We gathered at the entrance by the war memorial and collected some lanterns to take with us on our walk. And we needed them – there are no other lights in the cemetery, and even with the lanterns it was pretty dark. (I apologise for the poor quality of these photographs – I tried with and without flash and they were both pretty dire). Our guides escorted us round the cemetery, stopping at various points to tell us about various notable people buried here.
Dr Rees Ralph Llewellyn – A doctor who performed the autopsy on Mary Ann Nichols, generally considered the first victim of Jack the Ripper
Towards the end of the tour we enjoyed some soul cakes of the kind eaten at Victorian Hallowe’en – they were baked to an original Victorian recipe and were yummy – spicy and delicious. We learned about nineteenth century Hallowe’en traditions and superstitions.
Finally, we were treated to an original Victorian music hall song, originally sung by Alexander Hurley, and based on a real event involving a strongman defeated by a daring rival.
Sadly I didn’t see any bats on the walk – perhaps because they were all frightened off by the fireworks. However it was a fascinating and atmospheric walk.
As part of Open House London 2015, I paid a visit to the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium for a Heritage and History Tour. After having visited so many cemeteries this year, I thought I might as well go for one more. I turned up on Sunday morning in time for the tour, having travelled right across London: despite the name, the Cemetery is actually located in the east, near Epping Forest. Manor Park is the nearest station.
The Cemetery was opened in 1856, as a burial place for residents of the City of London, who prior to this had been buried within their own parishes. The overcrowding issue which led to the establishment of the “Magnificent Seven” also led to the formation of this cemetery, laid out by William Haywood on land purchased from the second Duke of Wellington. The Cemetery is nearly at capacity for burials, although former plots are re-used (sensitively, and only in particular circumstances). The remains from over 30 London parish church yards were also relocated here. Today, the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium is a Grade I listed landscape, open for burial to anyone regardless of religious belief or connection to the City. There are two crematoriums, one built at the beginning of the 20th century and one constructed in 1971. There are Grade II listed chapels and catacombs, a Garden of Rest, and memorial gardens.
Our tour began with a look at some of the documents from the Cemetery’s 150-year history, including fascinating burial and cremation registers. We were then taken on a long, thorough and fascinating tour of the site. Several notable personalities are buried in the Cemetery, including Catherine Eddowes and Mary Ann Nichols (victims of Jack the Ripper), Dame Anna Neagle, and Edith Thompson (one of the last women to be hanged in the UK). However, what I was fascinated by the most was simply the heritage of the place, the mix of time periods and the story behind the burials here.
After being taken round the Cemetery, we were offered the chance to go “behind the scenes” at the Crematorium, and find out what happens when someone is cremated. While this part of the tour was entirely optional, every single person on it opted to go ahead. We were taken through the process by which bodies are cremated, the measures taken to ensure that individuals are correctly identified, how remains are turned into ashes and – most fascinatingly – the bits and pieces left over once the ashes are retrieved. These include things like metal hip and knee replacements, jewellery and anything else that is not combustible. I was hugely impressed by how hard the staff work to make sure everything runs smoothly.
My visit to the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium was one of the most fascinating and enlightening tours I have ever done. I enjoyed the tour of the Cemetery but I feel particularly privileged to have had the tour of the Crematorium, which really helped to demystify the cremation process. Death can be a taboo subject, but I honestly feel it’s important to be prepared and understand how burial and cremation work. Even without a tour, this is a lovely place to visit for a quiet walk.
My attempt to visit each one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries is coming to a close with my visit to Tower Hamlets Cemetery, the last of the seven to be founded in 1841. I visited one Sunday afternoon.
The address of the cemetery is Southern Grove, London, E3 4PX. The main entrance to the park is five minutes’ walk from Mile End underground station. This is the location of the Soanes Centre, where courses and educational activities take place.
The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (“Bow Cemetery” to locals) opened in 1841 after being formally consecrated by the Bishop of London. In 1966, an Act of Parliament closed the cemetery and redeclared it a park. Owned and managed by the Greater London Council until 1985, it was passed to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Since 1990, when the “Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park” were formed, the Borough Council and the “Friends” have worked together to promote and care for the park and run a programme of public events. It is now a designated Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation, managed by the Friends via a Service Level Agreement with LBTH Parks.
Additions have been made to the park within the last few years: the Soanes Centre, offering workshops and classes, was opened in 1993, while land including Scrapyard Meadows and Ackroyd Drive Greenlink has expanded the original area of the park. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is a conservation area and has several English Heritage Grade II listed monuments.
Tours of the Cemetery Park do take place every month. However, though I turned up for a tour, it looked like I was going to be the only one there, so I didn’t bother, choosing to explore myself instead. Tours sometimes focus on the history of the cemetery and sometimes on the flora and fauna to be found within; I would certainly try and go on a tour in the future if I knew it would focus on the history.
