Rubbing Shoulders With The Living: A Great Day Out At Nunhead Open Day


By Christina

I have a leaflet in front of me about The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. They gave it to me when I visited their stall at Nunhead Open Day on Saturday. It costs £2 a year to join and I’m going to sign up right after I write this post. The leaflet says ‘Nunhead Cemetery is unique and it’s future is of importance to the whole community’. I would argue that it has 6 grand old Victorian brothers and sisters and actually, in London it isn’t quite unique. But it’s rare – rare to find a tranquil green space like this in London – one that’s so quiet. I wrote in a previous post that Nunhead feels almost forgotten, and it’s hidden away in a far-flung corner of south east London. A lot of people commented on the post, saying ‘it’s not hidden or difficult to find! I love it and I go there all the time!’ And that sums Nunhead up nicely. To the people who know of it’s presence in our modern world, it is much beloved. As it should be, for it is truly Magnificent and even though 6 other Magnificent cemeteries exist in London, this one belongs to the south east bit of it, and in my part of the capital, there really is nothing else like it.


Every year the Friends throw open the gates to the public – in a manner of speaking. The gates are always open. But on this day, the gates are REALLY thrown open. You can go into the normally fenced off Anglican chapel, you can tour the crypts, which are also usually closed to the Everyman and his dog. I even found that Nunhead’s one mausoleum, which I have peered into so many times (it’s empty) was open and I could *gasp* go in it! There was an art exhibition in there, something to do with animals during World War I. On the shelves where coffins used to be stood plastic cows and elephants. It was rather bizarre, but fun.

Animals in the mausoleum

Animals in the mausoleum

Opposite, a woman was sitting on a tomb in a picnic chair. Her belongings and the things she had for sale were spread around her, on the neighbouring tombs. She didn’t appear to realise she was using people’s graves as a pop-up shop and I wondered what the inhabitants of the tombs would think. They might have liked it. There was something sort of exciting about the living and the dead existing together like this, if only for an afternoon.

A colourful mat on a gravestone.

A colourful mat on a gravestone.


I hadn’t been to Nunhead Open Day before and I wasn’t prepared for how busy it was. Every time I have been to this, the second largest of the Magnificent Seven, it was quiet and sparsely populated by humans (and dogs). Today it was HEAVING. What a sight to see! The main walkway looked like Main Street at Disneyland. How wonderful to see members of the community enjoying the cemetery and supporting local charities and small businesses. Stalls lined the path – The East Surrey Badger Protection Society, Camberwell Gardens Guild, Nunhead Art Trail, the WI to name but a few.


I stopped at Mike Elliot’s bee stand and although I was disappointed to learn that he hadn’t brought any bees with him, we spoke about the difference between bumble and honey bees for a few minutes. Book stalls were everywhere. This pleased my Dad, who I was with. He had brought his own carrier bag in anticipation of second-hand book Paradise. Plant stands, more local charities, a refreshment stand and picnic area which saw crowds of people having lunch and chatting, clustered around the Scottish Political Martyrs monument.


Up a side path and into a clearing and here was a tent full of falcons and owls! For a small donation you could have your photo taken with one of the birds. I have always wanted to take falconry lessons, so getting to put on the Big Glove and let a Tawny Owl hoot gently on the end of my arm was a treat indeed.

Nunhead Owl

Old style undertaker carriages and even a rock n roll Cadillac drawing up to sit on display just over the way from a flock of magnificent jet black horses…this day had everything.

Nunhead Open Day


I wandered around the inside of the chapel, for the first time, drinking everything in, exploring all the corners of it as a crowd crammed in to hear a choir sing Moon River. Everything was so alive! What a novelty to see a cemetery burst with so much vitality.


Nunhead doesn’t get as much attention as some of the bigger players in the Victorian cemetery world, like Highgate or Brompton. But today it got plenty and I think it was pleased.

Busier than Florida

Busier than Florida

Keep an eye on the FONC web site for details of upcoming events and next year’s Open Day!

All photographs by Christina Owen May 2016

Posted in London, Photography, Visits | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bereavment – Finding My Way Through

While death is an inevitable part of life  many of us, myself included, find it difficult to talk about dying and bereavement. This week is Dying Matters Awareness week ( 9 – 15 May 2016) and I’d like to share my own personal experience of bereavement. I’d like to begin with a  special welcome to those of you who have had a bereavement and to express my sorrow for your loss. There is no right way to grieve, we all have to find our own way to get through it and this blog is how I’ve got through my first five months.

50 Mum & Dad's Grave

My mum died of cancer in 2005. We had six months from the diagnosis until her death. My mum, who had nursed my maternal grandmother though cancer, had always said that she didn’t want to know if she was very diagnosed with cancer, so during that time, I never got the chance to talk with my mum about her terminal illness or to find out her final wishes.

My dad died in November 2016. He had been frail and had had a serious heart attack and a cancer scare the year before. We’d got through all that and I was beginning to feel he would live forever. One Friday he was admitted into hospital for something quite minor, was diagnosed as terminally ill and died on the Sunday morning.


