West Norwood, which opened as the South Metropolitan Cemetery in 1837, is one of London’s most spectacular cemeteries, its grand tombs and monuments laid out along landscaped paths and mature trees. Of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries that opened on London’s outskirts in the early Victorian period, West Norwood was arguably the most sought-after of them all as a burial place, with its beautiful location on a south London hillside. The wealth of many of those interred there is reflected by the beautiful memorials raised in their memory.
The word “necropolis” is incredibly evocative – it is somehow a far more atmospheric term for a burial ground than “graveyard” or “cemetery.” The word derives from the Ancient Greek term nekropolis (νεκρόπολις), which translates as “city of the dead.” Rather fittingly, given the origins of the term necropolis, today we are visiting the Greek Necropolis, a small but dramatic section of West Norwood Cemetery in south London – a Greek Orthodox cemetery that contains the highest concentration of listed funerary monuments anywhere in Britain.
A few weeks ago, I went to Brompton Cemetery again. I was with my friend Sharon, a fellow graveyard explorer, and I also had a new camera lens to put through its paces. Since my last visit, a lot of the undergrowth that had swallowed up a good many gravestones had been cleared, and as a result we came across many graves that I’d never seen before. Last time I wrote about Brompton, I felt that I’d not been able to do the place justice in just one article, so it seems like a good time to revisit the cemetery and look at more of its rich heritage. Some of the graves featured this time around are grand and mysterious, others are modest and unassuming; yet all of them have their own fascinating stories to tell.
Highgate is London’s famous cemetery – it’s the one that most people think of first when Victorian cemeteries are mentioned and it’s the most well known of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries that date from the early Victorian period. Its location on a hillside overlooking the towers of central London draws thousands of visitors, and the overgrown western cemetery has inspired quite a few chilling tales over the years. Although it retains the glamour and prestige it commanded in its heyday, Highgate looks quite different now compared to its Victorian beginnings. Despite the many years of neglect (now being remedied by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery), this wonderful burial ground is still one of the finest locations of Victorian funerary architecture in Britain.
Many of London’s big Victorian Cemeteries have suffered over the years. Originally set up and run by private companies, many of these companies ran into financial difficulties after the Second World War, effectively abandoning cemeteries or selling them cheaply to local authorities. As a result, these cemeteries became overgrown and vandalised. Tower Hamlets, one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries, was one of places that found itself derelict and unloved in the late 20th Century. Thankfully, today all of that has changed.
One of the things that has always appealed to me about the big Victorian cemeteries is their sense of drama, and their grand, elaborate memorials. Of course, there’s nothing new about the moneyed commissioning ostentatious memorials for themselves and their loved ones, but in the grand cemeteries of the big cities, like London, it’s possible to see lots of dramatic memorials clustered closely together, all vying for prominence in burial grounds that were designed to be visited by the living as well as being places for the dead to rest.
Kensal Green, one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries, is home to many wonderfully dramatic monuments. Opened in 1833, it was inspired by the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and the burial of one of King George III’s sons, Prince Augustus Frederick (died 1843), made Kensal Green a fashionable place to be laid to rest.
What better thing to do on a chilly Sunday afternoon than explore a beautiful old cemetery? Abney Park in Stoke Newington is one of London’s gems – as well as being one of the city’s “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries, it’s a peaceful space that members of the local community have worked hard to make into a welcoming place for visitors. It was founded in 1840 as the first completely non-denominational burial ground in England and is the final resting place of many well-known nonconformists. Bunhill Fields, which for nearly two centuries had been the main site for nonconformist burials in London, closed in 1854, and Abney Park took over as the most prominent burial place of nonconformists. Probably the most famous people to be buried at Abney Park are William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.