The magnificent seven cemeteries of London were seven large cemeteries built around London to help address the terrible overcrowding in the existing cemeteries. Up until the creation of the seven, people were buried in the graveyards of small parish churches but with a population increase in the Victorian era (in the first 50 years of the 19th century, the population doubled) burying the dead became a serious problem.
There were a large number of deaths during this time due to uncleanliness and the many serious epidemics that broke out, including cholera in 1832, which spread via bacteria. Its violent attack on the human body was frightening; the fact that there were so many dead bodies around meant that bacteria from the bodily fluids washed into the new sewer systems and could only increase the spread. With the epidemics, parliament passed a bill that a number of cemeteries should be built to address the overcrowding of the smaller central churchyards and so the seven cemeteries opened between 1832 and 1841; it’s really amazing how quickly they went up and how quickly the others in the center stopped being used.
We visited all seven; Abney Park, Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets and West Norwood.
They stayed busy with thousands of burials throughout the 19th century but in the 1960s most of them became financially unviable and in the end were left for nature to overcome. Plants consumed the graves and catacombs and tree roots grew in the graves and crypts, meaning headstones toppled. Now, the cemeteries exist mainly as nature reserves. Highgate was built in 1839 and was privately run until 1970 when it became difficult to maintain due to finances. Slowly, nature took over, growing all over the gravestones, trees uprooting the stone, and then the vandals set in. There are two parts to the cemetery; the East and the West, and there are roughly 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves.
The Victorians had a strong fascination with death and because Queen Victoria mourned the death of her husband, Albert, for most of the era, it was normal for the Victorians to show their wealth by creating extravagant grave memorials for their loved ones, resulting in beautiful examples of Gothic architecture. Often, families competed to show their wealth by creating ever more fanciful memorials. Kensal Green was built in 1833 on 72 acres of land. I was very impressed by the mausoleums; the memorials were majestic with large angels and sphinxes on plinths. The more we explored, the more impressive it got. One walkway in particular was adorned on either side with large Gothic stone memorials. Over 250,000 people have been buried inside in 65,000 graves and the cemetery also consists of underground catacombs, which bodies would be lowered into through means of a hydraulic catafalque. Burials still happen here regularly and although some of the ground is uneven and the graves are succumbing to nature, I think that is inevitable due to their age. The rest of the site seems very well kept.
Benjamin Baud designed Brompton and I thought its most impressive feature was the central avenue with a domed chapel at its center, in the style of the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. At either side of the avenue are catacombs and long colonnades. The catacombs have huge impressive doors and ironwork, and were built to have thousands of people in them but didn’t prove to be all that popular, only filling 500 of the places. The cemetery is 39 acres and holds the bodies of around 205,000 burials and over 35,00 monuments.
In West Norwood, the Anglican and Dissenters’ chapels had been damaged by the war and demolished, however, the catacombs still remain and although some coffins were removed at the request of relatives, most still remain to this day. It was required that bodies were buried in lead lined coffins and these were lowered by a hydraulic catafalque designed by Bramah and Robinson in 1839. This area is now pretty dangerous and there are clear ‘no entry’ signs around the site, with things collapsing in on themselves all around. We walked about and surprisingly, in some of the above ground crypts; you could shine a light in and see the coffins inside.
We arrived at Nunhead and stood admiring the large decaying chapel in the center, its doors closed to the public due to the stonework slowly crumbling away and its roof gone, but apparently you can take a tour inside and even visit the catacombs underneath. For the first time we were joined by a man here, who began to tell us some background to the cemetery. He wasn’t actually a tour guide but a volunteer who I think was helping with the upkeep of the grounds. We walked up the hill with him as he told us about various exciting things, like how common being buried alive was in Victorian times and how bells were put on the outside of graves so anyone buried alive could alert people of their horrifying plight. Also, he told us how people would be added to the small family crypts either side of the paths the path would be dug away, the coffins inserted and then covered. There were ventilation holes in the crypts as it was common for the bodies to decompose at alarming rates above ground, and because of gas build up; it wasn’t uncommon for the bodies and caskets to explode. To avoid this, the ventilation holes were put on the sides so the gases could escape. I couldn’t imagine how bad it must have smelled here during these times. Nunhead cemetery was built in 1840 and was full by the middle of the 20th century. It was abandoned, became very neglected and is now flourishing as a nature reserve. Flowers, birds, trees and woodland animals all make their homes inside and with amazing views of London; it is a special place to be.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery is a city cemetery built in 1841 over 27,000 acres and around 350,000 people have been buried there.
Abney Park was built in 1840 over 31 acres and around 200,000 people were buried inside. It was unique in being the first arboretum to be joined with a cemetery in Europe and offered as an educational place, where trees were named and the horticultural area was rich with experimental planting.