Just a few hundred metres away from the bustling noise of Calle General Ricardos, in the Carabanchel district of Madrid, is a 170 year old brick wall, behind which, lies the British Cemetery, with the “peace and quiet of an English country churchyard, surrounded by trees; the silence now and again broken by the call of a bird or the rustle of wings.”
The acre plot of land that is the cemetery was purchased by the British Government in 1853, and opened a year later when the first burials took place.
It is now the final resting place of around a 1,000 souls, whose gravestones are engraved in the languages of many lands – not just from the United Kingdom.
In fact negotiations had been going on – and off – for over a hundred years before the promulgation of a Royal Decree in 1830 authorizing representatives of the British community in Spain to buy land in which British non-Catholics could be given a Christian burial.
The small British community in Madrid at that time were mostly diplomats, soldiers, merchants and artists.
The plot outside the then small village of Carabanchel was chosen, as it was far enough away from the fast expanding Spanish capital – one of the original possibilities of what is now Plaza de Colon had just been earmarked for the city´s expansion.
When it was built the plot was surrounded by farmland and a few outlying houses but by the 1950s all of this had been built and now surround the cemetery with blocks of flats on the suitably named Calle Irlanda and Calle Inglaterra.
The cemetery was originally designated as a resting place for people of non Catholic faiths which came to include other non Christian faiths too including Judaism and Islam. Indeed the British element soon included many other nationalities including Americans, Dutch, French, Swedish, Germans among many others.
Over the year the cemetery has become the last resting place of a long list of Madrid”guiris” – some of whom have left a deep imprint on the life of Madrid and indeed Spain.
William Parish, who had come to Madrid from England in the early 1870s, as an acrobat and ended up owning a Circus that continues to this day – Circo Price.
Sam Richardson, a draper from Derby, who absconded with the funds of the Derby Cricket and Football Clubs in 1880, fleeing to Spain and settling in Madrid under the assumed name of John Roberts. He opened a tailors shop whose famous “English Cut” became a must have for all well dressed Castilian gentlemen, especially so once King Alfonso XIII became a royal patron.
After the king abdicated, he sold his shop, and it is believed- though not yet proved, that the buyer was one Ramón Areces, who kept the original name, “El Corte Ingles.”
Frenchman, Emilio Huguenin Lhardy , came to Madrid and established the capitals first French restaurant – Lhardy, bringing some Parisian chic as well as offering delicious French pastries. It later became famous for its sumptious feasts for the great and good of the time.
It is still at the original premises on Calle de Jeronimo.
The Loewe family have a family grave in the cemetery. Their success was due to the founder of the shop, Enrique Loewe, who came from present day Germany in 1846. By the time his sons inherited the business, it had already grown to become one of Spain´s most famous brands.
The emminent Irish Hispanist and founder of the British Institute, Walter Starkie ( later absorbed by the British Council) who had been sent to Madrid in 1940 to influence Spanish opinion during World War II and help maintain Spanish neutrality is buried here.
He and his Italian wife ( also buried here) helped organise the escape route across the Pyrenees for shot down Allied airmen as well as escaping prisoners of war and Jewish refugees.
According to British Madrileño, David Butler, author of the book about the cemetery, “Absent Friends “, Starkie was an immensely influencial man and who in the early 1940s brought the English-Speaking community together for the annual Burns Supper – an event still celebrated 80 years later at the same venue – Lhardy.
Another notable Irish national buried here, is Margaret Kearney Taylor, a “graceful Irish emigre,”who owned the fashionable Embassy Tea Rooms on Paseo de la Castellana, but who lived a double life reporting to British Intelligence during the war on the latest gossip from German officers as well as providing safe house & passage for Allied servicemen and Jewish refugees escaping Nazi-occupied Europe.
The cemetery includes 4 graves of British servicemen, including Squadron Leader HC Caldwell, who was killed when his aircraft carrying the British Charge Affairs, Arthur Yencken, which had been en-route to bring back Allied airmen on the French border, crashed in 1944. Yencken who was also killed in the accident was a hugely important figure in British efforts to thwart the Germans and was instrumental in ensuring that Allied operations in the Mediterannean went smoothly – one such named “Operation Goldeneye” featured a young intelligence officer – Ian Fleming, who reported to Yencken.
Possibly sensing that the tide had turned in favour of the Allies, General Franco gave Yencken a full military send off on the Gran Via ( then called Avenida de José Antonio – after the Falangist leader Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera) before being interred in the cemetery.
There are many others, including the Brooking family (jewellery), well-known industrialists such as Boetticher and Girod and royalty from the Bagration dynasty (from the then Georgian ruling house), the Bauer banking family and the pioneer photographer, Charles Clifford, whose portraits included Queen Victoria and Queen Isabel I of Spain.
There are notable Americans buried here including the mathmatician turned historian Alice Bache Gould who researched the voyages of Columbus and was able to identify all the crew members of the 1492 expedition to the New World. She is credited with saving documents that would otherwise have been discarded and destroyed
The cemetery fell into neglect by the 1980s, but appeared to have gained a new lease of life through an unlikely source – the Madrid branch of the Hash House Harriers.
Mal Murphy, their Madrid Grand Master, explained that,”in the early nineties the Hash used to have a team of people who helped clean up the cemetery every few months. At that stage the cemetery was in a bad state after years of neglect and was very overgrown”.
It does appear that the less than strict oversight at the time allowed for the creation of a “Hashers Corner” for the group’s recently departed – featuring typical Hasher nicknames such as “Safe Sex” and “Krasher” by the persons name.
“During one of those cleanups someone sneaked in the plaques and mounted them”. Apparently this caused much consternation… However, they remain to this day”.
Indeed today, the cemetery continues as a burial place and is run by a foundation, chaired by the British Consul in Madrid.
It is one of four principal British cemeteries in Spain, which include Bilbao, Valencia Malaga as well as around 30 smaller plots, some of which are run in conjunction with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The Committee organises awareness among the British community about the social history of Madrid in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the aim of fund-raising, especially so now that many of the founding families have died out and no longer contribute to the upkeep of the cemetery.
The cemetery relies on private donations, including two large ones from the UK – William Allen Young Charitable Trust and the Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation,
The English traveller and hispanist, Richard Ford, wrote sardonically in his book, “Gatherings from Spain”: “do try, kind Protestant reader, not to die in Spain, unless it is in Cádiz or in Málaga, where, if you want to be buried in a Christian way, there is a place for heretics”.
Fortunately, in Madrid at least, it is not like that anymore.