The first half of the 19th Century saw London’s population more than double from 1 million to 2.3 million. Up till then the local parish churchyard would have been your final place of rest but they had now become dangerously overcrowded with decaying matter to the point where it was now infecting the water supply and unknowingly causing epidemics. Stories permeate about people digging new graves only to find bodies already there and others of corpses simply being flushed away in the newly-established sewer system. In 1832 Parliament passed a bill prompting the foundation of private cemeteries on the outskirts of London. Over the next decade arose “The Magnificent Seven”: Kensal Green (1832); West Norwood (1837); Highgate (1839); Abney Park (1840); Nunhead (1840); Brompton (1840); and Tower Hamlets (1841). The last straw came with the cholera outbreak of 1854 and the graveyards of London’s parishes were forcibly shut. During this outbreak the physician, John Snow, was able to prove his theory that cholera spread through contaminated water when he infuriated the Soho locals by shutting of the water pump on Broad street (now Broadwick street) and thus demonstrated the diminished number of outbreaks in that area.
Hailed as the “millionaires cemetery”, West Norwood is situated just south of Dulwich in the borough of Lambeth. It covers a mere 40 acres and although slightly out of the way and in desperate need of restoration, it arguably contains the finest collection of gothic sepulchral monuments in London. Around 164,000 people have been buried there with several more thousand interned within the catacombs. It features 66 Grade II listed structures with an awe-inspiring Greek Orthodox section. (and yes, before you ask, they have their own mini acropolis)
The Anglican catacombs proved a popular place of interment yet those beneath the Dissenter’s Chapel remained half empty as it was also used for temporary storage. In 1915, with the rising popularity of cremation, the Cemetery Company decided to incorporate a crematorium within the catacombs, They installed a track from the Chapel to a hydraulic catafalque that would lower the coffins to the furnaces below.
The coffins were made of wood but would have been lined with lead and looking around you can see the different grades of decomposition. The tunnels are at a constant cold temperature, the smell rather musty and dank. It is surprising to see that the little votive offerings around the coffins have survived so long.
The Cemetery was bought by Lambeth Council in 1965 and they made the shocking decision to erase ownership rights on the grave plots. 10,000 monuments were literally steam-rolled to make way for new plots. Many of the artefacts and beautiful wrought iron gates surrounding the mausoleums were plundered. It was only in 1997 that the actions of Lambeth Council were proved illegal. The damage is, however, irreparable. West Norwood is now governed by conservation bodies.
(The tour of West Norwood Cemetery was organised by Sub Brit)
NEXT WEEK’S LONDON INSIGHT:
It’s time for tea with Johnny Vercoutre