The origins of South West Middlesex can be traced back to 1944 when the Board of the neighbouring Mortlake Crematorium examined the feasibility of joining with the Twickenham Corporation to open a facility to serve the more outlying parts of the catchment area. By January 1945 several other local boroughs had expressed their support and eventually a Joint Board was formed comprising Twickenham, Heston, and Isleworth, Feltham, Sunbury, Hayes and Harlington, Staines and Yiewsley and Southall. A Private Bill was drafted and a site belonging to the Middlesex County Council and partly in private ownership adjacent to the River Crane in Hounslow Road Hanworth was selected.
The post war years witnessed an unprecedented growth in the opening of crematoria in this country. While some schemes had been planned prior to 1939 only to be postponed, others prepared in the immediate post-war years had been prevented from progressing due to the restriction on building materials. The breakthrough finally came in 1951 with the opening of five local authority crematoria bringing the total to 63. Three years later the 74th to open in the United Kingdom and the sixth to open that year was South West Middlesex Crematorium.
In February 1946 the Board appointed the architect John Denman of Denman & Son to prepare draft plans and a feasibility report. It was an inspired choice. John Leopold Denman FRIBA (1882-1975) was a Brighton-based architect who with his son had undertaken much ecclesiastical work in addition to public houses in Kent and Sussex. Denman and Son had designed The Downs Crematorium at Brighton for Brighton and Preston Cemetery Co. Limited which opened in March 1941. Here a single cloistered chapel was provided surrounded by a perimeter wall enclosing the Garden of Remembrance. The expert on crematoria architecture, Hilary Grainger, determines that the inspiration behind The Downs Crematorium lay in Harry Goodhart-Rendel’s 1923-4 design of St. Wilfred’s Church in Brighton.
The passing of the Private Bill in 1947 led to the acquisition of the site but it was not until November 1952 that permission to commence building was finally received from the government. When South West Middlesex opened in 1954 it comprised two cloistered chapels (the smaller, with a chapel of rest, at the rear of the larger), an office and enquiry room, a central tower incorporating the Remembrance Hall and the Board Room on the first floor. To the rear of the facility were the transfer chamber, crematory with two Askam Gibbons gas cremators and staff room. A house for the superintendent was also provided in the north west corner of the grounds.
As usual with post-war crematoria, it was opened by the President of the Cremation Society Lord Horder (1911-1955) on Wednesday 6 October 1954 when the Rt. Rev. Cyril Eastaugh, Bishop of Kensington, dedicated the chapels and Gardens of Remembrance. The Richmond and Twickenham Times of 9 October 1954 reported the address given by the Chairman of the Board: “Mrs Jamieson said in June 1942, a bomber on its way back from a mission, crashed into a hill in South England.
All members of the crew were killed in one of them, the son of a Twickenham councillor, was cremated at Mortlake. ‘It was my first visit to Mortlake and my first cremation,’ said Mrs Jamieson. ‘I came away feeling that at least some of the sorely distressed relatives would find a little peace and beauty in the service there.’ The next day she told a member of the Council that Twickenham should have a crematorium and a search started for a suitable site. Mrs Jamieson said that the ‘powers-that-be’ frowned on the idea of a single authority having a crematorium so Twickenham got in touch with its neighbours. Now the Board was the largest joint body in the country. It is the great day of many great days in my life,’ Mrs Jamieson concluded. She thanked all who had helped the project.”
The Richmond and Twickenham Times also summarised the address given by the Bishop of Kensington: “…the disposal of the dead was a matter of deep concern to everyone. Man was not just a body which happened to be associated with mental processes for a few years and then disappeared, but a child of God meant for something greater than this life. The idea that people should be quietly disposed of by the processes of nature was deeply rooted in the hearts of men. The Church of England and other Christian bodies had officially declared that cremation had no theological significance and did not in any way affect the fundamental belief about the nature of man, or about the resurrection of the dead. “
The Rev FG Missen of Teddington Baptist Church, representing the Free Churches, read the lesson and singing was led by the choir of All Saints’ Church, Hanworth. Initially the crematorium must have given the appearance of being imbalanced as the composition finished abruptly after the enquiry office to the left of the tower. This was redressed in 1974 with the opening of a third chapel, the Ogden. Seating approximately 150, it was opened on 6th April by Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, President of the Cremation Society and dedicated by the Rt. Rev. Ronald Goodchild, Bishop of Kensington. The windows in the apse were designed by Peter Cribb, superintendent at the time, and executed by Goddard & Gibbs.