The war memorial can be found soon on entering the cemetery. From here, you can look around you and see how the city has grown up around the park.
The graves are fairly close together and some of them are quite overgrown, but I think this adds to the atmosphere.
The cemetery is smaller than others I’ve visited, and I soon reached the end, where a railway bridge allows trains to rush past. This area is overgrown and wild: more meadow than graveyard.
A quick crossing of a footpath leads you to the chalk maze and a heap of wildflowers. I could see bees and hear crickets chirping, and for a while it felt as though I wasn’t in London at all.
Back into the cemetery, I found some interesting standalone graves, including this one in memory of a three month old baby, which I found incredibly sad.
I came across this memorial to those killed in air raids during World War II. The cemetery itself was bombed five times during the war, resulting among other things to damage to both of the chapels, which were later demolished.
This grave marks the resting place of a well-known local councillor.
The Rev. David Roe is another notable burial.
This spot marks the site of the Dissenters’ Chapel.
The Anglican chapel was located here.
This cemetery doesn’t have so many notable graves, but I did like the architecture here, which in many cases was more subtle and delicate than I’ve seen before. Traditional symbols like angels, crosses and urns are common, but more unusual monuments include this little horse.
This carving of a ship on the sea is evocative and very impressive.
This sunlight-dappled tomb looks like a bath with a headless individual relaxing in it.
I love the detail on this carved drape.
This Art Deco-style gravestone is unusual and pretty.
I enjoyed my visit to Tower Hamlets. It’s as much a park as it is a cemetery but it has a great deal of atmosphere. Plenty of people seemed to be enjoying it when I was there: dog walkers, runners, and those who were just sitting and relaxing.
Would I go back?
Possibly – it would be nice to do a history tour at some point. The cemetery doesn’t have many notable burials, but it is a lovely place.
And with that, my tour of the Magnificent Seven is over. Now I need a new project…
My latest cemetery visit involved a trip to Abney Park in east London. This cemetery, one of the least famous of the “Magnificent Seven”, recently celebrated its 175th anniversary.
The address is Stoke Newington High Street, London N16 0LH, and the tour begins by the South Lodge. The nearest station is Stoke Newington, a new addition to the London Overground, which can be reached from Liverpool Street station.
The cemetery is located in Stoke Newington in the London Borough of Hackney, originally on the outskirts of the city but now a busy part of east London. It is named after Sir Thomas Abney, Lord Mayor of London in 1700-01 and owner of the manor of Stoke Newington in the early eighteenth century. His town house, built in 1676, stood on the site of the present cemetery. The surrounding parkland, laid out by Lady Mary Abney and Dr. Isaac Watts (whose statue occupies pride of place in the cemetery, although he is not actually buried there), became a garden cemetery in 1840. What distinguishes Abney Park from the other garden cemeteries founded around this time is its non-denominational status, the first such garden cemetery in Europe. This means that the ground was not consecrated, and it was used as a burial place for Christians practising outside of the Church of England. The fact that Watts, a noted nonconformist thinker, was associated with the area was a bonus.
Abney Park was sold in the 1880s to a commercially-minded general cemetery company, and in 1978 it passed to the local council. Sadly, a period of neglect and decay followed, and it was included on the Heritage At Risk Register in 2009. Today, the cemetery is a designated Local Nature Reserve and Conservation Area. Following a period of care by the Abney Park Trust, management of the cemetery recently passed back to Hackney Council.
The tour began with an introduction to the cemetery and the concept of the Magnificent Seven, which is familiar to me after five other tours, but will be fascinating to those who haven’t previously heard the story. It was informative and interesting, and covered the flora and fauna to be found in the cemetery as well as the architecture, the chapel and some of the notable burials.
While the Abney Park Trust have taken really good care of the cemetery in the last few years, there are still overgrown areas. Some of these are intentional, to allow wildlife to flourish.
Following arson the chapel is sadly a shell, fenced off in an attempt to stop people getting inside. The basic structure is still there and some of its former beauty is still apparent. It could be restored, if only the money was forthcoming.
The war memorial is located near the chapel.
Abney Park doesn’t have as many famous burials as some of the other cemeteries I’ve visited. However, one notable individual is a policeman, William Frederick Tyler. He was killed in the “Tottenham Outrage” of 1909, shot by a robber.
The statue of Isaac Watts is located near the chapel.
William Thomas “Tommy” Hall was a famous cyclist who broke the world motor-paced hour record in 1903.
One of the saddest things I’ve seen in any of the cemeteries is this: a row of paupers’ graves lining the path.
I had never heard of this author, but the title of his tome intrigued me.
This memorial commemorates east Londoners killed in the Blitz, including factory workers who died when a bomb destroyed their factory.
Salvation Army founder William Booth has a large memorial in the cemetery.
This intriguing memorial shows how widespread the Salvation Army had become.
This tomb supposedly marks the location of the door of the original Abney Park house.
