Brompton Cemetery was opened in 1840 as the West of London and Westminster Cemetery. Its founder was the architect, inventor and entrepreneur Stephen Geary (1797-1854), who had previously created cemeteries at Highgate and Nunhead. The north entrance is in Fulham Road next to West Brompton station, and has a café, with toilets.
The site had been used as a brickworks and market garden, but the design by Benjamin Baud employed its linear character to create an immense open-air cathedral with a central ‘nave’ (Central Avenue) running 2000 feet (600m) to a spectacular ‘high altar’ (the domed Chapel), through the 300-foot (92m) Great Circle, allegedly inspired by the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome. Two prominent colonnades flank Central Avenue and the Great Circle, with catacombs beneath, entered by impressive cast-iron doors. The catacombs were originally conceived as a cheaper alternative burial to having a plot in the grounds of the cemetery, but they were not a success and only about 500 of the many thousands of places in them were sold. The passages follow the curve of the colonnades above, with coffins in niches laid lengthwise against the outer wall and end-on on the inner side of the curve. A section of the south-east quadrant has electric lighting and is opened to visitors on arranged tours.
A further catacomb with a promenade above it originally ran the entire length of the west wall. The promenade had been designed to exploit the view of the Kensington Canal and rural landscape beyond, but large sections were later taken down, as a railway succeeded the canal and suburbs began to cover the fields. Finally, the catacombs were badly damaged when West Brompton Station was bombed in the Second World War, and large sections had to be removed.
The cemetery was acquired by the Board of Health under the Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850, which gave the state powers of compulsory purchase over commercial cemeteries such as Brompton. As the Act was repealed in 1852, Brompton was the only private cemetery purchased under the 1850 Act, and also the first ever to be nationalised. It is still Britain’s only crown cemetery, held for the last 50 years in the care of the Royal Parks Agency.
Occasional tours of the catacombs are arranged by the Friends of Brompton Cemetery.