Who’d have thought that 31 acres in North London would carry on the mantle established by a burial ground that lay 4.1 miles away, created several hundred years before? On Saturday I ventured up to Stoke Newington to give a tour on behalf of the Abney Trust, as part of their Winter Fun Day.
Abney Park is one of the great Victorian Cemeteries of London, a sibling to Highgate and Brompton, yet largely unknown. Unusually, it decided at its formation to cater for all denominations of Christianity, including Roman Catholics and Jews, with the added bonus of having them buried wherever they liked in a sprawling, pristine botanical garden. For Abney was not fully a cemetery nor an arboretum, it was both.
Opened in 1840, its most striking feature from the road are its Entrance gates, which were built in the Egyptian Revival Style. To proud Victorian sensibilities, choosing an architectural style which was not from Europe or the Classical World brought a hearty amount of criticism, particularly from Augustus Pugin, co-architect of the Palace of Westminster. He was so incensed with the Lotus Leaved columns that he published a cartoon which lampooned the new Cemeteries which had been opened: openly mocking Abney’s design with figures of Anubis and Horus.
Roughly 205,000 people have entered this place to meet their final place of rest. Dissenters, as they were known, began to come here instead of Bunhill Fields to be buried amongst 3000 different species of plant. Greats of the day such as George Leybourne, the music Hall star who created ‘Champagne Charlie and was one of the first celebrities to publicly endorse a product for a fee, the Reverend Charles Newman-Hall, the British minister who was heavily involved with the abolition of Slavery and counted Abraham Lincoln as personal friend and Frank Bostock, the world-class showman and menagerist, who more or less shrugged off an incident where one of his Tigers tried to rip his arm off in 1904. A Lion called Menelik had a go in 1906. Perhaps annoyingly for both creatures, Bostock survived that brush with death too.
These were some of the characters I chose to tell the stories of in my tour of Abney Park, which focussed on the Orators and Entertainers who were buried there. Particularly, the life of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army resonated with me, as his enormous headstone lies in one of the prettiest (and most photographed) parts of the Cemetery, very close to the only Mausoleum in the entire park. Booth’s tale is so important that his funeral is available to watch through the Youtube and it was eerie to be standing in the exact same spot as thousands of mourners, who waved goodbye to their General 102 years ago.
Speaking of ‘same spots’, I was fascinated to see a link that one of the Victorian age’s greatest writers had to a particular headstone. In the guiding community, it’s a constant joke that wherever you go in London, you usually come across a place that Charles Dickens either visited, lived in or bought a sandwich from.
In 1842, answering the dying plea of his contemporary William Hone, a man who changed the face of British investigative journalism, Dickens ventured up to Tottenham to say his last goodbyes. A few days later, he stood at the graveside of Hone as his friend was lowered into the ground, forever. He was interred in a fairly regular part of the Cemetery, and to think I and my group of eager listeners were standing in the same place the great bearded one once stood was rather cheering.
Other points of interest was the Chapel, where a famous singer symbolically buried her heart in a poignant music video and the ‘deadboard’ made by a former architect who practised in the City of London, completed two years before his death in 1923.
The tour was a great success and I must thank the Friends for giving me the opportunity to make ‘The Abode of the Mortal Part of Man’ our second Cemetery Club Tour. If you missed it, t will join its stable-mate Brompton in our roster of upcoming guided walks, on which there will be more news of in the New Year!
All Photos except Booth and Sheldon – © Iris Jones Photography 2014. Photos of Sheldon © Anthony Davis, 2014.