And now we move on to the second Magnificent Seven Cemetery to be featured in this blog: Nunhead. Nunhead was something of a reunion for the Cemetery Club – Christina was busy for a while whizzing around in ambulances, whilst I was busy gardening and drinking a dazzling array of ale. Our schedules finally let up and we arranged to make our next destination was to be the nearest of the Magnificent Seven.
Nunhead Cemetery, or to give it its full name, ‘The Cemetery of All Saints’, was conceived by the London Cemetery Company as a sister venture to its already highly successful Cemetery in Highgate. Strategically it made good sense having a business being represented both north and south of the river, and both capitalised from the excellent views of London they commanded from their respective hills.
The area at this time was a rural retreat that got its name from the Nun’s Head Tavern, and the board of the London Cemetery Company hoped that, like Highgate, this idyllic sleepy setting would lend itself to be an ideal place to put another prestigious Cemetery. The Cemetery was consecrated on the 29th July 1840 by Charles Sumner, Bishop of Winchester: by this stage the scheme of new places for Victorian London to deposit its dead was well underway: only Brompton and Tower Hamlets were yet to be completed.
The entrance to the cemetery was definitive and stark. Plain columns, with red cast-iron torches turned upside down to symbolise the extinguishing of life, concealed the cemetery we were about to explore. Flanking either side of the entrance were two lodges, the left hand one being in a rather miserable state of repair.
Then you witness the centrepiece of the Cemetery, the Anglican Chapel standing proudly at the top of the drive. In its day this must’ve looked gorgeous – I say ‘in its day’ because the Chapel is now just a shell after vandalism in the 1970’s, and the drive itself is sparse: before the war I presume the great long grass stretches would have hosted numerous tombs and obelisks a la Highgate; if this is indeed a result of bomb damage (which Nunhead suffered from) then it’s a great shame.
In terms of its ambition to mirror what its sister Highgate achieved, Nunhead was a bit of a failure when it first opened. Only nine burials were recorded within its first year – which is alarming considering it was (and remains) the second biggest Magnificent Seven cemetery. There’s much conjecture as to why this was. A recurring theory that I’ve come across is that West Norwood’s proximity and reputation were a tricky issue to compete with but soon established an identity of its own, however it encountered a scandal in 1865 when the first Superintendent, Edward Buxton, defrauded the company out of £18,000 – I’ll explain what happened in my post next week.
Another thing that struck me about Nunhead was it had a certain feel of never being quite completed: I’m happy to be challenged on this one and I fully intend on going back for a second visit, but there’s a sizeable number of brick vaulted tombs with just slabs of stone over them with the names of the deceased etched into them, whereas in other Cemeteries I’d presume that that would be a temporary measure until the monument was ready to be erected. I hypothesised (and again, if I’m wrong, I’m happy to be corrected), because people locally were not as rich as those in Highgate, and could afford the grave and nothing much more. Or perhaps in this part of London, the money for the finery of tombs was redirected into more enterprising uses. Despite that, there are many fine graves including monuments to John Allan, (hands down one of the most stunning tombs I’ve seen in any cemetery) Vincent Figgins and Thomas Tilling.
There’s also a remarkable sense of stillness with this particular place. You wouldn’t think that it suffered so badly after the war from theft and desecration – the catacombs are now sealed off after they were swept for lead and jewellery during its wilderness years.
The Friends of Nunhead are in the process of tidying up the Cemetery – certain parts of it are still wild as the consequence of years of neglect, especially after it’s abandonment after the War. You do get a sense that this is probably the one Cemetery that’s had the least recognition and attention, and you do wonder what other monuments there are which you can’t see hidden amongst the undergrowth. For my post next Monday, I’ll go into a little more detail – it’s founders, notable monuments and how it got separated from Highgate.
- So It begins: Kensal Green (cemeteryclub.wordpress.com)
- Kensal Green Continued: Dickensian & In All It’s Glory. (cemeteryclub.wordpress.com)
- Nunhead Cemetery Open Day (hpmcq.com)
- The Once Delightfully Dead Nunhead Cemetery is Shaken Alive (lewisschaffer.co.uk)