A new lease of life for Brookwood, Surrey’s equivalent of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris
PUBLISHED: 09:56 01 February 2016 | UPDATED: 11:09 01 February 2016
While the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris is an established part of the tourist trail, our country’s equivalent, Brookwood, near Woking, has yet to emerge as a must-visit. But with plans now afoot to restore this unique landscape to its former glory, that could all be about to change…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2015
Tucked away to the west of Woking, behind a high brick wall, lies Brookwood Cemetery – an extraordinary, historic, but oft-forgotten place that arguably deserves to be recognised as a site of national importance.
As the largest cemetery in the country, all funerary art styles are represented, most religions have a presence here and it is also home to one of the most important war graves sites in the UK. Yet while the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris has long been a well-established part of the tourist trail, the Surrey equivalent has languished – until now that is.
Following years of neglect, which has seen graves falling into disrepair and the fauna and flora reclaiming much of the land, there is now a major renovation plan under way (more of which in a moment) after Woking Borough Council stepped in and acquired the site last year. So, it looks as though this resting place for the dead could be about to enjoy a whole new lease of life.
In any event, what is certain is that any visitor who spends time in this mix between an English park and a public shrine will be captivated by what they see and learn about those who lie buried in the cemetery and its place in British history.
City of the dead
Created around the mid-1800s, the foundation of the cemetery dates back originally to the Victorian era, when extravagant burials were a status symbol but a growing urban population in London caused problems of space. As a result, the idea of a great metropolitan cemetery, large enough to contain all of London’s dead, was mooted to relieve growing pressure on burial grounds.
When it was opened in 1854 by the London Necropolis and Mausoleum Company, Brookwood Cemetery was in fact the largest burial ground in the world, covering 2,000 acres. These days, the cemetery comprises some 232 acres, but still remains the largest in the country with around 235,000 graves.
“Brookwood spans social, military and even religious boundaries – from Muslim to Zoroastrian, Buddhist to Catholic,” says Margaret Hobbs of the Brookwood Cemetery Society, a voluntary group dedicated to the preservation, history and appreciation of the cemetery that runs regular tours (see overleaf). “There is something of interest for everyone.”
The cemetery includes a remarkably rich range of burials reflecting all levels of society, with some of the most well-known names listed in the panel on the right. Other notable burial sites include those of Charles Bradlaugh, the first atheist to sit in the House of Commons; Horatia Nelson, illegitimate daughter of Lord Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton; John Tiller, who founded the celebrated Tiller Girls’ high-kicking dance troupe in 1890; and author, reporter and critic Dame Rebecca West. Other more notorious burials include that of Edith Thompson (executed at Holloway Prison in 1923), while the most elaborate memorials include one dedicated to Lord Edward Pelham-Clinton (Master of Queen Victoria’s household and the only commoner at her funeral) and another designed for famous flying ace Oliver Vickers by celebrated Surrey architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
“We are still finding gravestones dedicated to people of historic interest even now,” continues Margaret. “It would take literally days to discover in detail everything this fascinating place has to offer.”
In its heyday, the cemetery even had its own private railway station; trains came directly to Brookwood Cemetery from a bespoke terminus at Waterloo. Coffins travelled in either First Class (which cost £2 10s, about £210 today), Second Class (£1 or £84 today) or Third Class (for paupers) and were taken to either one of two platforms (for Anglican burials or Nonconformist burials). The funeral trains, which initially ran once a day, only stopped running after the London terminus was bombed in April 1941.
Today, a huge sign remains from this time, which was designed to be seen from the train, and a little of the south platform still exists, next to a picturesque chapel dedicated to the 10th century martyr St Edward (see side panel on previous page) whose remains have been guarded there since 1984.
Elsewhere, though, this verdant landscape, criss-crossed by small pathways, is for the main part overgrown, with many memorials and gravestones showing signs of neglect and, sadly, in some cases, even vandalism. All that is set to change, however, after Woking Borough Council acquired the site last year, and there are now plans under way to restore the cemetery to its former glory.
“The council considers Brookwood Cemetery to be a vitally important part of Woking’s heritage and its future,” says Ian Tomes, Woking Borough Council’s strategic asset manager. “However, since the end of the First World War, Brookwood Cemetery has declined in quality due to lack of investment. As the council, we faced a major challenge: to stand by and see it decline further, or to intervene. We therefore purchased the site [from private owners] in December last year.”
Council investment includes new plant machinery and equipment, such as mowers and a tractor, to help maintain the site. Work on refurbishing the Italian Mausoleums started in July and proposals for new mausoleums are to be drawn up this year. Currently, the council is undertaking £100,000-worth of tree works on those which are dead, diseased or dying.
