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John Clarke

Historian of Brookwood Cemetery

Reviews of London’s Necropolis

Cemetery Guide Goes Back in Time

Book launch of London's Necorpolis, Brookwood Cemetery, July 2004

The author at the book launch of London’s Necropolis at Brookwood Cemetery on July 5, 2004. From left to right, Marilyn Scott (Woking Galleries, now The Lightbox), the author, the Mayor and Mayoress of Woking (Cllr and Mrs Graham Cundy), and the late Ramadan Guney, former owner of Brookwood Cemetery.

THE first major guide to the art and architecture of Brookwood Cemetery was celebrated in true Victorian style on July 5.

History enthusiasts joined councillors, orthodox monks and the Mayor of Woking, Cllr Graham Cundy at the launch of John Clarke’s new book, London’s Necropolis.

Those attending were in traditional Victorian costume similar to the common dress of those who witnessed the cemetery’s opening during the reign of Queen Victoria.

London's Necropolis pays tribute to the cemetery which was the largest burial ground in the world when it was opened in 1854 by the London Necropolis and Mausoleum Company.

Lined with avenues of sequoia and its own railway station, the cemetery contains approximately 235,000 graves reflecting a lost society and most countries of the world.

Mr Clarke’s guide includes maps, plans and more than 100 photographs of some of the most interesting memorials. Brief biographies on 800 individuals who are buried there include Alfred Bestall - Rupert the Bear artist, Field Marshal Roberston, and St Edward the Martyr.

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, who received notoriety for the ‘headless man’ photographs, is also buried there. The photographs were used in evidence brought against her by the Duke of Argyll in their divorce case, which showed a naked Margaret pictured with a naked man whose head had been obscured.

Mr Clarke said: “I am lucky to have had the opportunity of writing the first major guide to the cemetery and I hope the guide will inspire others to take an interest in the site. The cemetery promoters have left us with a wonderful legacy and I hope it can be preserved for future generations as a World Heritage site.”

London’s Necropolis is on sale at bookstores including Ottakars, Woking.

The Woking News & Mail, 15 July 2004, p.8

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Book Reviews

London’s Necropolis. A Guide to Brookwood Cemetery by John M. Clarke. Sutton, 2004. £30.00. Hardback, 320 pp, 100 b+w illustrations.

London's Necropolis by John ClarkeJohn Clarke is well-known for his long-term efforts to preserve what remains of Brookwood Cemetery and for his book on the Brookwood Necropolis Railway.

This new book brings together the results of his work on the cemetery over the last 20 years and will I’m sure prove equally popular.

In 1850 the idea of a great metropolitan cemetery, situated in the suburbs and large enough to contain all of London’s dead for an indefinite period, was promoted.

The outcome was Brookwood Cemetery, the largest burial ground in the world when it was opened in 1854 by the London Necropolis & Mausoleum Company.

The cemetery, which now contains almost 240,000 burials, is still privately owned and administered - and a draft report by the Home Office suggests that it has the potential to become a World Heritage Site.

London’s Necropolis is a guide to the art and architecture of Brookwood, and also includes brief biographies of over 800 individuals of interest who have been buried here - reflecting all levels of society.

Bob Flanagan

From the Friends of West Norwood Cemtery Newsletter, No. 50, May 2004, p.10.

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Making Dry Bones Live - a look at London’s Necropolis by John M. Clarke

The author of this book is a former chairman of Brookwood Cemetery Society which was established in 1992 to promote a wider interest in the cemetery and its history. For 27 years he has found the cemetery a fascination and an inspiration. Yet it is (he writes) one of Surrey’s best kept secrets; few seem to know of it and fewer still care about it. The book is primarily a guide to the cemetery and the author hopes it will encourage us to visit the cemetery and become convinced of its charm, beauty, and importance.

The 400 acres of the cemetery are the location of a quarter of a million graves. (Compare Highgate, London, with 37 acres and Pere Lachaise, Paris, with 118 acres and 75,000 graves.) So there is a big area to explore and a lot to see. Lack of maintenance, natural decay, and vandalism over the past 50 years or so explain much of what we see. An understanding of how this has come about, as well of the cemetery’s raison d’etre, and its layout and character, is only to be found in its history. Clarke therefore begins his book with that history and he recounts it in some detail.

That is followed by the substantive part of the book in nine chapters. Each has a plan of a section of the cemetery and describes what is to be found on a suggested itinerary. Although 80% of the quarter million burials were of paupers in unmarked graves the balance is still a huge number of persons and of (fewer) memorials. Clarke has made a selection of 800 items of which 124 are shown in photographs. Far from being a tedious list the narrative runs engagingly on, telling of the lives, achievements, glory, sometimes the shame or tragedy, of those interred or commemorated. There are many anecdotes, and quotations of notable inscriptions and, of course, one good ghost story. There are useful directions on finding one’s way and avoiding parts where the surface “is very uneven and prone to give way” - it is, after all, a place where one would not care to go too far down.

The book is far more than a miniature Dictionary of National Biography. For instance we are told how the funerals were arranged, the seating of the parties in one example of the funeral trains from Waterloo and their reception and refreshment at Brookwood; the purpose and cultures reflected by the different areas such as the Parsees, Chelsea Royal Hospital, the military cemeteries, the Orthodox church with its royal relics, and the changing attitude of the company to cremation.

One problem is ever present in the pages, namely that of the maintenance of the cemetery and its stonework. Clarke is much more kind to the cemetery company than Alan Crosby in his History of Woking. Crosby suggests that the company was infected from the outset with an eye to profiteering from land sales. Clarke describes its philanthropic vision. Its initial object was to solve London’s burial problem for all time. Its cemetery was to be so vast that re-use down the centuries would find adequate space. When demand fell below expectations land became available for sale. Crosby tells us of the company’s unreflecting sale of land near Woking station resulting in a pitiful hotch-potch of development in the first town centre. Clarke presents the company as producing the prestigious estate at Hook Heath.

On the subject of maintenance Clarke is highly critical of Woking Council. It showed no interest in this treasure chest within the borough; its planning decisions contributed rather to destruction than preservation, particularly its permission for the re-development of the stone-mason’s yard. Only very belatedly had it made any move towards the statutory (planning) listing of any of the monuments. Since publication of the book it has been reported that the Council has secured the listing of 15 monuments thereby conferring some physical protection and eligibility for financial assistance.

Clarke’s reflections on maintenance lack proportion. The care of churches, graveyards, and funerary masonry is a national problem. To fund significantly the largest cemetery in Europe would impose a major burden on Woking’s council-tax payers. The cemetery was essentially a concern of the cemetery company which had been putting its own terms into its contracts with the purchasers of the grave spaces. (Clarke does not deal with this aspect). The Council did in fact take a great interest in the Brookwood Cemetery Act 1975 which authorized the sale of cemetery land. Against the company’s disapproval it successfully pressed Parliament to include provision for at least part of the proceeds of such sales to be used for maintenance. Overall, though, it is fair to say that the 1975 Act and the cemetery’s needs - which had been present for decades and were going to continue - were an unwelcome distraction from the Council's main business of providing a new town centre. Clarke does acknowledge in a remote footnote No 181 that the cemetery deserves national funding.

This book, then, is the story of the cemetery grafted on to a guide book. In both respects the book is efficient, unique, readable with pleasure, and fills a need in a creditable and workmanlike manner. It brings to our attention what we (and Crosby) sometimes overlook - the great service performed by the company in enabling the rehabilitation of the inner London charnel churchyards, and providing a fitting repose for the well-to-do and a dignified destination for others including 200,000 paupers.

There is a reference in Ezekiel to making dry bones live. “The historian’s duty” said Philip Guedella, “is not merely to catalogue dry bones in a museum, but to make them live”. This task has been admirably achieved by John Clarke.

London’s Necropolis. A Guide to Brookwood Cemetery by John Clarke. Sutton Publishing. £30.00.

Alfred Vice

From Newsletter No. 202, February 2005 of the Woking History Society, pp.7-8.

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London’s Necropolis: A Guide to Brookwood Cemetery. By John M. Clarke, Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004, 300pp., £30.00, ISBN 0-7509-3513-8.

Respectable Burial: Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery. By Brian Young, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004, 231pp., £37.95, ISBN 0-7735-2529-7.

The construction of cemeteries on a vast scale is one of the more remarkable civic endeavors demonstrating the energy of the Industrial Age. A substantial shift in settlement patterns saw rapid urban increases throughout Europe and North America; traditional churchyard provision was inadequate in its response. The cemetery was, in many senses, an industrial invention: it was a machine for dealing with mass urban mortality. These texts review the histories of two cemeteries, both laid out in the early 1850s, and both reflecting the multitude of concerns that underlay the very necessary provision of space for burial.

Neither site had in any sense a straightforward beginning. Brookwood Cemetery - originally the London Necropolis - was at the time of its opening the biggest cemetery in the world. But it had become clear by mid-century that considerable gains could be made from burial. The site was quickly embroiled in financial scandal, and its opening was delayed for years. Mount Royal, Montreal’s first rural cemetery, was slow to garner local support and met difficulty in resolving competing sectarian interests. Brookwood never recovered from its inauspicious beginnings. The site was distinguished by having its own railway line (of which the author has written a separate history) but its London terminus was destroyed during World War II. The cemetery never quite matched the grandiose expectation that it would, by virtue of its vast extent, become the primary destination of London’s dead. Unable to balance income from interments with the considerable expenditure required to reach an adequate landscape standard, the cemetery edged towards financial ruin. The failure to open a crematorium was one financial mis-step too many. In the face of substantial competition from the already well-established London cemeteries - including those at Highgate and Kensal Green - Brookwood could only squander its principal asset, and in its final years disposed of land to varied religious, military and community interest groups. One happy consequence is a site that presents a fine variety of ethnically diverse landscape and memorial types. For example, the military section contains the graves of Italian, Turkish, Canadian and Free French War dead (amongst others), and thus international difference in war commemorative styles becomes immediately apparent. The cemetery also contains what is thought to be the oldest Muslim burial ground in the UK.

A comparison of the two books could not be straightforward as Clarke’s study is not intended as a full-length history of Brookwood: its purposes include the promotion of the cemetery, the attraction of visitors and the provision of a fascinating and detailed description of the many famous people buried within it. As John Clarke relates the first 38 of the 300 pages of the book, he sparks more questions than are resolved in such a sparse narrative. Brookwood is never clearly placed within any cultural context. For example how did Londoners view this most modern invention, a cemetery accessible by railway? The site was able to build relationships with a wide range of guilds, churches and societies: how did such organizations use the cemetery to construe their identity through funerary ritual? Perhaps most importantly, how did the site respond to changing attitudes towards what was thought to be appropriate landscapes for death? These questions are perhaps unfair given the fact that the book is intended to be a guide to Brookwood, and provides a definitive text for anyone heading out for a tour of the site. It cannot be denied that considerable energy has been given to the task of researching people buried at Brookwood: there are over 250 pages of potted biography and illustration and a series of very necessary, detailed maps is presented. Brookwood is an important site, and Clarke is to be commended for the reminder that the cemetery - still in private ownership - is languishing for want of central government support.

Respectable Burial by Brian YoungTo a large degree, Clarke is disadvantaged by the publication of a text that is very close to being an ideal cemetery history. Brian Young’s history of Mount Royal Cemetery is preceded by a series of beautiful vista photographs by Geoffrey James. These pictures - in a very welcome fashion - eschew easy shots of mourning angels beset with ivy, and instead place the reader where they want to be: in command of a panoramic view. A succinct chronology of the cemetery follows the photographs and provides a framework for the history to follow. Young’s history is one to savour, in providing a detailed and nuanced account of a cemetery’s development and progress, in the context of a city striving to resolve its sectarian differences and assert the civility of an emerging middle class.

All early-mid nineteenth-century cemeteries - no matter where they are - carry a common history: an enthusiastic embracing of the rural ideal; a rather more cautious withdrawal from the individualistic excesses of Victorian sentiment; and the gradual introduction of lawn cemetery principles. The growing interest in cremation comprised a challenge both to business and to the confidence of the nascent professionalism of cemetery management, and Young details the way in which Mount Royal accommodates this new form of disposal. The 19th-century cemetery—so often presented as existing in sepia-toned aspic—is in Young’s narrative a dynamic enterprise that must continually reinvent itself to remain relevant to changing cultures of death.

Adding further value to what is already an excellent text, Young presents a varied range of old photographs, illustrations, and maps. Rather than giving an exhaustive ‘who’s buried where’ appendix, vignettes of individuals who are important to the cemetery’s history are appropriately scattered throughout the text and given extended captions which cross-reference to maps. The book is well footnoted, demonstrating the variety of local sources used, and also contains a short bibliographical essay relating to cemeteries and death in Canada and more widely. Perhaps the only criticism is that the book has a poor index, which gives little assistance to anyone wanting to navigate themes and subjects. This is book is strongly recommended to anyone interested in burial history, the history of death more generally, and the history of death in Canada. The book is, furthermore, a fine example to anyone charged with the task of writing a cemetery history.

Julie Rugg

Cemetery Research Project, Centre for Housing Policy,

University of York, UK

From Mortality, vol. 9(4), November 2004, pp. 360-62.