At the weekend I made a visit to the second of the “Magnificent Seven” commercial cemeteries in London, West Norwood Cemetery. Once again I was lucky with the weather: it was a dry and sunny day, though a cold wind made me shiver on occasion.
West Norwood Cemetery is, as the name suggests, in West Norwood, south London. The address is Norwood Road, London SE27 9JU and the closest railway station is West Norwood, which can be reached from Victoria or London Bridge stations.
Initially known as The South Metropolitan Cemetery, the cemetery was founded by its own Act of Parliament in 1836 and the first burial took place a year later. The South Metropolitan Cemetery Company purchased land from the estate of the late Lord Thurlow to create the cemetery, which was consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester.
In contrast to Kensal Green, which was built in the classical style, the South Metropolitan Cemetery was the first to be designed throughout in the Gothic style. The landscaping and some monuments, including the catacombs and the entrance gateway, were designed by architect Sir William Tite (1798-1873), who was eventually buried here himself. The cemetery later became known as the “Millionaires’ Cemetery” owing to the number of eminent Victorians buried here, including around 300 people with entries in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Sadly, the 40-acre cemetery suffered bomb damage during World War II and Lambeth Council, following a compulsory purchase order in 1965, proceeded to clear thousands of monuments. Luckily, the Friends group, the Archdeacon of Lambeth and others joined to prevent this. Many monuments are listed Grade II by English Heritage. The original consecrated chapel was also damaged by a bomb during the war and was later pulled down; the Dissenters’ chapel remains and has been converted into a crematorium.
Our guide told us a little about the history of the cemetery, and took us on a fascinating walk around it, pointing out some of the more notable features. One memorial that stood out is that of James Gilbart, founder of the London and Westminster Bank (now known as NatWest).
We also saw the grave of Sir Hiram Maxim, of Maxim Gun fame – the American inventor, who moved to England aged 41, holds the dubious honour of being the inventor of the first portable, fully automatic machine gun.
The grave of Joe Hunte, the anti-racism campaigner, rests here.
I particularly liked this gravestone with its striking image of an old-fashioned diving helmet. Augustus Siebe was an inventor and engineer whose contributions to diving technology earned him fame. His stone was replaced without the cemetery’s permission a few decades ago, but I don’t feel I can object as I really like this interesting design.
The most famous person to be buried in West Norwood is probably Isabella Beeton, of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management fame. She died at 28 after contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her fourth child. I had always thought she was older, but then she did have 20 younger siblings, so she had plenty of time to gain ample experience in cooking and household management.
The Reverend Charles Spurgeon was a Baptist preacher and he is still well-known and admired by Baptists around the world. Our guide told us about the time a coachload of American tourists came to the cemetery, surrounded Spurgeon’s tomb to take pictures and then left, without looking at anything else in the cemetery.
Mrs Beeton might be better-known, but for me the most exciting person to be buried in West Norwood is Charles Pearson. He was a solicitor and a reforming campaigner who campaigned for an underground railway system and was instrumental in promoting and establishing the Metropolitan Railway, the forerunner to the London Underground. I’m a great admirer of Pearson, whose encouragement of the railway system stemmed from a sense of social justice and a belief that it would improve the lives of the working poor.
Two lovely large red brick mausoleums stand out: the first belongs to Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate who also founded the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain).
The second is the burial place of Sir Henry Doulton, the pottery manufacturer who was instrumental in developing his family firm into the famous Royal Doulton brand.
The cemetery is interesting because of the people buried here, but also because of the examples of cemetery architecture in evidence. This draped urn was typical of the period.
Lucy Gallup’s grave is unusual because of the presence of a photograph of the deceased.
The English antiquary John Britton designed his monument to be as permanent as Stonehenge. In fact, it looks just like a Stonehenge stone.
Seaman John Wimble’s beautiful and intricate tomb, with its detailed carvings of ships, lent its name to Ship Path.
The tomb of Alexander Berens, designed by E.M. Barry, is one of the most impressive in West Norwood and sits in a prime spot on the top of the hill.
Here is an example of a heart plaque sometimes used in the sentimental Victorian period.
Our final stop on the tour was the Greek Necropolis, complete with an imposing Chapel of St Stephen (architect unknown but sometimes thought to have been John Oldrid Scott). This section of the cemetery was acquired by the Greek community in London in 1842, and is filled with Greek Orthodox mausoleums and monuments commemorating members of the Anglo-Hellenic community. The Necropolis is overseen by the trustees of the Cathedral of Saint Sophia.
The end point of our tour was the elaborate mausoleum of Edmund Distin Maddick, which had been opened up to form a little shop.
It’s not as famous as Kensal Green or Highgate, and it’s a little out of the way, but West Norwood Cemetery is well worth a visit. There are some interesting monuments to see, and the cemetery’s location on a hill is an attractive one: and there are a couple of famous graves.
Would I go back?
Yes – it’s a decent-sized site with plenty to see, and I would like to be able to take a leisurely walk around it. Visiting the cemetery is free, so well worth it. In addition, if you join the Friends group for £5 per year you get a chance to take a tour of the catacombs – which is something I definitely intend to do at some point.
Address: Norwood Road, London SE27 9JU
Size: 40 acres
Still in operation?: Cremation plots are still available but the cemetery is closed to new burials, at least for now
Official website: http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/places/west-norwood-crematorium-and-cemetery
Owners: Lambeth Council
Friends group: Friends of West Norwood Cemetery (FOWNC) (http://www.fownc.org/)
Tours: The first Sunday of every month, 11 am November-March, 2.30 pm April-October. Free, but donations appreciated.