Loosing my mum was my first significant bereavement and had been really hard at the time but now that I have lost both parents it feels even harder. I’m in my forties and I feel like an orphaned child, left with a void and emptiness that will never be filled. While at the same time as next of kin, and an only child, the sorting out my dad’s house and his personal affairs legally rests with me. Bereavement is never easy but the finality of going through the contents of my family home and selling it brings an additional layer to the grieving process.

I was with my both my parents when they died. I had never been in the presence of someone who was dying before and I had no idea what to expect when I was with my mum. I just had this intuitive feeling that if possible I wanted to be with both my parents when they died. From getting the phone call to arriving at her nursing home took about 3 hours but it felt like 3 million, the journey was unbearable. I am so thankful that the nursing staff made that phone call and as I was able to spend my last afternoon with her before she was sedated to ease her pain. She died the following morning, one of the nurses had told us the last sense to go is a person’s hearing so I held my mum’s hand and talked to her until she passed away. I was also with my dad but I felt totally unprepared for his death that I was so tearful I couldn’t talk to him and was only able to hold his hand. I feel so privileged  that I was with both my parents in their final moments and this has brought me comfort, especially as I know other people who have wanted to be there for their own loved one and have not been that fortunate.

Afterwards there were so many feelings including disbelieve that my dad had gone, overwhelming sadness that he was no longer with us and a feeling of utter emptiness. With my dad the thing that struck me the most was the suddenness of it all. I had 24 hours to get my head round that my dad was dying, I still find it hard to believe that he left us so suddenly.

For me one of the hardest things to deal with was that there had been no discussions about death. With both my parents neither of them wanted to talk about their terminal illness and I respected their wishes. From the practical questions such as finding out where they wanted to be buried to the more profound and personal things that were left unsaid, in both cases this has made their passings even harder for me to come to terms with.

Support:  One of the things that has helped me get through this is the kindness and compassion of others. The emotional and practical support from friends and family  with messages on condolences cards, texts, phone calls and meeting up, was really appreciated. Expect a few surprises, sometimes the people who you are closest to are not necessarily the ones that will offer the most support. Consider professional support if you are finding things difficult.

The funeral:  I decided to see both my parents at undertakers before the funeral. I had gone with my dad to view my mum’s body and I had found it very unsettling. When my dad died I decided to go and although it still wasn’t easy I felt better prepared as I had been through it before. On both occasions I got a lot of comfort in seeing that they had been well take care of.  At the funeral to be honest throughout much of the service I was just sobbing  loudly,  but I was really touched by the people who attended and shared their memories of my dad.

Taking Time Out to Grief:  When my mum died I took time off work while she was ill but quickly went back to work after her death. This time as my dad’s death was so sudden it’s only after the funeral that I have started to process what has happened.

Notifying People of the Death:  Alongside dealing with the grief there’s a lot of practical things that needs to be sorted out. The death needed to be registered, a funeral needed to be arranged and there are so many people, both friends, family and organisations, who need to be informed of the death. In the UK there are useful and clearly written guidelines on the government website about what to do when someone dies.

Many times the practical tasks felt totally overwhelming. Other times I got comfort from this as there is a sequence of practical tasks to follow, for example (in the UK) you need the medical certificate from the GP or hospital before you can register the death and likewise it’s only when  you register the death you get the documents you need for the funeral, and for me, having some order at a time when my feelings were all over the place was helpful as it gave me something to focus on other than the intense feelings of grief.

Sorting Out the paperwork:  One of the things I found really difficult was going through their papers to try to work out what they had and which companies I need to notify. My mum had taken the lead in  managing the family finances so when she died I searched the house to find bills, documents, etc, so I could work out which organisations needed to be contacted. This was hard to do on two account, firstly it didn’t feel right going through their personal and private papers and secondly it was very time consuming.

After my mum died we bought my dad a folder for him to keep his bills and when he passed away it was much easier to work out which companies we needed to contact. In the UK the Tell Us Once service, where available, let’s you report the death to most government organisations in one go. However there isn’t a similar service in the private sector.

Contacting Agencies:  I had a list of about 25 agencies I needed to contact, some of which needed more than one phone call to sort out. With each company I had to contact them and let them know my dad had died. It’s hard enough saying it once but repeating it over and over again is like rubbing salt into the wound. For the first few weeks it felt like it was a full time job with waiting to get though automated telephone menu systems before finally getting through to a real person. The reception I got from the agencies was very mixed from those who acknowledged the loss and were confident in their companies procedures to those who when I said my dad has just died were very business like and went straight into filling out their forms. With my intense feelings of grief, the response of the person on the other end of the phone or the wording of a letter made all the difference it could make or break my day. An acknowledgement of my dad’s death could give me the strength to work through the other things on my list for that day, while a lack of empathy would leave me feeling like “don’t you have any feelings, didn’t you hear what I just told you my dad has just died”, I was left a sad crumpled mess having to put off the next task until I regained my emotional strength.

