Landscapes At Risk

Where the Past Haunts the Present

London's Victorian Cemeteries feature prominently in the Heritage at Risk Register.

Five cemeteries are included in the HAR:

The great cemeteries of London, the so-called Magnificent Seven, were opened between 1833 and 1841 in reaction against the squalor and scandal of metropolitan churchyard burials. They were promoted by JC Loudon, whose On the Laying out of Cemeteries was published in 1843 and who had been proselytising on the subject in the Gardener's Magazine since its foundation in 1825.

‘The main object of a burial ground is the disposal of the remains of the dead in such a manner as that their decomposition, and return to the earth from which they sprung, shall not prove injurious to the living; either by affecting their health, or shocking their feelings, opinions, or prejudices.
‘A secondary object is, or ought to be, the improvement of the moral sentiments and general taste of all classes, and more especially of the great masses of society.’ (On the Laying out of Cemeteries).
‘If we had to write the present work over again, we should probably enlarge upon two evils prevalent in all the new cemeteries about London: ... that of not sealing up the coffins in the catacombs, but merely closing the cell with open ironwork; and that of interring a number of bodies in the same grave, without leaving a sufficient depth of earth above each coffin to absorb the greater part of the gases of decomposition...’ (Preface to On the Laying out of Cemeteries)

No Income, No Maintenance

Virtually all the Cl9 cemetery companies eventually filed for bankruptcy because their incomes were dependent upon the sale of burial plots, and once all the plots had been sold off the income ceased and maintenance was withdrawn. Wealthy and even less- than-wealthy Victorians and Edwardians were prepared to spend a large proportion of their income on elaborate and expensive tombs, mausolea and monuments, thereby creating a maintenance burden that their direct descendants have understandably been unwilling or unable or unconcerned to pick up.

Most of the cemeteries were ‘rescued’ by local authorities or, in the case of Brompton Cemetery, by the State and Royal Parks, but few can now generate any income by burials unless through reusing old graves. The long-stop has been the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Only Kensal Green Cemetery is still run by a private company (the General Cemetery Company) and still generates income through some new burials, largely accommodated by colonising paths and other areas not formerly used for interments, and through cremations. Highgate Cemetery, run by a trust, still has the occasional burial and also raises income from visitor charges and guided tours.

Re-Use of Old Graves

One approach may be to re-use old graves as a solution to the problem of shortage of space for new burials in London and other cities. On 17th March 2011 English Heritage and the City of London hosted a seminar at the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park, on the reuse of graves and of monuments. Depending upon soil conditions, wooden coffins and their contents decay relatively quickly, and after 75 or 100 years - the sort of time-scales being discussed for re-use (other than for family plots) - little by way of identifiable human remains are likely to be found. What does survive, however, would be reburied at a greater depth within the same plot or alternatively reburied elsewhere nearby, and the new body interred.

Such practice is common in continental Europe, where burial plots are leased for short periods (as short as 25 years) rather than sold in perpetuity, but not usual here.

Abney Park

Loudon described Abney Park Cemetery as ‘the most highly ornamented cemetery in the vicinity of London’ with its 2,500 named trees and shrubs provided by Loddiges Nursery planted in alphabetical order from Acer to Zanthoxylum. Abney Park was created by and for nonconformists and was the first cemetery to have a non- denominational chapel. Its monuments are generally modest compared with, say, Kensal Green or Brompton. The chapel of 1839, though plain in its simplified Gothic, is large and ambitious with turrets and a tall spire, and is described in the HAR register as ruinous and in very bad condition.

With the largely unchecked growth of self-seeded trees (mostly sycamore) and ivy, the cemetery, now a local nature reserve, has lost most of its arboricultural variety and interest and has gone from Campo Santo of the English Nonconformists to sacro bosco (of the tree-huggers?).

In my article in London Landscapes No. 23, I drew a contrast between Abney Park Cemetery (grade II) and North Sheen Cemetery (not registered). The latter, I said, was unremarkable in its layout and monuments, but nevertheless ‘mown, strimmed, and neat... with a wide variety of trees... (that) give it the air of an arboretum’.

This year the mowing regime has been relaxed in the older part of the cemetery; the plots nearest to the paths are still mown short, but elsewhere the grass and wild flowers are being allowed to flourish and seed before being given a cut at the end of the summer. It is presented as a change to encourage a richer flora and fauna rather than as a cost-cutting exercise, and it will be interesting to monitor the results. Certainly the long waving grasses, the daisies and hawkweed look very pretty at present, but it will be interesting to see how easy or otherwise it will prove to be to take a hay crop off the graves once the time comes to mow, and whether it will provide a toe-hold for the more pernicious plants like ivy and brambles, leading after a few years to the kind of dilapidation only too familiar elsewhere.

Chris Sumner

Highgate Cemetery
Abney Park Cemetery
Kensal Green Cemetery
West Norwood Cemetery
Nunhead Cemetery
Brompton Cemetery