A hidden gem in south east London: Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead is arguably the least well known of London’s “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries.  Like many of South East London’s interesting old sites, it often gets overlooked due to its lack of a nearby Tube station, although it’s actually a short walk from Nunhead Rail station, which is three stops from London Victoria.

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The Linden Grove entrance to Nunhead Cemetery.

Nunhead Cemetery is full of powerful symbolism.  The above picture of the entrance gates on the cemetery’s north side shows two common symbols of death that were used in the Victorian period – the upturned torch, signifying life extinguished, and the snake devouring its tail, a symbol of eternity.  The snake in particular is a fairly common sight within the cemetery.

Nunhead is one of the “Magnificent Seven”, huge cemeteries opened between 1832 and 1841 to relieve London’s choked, unsanitary churchyards – the other six are Kensal Green, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, West Norwood and Tower Hamlets.  These new cemeteries would provide plentiful space for the dead to be buried with dignity, a huge contrast to the inner city churchyards where there was no room left to bury bodies and where soil was simply piled over corpses (churchyards in central London are often several feet higher than the surrounding street level).  The new cemeteries were ventures funded by private businessmen, who saw a proft to be made in the inevitability of death as London’s growing population made the old ways of burying the dead in the churchyard close to their homes impossible.  The new cemeteries were also to be thoughtfully landscaped, providing a pleasant green space for the people of London to enjoy – this, of course, was the period when public parks and the idea of creating “lungs” for large towns became popular due to the alarmingly high rates of disease in growing industrial cities.

Nunhead Cemetery was opened in 1840, eleven years before the Burials Act of 1851 closed inner city burial grounds for good.  Unlike the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries, it does not have an overarching architectural theme – the Linden Grove gates have a Classical influence, but the Anglican chapel, visible further up the hill as you enter the cemetery from Linden Grove has its architectural roots in the Gothic Revival.

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Although the new cemeteries were privately owned, the church remainined an important part of the funerary ritual and each new cemetery had two chapels – a grand Anglican one and a more austere chapel for the Non-Conformists (there were also separate Anglican and Non-Confirmist areas for burials).  Sadly, today the strikingly beautiful High Gothic Angican chapel pictured is a now ruin – Nunhead fell into disuse after the Second World War (having suffered some bomb damage during the Blitz) and many of its monuments were damaged, defaced and destroyed by vandals.  The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, who provide guided tours of the site, have worked hard to restore and make safe damaged monuments.  There is, however, no trace remaining of Nunhead’s Non-Conformist chapel – it is believed that it suffered a direct hit by a German bomb during the WWII and was demolished soon after.

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A side view of the Anglican chapel – missing its roof.

The chapel’s disproportionately large porch was designed to be just so – it provided a shelter for the carriages carrying the coffins to the chapel for the funeral service.  The areas closest to the chapel were prime spots for burial, and many grand monuments can be found here.

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The monuments pictured above show a variety of popular Victorian funerary symbols and fashions.  The monument on the left shows the image of two hands clasped together – meant to symbolise farewell to this life.  The pinkish monument is topped with a draped urn – a particularly common sight at Nunhead and a very popular symbol used in the Victorian period.  The urn hearkened back to the Roman practice of cremating the dead and placing the ashes in an urn, with the drapery symbolising mourning.  The pointed monument in the centre is an example of a Gothic design – the Gothic Revival was rooted in medieval religious imagery and architecture.

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The ornate memorials clustered around the chapel also embodied the Victorian entrepeneurial spirit – the elaborate one pictured above is the grave of members of the Daniel family, who ran a successful business creating tombstones for London’s cemeteries – so as well as being a tribute to the Daniel family’s deceased members, this stone served as an excellent advertisement for the wares of the family business.

Beneath the chapel was a crypt.  Burial in a crypt was less popular by the mid-Victorian era – one particularly gruesome scandal that had preceded the call to move burials away from the old churchyards involved the discovery of hundreds of rotting corpses piled underneath the floor of an old church that had been converted into a dance hall.  Those resting in Nunhead’s crypt were granted a more dignified resting place, but they fell victim to the post war vandals and when Southwark Council took the cemetery over in the 1970s, the crypt entrance was blocked up with rubble to prevent any further disturbance and vandalism.