This was my experience. There were the Good:  British Gas have a bereavement team and bills don’t have to be paid until probate is though, United Utilities Water quickly sent refund and have a policy of not charging the property while it is empty following a bereavement, Tax Office were really helpful and gave useful advice, Department of Works and Pensions, where there had been an overpayment, the letter acknowledged that it was a difficult time and apologised for requesting repayment. The Indifferent Council Tax refund just took ages to come through and the Bad:  Unilever Pensions very brisk and business like and no acknowledgement for my loss on the phone but she informed me they would be sending out a bereavement letter, the Post Office expected the telephone bill to be paid immediately but then wouldn’t give refund until probate came through and then the lady at counter seeing the refund letter, probate form and my ID couldn’t work out why I was getting the refund and wanted to discuss with her manager, Nationwide Building Society really helpful initially but when I took the probate letter to the Islington Angel branch I was told they couldn’t see me for a few days but, after I explained to them how difficult it had been for me that day to come in and I  had asked if another branch could see me, the cashier arranged for the Highbury Corner branch to see me immediately and they were really helpful, Nationwide House Insurance just sent a thank you letter returning the death certificate  and condolences letter came a couple of weeks later, which felt like  an afterthought.

Probate:  When my mum died everything went to my dad. When my dad died I had to sort out probate, to give me the legal right to sort out his financial affairs and home. In the UK on the government website there is clear step by step guidance about wills and probate. Personally my dad’s estate was relatively straight forward as he has left a will so I decided to do the probate without a solicitor.  It was a bit daunting at first but I found with the guidance from the website and a telephone call to the Inheritance Tax and Probate Helpline I was able to do it. I had to go to the solicitors where the original copy of his will was kept, complete the forms and send off a payment (this option was about £1,000 cheaper than if I had used a solicitor). When the paperwork was processed I then had to go to the Probate Registry to swear an oath, this was daunting and very emotional but the procedure was straight forwarded  and took about ten minutes. Then about a week later I received the Grant of Representation.

Sorting out the Family Home: This has been the most difficult of all the practical things that I’ve had to do. It’s been very emotional going through my dad’s personal papers and sorting out his belongings. Putting the house up for sale was hard and so too was having to receive telephone calls from the estate agents with ridiculously low offers from property developers who think they can grab a bargain from other people’s grief. In the end I told the estate agent that  I only wanted notification of offers above a certain level and I found this helpful.

Physical Effects:  I was prepared for the tears and sadness but my grief has also manifested itself physically. I feel for the last few months that my life has been work, sorting out my dad’s things and resting/ sleeping. There doesn’t feel anytime for anything else.

Reminiscing: This has been a particularly difficult thing for me as an only child. When my mum died I could talk with my dad about her and keep her memory alive. However now that dad has gone I have no one to remember and share stories about growing up in my family with.

Special Dates:  Christmas, Birthdays and anniversaries times are just the worst as it’s when my pain is at its most intense. This is the single hardest thing for me and one I’m really struggling with. I’m planning annual leave at work to coincide with significant dates so I can just focus on getting through it, marking or remembering the occasion as I want  without also having to juggle the pressures of work.

Bereavement is a journey not a destination. We don’t magically get over our loss we just learn to cope with it.

058 Chatsworth House 2808.93

What I’ve Learnt

  1. Enjoy the Mundane:  My regular phone calls with my dad would have him talking about television programmes or other such trivia, and now what I would give to hear my dad talk about anything just so I could hear his voice again. Don’t underrate the everyday as you don’t know how much we all take it for granted until it’s not there anymore.
  2. A Little Bit of Empathy Goes a Long Way:  Whether it’s a friend or family member phoning up out of the blue to check how you are doing or a worker in an agency just acknowledging your grief before they get on with the business it makes you feel less isolated in your grief.
  3. Life Goes On:  Some days it might not feel like it but we have a tremendous amount of resilience. Someone once told me the best way to honour the departed is to have a good and happy life as that’s what our loved ones would have wanted for us.
Posted in Family | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

It’s Getting Crowded In Here: A Visit to Camberwell Old & New

Camberwell Gates

by Christina 

A few Sunday’s ago I wasn’t feeling my best and fancied a walk. I got my books about cemeteries out and found that the two grand Camberwell cemeteries were just down the road, and that they were within a mile of each other. Dan and I got in the car and went a-visitin’. It turns out that neither Camberwell Old or Camberwell New Cemetery are in modern-day Camberwell, but instead in Forest Hill – misleading! We hit up Camberwell Old first, in the spirit of doing things in chronological order.

On arrival, we found the main gate to be rather covered in litigation.

Camberwell Old

I remembered Sheldon’s post from last December, detailing the ongoing ‘War on the Hill’, and my heart started to sink.

We ventured further. I was surprised to learn that despite Camberwell Old being ‘Old’ and having already been superseded by a sister cemetery built down the road specifically because this one was becoming too full, (the land for the New Cemetery was purchased in 1901) it is still accepting burials today, although far less than it used to.

