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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Visit Kensal Green Cemetery London

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

July 2019.

With thanks to Dave Powell for his help during the writing of this article.

——

As regular readers of these pages well know, I do love exploring the world’s cemeteries and graveyards. Call me weird, but there’s just something special about that mix of silence, history and foliage. All those touching memorials and floral tributes in honour of lives lived. Glimpses, if you will, into back stories we will never truly know.

Indeed I’ve written up dozens of these locations across the globe. However, so far at least, there hasn’t been a visit that can compare to Kensal Green Cemetery in London. And that, dear readers, is because this is where I had come to seek out the grave of my maternal grandfather.

Kensal Green Cemetery.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

It was my nan, now 83 years old, who unintentionally planted the seed when I spent a few days staying with her in the English town of Colchester. She’d been telling me old stories about grandad spanning the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

The whole thing had got me thinking. Chiefly that I knew very little about the man. In fact, I can count the number of actual conversations we had on one hand. He certainly wasn’t a cuddly, Werthers Original, “come sit on my lap” kinda grandfather. Moreover, I was just 14 years old when he passed away. Hence what memories I do have are somewhat wispy with the passing of the decades.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Exploring Kensal Green Cemetery.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Back in London, after visiting my nan, I couldn’t shake off the realisation that I’d never said goodbye to grandad. I was at boarding school in Wales when he died and remember my science teacher, the tactless Mr. Seymour, calling me out of class and leading me to the headmaster’s office. “Uh… sorry Leighton, I think your grandfather is dead. Come with me”.

Kensal Green Cemetery map.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Established in 1832, Kensal Green Cemetery is London’s first commercial burial ground. It grew rapidly over the years and today is a sprawling 72-acre complex home to thousands of graves. My first point of call was supposed to be the main office, to see if I could get some directions to grandad’s grave.

But on arrival I found myself instinctively setting off on a stroll, just to see what caught my eye. One of the first things I came upon was this grand mausoleum for the family of Sir Samuel Wilson, an Irish born pastoralist, author and Member of Parliament for Portsmouth.

Family mausoleum of Sir Samuel Wilson Kensal Green Cemetery

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Wilson was a man of many achievements. After emigrating to Australia as a young man, he worked on the goldfields before becoming a property magnate in the 1850s and 60s. His interest in farming and animal husbandry eventually led to him publishing a book, The Californian Salmon With an Account of its Introduction into VictoriaNot exactly a light read I’m guessing.

Sir Samuel Wilson (1832-1895).

Samuel Wilson caricature Vanity Fair Magazine 1885

Sir Samuel Wilson.

In his later years Wilson became a popular figure in England, as a politician, lecturer and writer. In 1875 he was knighted, while in 1885 Vanity Fair Magazine featured a caricature of him. His wife and children also rest in the mausoleum at Kensal Green.

William Makepeace Thackeray.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863).

If one is diligent, there are dozens of notable graves to discover at Kensal Green Cemetery. Winston Churchill’s daughter Marigold, for example, was buried here following her unexpected death aged just 2 years old in 1921. It is also home to Princess Sophia of England, daughter of King George III. And William Makepeace Thackeray, author of The Luck of Barry Lyndon.

Grave of Andargachew Messai Ethiopian diplomat

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

One curious grave I did stumble across was that of Andargachew Messai, an Ethiopian diplomat and husband of Princess Tenagnework. According to an online article, Messai held numerous key positions within the Ethiopian government, including Minister of the Interior.

In 1960 he survived the Gannata Palace Coup, during which he was one of several hostages. As a diplomat in London, he was badly injured in a car crash in 1964 and suffered poor health until his eventual death in 1981.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

The main office at Kensal Green Cemetery

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

At some point I realised I needed to regain my focus. Indeed I could have easily drifted around the cemetery for hours. Thus I made a determined path for the main office, where a gentleman helped me locate grandad’s grave.

