Catacombs prove a lively attraction

Cemetery open day: Gates opened on Victorian tomb for first time since 1911
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The Independent Online
Hundreds of people queued in the rain at the weekend for a glimpse of one of London's rarest sights - 1,200 rotting lead-lined coffins from the Victorian era.

They joined torchlight tours of the Brompton catacombs, in west London, which was open for the first time since 1911 as part of Open House Day, organised by the Civic Trust with funding from the Department of National Heritage. About 1,500 buildings across the country were open free to the public as part of the attraction.

Cemetery staff, who had been besieged with callers requesting the chance to visit the catacombs, led hourly tours around the coffins. Extra four minute tours were added later in the day as crowds gathered outside the entrance.

"I often walk through the cemetery and I always try to peep in to the catacombs through the locked gates," said Michelle Grondahl, 28, who lives nearby. "I think it has been so popular because for me and many other people this is the ideal opportunity to satisfy my curiosity once and for all."

Home Office officials padlocked the catacomb's wrought iron gates in 1911 to prevent the vandalism of coffins, which many feared to be the work of witchcraft fanatics. Cemetery records show that some of the coffins had indeed been opened by thieves in search of skulls and human bones.

"There were definitely a couple of broken coffins in there," said Diane Treganown, 50, as she emerged from her tour. "It really looked as though somebody had either tried to get in or out. But the first thing that hit me was the stench down there. I don't know what it was - I could only guess." Peter Weyell, who runs the cemetery, explained that the rotting smell came from the oak coffins, some of which had disintegrated, fortunately only to reveal the compulsory quarter of an inch of solid lead lining.

"It took six strong men to carry a coffin down into the catacombs, and it was a difficult object to manoeuvre once inside," he told his audience, which was warned not to touch the coffins of London's rich and fashionable townsfolk.

"At the time, a deposit in the catacombs at Brompton would have been much more expensive than being buried here," he said. "People would buy one single space, a tier of three or a complete tier of nine.

And now, he said, recent publicity has speeded up the reopening of the catacombs, which will soon be in use again for new deposits. "An undertaker contacted me this week saying he was interested in purchasing a tier of three spaces," said Mr Weyell. "We cannot sell spaces to undertakers, but we do have plenty of space and I have had 12 inquiries from individuals this week alone."

The cemetery's finance committee is to consider how to set the price of a 20th century deposit - it will be rather more than the pounds 12 some of the catacombs current residents were encouraged to part with.

Known as the "arts and army" cemetery, Brompton is the only government- owned cemetery in the country. It was one of seven privately owned London cemeteries founded in 1837 to help ease overflowing churchyards.

Famous graves include Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette leader; John Wisden, founder of the cricket almanac; and Gentleman John Jackson, the early 19th century champion boxer hired by George IV as a bouncer at his coronation, chiefly to bar entry to Queen Caroline.

In 1850, the government decided to compulsorily purchase all seven London cemeteries, but then changed its mind two years later. The Brompton cemetery sale was the only one not to be repealed.