Graveyards and burials were a grim affair in Victorian London, they were so bad that women of the family never accompanied the coffin to its grave. By 1842 London could be said to be more necropolis than Metropolis. The 200 graveyards could no longer accommodate a population which had doubled to 2.5 million in less than 50 years. Life expectancy was short, infant mortality was high and fatal diseases were rampant. Space was at a premium and there was no qualm in cramming in the bodies on burial sites or digging them up for dissection. Unless you had money there was no dignity in death. Many Londoners had no choice but to be buried in the overcrowded city graveyards.
The living and the dead living together, the dead encroaching on the space of the living is summed up by Dickens in Bleak House. ‘Tom All Alone’s’ was one of the most overcrowded burial grounds in London. Originally below the line of buildings, by 1839 the burial ground had reached the first-floor windows of its neighbouring houses. Lady Dedlock looks at the burial place of her lover in horror. The city’s industrial squalor reached its peak in the late 1830s and the Weekly Despatch recorded their sickening state:
“Here in this place of ‘Christian burial’, you may see human heads, covered with hair: and here in this “consecrated ground”, are human heads with flesh still adhering to them. On the north side, a man was digging a grave; he was quite drunk, so indeed were all the gravediggers we saw.”
In 1822 a corrupt Baptist minister, Mr Howse, opened a chapel and vault known as Enon Chapel over an open sewer on St. Clement’s Lane near the Strand. Local residents suffered from appalling smells and vast numbers of rats. The air was so putrid that exposed meat rotted within hours. Local children called the bugs and flies crawling out of the coffins and vaults “body bugs”. Members of his congregation regularly fainted during services, and the cause of this putrid stench was discovered in 1839 when authorities wanted to replace the open sewer. The chapel, which offered cheaper funeral services than its rivals, contained 12,000 corpses that been buried over the years in a tiny space. This resulted in the workmen finding vast numbers of decomposing corpses separated from the living congregation by a few centimetres of soil and floorboards. To pack in more bodies the coffins were emptied, the wood used as fuel for Howse’s fire, and put quicklime on the bodies to speed up decomposition. Howse dumped human remains to fester in the sewer and took cart loads of remains to throw in the Thames and put in the landfill for Waterloo Bridge. Although the authorities closed the chapel and vaulted over the sewer, they did not remove the bodies. The chapel was renamed and rented to a sect who held tea dances, fancy dress balls and gambling. They exploited the macabre history by advertising “Dances on the dead”.
In 1842 the government decided to do something about the problem of the noxious and overcrowded burial grounds, pushed on by the scandals, waves of cholera and campaigns by Public Health Reformers Sir Edwin Chadwick and George Alfred Walker, whose report on Portugal Street said it was “ a mass of putrefaction” the soil was saturated in it and that the odour was so offensive that people living nearby had to always have their windows closed. Chadwick’s bestselling Sanitary Report in 1842 stated there were annually 20,000 adults and 30,000 youths and children who were “imperfectly interred” in less than 218 acres of burial ground space, “closely surrounded by the abodes of the living”. Chadwick spoke against burials in vaults saying that sooner or later the decomposition would be in the air that is breathed as if it had never been in a solid coffin. This was true of the vault in St Clement Danes Church on the Strand. The entrance to the vault, near the Communion table, when opened thrust out the smell of decomposing flesh and the smell was so intense it extinguished nearby candles. A job of the sexton was to tap coffins to let out noxious gases which would detonate if not released. During the 1800’s there were cases of corpse gases exploding in the coffins and the fires raging for days beneath London churches.
