Barnes Old Cemetery is elusive. There’s not much information about it to be found online, and it hides amongst the trees close to the tennis courts on Rocks Lane – most people using the courts or passing in the car or on the bus probably have no idea that it’s there.
Most of the information to be found about the burial ground is negative. One or two posts on online forums warn that it’s a known cruising spot, and others slam its state as being disrespectful to those buried there. It was with some trepidation, then, that I made my way to Barnes Common in search of this abandoned cemetery.
Barnes Common is quite a wild place, a world away from the many well-manicured parks in London. It has been common ground for many centuries, and its numerous wooded areas are full of twisted, gnarled old trees that wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest.
Barnes remained a small village until the coming of the railways and Hammersmith Bridge in the mid nineteenth century, and the Common was a somewhat eerie place – like many isolated roads it was the haunt of footpads and highwaymen. It was also the site of one of the very first sightings of Spring Heeled Jack, a terrifying Victorian bogeyman, in September 1837. Three young women travelling across the Common reported that a terrifying stranger with glowing eyes had attacked them, ripping at their clothes. Many other chilling encounters with this fiend were reported in other isolated parts of London over the next few months, with victims reporting a bizarre creature that seemed to be able to leap unnaturally long distances. This strange ability led to the mysterious attacker being nicknamed Spring Heeled Jack. Despite hysterical media coverage and investigations by the police, the culprit was never found. Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack persisted all over Britain until the end of the 19th Century, and even today many writers that focus on the supernatural and paranormal debate the possible explanations for and origins of Jack.
Having thankfully encountered no paranormal prowlers (although I did get a bit lost), I found the old burial ground, spotting a path leading into the trees with one or two old gravestones poking out of the greenery. Only a few yards away children and adults played on the tennis courts or walked dogs on the common, all seemingly unaware of the old graveyard so close by. It had rained the night before, and the paths, strewn with leaf litter and dead vegetation, smelled of pungent decay.
A cemetery was first opened on the common in 1854, to provide additional burial space for local people as churchyards filled up and closed. The railway had arrived at Barnes in 1846 and the population of the area grew as more homes were built in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The most prominent monument in the cemetery, which forms something of a centrepiece amongst the trees, is the magnificent tomb of the Hedgman family. William Hedgman, who had studied at Lincoln College in Oxford, died at the tragically young age of 27 in 1869. His parents lived in nearby Elm Bank. Other family members are also commemorated on the memorial, including William’s aunt Elizabeth, who had died in 1867 and whose remains were relocated from Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington to the grand family tomb in Barnes. Curiously, a number of the inscriptions on the memorial seem to have Braille on them – whether this was included at the time of the memorial being inscribed or added at a later time is unclear.
The victim of a terrible murder in 1879 lies somewhere in the old cemetery in an unmarked grave. Julia Martha Thomas, a widow who lived in nearby Richmond, was killed and dismembered by her maid Kate Webster, who concealed Julia’s remains and attempted to assume her identity in order to make money from the sale of her possessions. Kate Webster had a history of convictions for theft, although Mrs Thomas seemed unaware of her past. They did not have a good working relationship and shortly before Mrs Thomas was killed, she had asked Kate to leave her service. Kate Webster’s later confession stated that she had killed Mrs Thomas after an argument and then gone about disposing her body by boiling off the flesh and throwing the remains in the river.
Some of Mrs Thomas’ remains were found in the River Thames, before it became apparent that she was missing. The remains were found in a box washed up on the shore of the Thames near Barnes Bridge – leading to the case being dubbed the “Barnes Mystery.” As the remains were dismembered and a head was not present, they proved at the time to be impossible to identify. Admid rumours that the body had been used for dissection and research, the remains were buried in an unmarked grave in Barnes Cemetery. When evidence of Mrs Thomas’ murder was later found in her home, Kate Webster was arrested in Ireland (where she had fled with her son) and brought back to London, where she was tried for the murder of her employer and sentenced to death. The case caused a huge amount of sensation and speculation at the time, with Kate’s shady past and various crimes and misdemeanours (including having had a child out of wedlock) were widely discussed by the press. She was hanged on 29th July 1879.
Bizarrely, Mrs Thomas’ skull was not found until 2010, when it was discovered buried close to her Richmond home on land owned by Sir David Attenborough. The skull showed signs of injury consistent with being thrown down a flight of stairs, and the cause of death was ruled as head injury and asphixiation. Because Mrs Thomas’ other remains were buried in an unmarked grave, they could not be found to help provide a positive DNA match for the skull. However, the location, age and condition of the skull found in David Attenborough’s garden provided enough evidence for the Metropolitan Police to identify it as belonging to Mrs Thomas.