The lion tomb on the right belongs to Frank Bostock, a lion tamer who was known as the “Animal King”.
The cemetery is also well known for being a haven for wildlife, including owls, woodpeckers and kestrels.
The cemetery layout is a bit different to some of the others I have visited. The Egyptian Revival entrance was designed by William Hosking FSA in collaboration with Joseph Bonomi the Younger and the cemetery’s founder George Collison II. The South Lodge bears hieroglyphics which, translated, mean the “Abode of the Mortal Part of Man”.
There are no divisions in the cemetery separating one religious group from any other. The chapel, the first non-denominational cemetery chapel in Europe, designed by William Hosking, was built in a northern European brick Gothic style.
As in the other cemeteries I have visited, draped urns, crosses and angels are common.
This anchor is particularly well done.
Would I go back?
Yes – there are many interesting things to see that the tour didn’t include, such as the grave of Joanna Vassa (daughter of Olaudah Equiano) and that of James Braidwood, the first director of the London Fire Engine Establishment (forerunner to the London Fire Brigade), who died in the Tooley Street fire of 1861. There are also a number of early theatre and musical hall performers buried here, and you can do a separate tour about those, as well as a nature walk if you are interested in that side of things. Abney Park is a beautiful cemetery and deserves to be visited.
Address: Stoke Newington High Street, London, N16 0LH
Size: 31 acres
Still in operation?: No (except for a small number of burials which take place in existing plots)
Official website: http://www.abneypark.org
Owners: Hackney Council, who have recently taken over the Cemetery’s management from the Abney Park Trust.
Friends group: Abney Park Cemetery Trust
Tours: These take place on the first Sunday of the month, beginning at 2pm and lasting for around an hour and a half. They are free, but donations are welcome. Meet at the South Lodge, on Stoke Newington High Street.
My attempt to visit each one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries continued with a trip to Brompton Cemetery. This is the most central of the seven and the easiest one for me to reach, located in west London. However, it is also positioned right next to Stamford Bridge, and the day of my trip coincided with a football match between Chelsea and Sunderland – considering I am a Sunderland supporter I should have probably been aware of this, but I was taken by surprise to find hordes of people clad in blue getting off at Fulham Broadway station. Eventually I managed to disentangle myself from them and made my way over to the cemetery. Many supporters clad in football shirts and scarves were wandering through the cemetery, but the rush of people eventually petered out, to be replaced by cheers and roars from the football ground which punctuated the quiet during the tour.
The cemetery lies between Old Brompton and Fulham Roads, on the western border of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The postal address is Old Brompton Road, London, SW10 9UG and the nearest tube station to the main entrance (the North Gate) is West Brompton, with Earls Court a little further off. However, the tour was scheduled to begin at the South Lodge, so I got off at Fulham Broadway instead.
Brompton Cemetery, which is Grade I Listed on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, was originally consecrated by the Bishop of London in June 1840. The cemetery occupies a rectangular site, and comprises 39-acres (16 hectares) which were purchased from Lord Kensington in 1838.
The cemetery was founded by the architect, inventor and entrepreneur Stephen Geary (1797-1854), who was also responsible for Highgate and Nunhead cemeteries. However, when the company directors held a competition for the cemetery’s design, the lead judge Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766–1840), a distinguished architect, chose a design by his assistant Benjamin Baud (c.1807-1875), forcing Geary’s resignation.
Baud’s design incorporates neoclassical elements but is chiefly notable for its resemblance to a cathedral. The central avenue, or “nave”, leads to the domed chapel, or “high altar”, while a circle of arcades with catacombs below is said to have been inspired by the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome. The North Gatehouse was designed to represent the “great west door”; it suffered bomb damage during World War II and has since been restored.
The cemetery was purchased under the short-lived Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850, which prohibited burial in overcrowded crypts and urban churchyards, and gave the state the power to purchase commercial cemeteries. It was the first cemetery to be nationalised, and remains Britain’s only crown cemetery, currently in the care of the Royal Parks Agency. Closed to burials between 1952 and 1996, it is now once again a working cemetery, restored, maintained and preserved by The Friends of Brompton Cemetery.
I attended a tour run by the Friends. These take place on Sunday afternoons and I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a crowd waiting at the gate. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and I am sure he could have told us much more about the cemetery than he was able to impart during the two hours of the walk.
Brompton doesn’t have the number of famous people that the likes of Highgate and Kensal Green possess within their walls, but there are still several notable individuals buried here. George Salting was an art collector who left considerable legacies to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert and the National Gallery.
Pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement Emmeline Pankhurst is also buried here, though we didn’t get to see her grave.
We stopped off by the chapel, which was open for us to take a look around. It is possible to buy drinks and snacks here too.
I was advised that the best way to take pictures of the chapel’s ceiling was to lie down, so that’s what I did – on a row of chairs rather than the floor.
Just beyond the chapel, two arcades flank more sets of gravestones.