The cemetery presented a pleasing mix of open garden cemetery and overgrown woodland, and it was, as most great old cemeteries are, in various states of Falling Down.

Camberwell Old

We strolled around, taking photos of graves and bluebells, and then got back in the car and pootled on up One Tree Hill to Camberwell New, which screamed ‘GARDEN CEMETERY’ right from the open plan layout to the lady selling flowers outside the front gate. It gave off an impression of being a modern, ‘working’ cemetery much more than it’s predecessor, in that I recognised it as a place akin to the cemeteries I wandered in as a child, or the places where my grandparents were buried. It was quite obviously of a new generation. It sprawled over acres and acres, and climbed up a hill in haphazard manner, to a place that afforded a magnificent aspect towards the Isle of Dogs.

Camberwell New

The view from the hill, Camberwell New Cemetery

When we got home, I decided to research the nature of the official looking notices on the gates of Camberwell Old. I found the Facebook page of Save Southwark Woods and got in touch with a spokesperson for the campaign, Blanche, who also belongs to the Friends of Camberwell Old Cemetery. She told me that the battle that Sheldon wrote about back in December is still raging on, and that Southwark Council show no intention of backing down on their plan to open up more burial plots at the two Camberwell cemetery locations.

The Council just felled two acres of woods on one site for 750 new private burial plots over 48,000 existing graves‘ she told me, and I thought of the beautiful woodlands making up part of both the Old and the New cemeteries that I had just visited. ’12 acres of trees and woods have grown up over the old graves and make a beautiful combination for reflection, harmony, great for bereaved people as well as lots of local residents with mental health and well being issues, children and walkers‘. I had to agree – one of the things I love most about the cemeteries I have visited, and visit on a regular basis, is the possibility for peace and reflection that lie within them. These places are spaces for the dead but also spaces for the living – both humans and wildlife. Why are Southwark Council intent on digging up these areas of woodland and what measures have they l taken to get to this point?

‘Basically, Southwark Council are intent on digging up all graves over 75 years old and mounding over all public graves to sell new private burial plots for profit. But they have not consulted the families and relatives and residents and the law says they absolutely must only proceed with full consultation‘ Blanche explained. ‘They should also have waited for Church permission, which they applied for and then went ahead without.’

The plans have proved unpopular. Blanche went on to tell me that over 800 people have written to the council to contest the plans, and so the current state of play is that Southwark are holding off making any decision as to what happens now until a hearing can be held.* Nearly 1,500 people have joined the Save Southwark Woods Facebook page, and it definitely seems to be a topic people are passionate about.

Camberwell New Cemetery

Camberwell New Cemetery

Sheldon has previously explained that one of the reasons Southwark Council want to go ahead with this plan is because Southwark is running out of burial space. A fact that shows that everything comes full circle – London is starting to be back where it was at the start of the 19th Century. Overcrowding in the City led to garden cemeteries first becoming a Thing, and they were built well outside of the city boundaries. Fast forward nearly 200 years and a population boom and urban sprawl has led to exactly the same situation again. Evidently Southwark do not want to ship deceased residents out of borough, and have come up with the solution to re-use some existing space. In a way, you can see the logic, and it demonstrates a certain compassion – why should people have to travel far away to visit their relatives’ graves? Why should one not be permitted to be buried in the place where they lived?

Camberwell Old Cemetery

Camberwell Old Cemetery

But equally- why should existing graves suffer? And existing wildlife? I get the sense that the council have picked these spaces because they seem ‘expendable’. But how can they be? They already contain so much history. They belong both to the living and the dead. There’s really no room for more.

Camberwell Old Cemetery

Camberwell Old Cemetery

And what will happen in another 75 years? Will the powers that be look at the people that were buried on the land in 2016 and think ‘well, some time has gone by. We can re-use this space now.’ It seems almost barbaric to pretend the past doesn’t matter in this way.

What do you think? Which side of the argument do you come down on? Leave us a comment and let us know.

I enjoyed my walk through the two Camberwell cemeteries. I found the green spaces peaceful. Personally, I hope they are still there for future generations to explore.

*amendment: we have been advised that in fact, it is approx. 1600 people who have contested the plans rather than 800 as originally stated, and that Southwark Diocese are holding the hearing rather than the council. 

Address and opening times for Camberwell Old Cemetery can be found here.
Address and opening times for Camberwell New Cemetery can be found here. 
Camberwell Old

Camberwell Old Cemetery

All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2016.
Posted in London, Visits | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Artists of Chiswick Old Cemetery

by Sheldon

It’s long been an ambition of mine to go to the grave of William Hogarth. One of our greatest artists and political commentators: a man who more it less invented Have I Got News For You centuries before the medium that transmits it was created.


There’s a print that shows his tomb, newly constructed, give or take, with a view of the surrounding Churchyard, Chiswick Eyot and the Thames in the background. With a free afternoon I decided to examine my bucket list of places in London to visit and see that Hogarth wasn’t the only artistic guy buried in the Churchyard of St Nicholas.

