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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
Though many of the graves are in a ruinous condition, some show that their occupants are still remembered.
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.
Unfortunately, the Non-Conformist Chapel was destroyed during WWII bombing and nothing of it remains.
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.
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.