It’s the 1820’s and a deep sense of national pride is raging amongst the Greek people of the Ottoman Empire. Desperate to seek independence from a realm that had existed since the 1300’s, what started in 1814 as a conspiracy in Odessa (now modern day Ukraine) now had the backing of most of the merchants of Greece, resulting in a small army of troops crossing the Prut River into Moldavia to attack Turkish soldiers. Although the attack ended into defeat for the Greeks, their new found hellenism (Greek-spirit) had been stirred into a war that would eventually see the involvement of the UK into the creation of an independent country by the end of the decade.
The Greek Orthodox Cemetery in West Norwood is famous for its impressive tombs – several being listed on the Mausolea and Monuments Trust site as being significantly important. It’s a big-draw to those who visit the South Metropolitan Cemetery: yet on our first visit we completely missed it. So when Laura Pursey invited us to record a podcast about our passion and loyalty to Cemeteries we made a bee-lie for this Cemetery within a Cemetery.
By the 1840’s, some of the merchants who ensured Greece’s creation settled in London and became hugely successful, operating trade in Liverpool, Manchester and further afield. A group of them approached the board of trustees and wanted to secure a plot of land to be used by their community for the burial of their brotherhood.
Impressive Mausolea denote the wealth and influence these people had. The Ralli family, for example, upon emigrating from Greece quickly set up a worldwide trading network and a family firm that existed until the 1980’s. Stephen Ralli, upon the premature death of his son Augustus whilst studying at Eton, enlisted noted Victorian architect John Oldrid Scott (who also built the Greek Orthodox Church in Bayswater) to design a Chapel-cum-mauseoleum dedicated to St. Stephen that could be used for their own funerals.
Another Mausoleum, for the Argenti family, in a style Sir Christopher Wren would have approved of, contains a delicately beautiful collection of marble and mosaics, with fresh flowers on a mantle inside. A considerable sum of money was spent on these buildings which very few people other than immediate family would ever get to see. One tomb, who’s name I didn’t make a note of, consists of a cross under a canopy, with a rusted iron door containing a single coffin with the thigh bone of a Cat eerily sitting on top of it.
The imposing tomb to Panayis Athanase Vagliano, despite its size, doesn’t do credit to a man who became known as the ‘father of modern Greek shipping’. His success in the 1850’s was so successful that he later donated a sum of money which helped found the National Library of Greece in Athens. His tomb is based on the Tower of Winds, a marble clock tower that also lies in the Greek capital.
The enclosure is packed tightly with the graves chronicling two centuries of Anglo-Hellenic connections. It’s quite something to see how many influential people lie here in such a small space and whose legacy still endures not only in Greece but internationally. The Chapel and 18 of the monuments here are listed Grade II and II* by English Heritage. Although closed to further burials, it is still maintained by St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral which operates other such spaces in Hendon and New Southgate Cemeteries. If you’re ever in the area, try and see this amazing collection of graves and marvel at how many of the people here helped liberate a group of people from a ruthless empire and contributed significantly to the Victorian world.