In 1830 a letter was printed in the Morning Advertiser from the gifted inventor and landscape gardener J C Loudon suggesting several burial grounds within an equal radius to central London, planted with trees and shrubs and to be made like botanical gardens. A vigorous campaigner for burial reform, he said that the cemeteries of the past become the gardens of the future and how right he was. He even predicted cremation before it became legal 40 years later and was responsible for changing the appearance of London’s gardens by suggesting the planting of plane trees, sycamores and almonds which could survive the city’s sooty atmosphere instead of the pines and firs which formed dark canopies. Architects and planners took heed of his advice and joint stock companies were formed for the purpose of the new cemeteries. This was a more practical solution than some of the other ideas put forward to the government such as a giant pyramid on Primrose Hill, taller than St Paul’s Cathedral and able to house five million corpses put forward by Thomas Wilson. The Victorians had a fascination for all things Egyptian – Brightling in East Sussex has a pyramid tomb for the sole occupancy of “Mad Jack” Fuller (1757-1834), a local 22 stone eccentric whose corpse is sitting on an iron chair with a roast chicken and glass of port in front of him while he awaits the resurrection. Wilson went on to join the Board of the General Cemetery Company that was responsible for the one at Kensal Green. In 1832 Parliament passed a bill to encourage the establishment of private new cemeteries resulting in London gaining seven immense suburban cemeteries known as the “Magnificent Seven” within a decade. A clause was added so that the Anglican clergy would get a burial fee from the new cemeteries to compensate their loss. These great cemeteries show us how inventive the Victorians could be with solutions such as the coffin lift, well-designed catacombs, architectural styles for all tastes including Greek, Celt, Gothic and Egyptian and beautiful landscape gardening. All seven are within a six-mile radius of central London.
1. Kensal Green Cemetery, the first of the Magnificent Seven
Kensal Green Cemetery was the first of the seven commercial cemeteries in London, was consecrated in 1833 and had continental elegance, pastoral landscaping, as well as the latest funerary technologies including a hydraulic catafalque for lowering outsized coffins into crypts. Wilson of the failed great pyramid was one of the architects, as was the Gothic Revivalist Augustus Pugin. When the land was bought it was pastureland for sheep, and in 1842 a social commentator described it as ‘the beautiful garden of death’. The General Cemetery Company needed to raise £45,000 to build the cemetery and invited investors to buy shares at £25 each. There were violent disagreements over the style it should be built in, known as the ‘Battle of the styles’ between the preference to John Nash and neo-classical architects against the Gothic revival contingent. According to John Betjeman “Influential men favoured Gothic’. It was resolved by a competition for a chapel and gateway which was won by HE Kendall in a Gothic style. The General Cemetery Company preferred the classical style and appointed as Chief Architect John Griffiths and his Greek revival plans. For the next century it epitomised the Victorian way of death, mirroring the class structure of the city: expensive vaults and monuments for the elite and more modest plots for clerks and shopkeepers. It was an instant success. Of the 48 acres, only 7 were open to Dissenters., and 7 for paupers that contained 133,550 graves, each designed to hold 10 coffins. Kensal Green became the place to be seen dead, especially after the burial of the Duke of Sussex, son of George III, in 1843 and his sister The Princess Sophia (1777-1848). The Duke had been repulsed by the service and interment of his brother, William IV, at the Royal Chapel Windsor so had left strict instructions that he was not to be buried in ‘that stinking hole’. The cheapest plot was more than a year’s wages for a labourer or a maid. John Loudon (1738-1843), whose landscaping ideas where used for Kensal Green and whose horticultural works were so influential at the time is buried here. The Doric Anglican chapel had the first coffin lift in Britain and space for 4000 in the catacomb beneath it. There is an Ionic Dissenter chapel whose catacomb could hold 1000. There are 250,000 people laid to rest here in either burial, cremations, graves or catacombs, of which over 1500 are notable personalities which include engineers Sir Marc Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Babbage “father of computing”, novelists Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackery. W H Smith (1792-1865) is buried beneath a stone book.
