By our Guide Robert Stephenson
On an evening in July about twenty FHHS members had a tour of Margravine cemetery, adjacent to Barons Court Tube station. This 16½ acre cemetery is not on a main road and is almost completely surrounded by tall brick walls with the gardens of Victorian housing beyond. Its potential to become a forgotten backwater is countered by the nearby Tube station from which issues a stream of patients bound for Charing Cross Hospital at the opposite end of the cemetery.
Despite being the final resting place of over 83,000 Hammersmith residents it is sparsely populated with headstones except along the central avenue where the larger monuments congregate. The explanation is that in 1951 it was designated a Garden of Rest and huge numbers of the older and more derelict monuments were removed. Since then it has been managed as a park, although in the last few years a small number of burials have been allowed in the space where two impressive lines of elm trees once stood either side of the central avenue. A favoured activity of the Friends group, since its formation a dozen years ago, has been to plant trees, each one with official permission, and some areas have more trees than headstones. In 1985 the cemetery became part of the local conservation area and being a well-kept open space it has been awarded the Green Flag for several years.
It was originally opened in 1869 as Hammersmith Cemetery but about seventy years ago it was renamed Margravine Cemetery to honour a remarkable local resident, the would-be actress, travel writer and firebrand, Lady Craven (1750-1828). After the death of Lord Craven, by whom she had had six children by the age of thirty, she married a former beau His Serene Highness the Margrave of Brandenburg, Anspach and Bayreuth. She thereby acquired the title of Margravine and the couple took up residence in Brandenburg House near the cemetery. Here they hosted magnificent soirees in their grounds beside the Thames where a theatre was built for her spirited dramatic performances.
All the disagreeably overcrowded churchyards in Hammersmith were rightly closed in 1854 in accordance with the Metropolitan Burials Act of 1852. However, the protracted gestation period that followed to open a compensatory cemetery is a story of farcical incompetence. The burial board took another fifteen years to open a cemetery, an abysmal effort considering contemporary maps show the surrounding area was mostly open countryside. In the intervening years residents were forced to pay elevated fees for burial outside the borough.
All the cemetery’s buildings, which included two chapels, three lodges and a Reception House, were the work of local architect George Saunders. His Anglican Chapel was demolished in 1953 but the smaller Non-conformist Chapel survives and its Gothic exterior was inspected by members.
The cemetery possesses a modest number of interesting graves. Top of the list would once have been Sir Emery Walker (1851-1933) who joined forces with William Morris on a number of printing enterprises and whose house by the river is still open to the public. His cremated remains were interred in his parents’ grave as still stated on their headstone. However, some years ago they were removed to Sapperton in the Cotswolds, a sad loss for a cemetery guide. Nevertheless, we still have Roy Byford (1873-1939), who was a large and very popular actor, who played the rumbustious roles in Shakespeare. His performances can be judged from a dozen films he made towards the end of his career. A humble family headstone tells the sad tale of a mother and her nine-year-old son who perished in the Princess Alice disaster on the Thames in 1878 when over 600 day trippers were drowned. Nearby is a much grander monument in bronze commemorating George Broad (1840-1895), a Hammersmith foundry owner who cast the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, a very early use of aluminium for sculpture. His own self-cast monument is a splendid example of the artistry of the notable Italian sculptor Aristide Fabbrucci. Also on the central avenue is the grave of George Wimpey (1855-1913) who founded the building contractors responsible for the 1908 Olympic Games stadium and the famed White City. His monument is a broken column of finely polished granite, a debateable choice for a builder. A few yards further on is a large white marble cross to Abe Smith (1845-1923), who spent time in New South Wales prospecting for gold. On its base is a dear little carving of him sitting in his prospector’s hut dreaming of Hammersmith. Opposite is the cemetery’s only mausoleum, created by the Young family in 1883 following the devastating death of their son, Frederick, aged just eighteen. Next to this stands the War Memorial of J. Lyon’s & Co, which had its headquarters in Hammersmith. The monument was removed from the company’s former playing field at Greenford and re-erected here in 2002.
The most recent monumental restoration was funded by Historic England from a budget set aside for centenary commemorations of the First World War. A new sign tells how a few days before the Armistice in 1918 an explosion at W. E. Blake’s munitions factory in Wood Lane killed 13 people. This was unwanted news at a time of universal euphoria and received little press coverage. Local MP, mayor and later cemetery resident, Henry Foreman (1853-1924), felt that this was unfair on the victims and paid for a communal grave marked by a rugged granite cross. Because of its local historical significance it was listed Grade II in 2017, one of six listed monuments in the cemetery.
Margravine cemetery’s Reception House is an attractive octagonal building with a steeply pitched roof and its purpose was to store coffins prior to burial. It owes its existence to a survey of urban burial practices published in 1843 by Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890). This discovered that 20,000 families in London were living in single rooms and when a death occurred they had nowhere else to store a coffin. Chadwick was appalled and his proposals to alleviate such problems were incorporated into the Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850. The Reception House was listed Grade II in 2016 and is the only free-standing example of its type in a London cemetery and the reason for this is that shortly after its construction undertakers began providing chapels of rest. As the evening shadows lengthened FHHS members entered the dimly lit interior to see the stone slabs around the walls capable of accommodating five coffins. Finally attendees were invited to partake of drinks under a yew tree kindly provided by the Friends of the cemetery.