This week (Wednesday 1 July), The Earl of Wessex received a private tour of Brookwood Cemetery, one of the largest and culturally significant burial sites in the country.

His Royal Highness was greeted by Strategic Asset Manager Ian Tomes who gave a presentation on the history of the grade 1 listed park and garden near Woking, and took The Earl with the High Sheriff, Lord Lieutenant of Surrey and the cemetery manager on a tour of the site. His Royal Highness met all members of the cemetery staff who have worked throughout the Covid 19 crisis to provide an important service for the bereaved and their relatives.The Earl was shown the route of the old railway line and south station platforms by which coffin trains brought bodies into the cemetery and from there His Royal Highness was taken to St Edward the Martyr Orthodox Church, which contains the relics of Edward II, the young Saxon King slain at Corfe Castle in 978.

Cemetery Manager, Avril Kirby, said:
“Brookwood Cemetery was founded in 1852 to house London’s dead and was uniquely serviced by its own railway. The Earl was escorted to the South of the cemetery to see historic monuments including the life size marble statue of Elaine Maynard Falkiner (d.1900), first wife of Sir Leslie Falkiner; the plot where Lord Nelson’s granddaughter, Horatia Nelson Johnson (d. 1890), is buried; and the striking memorial of Giulio Salvati (d.1898), the Venetian glass and mosaic merchant whose commissions adorn the domes of St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey.

One of the listed memorials in the cemetery marks the grave of Dr Gottlieb William Leitner (d.1899), who was responsible for making Woking a major centre for Islam. He was a noted linguist and founder of the Oriental Institute Europe on the site of the vacant Royal Dramatic Collage near Woking. Today this site is better known as the home of the Shah Jahan Mosque, Britain’s first purpose-built Islamic place of worship.

In more modern times, decades of neglect saw Brookwood Cemetery placed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register so in 2014, Woking Borough Council stepped in and acquired the site with a view to restoring the cemetery to its former glory.

Cllr Ayesha Azad, the Council’s Portfolio Holder for Asset Management, said:
“There was a danger that the rich history and architectural wonders within the cemetery would be lost forever but since acquiring the site we’ve been working to turn that around“Brookwood has the potential to be a jewel in Woking’s crown and The Earl’s visit was an opportunity for the cemetery team to talk to him about our extensive renovation and conservation plans, which include a new visitor centre and enhanced access to this vast outdoor space.”

His Royal Highness was shown inside the largest mausoleum in the cemetery, commissioned in 1877 by George Henry, the 5th Earl Cadogan for the burial of his eldest son, Albert Edward George Henry Cadogan, the Viscount of Chelsea. In 1910 it was converted in to a columbarium by its new owners for the storing of ashes. The Grade II listed structure is one of 15 monuments earmarked for renovation if the cemetery’s ambitious conservation plans are approved.

Due to its huge scale and capacity, Brookwood continues to be a favoured resting place. During his visit, The Earl had the opportunity to talk to members of the Surrey Local Response Forum responsible for managing the excess deaths caused by Coronavirus. Via Zoom, His Royal Highness listened to the challenges faced by the county’s coroner, funeral directors, mortuary, and crematoria staff, and conversed with different faith leaders about their experiences during this time.

Before concluding his tour, The Earl thanked all participants for their important role in preserving the dignity and respect of those who have lost their lives during the pandemic and praised the support given to the bereaved and an exceptionally difficult time.