Burial plot map Kensal Green Cemetery London

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

It was a really smooth process, all I had to do was give the date of burial and my nan’s details. Then the guy shuffled off to a back room for a few minutes before returning with the coordinates. And yet, even with my little paper, tracking down the grave wasn’t as straightforward as I might have thought.

Medi Oliver Mehra Memorial Kensal Green Cemetery London

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

While I located the section easily enough, I quickly found myself walking around in circles trying to find the relevant row. And then I was distracted all over again by the sight of a magnificent 86-foot memorial made up of granite Corinthian columns. Wow, what’s this?

Entering under the main arch, with its sculpted angels, I arrived in an incredible jungle garden full of fulsome plants, weeping trees and bouquet after bouquet of fresh flowers. And then I spotted the statue of a smiling boy, sat on a wooden bench clutching a football.

Medi Oliver Mehra (2003-2014).

Medi Oliver Mehra 2003-2014.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

This stunning garden is actually the tomb of Medi Oliver Mehra, son of Iranian businessman Mehdi Mehra and his wife Mary-Ann Bowring. Their son was just 11 years old when he died in a freak horse riding accident in 2014.

Medi was a keen student, avid Arsenal supporter and dedicated pen friend to a number of boys in Ethiopia. Despite his young age, he was committed to raising money for various charities and wanted to become a published writer. His parents have since established the Medi Oliver Foundation, a global charity in his name. His tomb garden at Kensal Green Cemetery is the largest of its kind in The United Kingdom.

Medi Oliver Mehra Statue Kensal Green Cemetery London

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

A short while later, quite by accident, I came across grandad’s grave. I’d been walking down the same row for the umpteenth time and suddenly there it was. I must have walked past it several times without noticing.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Kenneth John Powell grave Kensal Green Cemetery London

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Here, in this modest little corner of the cemetery, I opened my backpack and laid down the flowers I’d bought at a florist near Kensal Green Tube Station. Indeed it was a sad moment as I recalled my last conversation with him during the summer of 1992. Thin, quiet and slow moving, he led me into the living room where he’d been sorting through a giant box of stationery. There were pens, pencils, erasers and a ruler. A few markers and a rusty old sharpener. “Maybe you can make use of these, I won’t be needing them”.

Kenneth John Powell grave Kensal Green Cemetery

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

I imagine plenty of people have passed my grandad’s grave over the years. Maybe even stopped and wondered who he was and what kind of life he lived. Now, should someone care to investigate, let this article be his online footprint.

Kenneth John Powell, Ken to his friends, was born in Ilford, London, where he grew up in a big family with numerous brothers and sisters. He lost his mother early in life and, I’m told, suffered greatly at the hands of his cruel stepmother. The family had a general store, so he at least didn’t go without essentials and even a few luxuries during World War II.

RIP Kenneth John Powell.

My grandad, Kenneth John Powell.

As a young man Ken did two years national service with The RAF. Returning to civilian life, he caused quite a stir among the ladies when he arrived at his new managerial job at Gunns Biscuit Factory in London. Still dressed in his uniform no less. What’s more, he took a real shine to one of the factory ladies, Rosalie Winifred Turner, my nan, whom he married on the 25th of October 1958. A year to the day my mum was born.

Kenneth John Powell (1933-1992).

In memory of Kenneth John Powell

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

For long periods money was tight for the Powells. Consequently, during his time at the biscuit factory, my grandad would often walk to work and back every day, even though it was ten miles each way! Tough, but he definitely saved money on bus fares.

He also went through extended periods of unemployment in the 1970s and 80s. But at long last he settled into a steady position working on the BBC’s current affair TV show Newsnight. Ken worked in the archive department, where he’d regularly edit the obituaries of notable British figures.

My grandfather Kenneth John Powell

Grandad with Penny the cat, Uncle David and my nan.

Outside work, my grandfather cut a complex figure. He was a highly intelligent and often fearsome man whose temper you did not want to get on the wrong side of. In contrast, he could also be a relentless joker who’d entertain his boozing buddies with silly stories and anecdotes at London’s Old Oak Club.

