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Brookwood Cemetery: a virtual exploration of the UK’s largest necropolis

Photo credit: Amanda Slater/ Brookwood Military Cemetery/ 2010/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/pikerslanefarm/4828473384/

In 1852, Brookwood Cemetery (a Grade I listed Historic Park and Garden in the centre of Surrey) was established due to the requirement of an overspill burial ground during an episode of cholera-related mass death in London in 1848. In 1854, when the first burials took place, it was the largest cemetery in the world. Initially, the site was some 2,000 acres, however, after asset stripping in the 1950s, the site was reduced to the 220 acres that endures. Today, it remains the biggest in the UK and has been the resting place for many famous people over the years, including soldiers from both world wars and those associated with both the British Royal Family and overseas monarchies. It accommodates an incredibly diverse history, catering ‘for all classes and faiths’. By the 1860s, the site accommodated over 3,500 burials per year, and today there are estimated to be over 235,000 graves.

The cemetery was originally accessible by a special railway station, the London Necropolis railway station, next to Waterloo station. The cemetery had a dedicated branch line from the adjoining South Western Main Line, just west of Brookwood station. It aimed to use the new advancements in railway technology to relocate as many burials as possible following the serious overcrowding in London’s existing graveyards. Return train tickets were offered to those attending the burials, while singles were issued for the dead. There were two locations for the station, the first being operational from 1854 to 1902, and the second from 1902 to 1941, but this was demolished after suffering bomb damage during World War II. There were two stations inside the cemetery itself, one serving the non-conformist side (North) and the serving the Anglican side (South). A short piece of track and commemorative plaque serves as a reminder of this railway, and the southern platform still exists today, under the possession of the St. Edward Brotherhood.

At the time, the Bishop of London condemned the ‘offensive’ report of first-, second- and third-class corpses in the same carriages, and demanded this be revised. Thus, its trains were specially designed with both passenger and hearse carriages reserved for different classes. According to John M. Clarke (Clarke, J.M., 2006. The Brookwood Necropolis Railway. Locomotion Papers. Vol. 143. 4th ed. Usk: The Oakwood Press), the London Necropolis Company (LNC), who originally devised the cemetery, also offered three types of funerals: a first-class funeral enabled choice over the grave site, with the original prices weighing in at around £2 10s (£250 today), and a permanent memorial would be erected in due course. Second-class funerals, which cost around £1 (£100) allowed some control over burial location, with a permanent memorial being an additional cost. If this was not erected, the LNC reserved the right to re-use the grave in the future. Third-class funerals were reserved for ‘pauper’ funerals, which were the majority (about 80%) of Victorian graves. These were buried at parish expense in the section designated for that parish. They rarely had headstones and were not granted the right to erect permanent memorials. The LNC was forbidden from using mass graves (other than the burial of next of kin in the same grave), meaning that even the lowest class were provided with a separate grave. For the time, the graves granted to even the lowest class were more dignified than the majority of other cemeteries, many of which still dug mass graves for the poor. They also permitted burials on Sundays, which was a popular choice for those poor families who would otherwise have to take the day off work. The families could pay afterwards to upgrade a third-class grave to a higher class if they later wanted to erect a memorial, but this practice was rare.

Class Areas in Brookwood Cemetery Source: Herman, A., 2010. Death has a touch of class: Society and space in Brookwood Cemetery, 1853-1903. Journal of Historical Geography, [online] 36(3), pp.305-14. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248584919_Death_has_a_touch_of_class_Society_and_space_in_Brookwood_Cemetery_1853-1903  

The first burial at the cemetery was, according to John M. Clarke (Clarke, J.M., 2004. London's Necropolis. A Guide to Brookwood Cemetery. Stroud: Sutton Publishing) of the stillborn twins of Mr and Mrs Hore of Ewer Street (Southwark Borough, London), which, along with the other burials that day, were pauper funerals and buried in unmarked graves. The first permanent memorial burial was that of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Goldfinch, buried in November 1854, who served during the Peninsular War of 1807-14 and was one of the first 30 people to be buried there.

Brookwood Cemetery was often the location of mass reburials when London civil engineering projects often necessitated the demolition of existing churchyards. The first relocation occurred in 1862 when the construction of Charing Cross railway station and its routes required the demolition of Cure’s College (Southwark) which contained at least 7,950 bodies, which were shipped, along with some existing headstones, to Brookwood via the railway. This is said to have occurred for at least 21 London burial grounds. The most recent was in 2017, with the exhumation of the remains of around 50,000 people interred at the former burial ground of St. James’ Church (Piccadilly) after construction began on the new HS2 terminal (a high-speed railway line to connect London and Manchester) at Euston Station.

In 1878, the LNC sold a piece of its land, close to St John’s village, to the Cremation Society of Great Britain, upon which the Woking Crematorium was built in 1879 after a long campaign. This was the first built in Britain. It was also the location of the first official cremation in the country in 1885, when Jeanette Pickersgill, a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles, and by 1888, 28 cremations had taken place at the venue. After 1945, the practice became increasingly popular. In that year, the LNC began construction of the Glades of Remembrance, a wooded area dedicated to the burial of cremated remains.

Brookwood Cemetery also houses the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the United Kingdom. Brookwood Military Cemetery covers around 37 acres. In August 1914, upon the outbreak of World War I, the LNC offered to donate one acre to the War Office ‘for the free interment of soldiers and sailors who have returned from the front wounded and may subsequently die’. This offer was taken up in 1917, and a section of the cemetery was set aside for the burials of service personnel who died in the London District. 141 Commonwealth service personnel were buried in scattered graves around the cemetery, while small plots were established for nurses from Millbank Military Hospital and another for Indians.

