There’s beauty in the fact that London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries are teeming with life…
Not the rising from the dead, ghost and vampire kind of life (though there have been stories!) – but rare birds, bees, bats and butterflies, foxes, badgers and insects.
Far from being simply places of mourning, the best of the city’s cemeteries are now sites of natural importance, green lungs in the busy metropolis for people seeking tranquillity. They’re home to occasional markets, music and performances.
How many of us wander through oblivious to the history, the art and architecture and the extraordinary stories of some of the cemeteries’ permanent residents?
The Magnificent Seven cemeteries were created in the 1830s and 40s to tackle London’s crisis with burial grounds. Centuries ago people wanted to be buried underneath churches because they believed that gave them the greatest chance of salvation. The most righteous, well-known and wealthy were buried under the floor closest to the alter, the less well known and poorest in the churchyard and the criminals outside the church grounds.
Churches were alive with the stench of rotting corpses, giving rise to the phrase: “stinking rich”
A population surge in London in the early 1800s and epidemics of typhus, cholera, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria left burial space in such short supply that illegal burials often took place in shallow graves and sometimes quicklime was thrown over bodies to help them decompose quicker! Church graveyards were filled completely with coffins stacked in 20-ft holes. Bodies were often cut into pieces to make way for new arrivals.
The ‘magnificent’ garden cemeteries were inspired by the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, which, following a decree from Napoleon, had put an end to burials in religious buildings in Paris. Seven were built around London, with investors selling burial plots to those who could afford a proper funeral – most became the cemeteries of the rich; populated primarily by aristocrats and celebrities – though there are many unmarked paupers’ graves too.
Describing Abney Park Cemetery, one volunteer said: “You’re surrounded by trees and the sounds of wildlife. Some people see the cemetery as morbid. I see it as life continuing.”
From cemeteries like Abney where nature has been allowed to take over to more groomed cemeteries like Brompton, the Magnificent Seven have evolved very differently. The Local Buyers Club has been researching these incredible local sites, to bring you some interesting titbits.
NUMBER OF BURIALS: 170,000
WHO IS BURIED HERE? The most famous celebrity resident here is communist Karl Marx (but you’ll have to pay a £4 fee to see his grave!). Other notable burials include Michael Faraday (physicist and chemist and inventor of the electric motor), George Eliot, Douglas Adams and poet Christina Rossetti. The defected Russian Spy Alexandra Litvinenko is also buried here (in a lead-lined coffin to prevent radioactive poisoning!).
GRAVE ARCHITECTURE: Head to the West Cemetery (by guided tour only) for the most impressive architectural features. The Victorians were obsessed with ancient Egypt, as is evident from some of the graves here. Check out the Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon, the somewhat spooky subterranean Terrace Catacombs and the mausoleum of Julian Beer.
Among the more moving graves are that of the Victorian boxer Thomas Sayers, whose grave has a statue of his faithful dog lying on it to keep him company.
WILDLIFE: Over 40 species of bird, 20 different types of butterflies, foxes, owls and badgers. This cemetery is on the English Heritage Register of Parks of Interest.
URBAN MYTH: Stories about the Highgate Vampire terrified residents in the 1970s – witnesses claimed to have seen a floating man in a Victorian suit and top hat, gliding through locked gates. Legend has it the vampire was a medieval nobleman who once practised black magic and was awoken from the dead by Satanists.
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ABNEY PARK CEMETERY, STOKE NEWINGTON
INTERESTING FACT: This was the first cemetery in Europe to be used as an arboretum. 2,500 trees and bushes, each labelled, were planted alphabetically around the perimeter of the cemetery and it became something of an education attraction.
NUMBER OF BURIALS: 200,000
WHO IS BURIED HERE? Salvation Army founder William Booth and Frank Bostock (who travelled the world with his menagerie in the late 19th c survived century – he survived lion and tiger attacks and an ape bit off his finger! – his grave is a marble lion).
Also buried here is Harry Cox who pioneered the X-ray machine, legendary firefighter James Braidwood, Betsi Cadwaladr who worked as a nurse alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea War and Joanna Vassa - the daughter of Britain’s first Black activist anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa).
