London's Pyramid for the dead

It was to be an epic construction dominating Victorian London's skyline – a mighty pyramidal necropolis designed to be the final resting place for up to five million people. Duncan Haskell unravels the history of a landmark that just might have been...

 A blueprint of Thomas Willson's Metropolitan Sepulchre 

A blueprint of Thomas Willson's Metropolitan Sepulchre 

If you’ve ever found yourself wandering around the capital thinking: “I like London a lot but what it’s really missing is a giant pyramid filled with dead people”, then your wish was almost the command of Royal Academy trained architect Thomas Willson.

In 1829 he proposed a unique solution to London’s overcrowding of its inner-city cemeteries. Coming at the height of the capital’s love of Egyptiana, the answer was quite simple – the Metropolitan Sepulchre on Primrose Hill. Designed over 94-storeys high, towering above St Paul’s Cathedral, and covering 18 acres of land, this mausoleum would house 40,000 new bodies each year with a capacity for five million cadavers. There would also be chambers for the superintendent, sextons, clerk and a keeper. Anyone picnicking on Primrose Hill would be able to enjoy the splendid company of this labyrinth for the dead.

It was planned as an investment opportunity with backers acquiring stocks in the Pyramid General Cemetery Company. Catacombs could then be rented out at £50 per vault to make everyone a tidy profit. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t leave the drawing board and the question of London’s overpopulated graveyards was answered by the proliferation of garden cemeteries, such as Kensal Green and Highgate. It’s a great shame that this architectural enigma was never built, not least because having a colossal necropolis on the doorstep might have frightened off the Primrose Hill set.

Words by contributing editor Duncan Haskell