The people in what is now the present day London Borough of Lewisham must have breathed a sigh of relief in 1858. Much like the two for one deals that proliferate modern supermarkets today, the local people were treated to not one, but two cemeteries opening – within months of each other. Originally called Deptford and Lewisham Cemeteries, their gates creaked open amidst the backdrop of the Great Stink, where the polluted Thames was killing the living with its foul, untreated water.
Googling revealed that these cemeteries had a notable influence on a popular music artist. It was a location that Florence and the Machine knew well: ‘I actually spent quite a large bit of time here at one point, ’cause I was having music lessons here and I used to hang out in the graveyard. And actually, strangely a small bit of inspiration came from that graveyard…if anyone knows the lyrics to Only If For a Night – a small portion of it comes from Brockley Cemetery.’
It was through the entrance of Brockley Cemetery that I trod the path of so many people before me. I was immeduately struck by the atmosphere that greeted me: the air pollution was a bit bad and the air had a very strange white haze to it, hinting the premature arrival of night and giving everything an almost strange and surreal feeling. It was here that I was greeted by Bob, a friend of the cemetery who was tending to an area of greenery. ‘It’s listed as a wildlife cemetery. Locals complain of the unkempt nature of some areas of it. They take great pride in here and don’t like how some areas have become overgrown for the benefit of the flora and fauna. They think the people here should be respected.’
Bob showed me the stretch where the great and the good chose to have their plots. “There are some great names here: Hepsibar, Eugenia, Augustus. I went around one day looking at all the names related to nature, like Bird or Hedge – and then the vulgar ones” (the most obvious being a particularly unfortunate female name which shall not be repeated here). He bid me farewell shortly afterwards.
Straddling the brick and earth mound I then crossed into Ladywell Cemetery. My, it’s a different beast. In fact most guide books I’ve read say that it is the more interesting of the two, which does hold some truth if not for the peculiar grid system that abuts the Brockley Cemetery. A very eerie system of roads, its tarmac being covered by a strange algae-like grass, its layout reminding me of the Old Crocks Rally at Chessington World of Adventures.
The scars of the Second World War are still evident, even seventy years on from its conclusion. A granite memorial, a usually robust and extremely hard wearing stone has had seven shades knocked out of it and what remains is a beautiful and terrifying reminder of how even the dead weren’t safe from Hitler’s ruthless drive to conquer.
One of the country’s greatest decadent poets also lays here. Ernest Downson, who died aged 32, is credited with coining the term ‘soccer’ and the phrase ‘gone with the wind’ -which later led to the film everyone knows. His memorial (and….’interesting’ love life when looked at through the standards of today) was largely forgotten until 2010, when it was refurbished to commemorate the 110 years since his passing.
On a green mound is the monument to Jane Clousen in the Ladywell half: the housemaid to a wealthy Greenwich Printer who ended up falling in love with his son Edmund. Such a relationship between a servant and the son of a successful businessman was not tolerated and Jane was promptly dismissed. Their love continued, allegedly, but began to falter when he refused to marry her as his brother had recently ‘married below his station’ and their were rumours that Jane was carrying his child. It culminated in 1871 with Jane being found down Kidbrooke Road with the innards of her head exposed to the air, begging ‘oh, let me die’.
Hurriedly realising I was supposed to be in a pub down Minories in forty-five minutes, I left the twin cemeteries of Ladywell and Brockley with the lyrics of Florence and the Machine reverberating through my head: It was all so strange/And so surreal/That a ghost should be so practical/Only if for a night…
All photography © Sheldon K Goodman 2015