The purpose-built cemetery in 1917 went on to accommodate many dead from World War II. 51 Commonwealth service personnel were buried in the civilian cemetery and a military memorial to the missing was built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in 1958. Today, the site contains over 1,600 Commonwealth burials from World War I and over 3,400 from World War II, the latter including three unidentified British and two unidentified Canadian airmen). The World War II burials contain a large Canadian section, including 43 men who died following the Dieppe Raid (August 1942) in northern France. There is also a large Royal Air Force (RAF) section, which includes the graves of Czech and US nationals who died serving in the RAF. There are also nearly 800 non-Commonwealth war graves, including French, German, Belgium, Dutch and Italian sections.  The United Kingdom 1914-1918 Memorial, replaced in 2004, commemorated 338 Commonwealth service personnel who died in World War I in the UK but have no known grave. Similarly, the Brookwood Memorial, found in the cemetery’s Canadian section, commemorates the over 3,400 Commonwealth men and women who died during World War I and have no known grave. It also honours 199 Canadian servicemen and women. The Brookwood (Russia) Memorial was erected in 1983 to commemorate those in the British Commonwealth who died in Russia during both world wars because during the Cold War those graves were inaccessible. This was dismantled in 2015.

The Brookwood American Cemetery and Memorial, which covers around 4.5 acres, contains the graves from World War I of 468 American military dead and commemorates a further 563 with no known grave. Following America’s entry into World War II, this cemetery was enlarged, with burials beginning in April 1942. With large numbers of American personnel based in the west of England, a dedicated rail service for the transportation of bodies operated from Devonport (Plymouth) to Brookwood. By August 1944, over 3,600 bodies had been buried there. After this, US casualties were buried at Cambridge American Cemetery.

Alongside this already fascinating history, Brookwood Cemetery has also been the final resting place of many notable and famous people. St Edward the Martyr (c. 962-978), who was King of England from 959 to 975, was murdered near the site of Corfe Castle (Dorset) at the age of just 15 or 16, supposedly as a result of his stepmother’s scheming. He was succeeded by his half-brother, Æthelred the Unready. His initial burial was hurried, and he was moved to Shaftesbury Abbey and canonised in 1008. St Edward's shrine survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-41 under Henry VIII) when it was stripped of its wealth. However, St Edward's remains had previously been removed and hidden in the Church. In 1931, a crude casket was unearthed during an archaeological investigation of the site. In 1984, he was reburied in Brookwood Cemetery, with his relics kept nearby in St Edward the Martyr Orthodox Church. Muhammad al-Badr, the last king and Zaidi Iman of Yemen (1926-1996) can also be found here, having died while living in the UK in exile.

Admiral Sir Edward Codrington (1770-1851), was a naval hero of the Battles of Trafalgar (an engagement between the British Royal Navy and the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic Wars, 1803-15) and Navarino (during the Greek War of Independence in modern-day Pylos, 1821-29) was also reburied from St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square in London. His two sons both went on to achieve distinction in the British armed forces, Sir William being a commander in the Crimean War and Sir Henry becoming an Admiral of the Fleet. The widow of Captain Edward J. Smith (the captain of the Titanic who was lost at sea in April 1912), Sarah Eleanor Smith, is also buried there, following her death resulting from grave injuries when she was struck by a taxi in London in April 1931.

Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll can also be found in Brookwood Cemetery. Branded the ‘Dirty Duchess’, the member of the Scottish nobility was most famous for her 1951 marriage and highly publicised 1963 divorce from her second husband Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. In the divorce case, a list of as many as 88 men with whom the Duke believed his wife had consorted was produced, said to have included two government ministers and three members of the British royal family. Granting the divorce, the presiding judge said the evidence illustrated that the Duchess was a ‘completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men’. Her elaborate lifestyle and rash investments left her largely bankrupt by the time of her death. She died in 1993 and was buried alongside her first husband, Charles Sweeny (who died four months prior) in Brookwood Cemetery. Dodi Fayed, the Egyptian film producer and romantic partner of Diana, Princess of Wales, was originally interred at Brookwood Cemetery following his death in the car crash in Paris (31st August 1997) that also killed Diana. In accordance with the Muslim tradition of being buried within 24 hours of death, his body was flown back to London and was then interred in a specially selected plot, where he then lay for the customary 40 days of Muslim mourning. The grave, which had a designed garden of remembrance, practically became a site of pilgrimage for those wishing to pay their respects, and the cemetery and local area was swarming with police by land and air. He was later re-interred in the Fayed estate grounds in Oxted, Surrey in October of the same year.

To conclude, within its 220-acre site, Brookwood Cemetery retains an enormous amount of history, becoming the (temporary) burial site for many diverse people, famous or otherwise, over a span of 1000 years. The Brookwood Cemetery website contains a section in which many notable people can be discovered and explored, including the locations of their burial plots if you were inclined to visit and explore the cemetery for yourself: https://brookwoodcemetery.com/notable-graves-at-brookwood-cemetery/. In recent years, evidence of the desire to promote the site’s rich history, ‘notable grave’ signs have been positioned near graves of importance, containing QR codes which redirect you to information about the person buried there. The Brookwood Cemetery Society, founded in 1992, publishes trails, guides and newsletters, and organises periodic guided walks around the grounds. It is open to members of the public every day of the year, including Public Holidays.

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