London's Kensal Green Cemetery, the Pantheon for the Northwest Passage Saga

Photo by Alison Freebairn  

A few miles heading northwest from Buckingham Palace – past Hyde Park and past Paddington Station, into the west London sprawl – you arrive at a Victorian cemetery that itself goes on for a mile of sinking graves and tilting monuments.  This is Kensal Green Cemetery, and it contains more gravestones related to the search for the Northwest Passage than anywhere else on earth.

The photographs of Kensal Green Cemetery on this page were taken on a research trip to London accompanied by Alison Freebairn.  We followed the path of those Franklinites who walked here before us.

Russell Potter  (additional article here)
Wolfgang and Mechtild Opel  (additional link to private group)
Regina Koellner  (2016, 2019 – links to private group)

Their photography allowed us to locate John Ross, Sophia Cracroft, and Edward Inglefield without reference to a map.  For Robert McClure's modest stone we consulted the cemetery office, and for Lady Jane there is nothing to be done:  her tomb is within a catacomb sealed off from the public.  I expect Wolfgang Opel will be the only Franklinite with photographs of her for many years to come.

After locating these initial graves, I am indebted to Alison Freebairn's sleuthing (both online and in actual brambles) in hunting down the additional NWP graves photographed here:  George Back, Robert McCormick, John Barrow Jr, George Cruikshank, John Lander, Horatio Austin, John Sylvester, and Bedford Pim.  John Barrow Jr in particular she clawed back from under the earth he was sinking into.  Bedford Pim she lifted a tree away to find, his large tomb nearly buried into a hillside (and still too deep to confirm with an inscription).

Seeing that we were furthering the map of Arctic graves, Andrés Paredes – mapmaker of the unrivaled worldwide Arctic Graveyard and other Franklin maps – helped us locate one more in Kensal Green:  Clements Markham.

We are also indebted to Cathy Gibson Whitcombe for advising us to use tinfoil to illuminate hard-to-read gravestones.  This trick in particular worked on George Back's seemingly melted-letters inscription (read on below).

At the end of this post, I have drawn a map showing where the NWP graves are inside KGC.  I have included John Lander, IK Brunel and Cruikshank.  While not being directly related to the NWP story, they are proximate enough that anyone coming here for these other graves wouldn't want to walk past them without knowing it.  If you arrived at Franklin via Barrow's Boys (e.g. William Battersby), you'll know who John Lander is.  If you attended the Death In The Ice exhibitions, you saw a medal for the launch of one of IK Brunel's ships.

Sophia Cracroft (link: inscription deciphered here)

A berry on the thornbushes next to Sophia's grave.

George Back

"Admiral Sir George Back".  This line of his inscription is perfectly impossible to read without either sunlight or a flashlight at just the right angle.  The lower lines are worse.

George Back, detail

George Back, inscription detail.  Here is where the tinfoil recommendation from Cathy Gibson Whitcombe really shone, as this lower line of letters defied all attempts to see them with the flashlight.  In the video above you can make out, "BORN AT STO..." – George Back, I have since learned, was born at Stockton.  The "S" is quite faded but the "T" and especially the "O" are distinct.  Pressing the tinfoil in to these letters, you feel the ridge that your eyes told you wasn't there.  It's a slightly unnerving experience; I may as well have worked with my eyes closed as I hunted for new letters.

Robert McClure

Robert McClure, inscription detail (not the best – but serviceable)

Robert McCormick

Robert McCormick, inscription detail.  This tomb rivals Back's for the most difficult NWP inscription in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Robert McCormick left, John Barrow Jr (and Mother) right.

John Barrow Jr, inscription detail.  Photo by Alison Freebairn.

The memorial inscription right above Junior's, to his father John Barrow Sr. (Buried elsewhere – indeed buried in St. Martin's Cemetery, as the one surviving bit of the lower lines attests. Click to see photo at greater resolution).

Horatio Austin

Horatio Austin, detail

George Cruikshank

Clements Markham

Clements Markham, left side inscription detail

John Lander (John Sylvester is just across the road.)

Edward Inglefield

Edward Inglefield, inscription detail (not entirely visible – others may have a more complete text).

Believed to be Bedford Pim (the theory explained here).

John Sylvester, the heating engineer who kept the ships warm, completely subsumed beneath a century of dirt and rubbish and bricks.  (talked about by Alison here)

John Ross

John Ross, inscription detail

Meeting old John Ross at last.  Photo by Alison Freebairn.

From the atrium of the chapel.  Somewhere underneath these stones is Lady Jane Franklin – in the catacombs, closed to the public.

The Northwest Passage Map of Kensal Green Cemetery

– LZ, Nov 2019 – May 2020

   Updated:  May 20, 2020 (added inscription detail for John Ross)