He was a man who supported Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Who loved tinkering around in the garden greenhouse growing all manner of fruit and vegetables. He was the composer and singer of his own funny songs. The creator of unflattering nicknames. My mum, for example, was “Big Bad Bev!” My Uncle David, “Leopard Head”, when he came home one day with what he thought was a trendy new haircut.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Remembering my grandfather Kenneth Powell

Grandad with my baby sister Natalie in 1984.

As a kid, I remember Grandad walking around the house shouting “Humba!” in his booming voice. I had no idea that it was another nickname, this time one of his drinking mates. Every Christmas, at the Powell home in London’s Fitzneal Street, I recall grandad leading all the men into the lounge for several hours of chatting, drinking and smoking. Much like my Uncle David, also too young to be invited, I longed to be in that men’s room getting the inside scoop.

Kenneth John Powell my granddad 1933-1992

Ken with my Auntie Jackie (in wedding dress) and my mum.

Unfortunately, a lifetime of heavy smoking caught up with my grandad. Following his terminal lung cancer diagnosis, he made minimal fuss. “Don’t tell the kids” he told my nan and went back to work.

I’m glad I took the time to go and see my grandfather’s final resting place at Kensal Green Cemetery. Looking back, it gave me a sense of closure that was probably missing. And, of course, it led to the writing of this article, during which I learned all about a man I’d barely known.

I’ll sign this one off with a wonderful photo of my nan and Uncle David’s visit to the grave in February 2020. I’m sure you’ll agree they did a great job cleaning it up and giving it the makeover he deserved.

My grandfather's grave Kensal Green Cemetery London

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

For more on my home city, why not delve through my many reports from across London.

Or maybe search further afield with my articles from all around England.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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46 Comments

  • Little Miss Traveller

    Such a wonderful life story of your grandad Leighton all the way to his final resting place at Kensal Green. Interesting to note that Winston Churchill’s baby daughter and other notables are buried there too. I’m certain your grandad would have been proud to have read this piece about him. Marion

    December 10, 2021 - 9:07 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Kind words Marion, thanks for reading his story and the history of this fascinating place.

      December 10, 2021 - 9:10 am Reply
  • pedmar10

    Very nice post, I like it. Thanks for sharing.

    December 10, 2021 - 9:28 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading. This was a personal one and it feels good to have it out there.

      December 10, 2021 - 9:30 am Reply
      • pedmar10

        I am sure it was.

        December 10, 2021 - 9:31 am
  • Anonymous

    Very moving and a fitting tribute to a great character. I used to go for a drink with him and was privileged to hear some of his anecdotes.

    December 10, 2021 - 9:56 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh to have been inside the Christmas Men’s Lounge with Ken holding court. Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread.

      December 10, 2021 - 9:59 am Reply
  • ourcrossings

    Such a beautiful tribute to your granddad, Leighton. Grandparents are a source and resource of wisdom, knowledge and understanding acquired through years of living. They are a living library of our past, a key to our family’s history and tradition, and I am glad to hear you found closure. After experiencing the death of someone we love, we hope to gain closure following their death. We look at different things, such as honouring their lives and finding meaning in their death. But we may not know entirely what it means to get closure from their death or if it’s even possible ever to get there. Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva

    December 10, 2021 - 10:13 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Aiva, thanks for taking the time to read and for your thoughtful contribution. You’re right about the importance of grandparents and how we take meaning from their lives. Usually this only comes later, when we are adults, and our grandparents have passed on. That’s sad I think, but the natural order of things for most of us.

      December 10, 2021 - 10:29 am Reply
  • bublelady

    Beautiful.

    December 10, 2021 - 11:45 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, it was both difficult and uplifting to put together.

      December 10, 2021 - 11:46 am Reply
  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    As you walk through a cemetery reading the epitaphs and catching the tiniest glimpse of a life, you can’t help but wonder who they were, what they did.. and who they left behind. It just adds to the fascination which churchyards hold, especially in English villages where you can thread together family histories and see the repeated surnames. Both of my grandfathers died while I was still a babe in arms – I didn’t realise how much I’d missed out until I saw the relationship my own children had with my Dad. And now of course, I’m a 3-time grandfather myself!