A place of worship has existed here since the 15th Century and many of the surviving tombs are Georgian. There, towards the front, is Hogarth’s. Etched with an epitaph written by David Garrick, the George Clooney of the 18th Century and with various symbols denoting his trade as a draftsman and social examiner, I placed myself in the footsteps of that etching and looked.


Job done, head back to the path and say hello to Nanny Clare in nearby Chiswick New. But wait – what’s in the other side of that metal fence? Graves aplenty. Is that Chiswick Old?

Using land donated by the Duke of Devonshire in 1838, it was merely an extension of the Parish Churchyard. However, whilst walking around the tombs and graves, one thing became clear. There’s an awful lot of artists here – comrades in arms with William, albeit on the other side of the chest-height iron railings.


Standing proudly in a cleared area is the tomb of Ugo Foscolo. Here’s a man who was no stranger to graveyards; his seminal work, Dei Sepolcri, was written in response to his displeasure of Napoleon’s decree that all the dead of Venice were to be buried outside the City walls in uniform graves – much like us here on our blog, he saw the value and importance of art and individualism when it came to remembering the dead. An active writer, his tenure in England was as a result of his refusal to take the oath of allegiance when the Austrians marched into Italy. Writing for the Edinburgh Review and briefly teaching at a girl’s school in Stoke Newington, he died in poverty in 1827.

Forty years after his death his remains were brought home, to the Church of Santa Croce, under the instruction of the King of Italy. This was part of a plan to unite a divided Italy – bringing home an Italian hero could do nothing but bolster the cause.


Along the northern walk is another artist a long way from his homeland. Painter James Whistler, of Whistler’s Mother fame. Another man who called London his home, Whistler, originally born in Massachusetts, moved to London (its proximity to friends in Paris had him sample the best of both worlds)where he exhibited a painting of his mother and niece at the Royal Academy in 1859. By the 1870’s he was securing commissions such as contributing to the refurbishment of the home of shipping magnate Frederick Richard Leyland. Thomas Jekyll, who was focussing on the dining room, was taken ill and so Whistler volunteered to finish the job, with one or two ornamental changes.

Ornamental became monumental. In a room that contained wood panelling that was part of Catherine of Aragon’s dowry, what was supposed to resemble a Tudor refuge was suddenly bursting with blue and gold paint, in an oriental style. Leyland was incandescent wih rage at Whistler’s ad hoc changes and poor old Thomas Jekyll, returning from his sickbed, was so distraught by what had happened to his work that he was discovered in the foetal position in his studio, covered in gold leaf. He died, insane, three years later. Coupled with Whistler taking a shine to Leyland’s estranged wife, Whistler and Leyland never spoke again.



An art deco masterpiece happens to be nearby. Edward Bainbridge Copnall’s best known work adorn the old HQ of RIBA in Portland Place, where his ‘Architectural Aspiration’ looms over the street – venture up to the top floor (it’s free to get in) and there’s a picture of Copnall, seemingly in Village People mode, holding a chisel and hammer in a very seductive manner. Here though, an early piece of his from the 1920’s sits atop the grave of Sir Percy Harris, who originally had it on display in his garden at Chiswick Mall and became his memorial upon his death in 1952.



One of the most imposing and impressive monuments in the Cemetery is to the memory of Frederick Hitch. Hitch, along with eleven others, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in defending the garrison in th fierce Battle of Roke’s Drift in 1879. This hero, who was forced to retire from the army due to the injuries he sustained, didn’t thrive in civilian life – the army pension was small and so he had to settle with being the Victorian equivalent of a cabbie to eke out a living.

Coupled with a fall in 1901 which had him awake in hospital, with his medal stolen (although the circumstances as to how it was stolen vary) he was accused of faking the story after selling his medal to raise money. His funeral had his body encompass full military honours and his memorial was largely funded from the matinee takings of 1912 cinematic success ‘The Miracle’, at what is now the Regent Street Campus of the University of Westminster – art funding death.


The clock was ticking and I had a Grandmother to visit in Chiswick Old’s successor, a 15 minute walk away – but do take the time to wander round this desolate little art gallery – its an exhibition worthy of anything at the Royal Academy.

Posted in American, Architecture, Military | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Horror in The Dark – The Bethnal Green Tube Station Disaster of 1943 and its Memorial

Stairway to Heaven

by Christina

It’s funny- you can live in London for years, and every so often you still come across an area of the city you have never been to and know nothing about. I have lived on the outskirts of London for most of my 32 years, and I had never been to Bethnal Green Tube Station until last month. I found myself there for work, and I needed to hit two particular locations that were difficult to reach from the same station. Using Google Maps, I worked out a route that involved alighting at Mile End, visiting my first location, then walking down Roman Road to Bethnal Green and getting the Central Line to my next destination. This meant that I would reach Bethnal Green on foot, and given that the current book I had on the go was Walk The Lines – The London Underground OVERGROUND by Mark Mason, it seemed fitting to discover a new part of London in this way.

