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Kensal Green Cemetery 1860-1900

In last week's post, I looked at the early years of the cemetery after its opening in 1833. Below I explore the lives of some of the famous Victorians who were buried at Kensal Green between 1860 and 1900. The burial records for all have been digitized on the Deceased Online database.

The area around the cemetery altered from the 1860s as Kensal New Town was developed. North Kensington quickly became home to large numbers of working-class people, with several households living in each of the newly built terraced properties. Slum-dwellers were buried not far from aristocrats and celebrities in Kensington's modern cemetery. A strong literary connection to Kensal Green developed in this period, with its grounds becoming the resting places of some the nineteenth century's most celebrated authors.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins are three of the most significant British authors of the Victorian age. Each of them created complex characters and wrote gripping narrative novels that resonated with people of all classes. Their appeal continues today with several of their major works having been popularized further through film and television adaptations.

Dissenters' Chapel

One of my favourite novels of the Victorian period is Vanity Fair, a sprawling satire of the greed and corruption of the upper and middle classes. Although the story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, it was written in the 1840s by Indian-born William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63). Thackeray was celebrated mainly for this, The Newcomes, and The History of Henry Esmond, described by The Times as "his masterpieces". Another of his works, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), was adapted by Stanley Kubrick into an Oscar-winning film in 1975. 

Only 52 when he died, Thackeray was found in his bed on Christmas Eve 1863. Like his contemporary, Charles Dickens, Thackeray was a literary celebrity and hugely popular with the public. The Times praised his "genius", adding that "the chief secret of his power was the simple strength of sympathy within him, that he might flinch from expressing fully but that was none the less the very soul of his successful work." 

Thackeray's funeral took place on Wednesday 30 December 1863 and his remains interred at Kensal Green. Among the hundreds that attended the burial were the writers Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, and Anthony Trollope.
The modest burial entry of Wm. M[akepeace] Thackeray in the Kensal Green Burial Register on the Deceased Online database

 Just under twenty years later, Anthony Trollope (1815-82) would return to Kensal Green for the last time. Described as "the best modern painter of clerical life", Trollope's life contrasted with that of his bon viveur friend, Thackeray. Raised on modest means, Trollope took a position in the General Post Office after his debt-ridden father fled to Belgium. He remained in in the postal service throughout his early years as a novelist and is credited for introducing the red pillar box.

Throughout his early years, Trollope dreamt of being an author. His mother, Frances Trollope, received modest success as a novelist and Anthony's first work, The Macdermotts of Ballycloran, was published in 1847. Like his contemporaries, Thackeray and Dickens, Trollope wrote large narrative novels with a complex cast of characters. Although he wrote 47 novels, today he is remembered chiefly for his "Barsetshire Chronicles" and The Way We Live Now (1875), which was televised by the BBC in 2010. 

A modest man, this "kindly and gracious genius" was buried at Kensal Green on Saturday 9 December 1882. His gravestone reads:

He was a loving husband, a loving father and a true friend.

Both Thackeray and Trollope are  remembered further with plaques in Westminster Abbey. A campaign is underway to commemorate another of their contemporaries, Wilkie Collins..

Wilkie Collins (1824-89) became well-known in the 1860s with the publication of his great sensation detective novels, The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). While the former became the most popular novel of the nineteenth century, the modernist poet, T.S. Eliot, described the latter as "the first and greatest of English detective novels". 

The son of the artist, William Collins, Wilkie Collins was less celebrated after his death than his contemporaries, perhaps as a result of his unconventional opium-smoking lifestyle. However, while he was alive his greatest works sold in their thousands and much of his personal life remained secret from the public. The fact that he kept two mistresses and their families was only discovered in the reading of his will some time after his death on 23 September 1889.

On Friday 27 September 1889, Wilkie Collins was buried at Kensal Green. His friend and former employer at the journal, Household Words, Charles Dickens, had died in 1870, but the novelist's daughter, Mary Dickens, sent a wreath "in remembrance of her father's love for Wilkie Collins, this wreath of scarlet geraniums is sent, being Charles Dickens's favourite flower".

The grave of Wilkie Collins in Kensal Green Cemetery
Many of the works of Thackeray, Trollope and Collins were borrowed from lending libraries and cheap bookshops, such as those run by the firm, W. H. Smith. It seems apt, therefore, that this great publiciser of Victorian novels should lie now beside their creators.

William Henry Smith (1792-1865) and his brother took over their father's newsvending business, which had been established in 1792, on their mother's death in 1816. By 1828, William had become the more successful and he re-named the business after himself. In 1846, the company became W. H. Smith and Son. Two years later father and son W. H. Smiths launched their first bookstall at Euston Station, selling "yellowback" books - cheap reproductions of popular works. In 1860, the younger W. H. Smith (1825-1891) began a lending library that would last for over a hundred years.

The original William Henry Smith retired in 1857 and died in 1865, aged 73. He is buried in Kensal Green underneath a tomb bearing an open book. He shares a grave with his grandson, Henry Walton Danvers Smith (b. 1865), who died in 1866.

The stone book marking the grave of the first W. H. Smith and his grandson
Besides these literary giants, the cemetery is home to other significant Britons, including 'James' Barry (c.1795-1865), the first female military surgeon. Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, but lived as a man throughout adult life. Barry trained at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, the United Hospitals of Guy's and St Thomas's, and the Royal College of Surgeons, qualifying as a Regimental Assistant in 1813. Barry went on to serve succesfully as a surgeon in India, South Africa, Mauritius, the West Indies and Canada, eventually becoming Inspector General, H. M. Army Hospitals. Only after death was Barry discovered to be female.

Headstone of James Barry

    Below is the simple monument marking the burial place of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), inventor of calculating machines, the forerunners of the modern computer.

    Other well-known Georgian and Victorian personalities who were buried at Kensal Green Cemetery between 1860 and 1900 are:
    • John Liston (1776-1864) - highest paid comic of his era
    • Isabella Glyn (1823-89) - Shakespearean actress, imprisoned for two years for declining to release divorce documents
    • Charles Blondin (Jean-François Gravelet; 1824-97) - tightrope walker who crossed the Niagara Falls
    • Sarah Lane (1822-99) - actress-manager of the Britannia theatre pantomimes
    • Sir John Rennie (1794-1874) - architect of London Bridge (from 1824) and the Chatham Dockyards
    • Edward Seaton (1815-80) - surgeon, founder of the Epidemiological Society
    Do let us know if you have found any of your ancestors lying near the graves of these literary giants. We love to hear from you on our Facebook and Twitter pages or in the Comments Box below.
    "The Death Of Mr. Thackeray.-Mr. Thacke-." Times [London, England] 28 Dec. 1863: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 1 Jan. 2014.
    Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England), Thursday, December 31, 1863; Issue 1712.
    Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, December 17, 1882; Issue 2091. 
    The Derby Mercury (Derby, England), Wednesday, October 2, 1889; Issue 9116. 
    T. S. Eliot, "Wilkie Collins and Dickens" in Ian Watt (ed.), The Victorian Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism (Oxford: OUP, 1971). 


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