2. West Norwood Cemetery (1837)
West Norwood Cemetery is 40 acres. It is where G A Walker had the bodies exhumed from the old Enon Chapel which he took possession of in 1847 and interred here at his own expense. There had been a huge pile of bones and decomposing corpses that people could see outside the chapel and around 6000 came to see the grisly sight before four cartloads of remains were taken and interred in one pit. It is the world’s first-ever Gothic style cemetery, built on a hill so the town below could see it and be reminded of man’s mortality, and the dead were a little nearer heaven. Stephen Geary founded the London Cemetery Company in 1836, he was an architect and surveyor. Together with David Ramsay, a landscape gardener, they created a picturesque park reminiscent of Pere Lachaise in Paris. The winding paths instead of steps allowed good access to the graves whilst making it look spacious. It was also believed that raised ground would help prevent the spread of disease. This grand cemetery has many notable figures including Baron Julias de Reuter (1816-1899) founder of the Reuters news agency; sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899), founder of the Tate Gallery and, Sir Henry Doulton (1820-1897) all in impressive monuments as well as around 42,000 graves. Mrs Beeton (1836-1865) the famous Victorian cookery writer is buried here, as is Sir Hiram S Maxim (1840-1916) a prolific inventor responsible for the machine gun. The cemetery and two chapels with catacombs beneath them for 35,000 were designed by William Tite. Soon after it opened it became the most fashionable cemetery in South London and known as the ‘Millionaires Cemetery’ because of the elaborate quality of its mausolea and monuments. There is a small enclave purchased by London’s Greek community with their own chapel.
3. Highgate Cemetery (1839)
Highgate Cemetery is the most spectacular of the seven, descending a steep hillside from Highgate Village. John Betjeman called it the ‘Victorian Valhalla’. Local residents, who initially complained, then applied to purchase keys so they could walk in the beautiful gardens, and it soon became a tourist attraction. It is still an enterprising business as you still have to pay to get in. It is on 17 acres of land bought by the architect and surveyor Stephen Geary who founded The London Cemetery Company. An Act of Parliament allowed it to construct 3 cemeteries. Three years were spent landscaping by David Ramsey complimented by the stunning architecture of Geary and JB Bunning. The main feature is the Egyptian Avenue inspired by artefacts in the British Museum. This street of the dead was created by excavating 12 feet into the steepest part of the hill and creating 16 family vaults. Two acres of land were for dissenters and rights of burial were granted for either a limited period or in perpetuity. The view over London was superb, the highest point of the cemetery is 375 feet above sea level which attracted the wealthy. Julius Beer, a millionaire newspaper owner, was one such investor. Beer built the most impressive monument in the cemetery for his eight-year-old daughter. The clientele here were variable, and the cemetery became one of the most fashionable places to be buried. By 1854 it had made so much money that a further twenty acres were bought as its third cemetery on the other side of the road, now known as the East Cemetery. A tunnel was built under the road connecting it to the Anglican chapel and with a hydraulic lift, coffins would descend into the tunnel and be on cemetery ground to get to the other half of the cemetery. There are two chapels within one Tudor Gothic style building, one each for Anglicans and Dissenters. In the 1860’s there were 30 funerals a day, including Tom Sayers burial in the West Cemetery. He was the famous bare-knuckled prize-fighter who had the largest funeral ever seen here to this day, with over 10,000 mourners and his dog. The most famous internment is that of Karl Mark (d. 1883), his grave in the East Cemetery is one of the most visited in London. There are 170,000 people in 53,000 graves including the novelist George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans (1819-80), Rowland Hill (d.1879) inventor of the postal service, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) electrical engineer and Henry Moore (1831-1895) the painter. Lizzie Siddal (d.1862) was buried here by her Pre-Raphaelite painter husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He put a book of his own unpublished poetry in the grave with her, regretted it two years later, and had her body exhumed so it could be retrieved. It was disinfected and returned to him two weeks later still smelling of disinfectant and decay. There were a number of large wormholes that had destroyed some of the text. The truth of this exhumation was not revealed until after his death in 1882. A friend recalled that Dante had regretted doing it saying, ‘his weakness of yielding to the importunity of friends, and the impulse of literary ambition’. Charles Dicken’s wife and daughter and the father of Virginia Woolf are also buried here.
