A Journey to Nunhead

by Sheldon

As promised last week, my post this sunny and hot Monday will be a more in-depth look at Nunhead.  It was the second Cemetery to be opened by the London Cemetery Company, as an attempt to recreate the success they’d had with Highgate.  The opening of the Cemetery utilised a recently passed bill that allowed the company to operate commercially in the London area: as long as the total area held was no more than sixty-one hectares.  This therefore allowed them to have more than one cemetery in the Metropolis.

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Tactically, having Cemeteries in both north and south London showed a company that was strong, well presented and in good business.  Add to that that both of them were on a hill, and roughly equidistant to St. Pauls (needless to say both have fantastic views), the concept of expanding and having a ‘Highgate’ in the South was inevitable.

In 1839 the company, which consisted of a board of members but headed by Stephen Geary (an entrepreneur who founded London’s first Gin Palace) then acquired land from Richard Edmonds and William Warlters.  Of the one hundred and thirty acres that was purchased, fifty-three was set aside to be the foundation of Nunhead Cemetery.

Highgate’s main feature was it’s Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon: Nunhead had its chapels which were designed by Thomas Little.  With a slightly smaller gradient to its main feature than Highgate, it made sense to have a grand driveway: I do wonder though why an Egyptian Avenue or an equivalent wasn’t replicated at Nunhead though – I would love to see if this idea was ever discussed.

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James Bunstone Bunning, a member of the London Cemetery Company, designed the layout of the Cemetery, including the lodges at the main entrance – in his own right he was a successful architect and using his skills was appointed the City of London.  (One of his notable but alas, demolished showpieces was the London Coal Exchange which formerly stood in Thames Street.) One of the lodges was restored in the 1980’s, the other left to decay.  There’s a lot of scaffolding around this building, it looks like plans are afoot to preserve it.

Christina mentioned in her previous post my less than brilliant first impression of our visit here – in hindsight my opinion of it was a little unjustified, with my appetite for all sorts of elaborate and fanciful memorials not being satiated here.  Out of all of the seven that we’ve been to so far, Nunhead does feel like the underdog, in an area not as wealthy or high-standing as its northern sister.  It was the favoured resting place of those from Bermondsey, Camberwell and Lewisham, which were and are worlds away from the leafy affluence of north London.

Nunhead may lack the 'wow-factor tombs' but it does boast a magnificent edifice to Victorian shipbuilder John Allan, which was based on the Payava tomb found in Xanthos in 1830.  By far the grandest of all the tomb's I've seen in our journey thus far, I'd guess it would happily accommodate a family of ten if not more.  If memory serves only three or four reside in it: the cost of deconstructing it to have a new internment made must've been exhorbitant.

Nunhead may lack the ‘wow-factor tombs’ but it does boast a magnificent edifice to Victorian shipbuilder John Allan, which was based on the Payava tomb found in Xanthos in 1830. By far the grandest of all the tomb’s I’ve seen in our journey thus far, I’d guess it would happily accommodate a family of ten if not more.  Photo courtesy of Victorian Web.

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Tucked away from the path that veers to the left of the main driveway is the Sepulchre of St. Christopher-le-Stocks (a Wren Church demolished when the Bank of England was extended in the mid nineteenth Century), a mass grave for all the exhumed remains of its parishioners and certainly a must-see if you get the chance to visit.  An interesting little nugget of information I found when I was browsing our followers on Twitter, is that the City of London Cemetery near West Ham was officially the place where the displaced dead of decommissioned Wren churches were reburied:  I wonder what made Nunhead the choice as the repository of those from Christopher-Le-Stocks.

Nunhead’s story is also tainted with scandal and difficulty.  Construction of the Crystal Palace Railway blocked the original entrance in 1865 and a new one was not built until 1870: it was also found that the company secretary had embezzled £18,000 of money which seriously knocked Nunhead’s public image.  The First World War marked the beginning of the end: maintenance costs mounted and as it approached capacity, it was left to fall apart.  By 1960 it was split from Highgate which itself was facing issues operationally and absorbed into the United Cemeteries Ltd, and by 1969 it was abandoned completely.  It wasn’t until 1975 when an Act of Parliament saved it from total ruin when Southwark Council bought it for £1, and then in 1981 when the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery were founded.

The memorial to Vincent Figgins, type founder.  He created a font that was used by many twentieth century newspapers.

The memorial to Vincent Figgins, type founder. Prominently standing at a junction of paths, this was one of the earliest grand memorials to be erected.  Some of his work can be seen here, he designed some very attractive fonts.

It’s my aim to revisit this little oasis in south London at some stage, as it really does deserve more attention and recognition than it currently gets. It’s certainly not the most intact Cemetery which does strongly bear the scars of its downfall in the earlier part of the last century, but its future looks a lot more positive.

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About SheldonKGoodman

I'm Sheldon, a City of Westminster guide who has a love of all things Cemetery! Co-founding the Cemetery Club in May 2014, it's my ambition to challenge the perception of Cemeteries are mournful places but to champion them as museums of people and libraries of the dead. I also co-lead the official Pride in London tour and do guided walks for Open Garden Square Weekend.
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2 Responses to A Journey to Nunhead

  1. Pingback: The Novo Jewish Cemetery at Queen Mary | Cemetery Club

  2. Pingback: City of London Cemetery and Crematorium | Cemetery Club

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