them for the night to escape the cold.
There are still mysteries to uncover about the cemetery, but it is not a mysterious or eerie place, more a collection of the lives of some of London’s most fascinating people.
As Signe said: “Frankly this is a place of rest for all of them.”
n To find out more about guided tours go to www.kensalgreen.co.uk