WILDLIFE: This 32-acre site is a Local Nature Reserve, home to more than 100 species of trees, 50 species of bees and fabulous bats, birds (including Sparrow Hawk, Tawny Owls and Great Spotted Woodpeckers), insects and very rare fungi. Kestrels, Red Kites and Merlin also make regular flyovers.
ARCHITECTURE: Check out the beautiful gothic chapel in the centre. It’s the oldest surviving non-denominational chapel in Europe and was designed by architect William Hosking purely as a funerary chapel – not as a place of worship. He designed the chapel with a deliberate lack of bias towards any one Christian sect. There’s a covered horse and carriage entrance.
Among the more distinctive burial monuments here are those of Frank Bostock (the lion grave), Agnes Forsyth (the daughter of sculptor James Forsyth: she died aged just four and her grave has her face carved in stone), Henry Richard (a Welsh MP, reverend and prominent anti-slavery campaigner) and Nathanial Rogers (a physician and philanthropist who donated stained glass windows to St Paul’s Cathedral, Abney Park Chapel and Islington’s Union Chapel).
WHAT'S ON: There’s a little visitors’ centre where a highly knowledgeable team can tell you all about the history and nature of this cemetery and help you track down particular graves. Keep an eye on their website for events such as dawn chorus bird walks, markets, music in the chapel and plays.
TOWER HAMLETS CEMETERY
(Credit: Annie Wighton)
NUMBER OF BURIALS: 350,000
WHY THIS ONE IS DIFFERENT: This place, known as Bow Cemetery by locals, is quite unlike the other of the Magnificent Seven, but no less worthy of a visit. While the others became burial grounds for the rich and famous, this was a place for London’s working classes and many people have been laid to rest in unmarked graves.
WHO'S BURIED HERE: This wasn’t just a cemetery for locals – its proximity to the Docklands meant many people who drowned a sea were laid to rest here; they included 29 people who died in 1871 when the wooden pleasure steamer Princess Alice collided with a cargo ship.
Also buried here was Alfred Linnell, a protestor run down by a police horse during a march against coercion and unemployment in Ireland.
Three police officers, who died years apart in unrelated incidents have curiously been buried in one shared grave here. PC Richard Barber (died after falling through a skylight while chasing a suspect), PC William Pasher (drowned on holiday in Margate) and PC Ernest Thompson (stabbed whilst breaking up a fight in 1900) all worked at a police station in Limehouse and have been buried together.
Many of the graves at Tower Hamlets have been removed – the Greater London Authority brought the site and began clearing it in the 1960s to make way for a new park but opposition from locals eventually halted the plans.
ARCHITECTURE: Tower Hamlets suffered heavily during the Blitz and in 1952 a memorial was erected here to those who died in the air raids. It’s made of bricks taken from bombed properties.
WILDLIFE: This place is designated a nature reserve and it has an abundance of wildlife. A team of volunteers take great care to document sightings, which include 30 types of butterfly, 60 species of birds including Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Sparrowhawk, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and the occasional Song Thrush and 30 species of bee.
WHAT'S ON: Festivals, guided walks, a wildlife club for kids and regular volunteering opportunities with heritage and conservation projects.
KENSAL GREEN CEMETERY
(Credit: Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery)
NUMBER OF BURIALS: 65,000
BACKGROUND: This was London’s first commercial cemetery – the 72-acre site was divided into a consecrated Anglican section and an unconsecrated one for Dissenters. Though this has undoubtedly been a cemetery for the rich and famous – plots range from large mausolea to smaller graves and there are special areas dedicated to the very young. Burials still take place here.
WHO'S BURIED HERE: This was the most fashionable cemetery in England – among those buried here are 650 members of the titled nobility. Notable burials include the tightrope walker Charles Blondin who crossed 160 feet above Niagara Falls over 300 times – on stilts, blindfolded, carrying a man, with a wheelbarrow and even stopping half way to fry an egg!
Other notable burials include engineers Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, mathematician Charles Babbage, novelists Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray, Winston Churchill’s daughter and Oscar Wilde’s mother.