Gilbert Laye was an actor, composer and theatrical manager. I particularly liked his headstone, with the comedy and tragedy masks on either side.
Continuing the theatrical theme, Walter Brandon Thomas was an actor and playwright best known today for his (genuinely funny) farce Charley’s Aunt.
Blanche Roosevelt Macchetta was the first American woman to sing at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House. After an accident, she died at the age of 45. The statue on her grave is of her.
Below the arcades, catacombs are located. We weren’t able to look inside on this occasion but we were able to admire the gates, with their ornate design heavy with symbolism, including the two serpents.
The interesting gravestone with the image of a wolf marks the former burial place of the Native American Sioux chief, Long Wolf, who died of pneumonia while touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In 1997 his remains were returned to his home in South Dakota.
Queen Victoria had the body of a favourite servant, her courier Joseph Julius Kanné, buried here.
Brompton Cemetery has memorials to the Brigade of Guards and the Chelsea Pensioners, as well as the graves of several Victoria Cross holders. One of these is Reginald Warneford, who was awarded the medal for downing an airship but who sadly died just over a week later during a non-combative flight.
The cemetery has an interesting connection with the author Beatrix Potter, who lived nearby as a child and who is thought to have walked in the cemetery frequently. It has been suggested that the names of several individuals buried here influenced the names of some of her best-loved characters.
An interesting-looking sarcophagus on “legs” was bought by the painter Valentine Princep as a 13th-century original. Many years after his death, however, it was found to be fake.
One of the most impressive monuments in the cemetery is the burial place of Frederick Richards Leyland, an art collector from Liverpool. His tomb was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, and is Grade II-listed.
Richard Tauber was an acclaimed Austrian tenor who settled in Britain after the German annexation of Austria just before the Second World War.
John Snow – not that John Snow, not that one either – was a physician who famously proved that cholera was not, as was commonly supposed, spread in the air but was ingested by mouth: he traced an outbreak of the disease in Soho to a particular pump on Broad Street, showing that the disease was transported via the water. I remember learning about him in history lessons at school, so I was rather excited to see his grave.
The cemetery is something of a haven for wildlife.
Like the other cemeteries I’ve visited, Brompton Cemetery has some beautiful architecture to admire, including some impressive gravestones as well as the cemetery design as a whole. Familiar symbols of death, such as urns and broken columns, sit alongside ornate Art Nouveau designs.
The central path ran the length of the cemetery, leading towards the North Gate.
Brompton’s central location makes it an ideal place for a leisurely walk. I would definitely recommend a tour, too, so that you can discover more about the cemetery.
Would I go back?
Yes – I wasn’t able to see Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave and because of the rain I wasn’t able to wander about as much as I would have liked. I’d love to have the chance to explore the cemetery at my leisure, and to visit the catacombs, too.
Address: Old Brompton Road, London, SW10 9UG
Size: 39 acres
Still in operation?: Yes
Official website: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/brompton-cemetery
Owners: Crown Estates, managed by The Royal Parks
Friends group: Friends of Brompton Cemetery (http://brompton-cemetery.org.uk/)
Tours: These cost £6 and take place at 2pm every Sunday from May to August, and on two Sundays a month from September to April. Meet at the South Lodge, at the Fulham Road entrance.
My visit to Nunhead Cemetery marked the mid-point of my “Magnificent Seven” tour. I very nearly didn’t visit on Sunday – I lost an hour of sleep to the clock change, and when I woke up all I could hear was the sound of the wind and the rain hitting my window, which didn’t exactly make me want to leap out of bed and spend time out of doors. However, I forced myself to make the effort, and luckily by the time I reached the Cemetery the wind had died down and the rain had stopped.
Nunhead is one of only two of the seven cemeteries to be located south of the river, the other being West Norwood. Its address is Linden Grove, London SE15 3LP, and the closest railway station is Nunhead, which can be reached from Victoria or London Bridge stations. Peckham Rye station is a little further away but as more trains stop at this station than at Nunhead (including Overground trains), it is sometimes the better option.
The cemetery is located very close to Nunhead station, and it is easy to reach, though you do come upon it suddenly as you step out of a housing estate. The railings are reproductions, the originals having been removed during World War II, but the neoclassical gates are original, although they have been restored. The upturned torches, which symbolise life extinguished, are common symbols in Victorian cemeteries.
I was due to participate in the tour, the meeting place for which is beside the Anglican chapel.
The fourth of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries to be built, in response to an overcrowding problem in central London burial grounds, Nunhead was founded in 1840 by the London Cemetery Company. It was originally called All Saints Cemetery, Nunhead. The first person to be buried here was a man called Charles Abbott, a 101 year old Ipswich grocer. The cemetery was popular, becoming nearly full by the middle of the 20th century, but was never as prestigious as Kensal Green or nearby West Norwood.
