London’s Pyramid of Death

Charles 2 Comments

Posted by Belinda Forbes

In the second of BBC Radio 4’s series Unbuilt Britain, Jonathan Glancey describes one of the most audacious buildings ever planned for London – it would have been the largest pyramid ever built.

Church yards were so crowded at the beginning of the 19th century that corpses were literally bursting out of the soil.  Some people believed that a necropolis for the dead might be the answer.  In 1829 the architect Thomas Willson came up with a proposal for the storage of millions of dead bodies in a pyramid situated in Primrose Hill, North London, one of the highest places in London.  Constructed from brick with granite facings, it would have been 94 storeys high and the base would have covered 18 acres.  In his prospectus, Willson claimed that the mausoleum would have made about £10,000,000 – an enormous amount in those days.   He hoped that people would enjoy looking up at this splendid monument as they ate their picnics.

The City of London Archive holds Willson’s drawings and ground plans.  Catharine Arnold, author of ‘Necropolis: London and its Dead’ said that the pyramid was to have been ‘compact, hygienic and ornamental’.

At the time of Willson’s plans, there was a fashion for anything Egyptian so his proposal was not as outlandish as it seems.  Thomas de Quincy, in an opium induced trance, dreamed of meeting Isis and Osiris and ‘being buried…in the heart of eternal pyramids.’ However, public opinion stopped this monumental pyramid of the dead from being built.  It was regarded as too over-bearing.  The idea of a garden cemetery was the preferred option of the General Cemetery Company. If the pyramid had been built, it would have cast a great shadow over the park of Primrose Hill.

Jonathan Glancey’s fascinating programme is available on BBC iPlayer here.


  1. Charles

    Belinda, thank you for drawing our attention to this documentary about a historically and culturally interesting architectural proposition that wasn’t to be. iPlayer is so much easier than the video recordings of old.

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