Following a period of decline from the mid-twentieth century, in 1975 conservation was carried out and English Heritage has listed it as a Grade 1 Park. To buy a plot today you have to be aged over 80 or terminally ill, or you can just go on a guided tour.
4. Abney Park Cemetery (1840)
Abney Park was the main burial ground for nonconformists when Bunhill Fields closed. The unconsecrated land, located in one of the most militant parts of London, was donated by Lady Abney and it is named after Abney House which had been the home of the well-known non-conformist hymn writer Isaac Watts, when he stayed with Lord and Lady Abney. This association made it very popular with Dissenters, who could use the non-denominational chapel which anyone could use regardless of their religious beliefs. Bartlett in London by Day and Night praised its cedars of Lebanon, beautiful flowers and lawns. He wrote:
“Lady Abney was very liberal in her religious views, and the cemetery is, with its church, open to all alike, and though its grounds were never consecrated, yet many rigid churchmen have been buried in it….There is an old clergyman in the church, who is always ready to officiate for a small fee on funeral occasions. He is over eighty years old, his hair is like the snow, and he is a fit companion to such a solemn place.”
The trustees of Abney Park Cemetery did not charge the Anglican burial fee thus making it more accessible for working-class families. It was designed by William Hosking a professor of architecture and engineering who also chose to be buried at Highgate. The 32 acres were originally laid out as an arboretum with 2.500 varieties of plants (more than Kew at that time) and had an alphabetical tree planting scheme set out along its perimeter. Where the 1000 species of roses grew on a north sloping slope, Bazalgette later converted it to an underground sewer. Falling into disrepair in the 1970s, a uniquely wild atmosphere took over the site. In the 1980s The London Borough of Hackney took over the site with the Abney Park Trust and is today a park. Notable among the 200,000 laid to rest here are William Booth (d1912) who founded the Salvation Army with his wife Catherine (d1890) who strongly believed that women should be allowed to preach; Joanna Vassa (d.1857) daughter of Britain’s first Black activist Olaudah Equiano alias Gustavas Vassa; Betsi Cadwaladr (1789-1860) who has been called ‘the forgotten Florence Nightingale’ for the nursing she did during the Crimea and Frank Bostock a great Victorian traveller who survived lion and tiger attacks. He gained the reputation of big-cat tamer extraordinaire and is believed to have discovered that lions are afraid of chairs.
5. Brompton Cemetery (1840)
Brompton Cemetery had construction costs so high it was on the verge of bankruptcy and had to be rescued by the government. The land had been bought from Lord Kensington, a market garden with no trees. In 1852 Brompton became the first cemetery to be nationalised because the Board of Health made it the subject of a Compulsory Purchase Order. The government had changed its attitude towards burials, legislation had been passed to close the London burial grounds, and Parliament was debating if it was appropriate for a private company to run a cemetery. Chadwick campaigned that they should not be, and the public became increasingly suspicious of those who invested in death. It is now owned and managed by the Royal Parks, the only cemetery in the country owned by the Crown. It is a Grade I listed cemetery that is the resting place of over 200,000 people and has over 35,000 gravestones and monuments including those of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) passionate campaigner for the rights of women; John Snow (1813-1858) who was voted the greatest physician of all time by British doctors; Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) inventor of the Christmas card among other things and Princess Victoria Gouramma (1841-1864) an exiled Indian princess adopted by Queen Victoria. Designed by Benjamin Baud, it is still a working cemetery of 39 acres. 205,000 people are buried here including the founders of Chelsea Football Club, Chelsea Pensioners and there are 35,000 monuments. The Gothic splendour of the cemetery has been used by film-makers who use the elaborate Victorian gravestones and buildings for backdrops in period dramas and other films such as Golden Eye, Johnny English, The Wings of the Dove, Afraid of the Dark and Stormbreaker.