Abandoned by the company, the Cemetery fell into a state of disrepair and neglect, exacerbated by vandalism. In the early 1980s, the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery were formed to renovate and protect the Cemetery. Nunhead is now owned by the London Borough of Southwark and is a Local Nature Reserve, forming a habitat for many animals and birds. It was reopened in 2001, having been restored with funds from Southwark Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Nunhead is listed Grade II*.
The neoclassical lodges were designed by James Bunstone Bunning, who was also responsible for the entrance gates and the landscaping. One is now occupied as a private house, while the other is sadly derelict.
The Gothic-style Anglican chapel was designed by Thomas Little. It fell victim to arson, but has been partially restored.
I attended a tour run by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. The tour began at the Anglican chapel, and we learnt about the history of the Cemetery. I was impressed with the height of the landscape, and the wonderful views that were apparent even on such a dull day.
One of the first graves we saw was that of Henry Daniel, a mason employed by the London Cemetery Company, buried surrounded by many of the memorials that he built.
An interesting part of the Cemetery was the Muslim section, something I had not expected to come across.
We noted the tomb of Bryan Donkin (d. 1855), the inventor of the tin can. His son, another Bryan, also buried here, opened a banknote factory in Russia.
On our way up the hill, our guide pointed out the silver granite memorial to the ship owner John Allen (d. 1865).
The tomb is a reworking of an ancient monument brought to Britain from Egypt.
Some parts of the memorial are in excellent condition, but others have decayed: the two angels that formerly flanked the head of the monument are no longer in position.
The Stearns family mausoleum was built in 1902 by the Doulton firm. It is similar to monuments at West Norwood.
Our walk eventually brought us to the top of the hill. It was considered more prestigious to be buried at the top, because you were thought to be closer to God.
However, being at the top does mean that your memorial is more exposed to the weather. This one is looking a bit wonky.
It is possible to see St Paul’s Cathedral from this point on the hill – a stunning view.
Near the top is buried John Moritz Oppenheim, a skin and fur merchant who died in 1864 and was a generous patron of the arts, despite being blind for 20 years. His stone shows an angel touching his eyes.
The Cemetery is overgrown in parts and could do with some restoration, although I did think that this unkempt look made it more atmospheric.
The Cemetery is an important nature reserve: this pond, for example, is very important for wildlife.
We headed back down the hill towards the entrance.
The location of the former Dissenters’ chapel is marked by a clearing. The unconsecrated ground surrounding it contains graves of people belonging to non-Anglican denominations.
In the area you can see the Cemetery’s only gravestone with a Welsh inscription.
Finally, we were shown the Scottish Martyrs obelisk, a memorial to 5 lowland Scots sentenced to transportation for advocating parliamentary reform.
The Scouts memorial commemorates a tragic accident that occurred in 1912. On the 4th of August, nine boys were drowned at Leysdown after their boat overturned. The tragedy resulted in huge public mourning, and a bronze life-size Scout was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and erected here in 1914. Sadly stolen in 1969, it was replaced by this marble stone in 1992.
Some Commonwealth war graves are located in the same area, soldiers who died in a nearby hospital after returning from the Front in World War I.
As with the other cemeteries I have visited so far, the architecture is varied and impressive. Many of the usual symbols are present, including angels, broken columns and crosses.
This unusual anchor does not actually belong to the grave on which it rests. It was discovered after a period of bad weather destroyed the vegetation covering it, and bears an intriguing message.
Nunhead is one of the least-known of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, and its lack of fame and location south of the river might put people off visiting. However, it is a little gem: a lovely site on a hill, romantically overgrown, and a haven for wildlife.
Would I go back?
Yes – Nunhead would be a lovely place for a quiet walk. I also want to do a tour of the crypt, chapel and viewing tower, run by the Friends on various dates throughout the year.
There is an Open Day each year: in 2015 this will be the 16th of May. You can view details here.
Highgate Cemetery is probably the most famous cemetery in London – I had heard of Highgate before any of the other Magnificent Seven. It is the burial place of some of the most famous figures ever to have graced London, and is well-known in popular culture, having appeared in novels such as Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed to live in London for four years without visiting.
Highgate has a lovely setting on a hill in North London. The nearest tube station is actually Archway, not Highgate. From Archway, take the 210,143 or 271 bus up Highgate Hill to Waterlow Park (you can walk, but it’s better to save your energy for exploring the cemetery). You have to walk through the park, which is lovely, to reach the cemetery.
The English Heritage Grade 1* listed Highgate Cemetery originally opened in 1839, the third of the “Magnificent Seven” after Kensal Green and West Norwood, part of a ring of garden cemeteries around the outskirts of central London designed to draw burials away from the overcrowded and unhygienic inner-city cemeteries. An 1836 Act of Parliament created the London Cemetery Company, which bought seventeen acres of land on the steep hillside near Highgate Village for the sum of £3,500. The original design was by architect and entrepreneur Stephen Geary whose Tudor-Gothic style is evident in the entrance and chapels, and the Cemetery was dedicated to St. James by the Right Reverend Charles Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London, on 20 May 1839. The original Cemetery is now known as the West Cemetery; the East Cemetery was an extension established in 1854 thanks to the huge popularity of Highgate.