I came across a strange gravestone, close to the great monument to the Hedgmans. The symbol used on the grave was completely at odds with the Victorian symbols and styles seen on other nearby memorials. The winged hourglass – of which this is probably the loveliest example I’ve come across so far in my exploration of burial grounds – is a symbol more often associated with graves from the 18th Century and earlier. The hourglass is encircled by a snake biting its tail, which is a symbol of eternity. The grave belongs to William and Jane Frickley, with William’s burial occuring in 1858, a long time after the winged hourglass had passed out of common usage on gravestones. Perhaps whoever chose the image for the gravestone had been inspired by an older memorial elsewhere.
A number of those killed during the two World Wars are buried or comemmorated at Barnes Old Cemetery. None of the graves I came across were the standard small white war grave headstones common to graves of British service men and women, but in the case of the two First World War casualties pictured below looked as though their names were added to the grave of a parent as a permanent memorial. Perhaps these two unfortunate men lie in a war cemetery in France, or have no known grave. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for the servicemens’ graves and when I visited the cemetery, a poppy had been left on the grave of Leonard Cable, a wireless operator for the RAF who died in 1943 aged just 20.
A man known as the father of the Football Assoication is also buried here. Ebenezer Cobb Morley was a solicitor who moved to Barnes in 1858. Having a huge passion for football, he encouraged representatives from football clubs to meet and – perhaps inspired by his legal background – draft some standardised laws for the game. Football had existed as a street game for hundreds of years, and numerous public schools had created their own sets of rules for the game during the nineteenth century, but there were no universal laws of football. On 28th October 1863, with Ebenezer representing his club Barnes FC, representatives from twelve clubs in the London area met at the Freemason’s Tavern to discuss and draft the laws of the game and set up the Football Association. Ebenezer was the FA’s first secretary, and later went on to become president.
Now a rugby union club, Barnes FC played the first game under FA rules against Richmond in 1863 – with Ebenezer scoring the first goal. Barnes also competed in the first FA Cup competition and continued to do so until the 1885-86 season. Ebenezer Cobb Morley’s contribution to the development of modern football cannot be understated – it was through his vision that the FA was founded, an action that led to the foundation of the football leagues we recognise – and so many millions passionately follow – today.
Ebenezer also contributed a great deal to the people of Barnes in other ways – he funded a gym, supported local rowing clubs and went on to represent Barnes on Surrey County Council. He died in 1924 aged 93, and was laid to rest at Barnes. On the 150th anniversary of the the foundation of the Football Association, representatives from the FA laid a wreath on his grave to commemorate Ebenezer’s pivotal role in the association’s creation.
The cemetery was closed in 1966. Richmond Council planned to clear the trees and gravestones and turn it into a lawn cemetery – where only flat memorials would be permitted – but after removing the cemetery’s chapel, gates and railings, the site was abandoned and left to the elements. Nature was allowed to take over, with tree roots causing gravestones to lean and topple and leaf litter and pine needles gradually burying smaller memorials altogether. Moss, ivy and brambles covered inscriptions. However, a number of clear paths through the site have been maintained and some of the headstones also look as though they have been recently renovated or cared for.
Sadly, there is also evidence of vandalism and neglect, unsurprising since the site is accessible to any time of the day or night. Most of the angels have lost their heads, and many crosses have been toppled from their bases. Perhaps its location in well-heeled Barnes has protected the site from worse fates – when I was there I saw no evidence of drugs paraphernalia and some of the vandalised gravestones and monuments had been cleaned up at some point. No official group of “friends” exists for Barnes Old Cemetery – perhaps those who have cleaned up and kept an eye on the site are employees of Richmond Council’s parks department or well-meaning locals or descendents of those buried in the cemetery.
Despite the vandalism and neglect, Barnes Old Cemetery still feels like a peaceful place. There’s something about trees and plants growing around old gravestones that I personally find rather appealing – the idea of new life growing in a place where the dead are buried is somehow comforting. It’s a crying shame that this beautiful graveyard is so neglected – with the right management, it could be restored and made more accessible without losing its forest atmosphere, rather like Nunhead cemetery has been cared for and gradually brought back from decades of neglect and vandalism. Eerie and sad it may be, but Barnes Old Cemetery has been one of my favourite discoveries of recent months. As I made my way out of the wooded area, a friendly robin chirped from the top of a tall headstone. This place may be an abandoned cemetery, but it’s full of life.