6. Nunhead Cemetery (1840)
It is the second cemetery of the London Cemetery Company, and the least known of the 7. The name refers to the Nun’s Head Tavern, ‘favourite resort of smoke-dried London artisans’. 200 feet above sea level it has spectacular views over London. Despite having luxurious planting and fine tombs it was slow in attracting customers, possibly because it was too close to West Norwood Cemetery. In its first six months, only nine burials are recorded. Trade did eventually improve, and it was prosperous for 25 years. Stephen Geary was only 56 when he died in 1854, a victim of the last cholera epidemic. He chose to be buried in Highgate. Edward Buxton was the Secretary and Registrar of Geary’s London Cemetery Company and when he died in 1865 it was discovered that he had been keeping two sets of books and embezzling the company. There was a scandal which disinherited Mrs Buxton leaving her destitute as a result of this and she had to settle on a meagre allowance from the Board of Directors.
7. Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841)
It is unlike the cemeteries of the Magnificent Seven. Like the others it was set up by some very wealthy Victorian gentlemen, but this one was to be used as a burial ground for London’s working classes, sailors who drowned at sea as the Docklands was so local, Dr Barnardo children who were at the nearby Royal London Hospital as well as some local businessmen. It is 27 acres and was divided into consecrated for Anglicans and unconsecrated for everyone else in 1841. Most of the cemetery has its corpses in unmarked graves, 60% of burials in its first two years were in communal graves and was the most used cemetery in the East End. There are some monuments such as that of J. Westwood (d. 1883) who ran a shipbuilding company, whose 30ft memorial is one of the most noticeable in the cemetery standing amid a mass of unmarked graves. His company evolved into the Thames Iron Works and some of his employees founded a football team which became known as West ham FC. They are still known as the ‘Irons” or “Hammers” remembering their roots in the East End’s shipbuilding docks. Being frugal was how this cemetery operated – most of those interred would not have had the money to even pay for their own personnel spot. There is one grave that holds three policemen who all worked at Leman Street Police Station in Limehouse. They did not die together, nor at a similar time or in similar circumstances. At least there are only three, some graves have 40 bodies! There were 270,000 burials here from 1841 to 1966, the year it became a park by Act of Parliament.
By the mid- Victorian period London was sprawling, burial grounds had run out and a burial ground further afield was required. G A Walker, a surgeon, campaigned for the abolition of burials in towns, he was supported by another local practitioner in Soho who had noticed liquids from decomposing bodies in a local cemetery oozing into the cellars of his patients. In comparison Jewish graveyards were enviable, because of Judaic law they were never overcrowded, burials were within 24 hours of death, graves were to be for one person only and 6-foot-deep, a coffin was not allowed to be placed on top of another. Quakers also made an effort to protect their dead, burying their dead at least 7 feet beneath the surface; they maintained their own grounds and did not allow it to become a commercial enterprise. Over a decade later the campaign led to the passing of the 1851 Burials Act prohibiting burials in the City and West End. For the following twenty years, London’s most congested crypts were emptied and the remains reinterred in the ‘Big Seven’ in mass graves. It was noted that Medieval lead coffins that had been tightly sealed had fairly intact and moist cadavers. One labourer is said to have tasted the liquid in one of these coffins and saying it had a mushroom-like taste – there is no record of how long he lived after this. Others were afraid that ancient diseases might have survived and were being unleashed.
And an extra story: Brookwood Cemetery, the largest in Britain
Chadwick’s dream of a national cemetery was realised 25 miles away from London in Brookwood, Surrey. Brookwood Cemetery became the largest in the world, and today is the largest in Britain. The development of the railway made this possible and disposing of the city’s dead here was approved by The Illustrated London News who described an idyllic journey from London into the countryside until the scenery is wilder and solitary:
‘In an instant, the funeral train is unlinked from the giant power which led it on, and glides gently down into the undulating plain, which has thus been made one of the great burial-places of mighty London.’
