As we scoured which Cemetery we should next visit on our checklist, there was one which immediately caught our attention. It boasted ‘the finest collection of sepulchral monuments in London‘ – such a claim deserved further investigation: so off we drove to West Norwood Cemetery in Lambeth, to see the second of the new wave of Victorian cemeteries to be opened.
I knew little of the Cemetery other than its entrance gate was designed by Sir William Tite, who designed the Royal Exchange in the City, and, slightly more low-key, Chiswick Station (one of my favourite facts that I impart to friends when I’m visiting my Nan in Chiswick New Cemetery, just down the road). I was also aware this was the first Cemetery of the seven to be opened in the Gothic style, in amidst the architectural war between classical and gothic architecture which gripped the construction of Britain during the early part of Victoria’s reign.
The Cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester in 1837, before transferring to the diocese of Rochester and then to its present overseer, Southwark, in 1904. Kensal Green was already established in the north so its of little surprise that an equivalent was to open south of the river.
Much like its sisters, the South Metropolitan Cemetery as it was then known was set amongst the Countryside, far away from urban dwellings, offering south Londoners their own pristine place of rest – a refreshing change from the heaving churchyards that plagued Britain for the early part of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, the reputation of Norwood stunted Nunhead’s profits when the latter opened: it took a few years for Nunhead to gain the interest of those wanting to be buried there, probably because they were so close to each other.
The first view we got of the Cemetery was how sparse it seemed to be. Tall, imposing, elegant memorials lined the path on the left hand side, akin to similar expensive promenades at Highgate and Kensal Green, but to the left, scattered graves from the thirties seemed to be the dominant style. I presume bomb damage may have played a part in this, or perhaps this front space was deliberately kept open.
It seemed like a merry place. Expertly manicured, each path with its own little road sign – perhaps it was the summer sun which was shining strongly which affected our opinion of the place. We walked past the colossal gothic marble monument to James William Gilbart, former general manager of the London and Westminster Bank, who according to my research standardised the spelling of ‘cheque’. A hulking great tomb, it bucks the conventional death symbology of clasped hands or downturned tools which its neighbours feature, instead using the image of a Squirrel and an Acorn, representing banking practices.
Suddenly, a man with a satchel, clipboard and pen approached us. “Have you come to look at the cemetery?” he cheerily asked. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?”. He gave us a overview of the cemetery. I asked why there were road names for each little path. “No real reason other than to help us when we need to find a grave or if anything needs doing in terms of landscaping or administration. They were erected a few years ago and take their names from those interred here. Over there is Doulton Path, which leads up to Henry Doulton’s tomb at the top of the hill, and so on”. Detecting our interest in cemeteries, he introduced himself as Colin, a volunteer of the Cemetery. In his former life he was an engineer, but today he was locating graves.
“In the 1960’s, Lambeth Council compulsorily purchased West Norwood in 1965, and ended the perpetuity of grave ownership.” Familiar with this issue, I commented I was aware this had been whittled down from ‘forever’ to 37 years by successive governments. They (the Council) began clearing the cemetery to make room for more burials, so we had bulldozers in here. If you look over there you’ll see no headstones, they were ripped up in the clearance.”
This sparked local outrage and an intervention from the Church of England, who took Lambeth council to court over the matter in the early 90’s. The eventual ruling was that the council had acted illegally and now, several years on, the Cemetery is managing its remaining legacy in a healthier way than it was in the early 90’s.
Colin showed us a few graves – a former Cress seller of Covent garden, a conductor of the Royal Albert Hall to mention but a few. “So many stories can be told here, like the coffins that escaped”. Me and Christina fell into silence. Coffins…that escaped?
“The geography of the land and the London Clay means that on the hill, any grave marker you see, the coffins themselves are probably another nine foot down the hill. There is a story that in the Victorian era, a coffin was found floating in the Thames at Vauxhall. The coffin plate listed the name of the deceased contained inside, and it was traced back to a grave here in West Norwood. The grave was inspected and no disturbance was reported above ground – the coffin sank through the clay and was carried to the Thames by the River Effra, which runs under the cemetery.” Rumour has it, this happened on more than one occasion.
Shortly afterwards, Colin had to return to his work and bid us farewell. We proceeded through the tidiness of the cemetery to the very top of the hill, passing some very grand monuments in the foliage hidden in the ascent. Something wasn’t quite right however – the Chapel that topped the hill wasn’t Victorian. The original building – reminiscent of Nunhead’s Anglican Chapel – was the victim of a V-1 bomb, with a modern replacement erected in its place. It fits in perfectly well with its surroundings, but after looking at the original Chapel from various sources, my jaw dropped. The gleaming white marble headstones must’ve ben a dazzling, leading to this fine gothic Chapel which literally crowned the hill.
The great and the good seemed to choose this vista – a notable burial is the tomb of Charles Spurgeon, the man responsible for the ‘Metropolitan Tabernacle’ in Elephant and Castle. Spurgeon happened to be a well known enigmatic Baptist preacher who’s influence extended beyond his own ministry: it’s claimed his stance against the down-grade ‘stopped the Churches of Britain falling into liberalism and unbelief’. Many thousands of people attended his funeral, Spurgeon died aged 57 from a combination of failing health and exhaustion. There’s a rather insightful film biography on his life here. Other notable burials include Mrs. Beeton, Dr. William Marsden (of the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital) and Sir Henry Tate.
The new Chapel also features the largest Columbarium I’ve ever come across. Eerily silent, we pushed open the heavy doors and saw tall spaces where urn after urn held the remains of those once lived, ranging from the 20’s the present day. Single flowers remained in front of various caskets, some dating back eighty years or more. In a nice throwback, to Victorian symbology, personal belongings, including the gentleman who’s family ensure a can of Stella Artois is placed near his remains, show how attitudes to places like this can be wholly positive.
Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t locate the Greek Orthodox Cemetery which is within the cemetery, neither the enclosure that housed the remains of the exhumed parishioners of St. Mary-at Hill from the City of London. This was more than made up by the angelic monuments, however – ‘the finest collection of sepulchral monuments in London’ was no understatement, Angels were everywhere. In a charming case of one-upmanship, families must’ve seen an angel and tried to emulate their own, which spread to the rest of the cemetery.
Time was growing short and we needed to head back home. The tranquility the cemetery offered caught us by surprise – no wonder the Angels are so plentiful here. West Norwood, this happy, proud yet slightly scarred necropolis deserves a second visit, if only to eventually find the Greek Cemetery contained within!
Thank you to Colin for giving us insight into this marvellous place. Later this week, Christina contributes her own thoughts on West Norwood. See you then!
- ‘The Best Office in London, A Woodland in Zone 2…’ (cemeteryclub.wordpress.com)
- So It Begins: Kensal Green (cemeteryclub.wordpress.com)
- Nunhead on a Friday in February (cemeteryclub.wordpress.com)