Unlike other crematoria where an additional chapel of contrasting design is built at a later date, this is a larger copy of the original chapels giving a sense of consistency and harmony to the scheme. Overall it is interesting to compare the completed scheme at South West Middlesex with Sir E. Guy Dawber’s Enfield Crematorium opened in 1938 where the two chapels are linked by a cloister flanked by a central tower incorporating the chimney.
Comparison reveals that John Denman drew from his work at Brighton when designing South West Middlesex as several distinct parallels can be identified. The external use of hand made bricks; the pantiling to the roof; the overall design of the chapel with its west end rose window and tall slim side windows; a rood screen supporting the committal curtains; the arcaded cloisters; the tower disguising the chimney and the perimeter wall enclosing the buildings from the gardens were all features at The Downs.
In many respects South West Middlesex Crematorium can be considered one of the most successful post-war schemes, both in terms of its adaptability to meet new demands and aesthetically. The high standard of internal furnishings is easily discernable: the rood screen incorporating two lecterns; the Travertine marble floors with Missanda wood blocks; the stained glass windows are all examples. The cabinet housing the Books of Remembrance was executed by J. Skelton and Joseph Cribb (the latter being the father of the second superintendent, Peter Cribb). The Portland stone pelicans on the gate piers, the carving of St. Michael slaying the Dragon on the side of the Ogden chapel and the sans serif lettering above the rear entrance gate to the Garden of Remembrance are further examples. In her book Death Redesigned. British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape (2005), Hilary Grainger notes that the striking difference between the Downs crematorium and South West Middlesex is the entrance to the Remembrance Hall “…with its monumental proportions and blank brick façade, relieved only by vertical brick detailing and the remarkable entrance porch. This involves a doorway with brick pilasters, each capped with stone and surmounted by stone urns, carved with Spes and Fides (Hope and Faith). A large circular opening, with brick rustication on either side surmounts the doorways. The almost abstract nature of this monumental feature is quite unexpected and in some way shares the gravity and purpose of the monuments built to commemorate the dead in the Great War.”
In 1981 local authority land adjacent to the grounds was acquired to extend the car park. The building of the third chapel with a greater capacity than the other two was timely as it was necessary to accommodate the large congregations attending the increasing number of Sikh and Hindu funerals. The gardens have also been extended. All are examples of foresight in the initial planning. The comparative rarity of three chapels of contrasting capacity – seating 25, 80 and 150 – gives flexibility and an option to accommodate late arriving funerals. The larger of the two original chapels was later named the ‘Jamieson’ in honour of the first chairman of the Board, Alderman Mrs. E. A. Jamieson, whose commitment to the scheme in its formative years was unstinting. In this chapel is a large illuminated stained glass panel installed in 1979 above the altar with the inscription “O for the touch of a vanish’d hand, And the sound of a voice that is still!” (from “Break, Break, Break” by Tennyson).
At a ceremony in December 1982, the small chapel was renamed the ‘Haigh’ to mark the retirement after fourteen years of the chairman of the Board, Councillor Johnson Haigh.
The gardens have gradually been extended and now consist of the North Garden which includes a stone monolith structure, a Wild Garden, a Rose Garden, and Lawn 1, Lawn 2, which now features the recently opened Children’s Memorial Garden, and Lawn 3, which includes the Water Wall Feature and the Meadow, with the recently added Flying Geese memorial sculpture. Memorials include the Book of Remembrance and Arboria wooden plaques (both located in the Remembrance Hall beneath the tower) and within the grounds Wall Plaques, Rose Bushes and plaques, and Kerbstone Plaques, all of which are available for sponsorship.
Five Superintendent and Registrars/Managers have served since opening; Frank Wood from April 1954 to 1956, followed by Peter Cribb, formerly of Brighton Corporation and one-time editor of the journal Resurgam, Peter Cronshaw from 1986 to 2005, Brian Keep from 2006 to 2010 and Teresa Kearney 2010 to date. Today the Board comprises representatives from the London Boroughs of Ealing, Hounslow, Hillingdon, Richmond-upon-Thames and Spelthorne B.C. A total of 165,067 have taken place since the crematorium opened in 1954 to April 2018.
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