    December 10, 2021 - 12:23 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      You’re quite right Phil. I never met my other grandfather as he passed when my dad was just 5 year old. And Ken was a real enigma to me as a kid and teenager. So this writing project has been a particularly meaningful one. Thanks for reading, as always, and for chipping in with your thoughts.

      December 10, 2021 - 12:43 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    Like you I like to visit the cemeteries in the places I visit, although the modern trend is to move them away from city centres. Like you I like to learn more about the lives of my ancestors, there are ups and downs, but we never know everything.

    December 10, 2021 - 1:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading and sharing your own thoughts about cemeteries and ancestors. It was an amazing project for me to sink my teeth into and find out more.

      December 10, 2021 - 1:57 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow Leighton, what a great story about your grandad and his final resting place. I’m sure he would have been very proud of you. Kensal Green Cemetery is actually such a beautiful place – it’s wonderful to see that it’s been taking care of.

    December 10, 2021 - 2:11 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Corna, it really is impeccably maintained. It must be a lot of work, such a large space and thousands of graves. Hope you are continuing to enjoy your December adventures.

      December 10, 2021 - 2:53 pm Reply
      • wetanddustyroads

        Thank you … we enjoy every minute … sun, sea and beach … what more can we wish for during summer 😁.

        December 10, 2021 - 8:08 pm
  • kagould17

    I am with you on exploring cemeteries. We have visitied them all round the world, marvelling at the headstones, the epitaphs and the history. And yet, I seldom get a chance to visit my own Mom & Dad’s resting place, due to distance. You did a great deed to the memory of your Granddad and to yourself Leighton. Everybody, no matter their beginnings has a story worth hearing. Cheers Leighton. Allan

    December 10, 2021 - 2:57 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Really appreciate that Allan, thanks. I’m sure the next time you get to see your parents’ graves it will be all the more meaningful. Hope the winter conditions aren’t too harsh at the moment.

      December 10, 2021 - 3:24 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Every cemetery is a library of stories and I’m glad you told this one. The rediscovery of personal history is always ma journey and the anthology of lives reminds us how interconnected everything is. I appreciate that you shared this with all of us. Your grandfather would be proud.

    December 10, 2021 - 3:17 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Memo, this is one that I’m really proud to add to the LT vaults. Looking at the many articles I still have to publish, there are plenty more cemetery posts to come from around the world.

      December 10, 2021 - 10:44 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    What a lovely tribute to your grandpa. No one could ask for a better memorial than to have a grandchild want to learn about his life and to describe him so honestly. Showing his wonderful aspects but also showing where he was a little rough around the edges. You really feel connected to people when you learn their story. Really enjoyed getting to know your grandpa and so glad that you have written his story so it is never lost.

    December 10, 2021 - 7:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Aw Meg, thanks…. I really appreciate your appreciation, so to speak, ha. I have a companion piece to this, equally personal, coming out on Sunday. And that, at long last, wraps up my London adventures until I go and make fresh ones. Hope you are well and looking forward to Christmas and all that it brings.

      December 10, 2021 - 8:19 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    What a touching tribute to your grandfather, especially put in your otherwise travel post. Adding a bit of personal information (i.e. family) definitely adds an extra layer of intimacy to the article at hand. Although you don’t have much recollection of him while he was still alive, to acknowledge him as an important part of your family makes the memory of him on this Earth all the more powerful. Thank you for sharing.

    December 11, 2021 - 5:31 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Rebecca, it’s been just as touching to read everyone’s replies. I wonder what Ken would have made of all this, he didn’t even live to see the start of the internet age. Hope December life is treating you well in L.A. in the run up to Christmas.

      December 11, 2021 - 8:23 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Your grandfather was a remarkable man Leighton. I enjoyed reading his story and the ones on others buried in this cemetery. Revisiting our ancestors is a way to examine our own place in eternity.

