Nunhead Cemetery

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Gothic splendour meets untamed nature

Nunhead Cemetery, Linden Grove, SE15

Nunhead’s dec­o­rat­ed goth­ic Angli­can chapel, built in 1844

By the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry the unceas­ing growth of Lon­don’s pop­u­la­tion had led to over­crowd­ing in its church grave­yards. Not only did this make buri­als increas­ing­ly undig­ni­fied affairs but many peo­ple believed some sort of nox­ious vapour or ‘mias­ma’ rose into the air from the decom­posed corpses, spread­ing dis­eases.

In 1832 Par­lia­ment passed the first in a series of laws that per­mit­ted bur­ial grounds to be estab­lished on a com­mer­cial basis. New­ly formed com­pa­nies seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate spa­cious, ver­dant and ‘hygien­ic’ ceme­ter­ies at what were then semi-rur­al loca­tions on the edge of the city.

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Inter­ments Act of 1850 and its suc­ces­sor the Bur­ial Act autho­rised munic­i­pal author­i­ties to open their own Lon­don ceme­ter­ies but for two decades prof­it-mak­ing busi­ness­es had the mar­ket in non-church­yard buri­als to them­selves. The ear­li­est and grand­est of their cre­ations were mem­o­rably dubbed the Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en in Hugh Meller’s Lon­don Ceme­ter­ies: An Illus­trat­ed Guide and Gazetteer, a defin­i­tive work now in its fifth edi­tion.

Form­ing a ring around what is now inner Lon­don, the Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en are: Ken­sal Green, High­gate, Abney Park, Tow­er Ham­lets, Nun­head, West Nor­wood and Bromp­ton. Nun­head is among the largest but least vis­it­ed of the sepul­chral septet. Its expan­sive lawns and sweep­ing, tree-lined avenues were laid out in 1840 by the Lon­don Ceme­tery Com­pa­ny, which a year ear­li­er had cre­at­ed the Ceme­tery of St James, High­gate. The com­pa­ny’s two prop­er­ties were con­ceived as a pair, locat­ed on hill­sides fac­ing each oth­er across Lon­don, with St Paul’s Cathe­dral mid­way between them.

Nun­head can’t match the roll call of famous names on Highgate’s tomb­stones but those who know south London’s his­to­ry may recall the phil­an­thropic gas mag­nate George Livesey and the bus tycoon Thomas Till­ing. A gran­ite obelisk com­mem­o­rates Scot­tish par­lia­men­tary reform­ers who were charged with sedi­tion and trans­port­ed to Aus­tralia. The weep­ing angels and lions’ heads of oth­er impos­ing memo­ri­als most­ly hon­our wealthy indi­vid­u­als who have left no last­ing mark on the world.

The ceme­tery con­tains 580 Com­mon­wealth buri­als of the First World War, some marked with indi­vid­ual head­stones and the remain­der com­mem­o­rat­ed by name on a screen wall.

Despite occa­sion­al ini­tia­tives such as the con­struc­tion of a new south entrance, Nun­head declined in pres­tige and prof­itabil­i­ty over the course of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War its iron rail­ings were removed and the Dis­senters’ chapel suf­fered irrepara­ble bomb dam­age and was lat­er demol­ished. Fac­ing bank­rupt­cy in 1960, the Lon­don Ceme­tery Com­pa­ny was absorbed into the larg­er Unit­ed Ceme­tery Com­pa­ny, which final­ly gave up on Nun­head nine years lat­er. With its gates locked but rail­ings gone, the ceme­tery suc­cumbed to the inex­orable pow­er of nature and the destruc­tive effects of van­dal­ism and theft. The Angli­can chapel was set on fire and the cat­a­combs were raid­ed for lead and jew­ellery.

In 1975 a spe­cial act of Par­lia­ment enabled South­wark coun­cil to buy the site for one pound. With the assis­tance of lot­tery fund­ing in the late 1990s, the Friends of Nun­head Ceme­tery (FONC) ren­o­vat­ed the ruined chapel, restored the gates, walls and rail­ings, repaired 50 memo­ri­als, laid new paths and cleared much of the over­grown land­scape – though exten­sive swathes of wilder­ness remain, like the one in the pho­to­graph below. The ceme­tery reopened to the pub­lic in 2001. The whole 50-acre site is now a con­ser­va­tion area and grade II* his­toric park, and part is a nature reserve with a diverse vari­ety of flo­ra and fau­na.

The FONC organ­is­es reg­u­lar con­ser­va­tion work for vol­un­teers and con­ducts a guid­ed tour of the ceme­tery on the last Sun­day of each month, start­ing from the Lin­den Grove gates at 2.15pm.

An untamed part of Nunhead cemetery, with wobbly gravestones, trees, and much undergrowth

Nunhead (All Saints’) Cemetery, Linden Grove, London SE15 3LP
Websites: Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, Southwark Council, London Gardens Online
Open: daily from 8.30am – until 4pm in winter, 5pm in March and October, 7pm from April to September
Admission: free
Nearest station: Nunhead (Southeastern railway)