London 2013: The Dearly Departed


Topical residents of London's 'Magnificent Seven' Victorian cemeteries. By Felix Lowe

In a bid to combat the dangerous overcrowding in parish burial grounds in central London in the 19th century, seven private cemeteries were established on the outskirts of town. Almost two centuries on, and these 'Magnificent Seven' Victorian cemeteries have now been swallowed up by the city. Each location offers a wealth of intriguing stories from their dearly departed residents. Here are a few topical tombs to visit in each cemetery in 2013.

Kensal Green Cemetery

Inspired by Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Kensal Green Cemetery was the first of the seven to open, in 1832. The poet G.K. Chesterton immortalised the cemetery in his poem 'The Rolling English Road' with the lines: "For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green." Among the 250,000 individuals buried in 65,000 graves is the forgotten man of Victorian literature, William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), who celebrates his 150th anniversary on 24th December.

West Norwood Cemetery

One of the most significant cemeteries in Europe, this Gothic Revival gem in Lambeth is the resting place of two men integral to the opening of the first London Underground train service in 1863. James Henry Greathead (1844-1896) was an engineer who invented the tunnelling shield for the deep lines, while Charles Pearson (1794-1862) was a solicitor and social reformer without whose foresight and perseverance Londoners would not be celebrating the Underground's 150th anniversary this year. Pearson campaigned ferociously to improve London's decrepit transport system from 1845 and was the driving force behind the Metropolitan Underground Railway, the first underground railway in the world. An elegant, tall, Grade II-listed sarcophagus marks his grave in front of the Crematorium and in the vault of his son-in-law, Sir Thomas Gabriel (founder of Gabriel's Wharf and ancestor of the musician Peter Gabriel).

Highgate Cemetery

Arguably the most famous of the bunch, this Gothic spectacular occupies a stunning south-facing hillside perch. Not only the burial place of Karl Marx and numerous other famous interments, it's also an official nature reserve - and a huge tourist attraction to boot. 170 years ago, Nelson's Column was completed, the base of which was formed by several melted down bronze cannons salvaged from the HMS Royal George, which sunk in 1782. Timber from the same ship was also used to make the coffin for the famous menagerie owner George Wombwell (1777-1850), who requested the oak from Prince Albert after solving the confounding riddle of his frequently dying dogs. Wombwell himself died on 16th November 1850 and is buried in Highgate's West Cemetery in his Royal George coffin inside a tremendous tomb topped by a statue of his faithful docile lion, Nero.

Abney Park Cemetery

A wonderfully overgrown nature reserve with an eye-catching Egyptian revival entrance, Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington is one of London's hidden gems - although it's currently at risk from neglect and decay. While its decrepit nature adds to its charm, it's fair to say that Abney Park - which was the first arboretum to be combined with a cemetery in Europe - could do with a modern day Shirley Hibberd (1825-1890), the pioneering amateur gardener who edited three gardening magazines in the Victorian era. Local resident Hibberd died on 22nd November 1890 and is buried in Abney Park under a weather-beaten headstone covered in moss and ivy. Incidentally, the graveyard scenes for the music video of the late Amy Winehouse's song Back to Black were filmed at Abney Park.

Nunhead Cemetery

The least celebrated of the 'Magnificent Seven' was originally known as All Saints' Cemetery. Also a local nature reserve, Nunhead's occupants pale in comparison to the more illustrious tenants of Highgate - the cemetery's first burial, a 101-year-old greengrocer, setting the tone for the years to come. Nunhead is, funnily enough, the resting place of a certain Captain Thomas Light (1777-1863), an old soldier and acquaintance of Thackeray, who used him as inspiration for the virtuous and upstanding leading character in his novel The Newcomes. Both Light and Thackeray died in 1863, 150 years ago.

Brompton Cemetery

In David Cronenberg's gritty 2007 thriller Eastern Promises, a young Russian Chelsea fan gets his throat slashed while peeing against a gravestone in Brompton Cemetery en route to watch the Blues at nearby Stamford Bridge. The most central of the 'Magnificent Seven' was also used in Guy Richie's first 'Sherlock Holmes' film as the location of Lord Blackwood's tomb. Beatrix Potter took the names of many of her animal characters from tombstones in the cemetery - including a certain Peter Rabbett - while the renowned suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (who celebrates 85 years since her death) is interred in the cemetery. Brompton is the resting place of the inventor Sir Henry Cole, without whom Christmas could well be a very different preposition: in 1843, 170 years ago, Cole introduced the world's first commercial Christmas card alongside the artist John Callcott Horsley, himself buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

It's 175 years since Jack the Ripper terrorised the streets of East London - and the autopsy of the Whitechapel Murderer's first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, was carried out by Dr Rees Ralph Llewellyn, who is buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, the last (and most working class) of the Victorian seven cemeteries to be opened, in 1841. Heavily bombed in World War II, Tower Hamlets was closed to burials in 1966 and is now - you guessed it - a nature reserve.

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Sophie Wallace


Sophie Wallace

28th September 2023


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