The Cemetery was built in the grounds of the Ashurst estate, evidence of which is the presence of a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon dating from the late seventeenth century. Sadly, Highgate’s profitability declined in the twentieth century and it began to decay, with vandalism and overgrown weeds prevalent until the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, set up in 1975, took over in 1981. The Friends are still responsible for the upkeep of the Cemetery and run the guided tours which are the only way to see the West Cemetery (you can walk around the East Cemetery alone but you do have to pay).
On Saturdays, you can’t book tours in advance: you just turn up. I had a bit of time to wait until my West Cemetery tour so I decided to have a look around the East Cemetery first (entry is included in the price of your West Cemetery tour ticket). The Eastern part was built later than the original West Cemetery, but it is still worth seeing. In fact, the lady at the entrance selling tickets to other visitors summed it up nicely when she said that the West Cemetery has the famous monuments, the East Cemetery has the famous people.
It was a lovely sunny day – warm enough to walk around without a coat – and I enjoyed exploring the beautiful Cemetery and the landscape of gravestones, with a couple of mausoleums thrown in.
I had a good time finding significant graves, including that of one of my favourite Victorian writers, George Eliot, author of Middlemarch. Her real name of Mary Ann Cross is also on her tombstone.
A more recent but equally loved writer, Douglas Adams, famed for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, was buried here in 2001. His grave is often marked with pens.
Karl Marx is probably the most famous person buried at Highgate. His grave is easy to spot because there are lots of people milling around it.
The original gravestone, which is embedded within the newer structure, is plain and simple; the impressive tombstone, with the carved message “WORKERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE”, was erected by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1954. The portrait bust is by Laurence Bradshaw. In 1970 there was an attempt to blow up the monument with a homemade bomb.
A number of other Communists and revolutionaries are buried near Marx, as is the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.
Actor Corin Redgrave is buried at Highgate.
Writer Alan Sillitoe (author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) also rests here.
Malcolm MacLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, musician and fashion designer, is buried in an unique grave.
The artist Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone, dramatically reading “DEAD”, is one of my favourites.
One of my most surprising finds was the grave of TV personality and presenter (of Beadle’s About and You’ve Been Framed!)Jeremy Beadle. I really liked his gravestone, which looks like a bookshelf.
Aside from the famous individuals buried here, there are plenty of graves noteworthy for their architecture. A variety of styles are in evidence, including Victorian:
…and modern. I love this Penguin Books-themed stone.
I was intrigued by this picture and description.
This person obviously loved their dog very much.
This piano is amazing.
The East Cemetery is beautiful and I could wander around for hours.
However it was time to leave this side and head over to the West Cemetery for my tour.
After waiting in the chapel for our tour guide, we were taken outside to the courtyard and arcade.
The smaller part of the chapel on the left, formerly the Dissenters’ Chapel, is now the private area for staff. The larger part on the right was the Anglican chapel: it is now the visitor centre and gift shop and has been recently restored.
Our guide explained the history of the site as we began our tour. Stephen Geary, the architect (and founder of the London Cemetery Company), appointed a surveyor (James Bunstone Bunning) and a garden designer/landscape architect (David Ramsey) who laid out the beautiful, winding paths. It’s a gloriously peaceful place.
Things weren’t always so quiet: some parts of the Cemetery suffered bomb damage during World War II. The damage has been purposely left as a memorial.
In more recent history, Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian poisoned in London in 2006, was buried here.
The largest plot in Highgate belongs to a military man, and the railings around his tomb are miniature cannons.
The oldest grave in the Cemetery belongs to Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, Soho, who died aged thirty-six and was buried on 26 May 1839.
The Egyptian Avenue, a gorgeous structure with vaults – rather like above-ground catacombs – is located towards the top of the Cemetery. At first these vaults didn’t sell very well, as they were seen to be too “pagan” in tone, but after Queen Victoria popularised an interest in Egypt this changed.
In recent years a colony of rare orb weaver spiders has been discovered living inside the vaults of the Egyptian Avenue. The cold, dark conditions of the vaults are perfect for the spiders. This is no doubt a good thing in terms of ecological diversity, but I for one will be staying well away from the vaults!
The Avenue leads to the Circle of Lebanon, which consists of twenty vaults around an inner circle; sixteen were added to an outer circle in the 1870s. The Circle was made by excavating earth from around the Cedar of Lebanon which had been present since the land was part of the Ashurst Estate. Above the Circle, a Gothic-style catacomb, known as the Terrace Catacombs as it was built on the site of the original terrace of Ashurst House, was constructed in 1842. We were able to visit the catacombs and they were fascinating, though sadly (but understandably) we were not allowed to take photos.