In 1854 the Necropolis Railway Company operated from Waterloo to Brookwood, offering a crepe-swathed wooden framework supporting the coffin (catafalque) and three classes of carriage and waiting rooms were available for both the coffins and the mourners. Entering at Waterloo there was a grand entrance hall entered from a pair of ornate gates that had originally been used at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
First and second-class mourners went up to the first floor where there was a series of private rooms. Third class had a much smaller entrance hall. Most of the ground floor was a mortuary where bodies could be stored prior to their final destination, some had arrived here by river which was the cheapest way to transport them. The train left from the second floor which was the waiting area for First Class passengers. There were two railway lines, one on each side of the single platform to separate Anglicans from Dissenters. Steam-powered lifts loaded first the First-class coffins and mourners waited in the waiting rooms. Once it was raised, they could assemble on the platform to watch it be loaded into place aboard the first-class hearse carriage. The names of the deceased would be announced once their coffins had been slotted into place and the mourners for that person could then get on the train – carriage doors were labelled with the names of the deceased to make sure you travelled with the correct funeral party. This process was then repeated for second then third class, although the latter could not see their coffin being loaded. Third class mourners were hidden behind an opaque screen so as the other class could not see them, and once first and second were sitting comfortably third class were quickly ushered into their communal carriage. The train left once a day and the journey took an hour, but extra trains could be laid on if someone popular was having a well-attended funeral. The London Necropolis Company even progressed to selling ‘earth to earth’ coffins made of compressed pulp, fit for purpose above ground, but rapidly decomposing underground. The ticket office sold only one-way ‘coffin tickets’ as these were only for the dead, and the train ran until 1941.
It was unthinkable for the poor to be buried near dukes, politicians and the distinguished, so different stations in the cemetery and different classes were essential to the Victorian mentality. There was over 2,000 acres of land so there was room to spread out and keep the riffraff away from the toffs. It was laid out and planted by Robert Donald (1826-66) and is spacious with beautiful wellingtonias, pines, birches, sequoias, beech and monkey puzzles. It was easily reached by train, located in a greenfield area, the necropolis was cheap and had room for expansion. There was to be room for each of London’s parishes and denominations. The train went straight into the cemetery ground to unload at Brookwood North station for Dissenters and Brookwood South for Anglicans, each having their own chapel. The Stations were licenced and catered not only for funeral parties, but did afternoon teas for visitors, the pub being particularly welcomed by the locals who had not been so keen on such a large cemetery on their doorstep. The bars had notices displayed saying “Spirits served here”. The Necropolis railway has inspired two novels. Business went down with the invention of the motorcar and in 1941 German bombers put an end to their trade and the operation of one of Britain’s’ most unique and odd railway lines.
In 1874 a surgeon to Queen Victoria, H Thompson, proposed cremation as a solution to death on an industrial scale as being more sanitary and space-saving. Thompson proposed the ashes be used as fertiliser for city parks and farmland. Crushed bones had been sent to the north and Kent to be used as fertiliser. That year he founded The Cremation Society of Great Britain which raised the money to build an experimental crematorium at Brookwood. Public opinion was against it and five years later was made illegal.
Brookwood Cemetery was chosen again as the place to rebury those exhumed during the excavations at St James’s Garden near Euston station. This was a burial ground from the 18th and 19th centuries for over 50,000 Londoners discovered by HS2 archaeologists in October 2018, a new site complete with monument is currently being prepared at the expense of HS2 at Brookwood Cemetery. The first major reburial at Brookwood Cemetery was in 1862 during the construction of Charing Cross Station and the routes into it, which made it necessary for the burial ground at Cures College in Southwark to be demolished.
Featured image: “West Norwood Cemetery” by Ben124. is licensed under CC BY 2.0