Exploring Cemetery Gardens in London


A crisis over the burial of bodies in inner city areas in the 1850s led to the foundation of a ring of cemeteries, funded by private companies, around London.

The first of these was All Souls Kensal Green, which is still open for new burials. Abney Park in Stoke Newington was the most floristically rich with hundreds of specimen trees and thousands of roses. Norwood has arguably the best site, and Highgate the best architecture. Brompton was so ambitious in its buildings that it went bankrupt and was taken over by the Government. To this day Brompton is managed by The Royal Parks, which explains its good appearance.

No Land, No Income

The problems encountered by Brompton cemetery and the difficulties experienced by many of the private companies - as they ran out of land, they ran out of income - led the government to ponder over the appropriateness of private companies making money out of burials, and Local Authorities were empowered to create cemeteries.

In outer London there was room within the boroughs to do this, but inner city areas had to create them in the suburbs. Good examples are the Cemeteries of Westminster and Kensington in Hanwell, West London, facing each other across the Uxbridge Road.

Many of the early private cemeteries once full became run down and overgrown. East London Cemetery in Mile End became the densest woodland in London; it is now subject to a more enlightened management as a nature reserve. Areas of woodland have been thinned to create a variety of habitats, but this also improves access for people.

The alternative to letting them become overgrown is to clear them of monuments and keep them mown. The old cemeteries of Hammersmith and Fulham are treated in this way; the borough has a new cemetery at Mortlake.

Other Denominations

The cemeteries mentioned so far are Church of England cemeteries. Roman Catholic cemeteries such as St Mary's, next to All Souls and St Patrick in Leyton, have very little planting. Jewish Cemeteries are also devoid of planting, but the "cities" of baroque monuments of the Ashkansim, and the plain slabs of the Sephardic Jews both have a beauty of their own, although access is not always possible.

The growth of the custom of cremation has lead to the development of gardens of rest, many of which have excellent planting. The Garden of Peace at Tottenham, with its lake is a fine example, although the tying of bunches of daffodils to memorial rose bushes, as happens at West London, looks botanically odd.

In non-denominational cemeteries one can see a variety of styles of graves, inscriptions in a range of languages and scripts, and differing customs in the use of pictures, flowers and food offerings.

Diversity of Interest

Cemeteries are of interest historically, architecturally, socially and for wild life. Variations in history, management and custom lead to a diversity of landscape. The original Victorian cemeteries have friends' groups which run regular trips, and they are a good way to visit the more overgrown sites. The working municipal cemeteries are easily accessible. All are worth a visit, both for relaxation and to make connections with the past and the local communities.