Author Radclyffe Hall lies in one of the vaults.
Coming out of the Circle of Lebanon and the Terrace Catacombs, we moved into the main Cemetery once again. Our first stop was the tomb of George Wombwell, the menagerie owner, who owned several exotic animals and raised the first lion in captivity in Britain.
We saw the tiny stone of Adam Worth, a well-mannered and pleasant criminal mastermind who was apparently the inspiration behind Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The mausoleum of millionaire newspaper magnate Julius Beer is one of the most impressive in the Cemetery. Sadly, though, he originally constructed it for his daughter Ada, who died aged eight. Apparently when the tomb was first reopened after many years, the Friends were unable to get the door open and had to send someone in through the broken top of the mausoleum. Once inside, they discovered why the door wouldn’t open – the floor was thick with bird poo. Lovely! Thankfully the structure has since been restored, although we couldn’t go inside as there was a problem with the door.
Thomas Sayers was a famous English bare-knuckle fighter during the Victorian period, a time when such fighting was in fact illegal. His final fight, against US champion John Camel Heenan, took place in Hampshire and ended in chaos when the spectating public invaded the ring and the police had to get involved. A public subscription raised a retirement fund for him and he never fought again, although he died aged only 39 in 1865. Thousands of people turned out on the streets of Highgate to see his funeral, although the chief mourner was his dog, Lion, who guards his tomb in effigy.
Michael Faraday, the well-known scientist most famous for his work in electromagnetism and electrochemistry, is buried in the Dissenters’ area of the Cemetery.
Charles Dickens himself is buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, but he was familiar with Highgate and has family connections there. His sister Frances (Fanny) Burnett is buried there along with her son Henry (Harry) Augustus, supposedly the inspiration for Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.
Dickens’ parents, John and Elizabeth, also rest in Highgate.
Continuing the writers’ theme, I spied the grave of author Beryl Bainbridge.
Highgate Cemetery is an absolutely fascinating place. It’s a shame about the entry charge, as it would be a wonderful place to visit again and again. Having said that, the Friends do a fantastic job of keeping everything going and the money is certainly put to good use.
I had heard horror stories about rude and grumpy staff, but I didn’t see any evidence of this at all: everyone seemed lovely and my tour guide was informative and friendly.
I really enjoyed my visit but was sad not to have been able to see the grave of Elizabeth Siddall (pre-Raphaelite muse, artist and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti); apparently it is in a part of the Cemetery closed to visitors.
Would I go back?
Despite the cost, yes. It’s a hugely interesting place, with lots to see. A cheaper trip could take in the East Cemetery only; this would only cost £4. I would be back like a shot if I could have a chance to see Lizzie Siddall’s grave.
Address: Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ
Founded: 1839 (Eastern extension opened 1854)
Size: 37 acres
Still in operation?: Yes
Official website: http://highgatecemetery.org
Owners: Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust (registered charity)
Tours: West Cemetery – weekdays at 2.45 pm (book online via website); weekends every half hour 11-3: £12 adults, £6 children. East Cemetery – Saturdays at 2 pm: £8 adults, £4 children (normal admission £4 adults, children free).
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.
I began my tour of all seven garden cemeteries in London – the “Magnificent Seven” – with a trip to the first of them to be established, Kensal Green Cemetery. It was a lovely day: dry and warm, cloudy at first but the sun came out later.
The cemetery is located in North West London; the address is Harrow Road, London, W10 4RA. Nearby Kensal Green tube station is on the Bakerloo Line.
A rapidly increasing population in London meant that parish graveyards were becoming dangerously overcrowded, and new solutions were sought for the burial of the dead. In 1830 George Carden, a barrister, formed the General Cemetery Company (which still owns the cemetery); an Act of Parliament in 1832 enabled the company to establish a cemetery on land beside the Grand Union Canal. It was originally known as the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green.
An architectural competition was launched in 1831 to find a design for the Anglican Chapel in the centre of the cemetery. Henry Edward Kendall’s Gothic Revival design won the competition, but the owners – who preferred the classical style – overturned the decision (at least Kendall still got his prize money). The cemetery gateway and the two chapels were eventually completed to designs by John William Griffith, a company shareholder.
Originally there was a division between the Anglican section of the cemetery, comprising 39 acres, and the smaller Dissenters’ area of 15 acres. This distinction was very important at the time.
I had been to Kensal Green cemetery before, but only for a quick look round. The place is so huge that I had only managed to see a relatively small part of it. I decided to go back for a proper tour, getting there a bit early to have another look round by myself. Completely by accident I came across the grave of John Cam Hobhouse, close friend of my favourite poet Lord Byron.
Tours, which are run by the cemetery’s Friends group, start at the steps of the Anglican Chapel.
After a quick background introduction to the cemetery and London’s garden cemeteries in general, we got to go into the chapel, which is cold and in need of some repair. The ceiling is still beautiful, though.
