The War On the Hill

by Sheldon & Steve 

A battle has been quietly raging in Southwark for the last few years. My last visit to the borough culminated in a fascinating riverside tour led by the man who wrote the theme song to the children’s TV show Rainbow. On this visit however, made on an autumnal day a week or two back, I made my way to Crofton Park to visit Camberwell New to meet: weight lifting champions, gangsters, and a war that rages on a hill.

Camberwell New opened its gates in 1927 and did so in relative style. Opening as the successor to Camberwell Old, which had the involvement of great Victorian architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, it’s replacement had chapels designed by Sir Aston Webb – this is a name that may be familiar to those who’ve worked in Whitehall as he’s the man who designed Admiralty Arch. His son designed a beautiful Italianate Crematorium which is also in the grounds.

According to Hugh Mellor’s Gazetteer of London Cemeteries, the chapels here are the biggest in London. In the double chapel style of Hampstead, his design here is a nod to the old style you’d expect from a cemetery to a newer ideal which reflected a more low key, perhaps even municipal approach to cemetery planning.

A number of notable people are buried here. In 1933, the melody stopped for one of Music Hall’s best known composers Harry Castling, who wrote such hits such as ‘I Want You to See My Girl’, ‘What Ho, She Bumps’ and ‘Just Under the Ivy’ – songs long since forgotten. When he died in 1933, a number of old variety stars came to the graveside to pay their respects to a man who, despite his achievements, died in poverty.

Another notable burial is that of George Cornell, who was murdered in the Blind Beggar Pub in Whitechapel in 1966 by Ronnie Kray. The story goes that Cornell (who had grown up with the Krays) ended up working with the notorious Richardson brothers, scrap metal dealers who ‘ruled South London’. After visiting a friend who’d lost a leg in a shooting in a hospital nearby, he called into the Blind Beggar Pub for a drink.

His presence there was brought to the attention of the Krays. There and then, Ronnie decided to kill him. He, along with Reggie’s driver John ‘Scotch Jack’ Dickson and right hand man Ian Barrie, picked up some guns en route, calmly walked into the pub to find Cornell. Ronnie then pulls out a gun and shoots him point blank in the head. Kray would later write:

‘In front of a table full of villains, George Cornell called me a “fat poof”. He virtually signed his own death warrant.’

Another more modern conflict is currently underway (this time involving local council rather than London’s gangland), the controversial plan by Southwark to reclaim parts of the New and Old Cemeteries for burial. According to the website, Southwark will run out of burial space by 2017. Out of borough burials have been deemed more trouble than they’re worth – why should one travel to some far off place to be buried; don’t the deceased have a right to be buried where they lived? A number of sites within the Cemetery have been identified for ‘redevelopment’.

Local groups have campaigned passionately against this, citing numerous social, historical, and environmental losses which will inevitably be caused by a proposal to tear up yet another of London’s rare green spaces including: loss of habitat for wildlife; poor, waterlogged ground conditions; and historical loss/disrespect for the people already buried there. The scheme, despite the plethora of well-founded concerns (and theres the business of it only providing resources for 6 months), has received backing from councillors.

I can understand and to some extent admire what the council is trying to do in providing burial space for its residents, but from a post on the campaign’s website dated the 16th November, the manner in which it has pushed through the proceedings despite sizeable objections from the local community raises an awful lot of questions. The hill in question wasn’t an easy obstacle to navigate, coupled with skirting in and out of headstones  and I’m fortunate enough to be fairly mobile so I can fully get the confusion as to how opening up new graves on this steep slope is hardly going to be accessible to say, wheelchair users. Time will tell.

P.S. What better way to leave such a fascinating Cemetery than by meeting some adorable locals on my way out – photos of kittens is what the internet is for, after all!

Sources & Reference Material


2 responses to “The War On the Hill”

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