Walk The Lines by Mark Mason

In the book, Mason walks the routes of every single Tube line (except the DLR, which he considers not to be a proper Underground line).  He does this above ground. On the way, he keeps up a detailed commentary of the neighbourhoods he passes through and the people he meets. It’s incredibly interesting.

On this day, I had boarded a District Line tube at Victoria, and I had a good few stops to go before reaching Mile End, so I decided to read up on Mason’s experiences of the sections of the lines I would be encountering today. And that’s how I learned about the Bethnal Green Tube Station Disaster of 1943.

You can read an account of what happened on the night of 3 March 1943 here. 

Bethnal Green station, which had only opened in 1936, was an enormous bomb shelter, and a lot of people sought refuge inside it during air raids. The tragedy was that on this night, it was not an air raid that caused the sheer scale of death that occurred, but a series of circumstances that led to a lot of people being in one place at once, and one tiny accident that caused a domino effect.

‘This was the station that in 1943 saw the Second World War’s largest loss of UK civilian life. With a horrible irony it wasn’t due to bombing itself, but rather to someone falling in the scramble to get into the station after an air raid siren. In the resulting crush, 173 people were killed.’ – Mark Mason, Walk The Lines, 2011

How can you live in a city your whole life and not know that something like this had happened? Yet I previously had no idea. Because I was on the Tube when I read about it, I had no signal to call up the Internet on my phone and do any further research. When I got off the train at Mile End, I went on my way, and didn’t think about it again until I was reaching Bethnal Green on foot, an hour or so later. As I approached, I saw Bethnal Green Gardens coming into view, and wondered if there was a memorial to the disaster somewhere in there. I decided to take a few minutes out of my schedule to have a look. And that’s when I found the Stairway To Heaven Memorial.

Stairway to Heaven

I’m always interested to know how people learn about things, and as a result, I like to document in this blog not just the information that I want to share with you, but how I came to know about it. I’m sure many of you reading this have long known about this memorial and are wondering, perhaps aloud, how it was that I did not. I think that learning what I did, in the way that I did it (by reading a book and then discovering the memorial for myself) is rare nowadays. We are more likely to read about things Online. I felt like I had really DISCOVERED something, an important part of London, just waiting to tell me it’s story. Which is why I’m sharing it here.

Stairway to Heaven Memorial, Bethnal Green

The Memorial was hard to miss. Winding across almost one whole end of the Gardens, it listed the names of the people who had lost their lives at one end, and had facts and figures, as well as individual stories documented along the length of it, on bronze plates. It was covered with wreaths. A few other people had stopped to look at it. But most walked on by. Either they had long known it was there, or hadn’t noticed at all. In London, the propensity to not notice things that are right in front of you, in favour of getting where you are going, is strong.

Stairway to Heaven

I stood for a few minutes, trying to be respectful. I thought about the death toll. 173* people is a huge amount. Think about tragedies that have occurred in recent memory. 7/7 claimed 52 lives, and that is huge enough. 173 in one Tube station crush seems impossible, and definitely unbearable to think about. I looked at the names and ages of some of the victims, engraved on the memorial. So many were children. It was incredibly sad.

Bethnal Green Tube

Then, pushed for time, I was on my way, having learnt something new about this great city, and the ways in which it honours and remembers the lives of those claimed and swallowed by it.

If you find yourself passing through Bethnal Green, step out of the Tube station and into the sunlight. The Stairway to Heaven Memorial is right outside. Go and have a look.

Bethnal Green

All photos by Christina Owen March 2016. 

You can also donate to ongoing work on the memorial here.  

*The death toll is variously given as 173 or 178, depending on which source you read. 


Posted in Memorial, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Gangster’s Paradise

by Sheldon


The people whose houses backed on to Chingford Mount Cemetery would be forgiven for thinking that the Resurrectionists had returned, early in the morning of the 15th of June 1934. Flickering torches slowly meandered their way through the darkness, the light catching the odd headstone here and there. Their flickering light barely illuminating some kind of movement, as if people were digging. Daybreak came and the midnight diggers left – with a coffin in tow.


Back on the 22nd of May 1934, John Wilmott, of Woodford Green, was found, his head and face covered in blood in Epping Forest. Soon after he was taken to Whipp’s Cross Hospital but before Doctors had a chance at saving his life, he expired. The bizarre events which led to his death would require an investigation.

It emerged that he allegedly fathered a child with another woman, a claim to which he refused to his wife – and she believed him. ‘He loved me and I loved him. We had a happy married life for ten years’, Florence told the press. The exhumation itself was a surprise as Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a leading Pathologist of the day (who would later commit suicide on campus at UCL) had theorised that he’d either received two separate blows to the head or had fallen from a tree. So what was it – murder or suicide? An open verdict was recorded and his wife, who didn’t even know about the second exhumation until a reporter from the Telegraph appeared at her front door, was escorted from the Court Room a broken woman.



