London's churchyards had been full to the point of overflowing since the plague years (1665-66). Such was the shortage of burial space in the city that parishes began to acquire land along the margins of the populated areas for use as burial grounds. The growth of London as a commercial centre from 1815, and the resultant rapid expansion of its population, severely challenged an already overburdened sanitary system. The 1832 cholera epidemic in London, highlighted the consequences of inadequate burial ground provision for such a large population concentration. The response from parliament was to support the creation of the first commercial cemetery - which was founded by the General Cemetery Company in 1832 at Kensal Green.
Following the success of Kensal Green, West Norwood Memorial Park opened in 1837, Highgate in 1839, Brompton and Abney Park were both founded in 1840, All Saints (now known as Nunhead) opened in 1840 and Tower Hamlets in 1841. Government legislation in this short period had authorised the establishment of a total of seven large commercial cemeteries forming a ring around London.
In 1837, The West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company bought 40 acres of land from the estate of William Edwardes, 2nd Baron Kensington (1777-1852) in West Brompton. A design competition was held for the proposed cemetery. Benjamin Baud (assistant to the architect Sir Jeffry Wyatville) submitted the best designs for the buildings and walls; Stephen Geary was appointed architect; Isaac Finnemore and John Claudius Loudon (a garden designer and eminent horticultural writer) were the landscaping consultants.
Brompton Cemetery was consecrated in 1840, but not all of the original 'garden-cemetery' design was realised, as The West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company ran into financial trouble.
As was the case with each of the seven new large commercial cemeteries, Brompton created an appealing environment, relatively free of regulations or restrictions. Provision was made for non-conformists and dissenters: separate Anglican and dissenter chapels were included in the original plans, and separate parts of the cemetery were designated. As a result, Brompton has been recognised as a national cemetery, serving as a resting place for anyone from any creed that does not have a national burial ground within the United Kingdom.
The 1848-49 cholera epidemic in London prompted the government to create a public body - The General Board of Health. The Board had responsibility for creating new cemeteries, for forbidding burials in specific places (as required), and notably for compulsory purchase of the commercial cemeteries and putting them under state control. However, subsequent political constraints imposed on the Board resulted in only one commercial cemetery being purchased. The Board bought Brompton Cemetery in 1852 from its financially stretched Cemetery Company, so making it the first (and only) London cemetery to become Crown property.
That same year the Metropolitan Burial Act was passed, permitting local authorities to open cemeteries using public money, and establishing Parish Burial Boards. The first publicly owned cemetery was built in 1854.
From 1854 to 1939 Brompton was popular as a military cemetery. Since its formation in 1916, The War Graves Commission has looked after those graves at Brompton that fall within its remit.
As Crown property, all works relating to the buildings were the responsibility of the Office of Works, Royal Parks Division from 1852. The responsibility was passed to successor bodies: Ministry of Works and Buildings in 1940, Ministry of Works and Planning in 1942, Ministry of Works in 1943, Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in 1962.
The new Department of the Environment (DoE) inherited responsibility for Brompton from the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in 1970. The Department of National Heritage took over this responsibility from May 1992.
Management of Brompton Cemetery passed to The Royal Parks Agency, established on 1st April 1993 as an Executive Agency of the Department of National Heritage (renamed in July 1997 the Department of Culture Media and Sport).
In 1997 the Royal Parks and Open Spaces Regulations were amended, and for the first time were applied to Brompton Cemetery. The architecture of the memorials reflects the diversity of the cultural background of the people buried there, and includes some listed architectural treasures.
In 1985 Brompton Cemetery was designated a conservation area and, reflecting its status as one of the finest Victorian Metropolitan cemeteries in the country, is grade II* listed in the national Register of Parks and Gardens of special historic interest in England, compiled and maintained by English Heritage under the National Heritage Act of 1983.