Monday, 7 November 2011

A Victorian Gothic Graveyard: West Norwood

Thank you for all the kind responses and comments to the previous post about Nunhead.  As it turns out, I enjoyed my trip to Nunhead so much that I've decided to make a bit of a series of London's Magnificent Seven graveyards.  Over the next few months I'm planning to visit the rest of them and report back here - they all seem incredibly different from each other despite being created with the same purpose in mind.

Don't blink.
The subject of today's blog is West Norwood, which like Nunhead is in South East London, close to Crystal Palace.  The cemetery is situated on a hillside - thought to be healthier - and these days overlooks the big transmitters at Crystal Palace, and a number of people were buried there specifically because they had been involved in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the graveyard overlooked the relocated Crystal Palace until its destruction by fire in 1936.

Unfortunately for me, the tours of West Norwood's cemetery take place earlier in the winter months and I was dependent on catching the 10.24 from Victoria to get to West Norwood in time.  I missed this train by less than a minute so instead took a train to Croydon and changed there.  I was far too late for the guided tour by the time I arrived in West Norwood.  The cemetery is a very short distance from the station - there is only one entrance these days, as the previous gates have been out of use for many years.

Not to be deterred by missing out on the tour, I set off around the cemetery.  Unlike Nunhead, West Norwood did not suffer quite the same levels of neglect and most of the area is free of trees and overgrown brambles and weeds.  One of the first monuments that stands out upon entering the cemetery is the Gothic spire pictured above, a monument to James William Gilbart, a banker and influential author who died in 1863.

Gothic architecture is a recurring feature throughout the cemetery.  West Norwood was consecrated as a burial ground in 1837 - making it the second of the Magnificent Seven to be opened after Kensal Green opened in 1832.  William Tite, designer of London's Royal Exchange and numerous railway stations across Britain, was charged with designing the new cemetery's layout and he incorporated the design ideals of the Gothic Revival into the cemtery's landscape.  The two chapels on the site - Anglican and Non-Conformist - were both of a Gothic design, as are many of the grand monuments.  This was a departure from convention - previously, large new cemeteries that were planned (as opposed to growing haphazardly around churches) had been based on Classical styling.  Tite later went on to lay out the designs for the huge new cemetery built by the London Necropolis Company at Brookwood in Surrey in the 1850s.

William Tite (image borrowed from National Portrait Gallery's website)

Sadly, neither of the Gothic chapels at West Norwood remain today.  The chapel in the cemetery is a modern rebuild of the Non-Conformist chapel and incorporates a crematorium which is still in use today.  The Anglican chapel was the victim of a V1 flying "doodlebug" bomb during the Second World War and has not survived, although the catacombs beneath it remain, though they are not particularly safe and therefore rarely available for viewing by the public.

Similar to other Victorian burial grounds, West Norwood fell into decline after the Second World War and was subject to a compulsory purchase order by Lambeth Council in 1965 after the company that owned the cemetery ran into financial difficulties due to attempts to repair WWII bomb damage.  The council then bulldozed a large number of monuments - estimated to be around 40% - and many graves were opened and reused (this was later ruled to be illegal and has now stopped).  This explains why many modern graves can be found nestled in amongst monuments from the 19th century.  Poignantly, rather a large number of these more recent burials are little graves of babies - there is something horribly sobering about seeing the grave of a baby born in the same year as oneself.


The second of the above pictures showing new graves alongside old ones also includes an example of Victorian funerary symbolism - the clasped hands (in white, slightly damaged, on the headstone on the right).  Meaning "farewell", this symbol is commonly found on gravestones from the Victorian period.  Another symbol of death, the upside down torch ("life extinguished"), is visible on the monument pictured below - look at the square columns at each corner.

Another symbol that crops up in Victorian cemeteries is that of the broken pillar, which represented the loss of the head of a family.  The first image below is properly broken - it has lost its grave, but is an ornate and attractive example of this type of gravestone design.  The second picture shows what the broken pillar design looks like when complete.

West Norwood has its fair share of illustrious inhabitants.  Mrs Beeton is one famous burial at the cemetery, but due to missing the start of the guided tour I didn't manage to locate her grave.  However, shortly after finding and photographing the two broken column monuments, I ran into the tour group and was able to join them for the remainder of the cemetery tour.

