Cemeteries Wot I’ve Nown… #Westnorwood

Circling London are seven cemeteries that were created in the early to mid 19th Century to deal with the overcrowding in London’s churchyards and the equally limited space to bury dissenters. The seven – more recently dubbed the Magnificent Seven – are now pretty much full and in many cases are treated as mini nature reserves in the near suburbs of London. They vary from the very flat and formal, to the undulating and ramshackle and, in many cases, the graves have been allowed to languish, in some cases collapsing and are being covered in trees and foliage.

Each, however, contains some fabulous necropolistic art work, while giving a memorial to the famous, not so famous and occasionally infamous from the last 200 years.

The one nearest me is the South Metropolitan cemetery, now known by its location – West Norwood. It was consecrated in 1837, except for areas set aside for non conformists. This was the first cemetery to be planned by one man, Sir William Tite to include chapels for Episcopalians and dissenters with surrounding walls and railings, space for families to buy plots for family tombs, catacombs to hold up to 3500 bodies and a space for paupers’ burials. The local Greek community was significant and they purchased rights for their burials in certain areas leading to perhaps the best examples of Greek Orthodox monuments in any British Cemetery.

Interesting to me, is that it was labelled the millionaire’s cemetery which is not how many in the twentieth century viewed this part of south London with its proximity to Croydon to the south and Brixton to the east.

It is fabulous. And that is depite the appalling behaviour of Lambeth Council in the 1970s and 80s to remove old grave markers, encourage lawn coverage and resell plots for modern burial. Eventually,`in 1994 this was held to have been illegal by the oddly name Consistory Court of the Diocese of Southwark and today the local authority works with English heritage and an active friends group to preserve these super examples of Victorian gothic exuberance.

And my great grandfather is buried there, close to the entrance so I suppose in an expensive plot. Ah well, whatever he had, he must have taken with him…

The Textiliste and I decided it was time for a proper visit. Lottery money has been allocated to some significant improvement works to try and restore some of the superb listed graves. We bought the guide book and began the self guided walk, though it was soon apparent we will need three or four visits to do it justice.

First, outside, there is a manhole cover next to the railings.

Beneath is the lost River Effra, one of London’s many rivers and which passes directly through the cemetery. It explains both the collapsed nature of some of the ground, which is pretty undulating anyway and why it was found that bodies had often migrated when some came to be dug up, washed by the aquifer being so closer to the surface. Maybe it wasn’t such an ideal spot after all…

So let’s start by the main gate on Norwood High street, and the war memorial.

There are a few graves of service personnel, both recorded here and also buried in the cemetery itself, sometimes with the iconic war graves headstone and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Through the arch and heading east the road has been recently resurfaced. Either side are some grand mausoleums. One, to Dr Edmund Maddick CBE, a surgeon to the Italian Crown and owner of an early Picturehouse.

This is empty save for the Doctor himself; it was intended for his family but they fell out in life and, in death they’ve gone their separate ways.

Nearly opposite is a rather unprepossessing stone to an American, Sir Hiram Maxim, who came to the UK to reorganise the London offices of the US Electric lighting company. He was knighted by Victoria and while he is famous for his engineering skills and eponymous fully automated machine gun, he also held patents for mousetraps, curling tongs, irons and steam pumps. As I say, all sorts find a home here.

As we wandered along, we stopped by the Gallup monument. Intriguingly this marker has a photograph that still looks fresh even though it was taken in 1883. There are several of this vintage and each was printed onto porcelain so as to ensure its longevity. It worked. And no, they do not appear to be related directly to the Gallup of opinion polls. This one made his money from drugs and cosmetics.

Death is a great leveller, even if the ostentation and ornamentation that death allows does sort out the relative wealth.

There was Sir Joseph Barnaby, President of the Royal Choral Society and composer alongside Thomas King, prize fighter, when it was illegal. He fought an American for the unofficial world title in 1860 – John Heenan – who had himself become champion earlier in a fight lasting over nearly three hours and 42 rounds. Soon after the Marquis of Queensbury developed the rules by which boxing is fought today and King was probably the last champion prize fighter. However his financial success came after this bruising career as a promoter and bookie. It was ever thus.

and Alfred Forrestor who tried to secure the gig to illustrate Dickens works – largely done by Phiz – after which he drew for Punch. I wonder if today’s cartoonists would be able to afford such a memorial.

There are a few circus performers here. Paul Cinquevalli, a tightrope walker turned juggler and William Pinder whose eponymous circus was famed for its acrobats, tamed beasts and parades and was popular both here and in France. Once again William his wife and son are memorialised on porcelain plates, whose quality has not diminished over the last 120 plus years.

Engineers also feature, recognising how well regarded these designers, inventors and entrepreneurs were in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Alexander Muirhead who created the first electrocardigram in 1872 and became famous for laying submarine cables for transmitting signals having patented a method of duplexing – transmitting and receiving at the same time.

James Greathead one of the principal engineers building the underground and who designed the tunnelling shield to which his name is still attached.

And the designer of Felixstowe flying boats, John Porte, whose memorial recalls a naval career.

Woman do appear, though rarely with the interesting backstories. One Annie Royle Taylor was an intrepid explorer, working in Shanghai, Lhasa in Tibet being arrested and incarcerated, before returning to England to much acclaim. She returned to Tibet running a store there for some years before retiring to Sydenham.

As we skirted one corner, we passed a modern rose garden before reaching the corner given over the the Greek Orthodox burials. Here are a few images, from this section and others but we will go back and look at these more closely later

A lot of lottery money is allocated to their restoration so some are covered but still…

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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13 Responses to Cemeteries Wot I’ve Nown… #Westnorwood

  1. davidprosser says:

    Intriguing Geoff, thanks. Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  2. noelleg44 says:

    A fascinating tour, Geoff. So much history to be discovered. There is a lovely cemetery in Cleveland where we used to walk and even picnic – why should the landscape be only for the dead!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Some great information you’ve dug up here Geoff!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love history and no better place to find it. Thanks for the research and photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. willowdot21 says:

    An interesting trip 💜🌹

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Darlene says:

    I love exploring cemeteries. This looks like a very good one.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. gordon759 says:

    I like Sir Hiram Maxim, he also designed a steam-powered aeroplane, which got off the ground, but couldn’t be controlled so he only tried it in tethered flight.
    As he couldn’t get his flying machine to work, he built a fairground ride of flying machines. This did work, and still does! At Blackpool pleasure beach, the oldest such ride in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t think you’ve seen this earlier post of mine https://derrickjknight.com/2013/04/07/the-magnificent-seven/ but this one of yours has far more coverage from West Norwood than does the book.


  9. Elizabeth says:

    One of the finds in my genealogical research has been a crowd sourced “Find a Grave” which has allowed me to “visit” the graves of those who came before me in my family. One tomb in Paris was amazing. Thanks for the tour of your corner of the world.


  10. There are some interesting graves in this cemetery, Geoff. Fancy Maxim being buried here. And the doctor, buried all alone. Lots of food for writers.

    Liked by 1 person

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