Myself and Paul visited Chingford Mount in slightly happier circumstances, however. This was the first cemetery we saw on our death road trip (being followed by a trip to St Patrick’s in Leytonstone). Chingford Mount, named after Caroline Mount, who owned the land – has a considerable lineage; opening in 1884 as the successor to Magnificent 4 of 7 Abney Park, which in turn opened as a relief to Bunhill Fields, which itself closed in 1854.



Bunhill had its ministers and dissenters, Abney had its exotic trees and flowers. Chingford has none of those things – other than an impressive driveway of mature London Plane Trees; this is a suburban cemetery catering to a very different area of people – but don’t let that put you off; its landscaping may not be dazzling but, as in the case of John Wilmott – some very important lives and stories lie here.


Let’s get it over with, as you can’t talk about Chingford Mount without talking about two of the most notorious criminal twins of all time – the Krays. London’s favourite gangsters occupy a corner plot with Reggie’s wife Francis, their mother Violet and older brother Charlie. We’d already been to the grave of George Cornell in Camberwell New Cemetery – murdered by Ronnie after he’d call him ‘a fat poof’ – and despite their reputation and subsequent incarceration, this little corner still draws admirers. A man in a Ford Zetec drove up to the grave whilst we were there and paused for a few moments, whilst blasting Little Mix very loudly from his Car. A picture was taken and then he promptly drove off.

I wonder if the Krays would have liked Little Mix?

If you’ve ever strolled near Goodge Street Station you may be familiar with the Caffe Nero that’s marooned in the middle of an open space. Part of this site was the burial ground for the Whitefield Tabernacle (now known as the American International Church) where, because of constant rioting and the need to redevelop a very dilapidated church, all bodies were moved en masse to Chingford Mount. All bar one  – the reverend Augustus Toplady, who was buried so deeply in the bowels of the Church they thought it best to leave him there. He wrote the Hymn ‘Rock of Ages’, which indirectly led to Def Leppard’s tune, too.


DSC_0056 copy


Another notable (overshadowed, forgotten, etc) person is that of John Bass. Bass was the director of Waterlow and Sons, an engraver of currency, stamps, stocks and bonds, often working with the British Government. Although a family run business, Bass had worked for the company for 52 years and had spent the most recent 18 of those as its managing director. ‘The deceased was well known and highly esteemed in the City’. Their printed materials are still rather eye-catching.

One of the oddities of Camden, like the site of The Whitefield Tabernacle, is Pollocks Toy Museum down Scala Street. A long standing visitor attraction based there since the 1960’s, its roots go back to the 1870’s when Joseph Pollock built toy theatres in Hoxton. Based in Hoxton Street, the likes of G.K. Chesterton and Charlie Chaplin were known fans and visitors yet his business flailed, which probably explains why he was buried in a common grave in the cemetery in 1937.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 20.30.17

Thieves who would probably get the rough end of Lord Sugar’s tongue for a deal as bad as that. The Essex Newsman, Saturday 14th December, 1912. Image © Local World Limited. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.


Financial hardship rocked the Cemetery at the beginning of the 2oth Century and with mismanagement and the alleged activities of a Poltergeist in the entrance lodge, Chingford Mount fell victim to vandalism and arson; its beautiful (and now, sadly demolished) Chapel damaged by fire, which took most of the records with it. Local people rallied and strongly advised Waltham Forest Council to step in and purchase the Cemetery for £1, which was a very good thing – it turns out the Cemetery was only two thirds full and has space for another 100,000 people!

It may not be as romantic as Abney Park or Bunhill Fields, but take a stroll here as the weather improves – besides the Krays, whether you’re a philatelist, toy collector or an art fan – Chingford’s charm makes it a highlight in this part of London town.

All photos (bar the stamps) © Sheldon K Goodman, 2016

Posted in London, Murder, People, Photography, Visits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reasons To Visit Nunhead Cemetery

Spring at Nunhead

Spring at Nunhead

If you’re looking for a grand Victorian era cemetery in London, the guidebooks will direct you to Brompton or Highgate. But Nunhead? Where even IS it? Here’s why it’s worth finding out…

by Christina

My cemetery books are keen to stress that Nunhead, the 6th of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Victorian cemeteries of London, is in a quiet suburb that no one can find. One book even describes it as being located in a ‘backwater of south-east London’ (Turpin & Knight, 2011) which seems less than complimentary. But the truth is – it is pretty hidden. It shares a post code with Peckham (SE15), which overshadows it. I’ve been there several times over the past 4 years, and I still can’t find it without a sat-nav. Which isn’t to say it’s small, or that it isn’t deserving of the adjective ‘magnificent’…

A Quick History of Nunhead

All Saints Cemetery, Nunhead covers 52 acres, making it the second largest of the Magnificent Seven (can you name the biggest?). It sits 200 metres above sea level,  looking out over the City of London. It was opened in 1840 by the London Cemetery Company, who also owned Highgate, making the two cemeteries ‘sisters’, despite being poles apart.

