THE ORIGINAL PLAN
The directors of the cemetery company held an open competition for the design of its principal buildings, judged by a ‘Committee of Taste’ led by the distinguished architect Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766–1840), William IV’s ‘Surveyor of the Fabric’. He chose a design submitted by one of his assistants, Benjamin Baud (c.1807-1875), who had worked with him at Windsor Castle, thus rejecting Stephen Geary’s own proposals and forcing him to resign from the board of directors. Baud’s winning design was strongly reminiscent of Wyatville’s own work, and this engagement proved to be the master’s last major architectural involvement, for he died four months before the cemetery opened.
The site had been rendered featureless as a brickworks and market garden, but Baud’s design cleverly 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, said to have been inspired by the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome. The Cemetery planting was completed in 1846, and the Minute Books record that there was once a double avenue of limes flanked by pines lining the central drive, a feature which appears on the Ordnance Survey maps of 1865 and 1895. The limes remain, and have indeed been dated by tree-ring analysis to 1838, but the pines have long since disappeared.
The imposing North Gatehouse on Old Brompton Road, built to look like a triumphal arch, represents the ‘great west door’, while the symmetrical layout of the smaller paths creates two pairs of ‘aisles’ running parallel to the central ‘nave’. The North Gatehouse was refurbished in 1856, the front refaced Aislaby Stone. It suffered extensive bomb damage during World War II i and was subsequently restored.
Two prominent colonnades flank Central Avenue and the Great Circle, with catacombs beneath, entered by impressive cast-iron doors. Matching bell towers were planned for either side of the arcades, but financial constraints meant that only the western one was actually built.
The original plan called for ‘transepts’ on either side, formed by dedicated chapels for Roman Catholics and Dissenters, but a combination of financial constraint and social prejudice predicated against both. The proposed site of the Nonconformists’ chapel still remains unconsecrated in consideration of their religious convictions. After an unsuccessful attempt to purchase a plot to the west of the Great Circle to build their own chapel, an independent group of Roman Catholics eventually secured a site adjacent to Kensal Green Cemetery, and established the Roman Catholic Cemetery of St. Mary’s, subsequently exhuming several monks from Brompton for reburial there. Thus, the present chapel was initially reserved for the Church of England, but later rededicated for Nonconformist use.
A catacomb with a promenade above it originally ran the entire length of the west wall, balanced by a raised earthen terrace along the east 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.