The raised platform is where the coffins are placed, and rollers help the bearers to slide it on. The platform turns around so that coffins can be taken out head first, as is custom.
The raised structure also happens to be a hydraulic catafalque for lowering coffins into the catacombs. Sadly we couldn’t go into the catacombs because of Health & Safety risks (mould, apparently), but we could see the entrance from outside the chapel.
We had a comprehensive tour of the cemetery which took over two hours. The time went very quickly, however, and our guide was very knowledgeable. Even then, we didn’t see all of the notable tombs here: it is so big and there are so many significant people buried in Kensal Green.
Uniquely for a public cemetery, three members of the Royal Family have been buried here: Prince Augustus Frederick and Princess Sophia, children of George III, and Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, grandson of George III and commander-in-chief of the British Army. Royal burials helped to make Kensal Green a popular and fashionable place to be buried.
A significant number of important authors have been buried at Kensal Green, including Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hood, Harold Pinter and William Makepeace Thackeray. As a lover of nineteenth-century literature (and twentieth-century theatre) I was thrilled to see these. My favourite was Anthony Trollope’s. I don’t know if he chose his inscription himself or if a family member selected it after his death, but either way it is astoundingly modest and deeply moving. It simply reads, “He was a loving husband, a loving father, and a true friend” – no mention of his (hugely underrated, in my opinion) forty-seven novels, written alongside his full-time job in the Post Office (he is credited with introducing the red pillar box to Great Britain).
I’d already heard of many of the famous figures buried in Kensal Green, but one person new to me was Jean-François Gravelet Blondin. Blondin, who is buried with his wife, was a French tightrope walker and acrobat. His most famous and impressive feat was crossing the Niagara Falls, not once but repeatedly. On different occasions he crossed blindfolded; in a sack; and carrying a man on his back. Once, he even carried a small stove: halfway across, he stopped, lit the stove and proceeded to cook an omelette.
Charles Babbage, the polymath who created the concept of a programmable computer, is buried in the cemetery, as are Marc Brunel and his son Isambard, two of the most important and prolific engineers in British history. One of Marc’s great achievements was the Thames tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, while Isambard’s accomplishments include the Great Western Railway and the designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.
George Carden, founder of the cemetery, rests inside it.
The cemetery is of interest not just because of the individuals buried here, but because of the varied and rich architecture of the different tombs and mausoleums. One of the most significant graves in this respect is that of circus performer Andrew Ducrow.
Our tour ended at the other end of the cemetery, with a visit to the Dissenters’ Chapel. We didn’t spend much time in this part of the graveyard, though it is interesting to me because my ancestors on my dad’s side, as Methodists, would have been classed as Dissenters, and if they had lived in London and been buried here, this is the area of the cemetery where they would have ended up. The chapel is similar in design to the larger Anglican chapel at the centre of the cemetery, but it has been restored more recently, with facilities for us to view displays and enjoy a hot cup of tea and some biscuits.
Finally we were allowed to look inside the catacombs. They are smaller than those beneath the Anglican chapel, and the coffins there have been moved, but the space was still atmospheric. Plans are afoot to put on exhibitions and other events down here, which I think would be quite exciting.
We were let out of a side gate leading to Ladbroke Grove, and I made my way home.
A visit to Kensal Green cemetery is a must for anyone interested in cemeteries and the history of burials in London. It’s also a beautiful and peaceful space for a walk. Entry is free (unless you take a tour) and there is so much to see – it would be easy to go back again and again.
Would I go back?
Yes – it’s a lovely place for a relaxing walk, and I would particularly like to see Lady Byron’s grave and Terence Rattigan’s memorial stone, neither of which we had time to see on the tour. A booklet produced by the Friends, which I purchased for £2, has a map with the locations of significant graves, and this would be useful to take with me when I return.
Address: Harrow Road, London, W10 4RA
Size: 72 acres
Still in operation?: Yes Official website: http://www.kensalgreencemetery.com Owners: The General Cemetery Company Friends group: Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery (http://www.kensalgreen.co.uk) Tours: 2 pm every Sunday March to October and the first and third Sundays of the month November to February. Cost £7 (£5 for concessions/English Heritage members)
Recently I’ve decided to visit the cemeteries in London known as the “Magnificent Seven”, the garden cemeteries established in the nineteenth century in order to alleviate overcrowding in parish cemeteries. The cemeteries were originally established on the edges of the city, but the expansion of London over the next two centuries ensured that they are now well and truly part of the city.
The cemeteries are:
Kensal Green Cemetery (established in 1832)
West Norwood Cemetery (1837)
Highgate Cemetery (1839)
Abney Park Cemetery (1840)
Nunhead Cemetery (1840)
Brompton Cemetery (1840)
Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841)
I hope to visit them in the order in which they were established, starting with Kensal Green.
The book I’m using as a reference and guide is Turpin, John and Knight, Derrick, The Magnificent Seven: London’s First Landscaped Cemeteries. Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011.