Wednesday 20 May 2009

Nunhead Cemetery

An open day at the weekend was just the prompt I needed to visit Nunhead Cemetery. One of the 'magnificent seven' created in nineteenth-century London, it may be less famous than siblings such as Highgate but is pretty amazing all the same.

The creation of a more sanitary city in the nineteenth century involved many innovations. Some, such as the sewage system, are obvious ways to improve health; others may be less so. Today, the City's churchyards offer few clues to their former overcrowded condition. Indeed, they were so unpleasant and unhealthy that Parliament encouraged the creation of seven new cemetries in a circle around the edges of the city. One of these was Nunhead, opened in 1840.

The cemetery owners, the London Cemetery Company, had established Highgate Cemetery the previous year. Unfortunately, there would be scandal in 1865 when the company secretary was found to have embezzled £18,000 - nonetheless, he was buried in Nunhead. The company absorbed the losses and continued to thrive throughout the Victorian period.

However, business became harder after the First World War as costs rose and funeral expenditure fell. Nunhead declined badly after World War II and was abandoned by its owners in 1969. Gradually, woodland took over and wildlife moved in. Finally, Southwark Council paid £1 for the cemetery in 1976; restoration has been carried out by Nunhead's Friends.

A quarter of a million people are buried here. Many have no grave markers - mostly because they were placed in common graves, but sometimes because the memorials have suffered and decayed over the decades. However, those which survive are rich in Victorian style, and demonstrate a wide range of nineteenth-century symbolism: a topic I'll return to in future posts.

Further reading: Tim & Carol Stevenson (eds) A Short Guide to Nunhead Cemetery, Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, 2003


Philip Wilkinson said...

Just catching up with your posts. Thank you especially for these Nunhead ones. Nunhead Cemetery was one of my favourite places when I lived in SE London, but it must be 12 years or more since I've been there. Interesting to see it's still disheveled - and still very atmospheric.

CarolineLD said...

Thank you!

I loved the atmosphere: even on a busy open day, it was possible to turn down a path and feel lost in the country. I think the Friends' awareness of the wildlife and the uniqueness of the place will ensure it stays sufficiently disheveled to remain that way.