What is the only place in England the joke went, where you can buy three cemeteries and a pint of beer and still have change from a pound? Answer: the London Borough of Westminster. Boom boom. This makes the price of a pint of beer in 1986 slightly less than 85p. The cemeteries, in Hanwell, East Finchley and Mill Hill, whose upkeep was the responsibility of the Highways and Works Committee of Westminster City Council, were sold by the council for 5p each. Aside from thousands of dead bodies, they included three lodge houses, a plant nursery suitable for housing development, 12 acres of grazing land equally suitable for building on, a foreman's flat and a car park. To be fair, these extra features were not part of the 15p price for the three cemeteries: they cost another 65p in total. The cemeteries themselves were not great assets - indeed, the cost of their upkeep (£400,000 a year) was what prompted the sale in the first place - but they did contain among many others the interred remains of Billy Fury; a thousand Dutch servicemen killed in the war; PC Keith Blakelock, who had died in the Broadwater Farm riot the previous year; a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer, Austen Chamberlain; and Mrs Eileen Sheppard's husband, Harold, who had been buried there at a cost of £1200 22 months earlier. When the grass began to grow wild and the headstones to crack and topple as a result of neglect by the new owners, more than eight hundred distraught relatives marched on City Hall, and the newspapers had a field day. The leader of Westminster City Council stood firm at first, telling the relatives that they were 'peddling cheap emotions for the cameras', but eventually agreed to buy the cemeteries back when the bad publicity refused to go away. It took five years for them to be retrieved: they were bought back for 15p in 1992. However, the development land, the properties and a crematorium have remained in private hands. The affair had cost the residents of Westminster £4.25 million. Less, I suppose, the interest on 15p.
LRB 25 May 2006 | PDF Download