Nunhead Cemetery

Sunday, April 23rd 2017

By the time that Queen Victoria came to the throne and consequent upon the continuing expansion of London’s population, burial grounds attached to churches had become full, in some cases with unpleasant results. Between 1832 and 1841, seven new burial grounds, sited around the outskirts of London, were commissioned by the government. Later known informally as the ‘Magnificent Seven’, they were privately owned. One such was the All Saints Cemetery that opened in 1840 in Nunhead, then a small hamlet surrounded by farmland. Lying within what is now the Borough of Southwark, the cemetery is sited upon a hill, providing fine views over the City and as far as the North Downs.

All Saints was run by the London Cemetery Company, owners also of Highgate Cemetery. Faced with financial difficulties, the company gave notice in 1969 that it would close the cemetery. As a result of campaigning by local residents, the Borough of Southwark took over ownership in 1975.

The aspect of the cemetery today is that it has been neglected with minimal upkeep being maintained. Tombstone and memorials have fallen or crumbled and the trees and bushes, some of them exotic, have spread freely. on the positive side, however, the cemetery now plays the role of an important urban nature reserve and a park for human visitors.

The i am you tree
The i am you tree
Totem Pole sculpture by Morganico, 2014

We left the bus on the edge of Peckham Rye Common and walked from there. Here we found an imposing sculpture, carved from an old tree, by artist Morganico. The artist’s Website dates it to 2015 but the correct dates appears to be 2014 – see here.

The Edinburgh Castle
The Edinburgh Castle

Coming upon this pub, we thought of stopping for a rest and refreshment. It turned out to an expensive stop. We had our drinks and then prepared to leave. I went to pick up my shoulder bag that always accompanies me on outings. It wasn’t where I thought I had left it. We looked all around but could not find it.

What do you think if a bag that you think you had with you is no longer there? If you are me, you wonder whether it is your memory playing tricks. My memory often lets me down and I could not be certain that I had brought my bag with me though, equally, I could not imagine leaving home without it. Tigger too was sure that I had brought it. Should I have made a fuss, reported the loss to the police? Because of my uncertainty, I did neither. I hoped that I had left the bag at home but that hope of course turned out to be false. Someone had stolen my bag while we were in the pub.

I think I know how it was done – it was a theft by distraction – and the identity one of those involved, but as I cannot prove this, I must not name suspects.

Happily, the loss was not great in financial terms – a backup battery for my iPhone, a cheap pair of binoculars and a few other odds and ends – but it is annoying nonetheless and I wish an evil fate on the perpetrators.

All Saints Cemetery, Nunhead
All Saints Cemetery, Nunhead

We at last reached the gates of the cemetery. They are decorated with these rather odd iron symbols which appear to represent flaming torches held upside down. Here is a close-up view of one of them:

Reversed torch
Reversed torch

Nunhead Cemetery, as it is generally called, was designed by James_Bunstone_Bunning (1802-63) and is Grade II* listed.

View from inside the gate
View from inside the gate

Stepping through the gates, one has this view with the surviving chapel in the background. We turned along the path going off to the right.

The West Lodge
The West Lodge

Nunhead Cemetery has two lodges, known as the East Lodge and the West Lodge, respectively, designed by James Bunning and built around 1844. Both are Grade II listed. The photo pictures the West Lodge which consists of a single storey with a basement. In their day, the lodges would presumably have accommodated cemetery staff, obviously no longer the case. The West Lodge was converted and rented to council tenants but subsequently passed into private ownership under the government’s right-to-buy legislation. I don’t know the present status of the East Lodge which was until recently in a dilapidated condition and in need of restoration (see here).

The Scottish Martyrs Memorial
The Scottish Martyrs Memorial

Nearby, two paths converge and at their intersection stands a column. It is the Scottish Martyrs Memorial and bears the date MDCCCXLI (1841). The ‘Scottish Martyrs’ (not all were Scottish) were a group of men campaigning for the voting rights that we today take for granted. They were charged with sedition, brought to trial and transported to Australia. An information board provides a good outline history of the event and you can read it here. The memorial was funded by public subscription and is Grade II listed. (And, yes, it is slightly off the vertical – that’s not my poor camera work!)

Below are a few more views of the cemetery. It should be borne in mind that what looks untidy and overgrown to us looks like a haven to wildlife. It is right that a careful balance be struck between an historic site that can be comfortably visited by the public and a semi-wilderness where wildlife can find refuge and a living-space.

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery

Though many of the graves are in a ruinous condition, some show that their occupants are still remembered.

Nunhead Cemetery Chapel
Nunhead Cemetery Chapel

Situated at the top of a broad path and visible from the entrance, is the Grade II listed Nunhead Cemetery Chapel. It stands to one side of the path because originally there were two chapels. Though the cemetery was built mainly for burials under the aegis of the Church of England, a small section of it was dedicated to Non-Conformists. Two chapels were built, one for Anglicans and one for Non-Conformists, both designed by Thomas Little in Gothic style.

The Anglican Chapel
The Anglican Chapel

Unfortunately, the Non-Conformist Chapel was destroyed during WWII bombing and nothing of it remains.

Chapel interior
Chapel interior with artworks on display

Neither did the Anglican Chapel escape unscathed, however, for it fell victim to an arson attack in the 1970s which destroyed the interior and the roof. The building has been stabilized but remains a shell.

Looking from the Chapel towards the entrance
Looking from the Chapel towards the entrance

Whether or not you like cemeteries, a visit to an historic one like Nunhead is always interesting and on a bright day like today provides a pleasant park-like space in which to stroll. Tomb hunters will find many names of historic importance here and a huge array of tomb designs, from the minimalist to the flamboyant, to mull over. The Website and blog of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery can be consulted for more information and news.

Copyright 2017 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to Nunhead Cemetery

  1. WOL says:

    Even here in the states, cemeteries are some of the best spots for bird-watching. How agravating that you got your bag snatched, though fortunate that it contained little of value.

    • SilverTiger says:

      In many urban cemeteries, the tombstones have been removed to one side and the ground levelled so that they turn into parks. Such open spaces are valuable to both humans and wildlife in the built-up environment.

      The stolen bag is a loss, certainly. Just yesterday I remembered something else that was in it and is now gone… It was a lesson also and i am now more careful than ever with my property while out and about.

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