Above: General view looking west of the cemetery, with the tower block of Charing Cross Hospital to be seen in the distance.
Known in the past as Hammersmith Cemetery, it is situated a short distance from Baron’s Court Underground Station and, in the days before 1965, it was in the Metropolitan Borough of Fulham. Designed by local architect George Saunders, Margravine Cemetery was opened in 1868 on a site previously occupied by market gardens and orchards, known as Fulham Fields. The first burial took place on 3 November 1869. Margravine closed for new burials in 1951 when the 16.5 acres of cemetery land was restored by the Council and designated a ‘Garden of Rest’. It is now a pleasant open space in a heavily built-up area.
The need for a cemetery was the result of an Act of Parliament passed in the middle of the 19th century banning any further interments in the churchyards of the Metropolis due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. This may have been an unwelcome law for many authorities and Hammersmith Vestry did not rush into providing a new burial ground. The first thing it did, in fact, was set up the Burial Grounds Committee and it took the Committee fifteen years to open a Burial Ground. In the meantime interments of residents took place in adjoining parishes.
After considering and rejecting sites as far apart as Hampton, Tooting and Leatherhead the Committee which, in 1863, became the Hammersmith Burial Board found a sudden and overdue sense of urgency when, in 1866, there was an outbreak of cholera in the area. In September of that year, the Board purchased nearly ten acres of land in Fulham Fields, land that was to become the first layout of Hammersmith or Margravine Cemetery. The land cost £600 (now about £36,660) an acre and the transaction took 18 months to complete.
The land purchased had been used as market gardens and orchards and the tenants were told to quit after the next year’s harvest. Uprooted tenants must have been followed by uprooted trees as the cemetery took shape. In 1867 plans for the ground and buildings were submitted and on 25 November 1869 the cemetery, which then was reckoned to have space for 12,000 graves, was officially opened. After a fifteen-year delay, there might have been something of a queue at the gates. And it’s worth remembering that the first cremation in London did not take place until 1885.
The cemetery was divided into two unequal parts, the larger part being consecrated for Anglicans, the lesser un-consecrated part for nonconformists, each with its own chapel of rest. There was something of an anti-establishment fuss about this but when the cemetery was extended to the east and later to the west this seemed to ease the situation. It also created another problem. As part of a land-exchange deal with Sir William Palliser, the land-owning knight, he failed to complete his part of the bargain to provide a wall along the eastern boundary. Legal action was threatened and it was still incomplete at his death in 1882.
Above: The old Reception House stands in a corner of the large cemetery.
The cemetery has one unique feature that has disappeared in all the other cemeteries in London – a brick-built Victorian Reception House. It was used to store coffins to stop poor people keeping bodies in their homes. Many Victorian families had to store their loved one in the cramped family dwelling prior to burial. Families, unable to immediately pay for a burial, used to keep dead relatives in their homes, often contributing to outbreaks of disease. The Reception House also addressed people’s fears that their relatives would be buried before they had actually died.
The Reception House has been given protected status as a Grade II listed building. It is a unique survivor in London of the mid-1800s to provide a dignified and peaceful place to house the dead prior to burial. It contains all its original features and is of great architectural interest and richly deserves to be officially listed. News of the listing was announced on Halloween 2016.
The small octagonal building is an example of the facilities proposed by Edwin Chadwick, Secretary to the Poor Law Commission, who led a review of sanitary conditions. The use of reception houses was phased out with the introduction of undertakers in the 1880s and the building is the sole survivor of its kind in the capital, according to Historic England.