Sheffield, in south Yorkshire, is famous around the world as a centre of steel production – stainless steel was invented in the city in 1912 and many thousands of the city’s residents worked in crucibles and factories producing steel and steel products such as cutlery and weapon components. On a peaceful hillside thousands of Sheffield’s citizens lie at rest, some with graves marked by grand memorials, others unseen beneath the trees and undergrowth. After a period of postwar neglect and uncertainty, the Sheffield General Cemetery is now a celebrated part of the city’s heritage.
Most of the grand mausolea we see in Victorian cemeteries are private spaces, accessible only to the families of those interred within or blocked off and sealed forever to keep vandals out. However, today we are visiting a mausoleum with an unusual story attached to it: one where its doors are occasionally opened and where visitors can view the coffins and memorials within. This might seem like a strange thing to do, even an intrusion, but the man who commissioned the mausoleum regularly visited it himself while he was still alive, and today the mausoleum’s well-preserved interior serves as a testament to the affection in which he held his young mistress.
A few weeks ago, I went to Brompton Cemetery again. I was with my friend Sharon, a fellow graveyard explorer, and I also had a new camera lens to put through its paces. Since my last visit, a lot of the undergrowth that had swallowed up a good many gravestones had been cleared, and as a result we came across many graves that I’d never seen before. Last time I wrote about Brompton, I felt that I’d not been able to do the place justice in just one article, so it seems like a good time to revisit the cemetery and look at more of its rich heritage. Some of the graves featured this time around are grand and mysterious, others are modest and unassuming; yet all of them have their own fascinating stories to tell.
Cimetière de Montmartre, in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, did not have the most glamorous or auspicious of beginnings. It was originally a gypsum quarry, situated outside of the city walls, and after the quarry was abandoned, a section of it was used as a mass grave during the turbulent years of the 1790s. Yet this rather grim location was over time transformed, and it is now a peaceful haven where thousands of Parisians lie at rest beneath beautiful memorials.
Highgate is London’s famous cemetery – it’s the one that most people think of first when Victorian cemeteries are mentioned and it’s the most well known of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries that date from the early Victorian period. Its location on a hillside overlooking the towers of central London draws thousands of visitors, and the overgrown western cemetery has inspired quite a few chilling tales over the years. Although it retains the glamour and prestige it commanded in its heyday, Highgate looks quite different now compared to its Victorian beginnings. Despite the many years of neglect (now being remedied by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery), this wonderful burial ground is still one of the finest locations of Victorian funerary architecture in Britain.
One of the things that has always appealed to me about the big Victorian cemeteries is their sense of drama, and their grand, elaborate memorials. Of course, there’s nothing new about the moneyed commissioning ostentatious memorials for themselves and their loved ones, but in the grand cemeteries of the big cities, like London, it’s possible to see lots of dramatic memorials clustered closely together, all vying for prominence in burial grounds that were designed to be visited by the living as well as being places for the dead to rest.
Kensal Green, one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries, is home to many wonderfully dramatic monuments. Opened in 1833, it was inspired by the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and the burial of one of King George III’s sons, Prince Augustus Frederick (died 1843), made Kensal Green a fashionable place to be laid to rest.