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Today, the crypt entrance has been restored with the help of Lottery Funding, and its inhabitants have been given a dignified reburial.

Another victim of the vandals at Nunhead was a memorial to the nine Boy Scouts who drowned in a boating accident in 1912.  The grand memorial had featured a statue of a Boy Scout with his head bowed, but he, along with the rest of the memorial, is now gone.  War Graves of Canadian and New Zealand troops are close by.

Due to its long period of postwar neglect, Nunhead is today a mostly forested area and many of its headstones are surrounded by trees and deep undergrowth.  Because of this, it is now designated as a secondary forest area and is in fact the largest forest in inner London.  Only areas used for more recent burials are kept free of trees and marauding brambles.

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The effect of nature being allowed to take over the graveyard is quite eerie – although against a backdrop of beautiful autumn colours, with leaves falling softly all around us, I found it a peaceful, if sad, space.

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Unlike some of its more famous sisters, Nunhead is not home to a large number of famous residents.  It does have it fair share of impressive monuments, though.  The Classical-inspired memorial above lies over the resting place of Vincent Figgins, a successful typesetter.  They grey memorial partly obscured by trees on the left of the photograph is that of a successful businessman whose son based the design of the tomb on an ancient tomb from the Middle East on display at the British Museum.  These impressive memorials are reflective of the Victorian trend to immortalise one’s success in grand monuments.

Like all cemeteries, Nunhead’s gravestones tell many sad and tragic stories…

The grave of four children, none over the age of 4, all lost to the same family between 1849 and 1852.  "Deeply regretted" is a common phrase on Victorian graves, particularly the graves of those who died young.
The grave of four children, none over the age of 4, all lost to the same family between 1849 and 1852. “Deeply regretted” is a common phrase on Victorian graves, particularly the graves of those who died young.
This grave, one of those painstakingly restored by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, is the resting place of two sisters in their nineties who died within 48 hours of each other in December 1887.
This grave, one of those painstakingly restored by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, is the resting place of two sisters in their nineties who died within 48 hours of each other in December 1887.
The youngest Commonwealth soldier buried here was only 18 years old when he died.
The youngest Commonwealth soldier buried here was only 18 years old when he died.

To conclude, Nunhead is well worth a visit – as well as being home to many interesting old graves, it’s a pleasant space to walk around and is popular with local families and dog walkers.  It also provides impressive views over central London on a clear day.  It’s a sad old place, but it’s also beautiful, peaceful and atmospheric.   The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery offer a fascinating free guided tour on the last Sunday of every month – more details can be found at http://www.fonc.org.uk/

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Originally published at Historical Trinkets on 1st November 2011.

17 Comments on “A hidden gem in south east London: Nunhead Cemetery

    • Thank you very much! It’s a lovely place and the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery are doing a great job of tidying it up and discovering more of its history.

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      • Thank you – I’m really glad you’re enjoying them! I enjoy going to cemeteries with my camera and taking pictures. There will definitely be more cemetery posts coming soon 🙂

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      • ah missed the word ‘much’ from my comment above then! But yes I will look forward to reading more of your posts 🙂 Yes, same here. Although I haven’t taken many photographs of cemeteries, I do enjoy exploring them and reading the inscriptions on the stones. My father and I went last night to the one just across the road from me and it really is striking the change in style and tone of the gravestones, from the late 19th century to the modern day.

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  3. Gorgeous post! And once again, you are taking me back to my old haunts – ‘haunts’ being rather appropriate in this case 😉

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  4. I visited this lovely cemetery in March this year as I had discovered through my family tree research that several of my ancestors were buried here. It is a very beautiful and peaceful place. A lovely article on this very interesting cemetery – thank you.

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    • Nunhead is so beautiful. I love that despite the years of neglect and vandalism it’s become such a lovely and peaceful place again. Did you manage to find your ancestors’ graves there?

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