And it IS a world away from the Big Ego that is Highgate, with grand tomb after grand tomb proudly announcing ‘I was here! And don’t you forget it!’ Nunhead Cemetery’s long term residents, by and large, clearly do not care for showing off. The graves here tend to be more modest. And although the cemetery is fronted by a set of  stone pillars, with gigantic upturned torches mounted on them (to signify ‘a life extinguished’), it’s easy to miss. I’m not even sure the residents of the quiet street it lives on even notice it is there.



I love Nunhead. It’s so easy to love the underdog, and Nunhead IS the underdog of the Magnificent Seven. The fact that it gets overlooked makes it a hidden gem worth discovering. Here are 3 reasons why Nunhead is worth your time and attention:-

Get Back To Nature

I visited Nunhead on Good Friday this year, a day so clear and blue that any hint of unease you might feel about walking through a dilapidated Victorian space for the dead is extinguished in favour of the same sense of peace and calm you’d get on a ramble in the woods. Nunhead IS a ramble in the woods. With added gravestones. As well as a cemetery, it is also a nature reserve. And I certainly was not the only one enjoying a sunny day here. Dog walkers, families, photographers and ramblers were all out in force, walking the winding paths and enjoying exploring this fine place.

A log heap for stag beetles! Just one of many we found at Nunhead

A log heap for stag beetles! Just one of many we found at Nunhead

It’s rare that you can go somewhere in inner London and hear nothing but birdsong, without that faint ‘whoosh’ of traffic audible in the background.

‘What first strikes the visitor is bird song – woodpeckers, warblers and jays are just three species that make their nests here – and the sound will accompany you on your visit.’ (Philpot, 2013)

Also worth admiring is nature’s belief that this land needs reclaiming. Ivy creeping over a gravestone here, a whole monument engulfed by leafy tendrils there. Entire plots lost to green wilderness. So much of Nunhead appears to be sinking or shrinking back into the undergrowth.

An angel lifts up her skirts with her good arm, wading in a puddle of greenery that threatens to consume her

An angel lifts up her skirts with her good arm, wading in a puddle of greenery that threatens to consume her

 Admire the View

Climbing to the top of Nunhead Cemetery doesn’t take long and you’ll reap the rewards once you’re up there. 2 benches sit back to back at the very top of the slope. Sit on one, and you have a gorgeous view of St Paul’s cathedral through a gap in the trees. Sit on the other, and you can gaze across Lewisham to the North Downs.

You're looking the wrong way! St Paul's is over there!

You’re looking the wrong way! St Paul’s is over there!

Pay Tribute to The Scouts

There are undoubtedly many sad stories that ended with a grave stone at Nunhead. But the Leysdown Tragedy, as it has come to be known,  is a very sad one indeed.

In August 1912, a boat full of Boy Scouts who were sailing from Walworth to a campsite on The Isle of Sheppey capsized, and 9 boys died. They were aged 11-14. The public outpouring of grief was such that over a million people lined the streets between St John’s Church in Walworth and Nunhead Cemetery, to watch the cortege go by. The boys were buried at Nunhead in a communal grave, and in 1914, a cenotaph was erected there. It was fronted by a life-sized bronze statue of a Scout bowing his head. It was very grand. Sadly, it was stolen in the 1960’s for it’s scrap value. The grave site lay nearly forgotten for 2 decades, until the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery learned about the tragedy and raised the money to build a new memorial, taking the form of an open book, with the boys’ names inscribed onto marble. This is what I see today when I find the site, and although beautiful, it’s rather understated. I can’t help but wish the bronze statue was still here.


 Leysdown Tragedy

Nunhead cemetery can be whatever you want it to be – a ramble, a way to remember the past, a good view of London. These are all acceptable ways to experience it, and I urge you to venture into South London to visit! It may be the underdog of the Seven, but it’s just as Magnificent as any of the other six.

Nunhead is located on Linden Grove, SE15 3LP. It is open to the public daily between roughly 8.30am and 5pm.

Friends of Nunhead Cemetery Open Day is on 21 May 2016 between 11am-5pm. Find out more here.

Directions to the Scout’s memorial and the view of St Paul’s can be found on a map at the Cemetery entrance.


I didn't even get around to mentioning the Neo-Gothic Anglican Chapel, did I? Another reason you should visit Nunhead immediately!

I didn’t even get around to mentioning the Neo-Gothic Anglican Chapel, did I? Another reason you should visit Nunhead immediately!

There are Grand Designs here, but they are often hidden or understated, and need a keen eye to spot!

There are Grand Designs here, but they are often hidden or understated, and need a keen eye to spot!



Reference material and further reading:-

Terry Philpot, 31 Cemeteries to Visit Before You Die, 2013, Step Beach Press

John Turpin & Derrick Knight, The Magnificent Seven; London’s First Landscaped Cemeteries, 2011, Amberley Books

Facts and figures also taken from the information signposts found around Nunhead Cemetery.

‘The Walworth Scouts’ photograph found here.

All other photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2016, apart from photo of Christina on a bench, taken by Daniel Brookes.


Posted in London, Photography, Visits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments