London: Chiswick Old Cemetery and Barnes Old Cemetery

Barnes Old Cemetery

Cemeteries have become a bit of a standby on Diverting Journeys around Halloween, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a post this year too. Not that I think cemeteries should intrinsically be viewed as creepy (death shouldn’t be taboo), but I have to admit that I enjoy them all the more if they are a bit overgrown and atmospheric. I recently visited two cemeteries in West London that I hadn’t been to before (both of which were much harder to get to than they should have been considering their proximity to where I live, but that’s really a beef with TfL) that I think are worth sharing here.

 

The first is Chiswick Old Cemetery/St Nicholas’ Churchyard (they’re in the same location, but they’re divided by a fence), which is in (you guessed it) Chiswick. We visited on the day of Chiswick’s monthly cheese market (also known as Cheesewick, which is apparently what Chiswick was originally called), which is about a mile away from the cemetery, and I was envisioning this lovely crisp autumn stroll through the graveyard followed by some leisurely cheese sampling, which was completely hampered by the absolute pissing rain we encountered as soon as we got off the train. I was completely soaked through after two minutes of walking and very cranky as a result, so it was a shame we had miles more to get through that day. However, after spending all that time getting there, I still wanted to see the burial ground, which is the final resting place of not only William Hogarth (and you know I love a Hogarth print) but also James Whistler, of Whistler’s Mother fame. Whistler, having died about a century and a half after Hogarth, is buried in the Old Cemetery, which is actually newer than the churchyard (but I guess still older than Chiswick’s current cemetery). He shares a tomb (above right) with his wife, who was also an artist, though much overlooked compared to her husband.

 

Most of the other graves in the Old Cemetery are fairly nondescript, so we quickly headed over to St Nicholas’ Churchyard, where the rain finally showed signs of stopping. There are actually two wonderful tombs here (and a number of so-so ones), and I would personally say Richard Wright’s (above) is actually better than Hogarth’s, given my love of skulls. He was a bricklayer, but he must have been a pretty fancy bricklayer, judging by his impressive tomb. And then of course there is Hogarth’s tomb (below), which was restored in 2009. I assume they mean just the carving rather than the inscription, as that was impossible to read – fortunately, they had a transcription written on a nearby sign, so at least I could figure it out that way. It didn’t take a lot of time to look around, but I think it was worth coming for the three tombs I’ve mentioned above, plus we got some delicious cheese at the market and of course bakery from Outsider Tart, a must when I’m in Chiswick.

 

We visited Barnes Old Cemetery about a week later, which is in, yep, Barnes! You’re good at this guessing game. Barnes Old Cemetery opened in 1854 and closed a century later, as it was already full and too expensive to maintain without the revenue from new burials. Rather than even attempt to maintain it, Barnes Council apparently just thought, “screw this, let’s turn it into a park. Then it can be super overgrown and no one can complain!” And that’s what they did.

 

In reality, it wasn’t much worse than many still technically active cemeteries I’ve been to in London, as there were trails to walk on and you could still read a lot of the tombstones. The only even sort of famous person buried here (by modern standards) is Julia Martha Thomas, and she’s only famous on account of her being a murder victim. She was killed by her maid Kate Webster in 1879, and it was apparently an incredibly notorious and well-publicised murder (I guess because a lot of rich and middle class people secretly lived in fear of being killed by their servants and this confirmed their worst fears, and also because there were rumours of Webster trying to sell the corpse fat to a pub (she boiled all the flesh off the body and hid the bones), and people love a lurid cannibalism story). Her skull was only discovered about ten years ago during building works at a property owned by David Attenborough. However, when time came to bury the skull, they couldn’t find her body anywhere in the cemetery, so they had to bury the skull in a different cemetery. If the professionals couldn’t track down her plot, that doesn’t bode well for the chances of a member of the general public finding her grave either, as indeed we didn’t.

 

Still, this occasion was a proper dry, crisp autumn day like I’d been hoping for in Chiswick, and it was a great time to walk around picking up horse chestnuts to take home to scare off spiders (I’ve no idea if it works, but it can’t hurt) and exploring the cemetery. The many headless angels added extra ambience and I had to laugh at the obnoxiously large tomb of William Hedgman (above left) off in its own little clearing, which was so much bigger than anything else in this modest cemetery that you know he was just trying to show everyone his superiority over the rest of the plebs here (a sentiment I would like to communicate with my own tomb). It probably won’t take more than half an hour to look around Barnes Old Cemetery, but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially in autumn!

 

18 comments

  1. Great atmospheric places! Those are some creative stones at the end. We don’t have any really old cemeteries around here. Europe is much more interesting in that way.

      1. But Boot Hill cemeteries are cool too! I think there’s something of interest in most graveyards, except those horrible new style ones with flat stones so they can just mow right over the top.

  2. Cemeteries are absolutely fascinating aren’t they? So much history and so many stories to explore and even imagine. Chiswick and Barnes look so interesting, great stories.

  3. I love cemeteries with great, old headstones, especially ones that are overgrown. Nice for you that there are so many in/near London. (Especially with cheese and bakeries near by!)

  4. I know they’re out there somewhere, but I’m always taken aback when you visit a famous individual’s grave. It’s like the thrill of a (very much belated) celebrity sighting. I love Hogarth’s work too, so it’s really neat to get a look at his monument.
    “Corpse fat” – cripes. I do not believe I’ve ever read those two words together before. Sounds like she was quite a fastidious maid, though, doing a thorough clean-up.

    1. I love visiting famous people’s graves too. It absolutely is a thrill, because it’s the closest I’m going to get to them now. And Britain has so many famous graves! More Hogarth coming soon, btw.
      I swear I’ve mentioned corpse fat before when I talked about the Italian lady who made soap from the fat of the people she murdered. Surprised the maid didn’t do that, though she was probably sick of cleaning!

      1. Hooray for more Hogarth!
        Ugh – then I’ll bet I read it and immediately blocked it out. No such luck this time, the accompanying vivid image is now firmly stuck in my mind.

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