    December 11, 2021 - 9:39 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for taking an interest in this John. It’s amazing to think that my grandfather grew up in a London that, for the most part , barely exists anymore. I can’t help but wonder what he would make of WiFi, social media, mobile phones, the coronavirus. Hope December is treating you well in the run up to Christmas.

      December 11, 2021 - 11:23 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    I’m such a fan of old cemeteries too. It’s neat to wander down the rows and read the family names and dates. How lovely to go on a mission to find your grandfather’s grave. He sounds like such an interesting man.

    December 11, 2021 - 1:42 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks guys for taking the time to read this article. I’m encouraged by how many readers also like exploring old cemeteries. Not so “weird” after all I guess.

      December 11, 2021 - 2:28 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    What a wonderful tribute to your grandfather and interesting stories of others who were buried there. Maggie

    December 11, 2021 - 7:38 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you so much for reading Maggie. Hope all is well with you and your family.

      December 11, 2021 - 7:48 pm Reply
  • Sustain | sustain-blog.com

    A good post. Thank you 🙏

    December 11, 2021 - 7:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading!

      December 11, 2021 - 7:47 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    Lovely memories which you poignantly described. I’m sure your grandfather would be proud of you. I can relate to your interest in graveyards, I visited one in The Cotswolds years ago and found it to be quite interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    December 11, 2021 - 9:21 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks a lot. I must have over a dozen cemeteries written up on these pages from over the years. And easily twelve more sitting in my photo folders awaiting a write up. Hopefully we’ll get a few more under our belt when/if we make it back to The UK in January. Highgate Cemetery in London is a biggie I’d love to see. Thanks for reading!

      December 12, 2021 - 8:51 am Reply
  • travelling_han

    I’m so glad you got to visit your Granddad, he definitely sounds like a character. 59 is such a young age…my husband lost his Dad at 60 and it really feels no age at all. Like you, I am fascinated by graveyards and hunting down my ancestors in them, as as you saw from my Highgate visit!

    December 13, 2021 - 11:08 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Hannah and sharing your thoughts. Highgate Cemetery is really high on our London list. An exceptionally historic place to say the least.

      December 13, 2021 - 11:20 am Reply
  • Anonymous

    Can’t believe it l, my family are also in Kensal Rd cemetery, as we lived in Kensal Road at the back of my grandfathers news and tobacconists shop l. Next to the school and Tempo toys and Boultons butchers. All family now moved out to much better pastures/ neighbourhoods in the early 70’s. My grandfather’s funeral left the cemetery looking like a homage to QPR.

    December 13, 2021 - 11:34 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey “someone”, thanks for reading and contributing to the thread. I’m glad the article resonated with you personally. I would have loved to have seen the cemetery resplendent in blue and white that day.

      December 13, 2021 - 11:56 am Reply
    • qprgary

      Just seen I came out as someone, don’t known why but used my phone. Also seen your piece on childhood road. Not a million miles from me but I’m a lot older😳

      December 14, 2021 - 9:25 am Reply
      • Leighton

        Ha ha no worries Gary! I suspected it was you but played it safe just in case. Thanks for reading these pieces, Come on You Rs!

        December 14, 2021 - 9:26 am
  • rkrontheroad

    A moving tribute to your granddad, you have done him justice by remembering him. Your memories served you well, even though a bit fuzzy from a young age. As an older adult, I thought more about my grandparents lives and became curious about their experiences as immigrants. But alas it was too late to ask them.

    December 13, 2021 - 4:54 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I think so many of us feel this curiosity later on in life. Do you have any surviving relatives or public information that might grant you a window into their history?

      December 13, 2021 - 5:01 pm Reply
      • rkrontheroad

        I did have some conversations with older relatives some years ago. My family tends to have children later in life, and the gaps are wider. Perhaps also, my immigrant grandparents chose not to share those earlier unhappy times in their lives.

        December 13, 2021 - 5:18 pm
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