Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the problems London faced as it expanded in the nineteenth century was the issue of where to bury the dead. There were just too many stiffs for the earth to hold. One churchyard in Holborn had a ground level twelve feet above that of the surrounding area, due to the sheer number of corpses crammed therein (and “crammed” really is the word). While the transmission of disease was not yet fully understood, people did have a dim awareness that corpse-goo was leaking into London’s wells, and this was almost certainly a Bad Thing from a hygiene perspective.

Obviously, there was only so much that could be done with the existing burial grounds. Cremation was out of the question, due to the Christian belief that the body had to be whole for the Day of Judgment (no heaven for you, amputees!). Christopher Wren had proposed the establishment of cemeteries outside of the city – one of a number of modernising improvements that were turned down by the Corporation of London following the Great Fire in 1666.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the attitude was starting to shift. After all, other countries had successfully built cemeteries on the outskirts of cities, and London really was getting very smelly. While most ideas proposed were along the lines of a sort of landscape garden – basically our modern idea of a cemetery – the architect Thomas Willson had a slightly more ambitious plan, which he put forward in 1829.

To understand the background to this, you need to know a bit about the fashion for Egyptiana that came about in the 1820s. It began in 1821, with an exhibition of Egyptiana by an archaeologist named Giovanni Battista Belzoni.

Belzoni was, in scholarly terms, a crap archaeologist. Even in the 19th century, many historians didn’t hold him in high regard. His methods of excavation consisted of going into a place, grabbing all the treasure he could and then buggering off. He was sort of the Indiana Jones of his day. Nevertheless, many of his treasures ended up in the British Museum.

His exhibition of Egyptian finds in Piccadilly created a sensation. This was the era when Gothic fiction was still very popular, and the macabre fascination with death among the Londoners of the time fitted in well with the burial culture of Ancient Egypt. As a result, a kind of Egypt-mania arose in the city.

So in a sense, it wasn’t at all surprising that Willson should suggest the construction of a pyramid to house the dead. The location he suggested was atop Primrose Hill, now a well-known beauty spot a short distance from Chalk Farm.

This would have been a truly spectacular landmark, had it actually been built. The base would have been the size of Russell Square and it would have been taller than St Paul’s Cathedral. There would have been 94 storeys and capacity to hold up to five million corpses. Steam-powered lifts would have been used to access the many, many catacombs therein, although construction would have been of suitably ancient-looking granite over a brick shell.

Such was Willson’s optimism that he formed a Pyramid General Cemetery Company in which people could invest. His profit projections were optimistic – the projected cost would have been £2,500 (which, in modern money and adjusting for inflation, is quite a lot) and the ultimate profit, he estimated, would be £10,764,000. Furthermore, he thought it would not only be a practical way of dealing with the problems of the big city, but he also saw it as a tourist attraction for the morbid folk of the time – more profit to the Company, one assumes.

Sadly (perhaps), the scheme didn’t go ahead. Perhaps it was too radical. Perhaps people got the wrong end of the stick when Willson asked them to invest in a “pyramid scheme.” In any case, the concept was turned down in favour of more conventional cemetery schemes. All was not lost for Willson, however, and he later found himself on the Board of Directors for the General Cemetery Company, which would construct the burial grounds at Kensal Green. 

Frankly, I don’t think I’d have liked such a monument. If you look at the photo above, you can see how high above the city Primrose Hill is, and I think a giant granite memento mori looming over the West End would be a little offputting. But then, I’m not a nineteenth century emo.

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2 Comments

Filed under 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Environment, Fashion and trends, History, London, Notable Londoners, tourism

2 responses to “Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death

  1. Pingback: The Necropolitan Line | London Particulars

  2. Pingback: The Infernal Tower | London Particulars

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