“While we cannot provide a quick fix for nearly 100 years of decline, we are already working with English Heritage, Surrey Wildlife Trust and the Brookwood Cemetery Society to develop a management plan for Brookwood Cemetery with a view to implementing a series of improvements that will make the borough proud of this important site,” adds Ian.
With the site already Grade I listed by English Heritage, the potential for visitor numbers is huge, if compared with Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery, which is visited by more than two million people annually. And although some in Surrey may find such a visit macabre the site is undoubtedly of historic interest and a green, tranquil space for contemplation with its tall trees and abundant shrubs.
Certainly, no visit would be complete without seeing the impressive, manicured and moving military cemeteries, spread among more than 37 acres at Brookwood, which are separately administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). First used in 1917, they were extended substantially during and after the Second World War.
“Brookwood Military Cemetery is the largest CWGC site in the UK and also one of the most fascinating war grave sites we have anywhere in the world,” says Peter Francis, media and marketing manager at the CWGC.
“Nowhere else would you find the range of nationalities and commemorative approaches one sees at Brookwood. We have graves from both World Wars and from every one of the services. The graves of UK, Ireland, Indian, Canadian, Australian, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Czech, German, French, South African and Polish servicemen and women are all to be found in one location.”
Over 4,220 casualties are buried in the CWGC sections, including 12 recipients of the distinguished VC medal, while the cemetery is also the final resting place for 468 American servicemen. In addition, the impressive, circular Brookwood Memorial commemorates 3,500 men and women from the Commonwealth with unknown graves, including SOE heroine Violet Szabo, who died in a German concentration camp in January 1945 and was awarded the George Cross posthumously.
Keen to see this nationally important site given the attention it deserves, the CWGC is another organisation that hopes to improve awareness of the cemetery.
“Brookwood is a hidden gem – many people are unaware of its existence – and we want to change that,” says Peter. “We firmly believe that the war graves in the UK deserve to be as well visited as those in France and Belgium. In particular, a cemetery like Brookwood has enormous power to engage future generations in the importance of remembrance.”
The CWGC is currently completing work on a new memorial at Brookwood, which will be dedicated later this year. The memorial replaces an existing structure within the cemetery and will commemorate those who predominantly died of wounds in the UK (often after they had been discharged from service) and who have no known grave.
“Through education programmes and more generally through just traditional awareness techniques, we want Brookwood to be better known and better visited,” adds Peter.
So, who knows, with restoration plans continuing apace, and increasing interest in this historically important landscape, perhaps Brookwood Cemetery could yet become Surrey’s Père Lachaise.
• Brookwood Cemetery, Cemetery Pales, Brookwood, Woking GU24 0BL. The cemetery is open all year, 8am to 5pm (no entry after 4.45pm). Tel: 01483 472222. Web: brookwoodcemetery.com
Key places of interest
Based at Brookwood, the St Edward Brotherhood monastic community serves the Church and shrine of St Edward the Martyr. They hold regular services and the beautiful wooden interior is well worth visiting (on request), with its walls decorated by hundreds of icons.
Buried together in Plot 24 are William Frend de Morgan (1839-1917), an accomplished artist, inventor and author, and his wife Evelyn, a noted Pre-Raphaelite artist who designed the distinctive, carved headstone after her husband’s death in 1917.
American by birth, artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) spent most of his life in London, having first trained in Paris and moved to England in 1884. He went on to establish himself as the most fashionable portrait artist in Europe (see Plot 35).
Anatomist Dr Robert Knox (1791-1862) was a lecturer at Edinburgh University and an enthusiast of practical dissection (having honed his surgeon’s skill at the battle of Waterloo). Knox later became pathological anatomist at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital (see Plot 100).
In Plot 25, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (1862-1931) and his wife Lucy are buried together. They famously survived the sinking of the liner SS Titanic in 1912. Coincidentally, the widow of the Titanic’s captain is also buried in the cemetery.
Plot 2’s distinctive memorial is dedicated to Dr GW Leitner, a noted linguist and academic, who was responsible for making Woking a major centre for Islam in Britain, when he founded the Oriental Institute in 1884, now remembered in the names of Oriental Road and the landmark Mosque.
Take the tour
The Brookwood Cemetery Society runs regular tours of the grounds. These take place on the first Sunday of each month (from March through to November) at 2pm, starting from the Glades of Remembrance (at the entrance off Cemetery Pales).
The most popular tours are the Railway Walk (following the old rail route through the cemetery); the Nature Walk (highlighting the flora and fauna); and the ‘Good, Bad and the Unfortunate’ (which includes the graves of a Boer war nurse, several murderers and air crash victims among others).
Walks are free, but donations towards restoration are welcome. Special tours and lectures can be arranged for groups on request.
• For more information, see online at tbcs.org.uk