The Dissenters’ Chapel stands in the historic cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green that had been established by Act of Parliament in 1832.
It was London’s first public cemetery, available for use by all regardless of religious allegiance. Kensal Green is Grade I on the National Parks and Gardens Register and lies within a designated conservation area.
It was originally divided into two parts, a smaller eastern part allocated to Dissenters (including non-Christian faiths) and a larger western area, over which the Grade I Anglican Chapel, positioned on an ‘eminence’, majestically presides. The divide was originally marked by a ‘sunk fence’ and gated path. At the western edge of the cemetery is a non-denominational crematorium of 1938-9 with two chapels in active use . Its arrival effectively put the Dissenters’ chapel out of use.
The architect of both the Anglican (1836) and Dissenters’ (1834) chapels was John Griffith of Finsbury (1796-1888) who based his designs on the well-established Greek Revival style that had yet to be superseded by the nascent Gothic Revival. He drew on various Ancient Greek sources for the Dissenters’ chapel – placed to fit neatly inside the curve of the long brick cemetery wall where it backs onto Ladbroke Grove. The chapel was suitably off-centred and out of view from the Anglican chapel 1/4 mile away! Griffith seems to have relied on an amalgam of ideas for his designs. The Dissenters’ chapel portico recalls the long lost Temple on the Ilissus River near Athens that Stuart and Revett admired and illustrated.* The colonnades resemble the demolished Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus in Athens but the curved plan form and use of the Thrasyllus ‘antae’ as paired columns seem to be unique to Griffith.
The chapel was restored from dereliction in 1996/7 by the Historic Chapels Trust which holds a long lease from the General Cemetery Company, and is let on licence to the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery. The main body of the chapel has been recreated following Griffith’s drawings; a later OwenJones – inspired 1860s paint scheme was retrieved, following investigation. An new exhibition space and modern facilities are available, thanks to an early HLF grant – the first to a cemetery project. Additional funding came from City Challenge, English Heritage and smaller donations. Below the chapel is a catacomb with coffins deposited on racks.
Kensal Green Cemetery achieved prestige and popularity following the arrival of several royal burials in the 1840s, including HRH the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) and HRH Princess Sophia (1777-1848), both children of George III. HRH the Duke of Cambridge (1819-1904), son of Queen Victoria, is buried here too. The connection was rekindled on October 30th when HRH The Duke of Gloucester visited the cemetery at the invitation of the Heritage of London Trust and was entertained at a reception held in the Dissenters’ chapel organised by its Friends.
* James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol 1, Haberkorn, 1762.
See also James Stevens Curl (ed), Kensal Green Cemetery, Phillimore, 2001, especially Chapter VII.
With thanks to Dr Jennifer Freeman for contributing this post.