ARCHITECTURE: There are 140 Listed buildings and monuments here, including the Anglican Chapel (currently closed), Dissenters Chapel and Main Gate. Monuments here reflect a wealth of styles from Classicism to Gothic. Notable graves include the miniature art gallery of William Mulready RA, the ‘Old Armchair’ of composer Henry Russell, the broken-down circus horse of equestrian Alfred Cooke and an extravagant Gothic monument for Capt. Charles Spencer Ricketts.
WHAT'S ON: Open days, lectures and activities.
BACKGROUND: A recent restoration project as returned the domed chapel here to its original glory. It stands at the head of the tree-lined Central Avenue and is still used for funerals and events.
NUMBER OF BURIALS: 205,000
WHO'S BURIED HERE: Emmeline Pankhurst (campaigner for women’s rights), John Snow (the physician who proved cholera spread via infected drinking water), Elizabeth le Blond (Victorian adventuress and mountaineer), Sir Henry Cole (who reformed the postal system in the 1800s) and Chief Long Wolf (though his body was later returned to America) – he was on the winning side at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Scientist Sir William Crookes, the inventor of sunglasses, is buried here too and socialite Hannah Courtoy is buried in a huge stone tomb lined with Egyptian hieroglyphics – some say her tomb is a working time machine!
ARCHITECTURE: Benjamin Baud designed this cemetery with elegant buildings and formal walkways. He created a Great Circle, inspired by the piazza in front of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which was meant to remain a grand open expanse, but was quickly commandeered as grave space. This backdrop has become popular with film and TV companies.
INTERESTING FACT: Brompton Cemetery is also a bee apiary – bee hotels line the paths and workshops in beekeeping are held for the public.
WEST NORWOOD CEMETERY
(Credit: Chris Sepulchre)
BACKGROUND: By the mid 18th century churchyards were cleared of excess human remains and catacombs – a maze of tunnels beneath the earth – were created. The eerie catacombs at West Norwood allowed for 3,500 coffins to be stacked on shelves.
NUMBER OF BURIALS: 164,000
WHO'S BURIED HERE? Baron Julias de Reuter, founder of the Reuters news agency (his grave has a pink granite obelisk), Sir Henry Tate (sugar merchant and founder of the Tate Gallery) is buried in a pinkish brick mausoleum and Eliza James (who owned several watercress farms and sold watercress from a stall in Covent Garden for over 50 years)
ARCHITECTURE: This hilltop site was the world’s first Gothic style cemetery. In 1842 a section was acquired for a Greek Orthodox cemetery and this section is filled with fine monuments and large mausoleums. The cemetery was badly damaged during the Second World War.
WILDLIFE: This cemetery has a green flag award, in recognition of the efforts that go into preserving this heritage and ecological asset which is part of the West Norwood Conservation Area.
DID YOU KNOW? There used to be a narrow railway track here, which was used to move corpses or coffins before burial or cremation.
WHAT'S ON? Guided tours take place monthly.
BACKGROUND: Friends of Nunhead Cemetery describe this as: “the least known, but most attractive of the great Victorian Cemeteries of London.” Some of the most eminent citizens of the day were buried here and the cemetery has views across London. Much of the cemetery is in a poor state of repair, the catacombs were raided for jewellery and metal and nature has taken over. But this 52-acre site is a popular place to walk and it’s steeped in history.
ARCHITECTURE: Among the more distinctive monuments here is an obelisk called ‘Scottish Political Martyrs Memorial which is dedicated to the leaders of the Friends of the People Society who were transported to Australia in 1794. There’s also a special memorial to nine Sea Scouts who died in the Leysdown Tragedy off the coast of Sheppey in 1912.
WHO'S BURIED HERE?: Singer and actress Cicely Nott, Shakespearian actor George John Bennett, playwright William Brough and Vincent Figgins who helped define the styles of British printing and typefaces in the 19th century. The Cemetery also has a large number of First World War and Second World War graves.
WHAT'S ON: Guided tours take place on the last Sunday of each month.
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