The monument above isn't an example of the broken column design - its column was once topped by a draped urn, which due to the passing of time was worn down and eventually fell off, and reattaching it is impossible without causing significant damage to the column.  This monument marks the grave of William Marsden, a surgeon who founded the Royal Free Hospital which, as its name suggests, was to provide free healthcare for the poor of London.  After his first wife (buried here too) died of cancer, he also founded what was to become the Royal Marsden Hospital on the Fulham Road, a specialist facility for cancer sufferers.

This rather overgrown tomb marks the resting place of Thomas Cubitt and many of his family members.  Cubitt is responsible for many of the grand white stucco houses that are found in Belgravia and Pimlico in central London (there is a monument to Cubitt at the bottom of Denbigh Street in Pimlico) and died a very rich man.  The marble slab over his family tomb is reputedly a foot thick and must have been exceptionally cumbersome to transport to the cemetery.  Despite Cubitt's vast wealth, his family were still subject to the sad realities of life in Victorian Britain and the grave contains the remains of a number of children who died young, including two who died within two days of each other.

This beautifully sculpted angel is part of Sir Henry Doulton's mausoleum.  Sir Henry was born into a family prominent in the pottery business, and went on to be extremely successful in his own right, overseeing the manufacture of drain pipes and other items intended to improve sanitation as well more artistic items.  The tiles and bricks that make up his tomb came from a Doulton factory, and the monument is Grade II listed.

Another red coloured mausoleum is the tomb of Henry Tate, well known both for being a major figure in the sugar trade and, an avid collector of artworks, also the founder of the Tate Gallery in London.  In both his tomb and that of Doulton, the remains of these two men and their families have now been reburied underground as both monuments have been extensively restored.

As well as the destructive actions of Lambeth Council, vandalism and the natural shifting of the ground within the graveyard have claimed many monuments.  Some of these have been restored or made safe, and we came across one such monument that was in imminent danger of collapsing and is now being restored.

One grave which has proved to be an unlikely tourist attraction is that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a name that will be familiar to followers of the Baptist church.  He was the founder of the Metropolitan Tabernacle at the Elephant & Castle and his sermons, all of which he wrote down and many of which are still available to buy in printed format, were enormously popular and drew huge crowds.  His burial in 1892 also drew huge crowds.  His tomb, pictured below, still attracts coachloads of tourists, mainly from America.

Next to Spurgeon's tomb is another impressive monument - to the inventor of Bovril.  John Lawson Johnston invented a beef based beverage as part of a contract to feed French troops and Bovril made him an extremely rich man, and he died on his yacht in the south of France in 1900.  His tomb was damaged by a bomb during WWII, but still remains an imposing monument today (pictured below).

I've provided a far from exhaustive list of illustrious persons buried at West Norwood -the cemetery is the final resting place of many politicians, engineers, inventors, philanthropists and other notable people.  The Friends of Norwood Cemetery offer a booklet contianing short biographies of "Norwood Notables" which includes a map to make locating each grave easier (it would have been useful I had bought this before I started wandering around!)

One part of the cemetery offers a departure from the usual Victorian graves and memorials - the Greek Cemetery.  A community of Greeks grew up in the City and Bayswater during the nineteenth century and many of the families became wealthy through the shipping business.  Although they did not really have a connection to south east London, the community bought a large plot at West Norwood for the burial of their relatives and many impressive memorials can be found in this section of the cemetery.

As the above photograph demonstrates, the architecture in the Greek cemetery is markedly different to most of that in the regular cemetery, with - understandably - mostly Classical influences.

However, as this man's memorial clearly shows, many of the tombs also incorporated Ancient Egyptian designs.  The Greek cemetery is very easy to find as its monuments are much larger than those surrounding it, and many of the inscriptions on tombs are in Greek rather than English.


A few more photographs from the cemetery...

With any luck, this isn't the last this blog will see of West Norwood.  I enquired about tours of the catacombs at the cemetery and have joined the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery so that I'll be able to visit the catacombs (Lambeth Council restrict access quite severely due to health and safety issues) some time next year.

The Friends of West Norwood Cemetery have a website at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this highly informative blog post! It has equipped me with so much knowledge for my precedents study on the cemetery (I am an architecture student, and for my new project, I have been given the West Norwood Cemetery as a hypothetical site for a new build).
    All the best,


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