I have a lot of time for the Victorians. They never did anything by halves. No matter how functional or utilitarian a building, they built it big and bold and beautiful. Today, we’re lucky if even the most essential of services are fit for purpose. What modern sewage works could be described as “elegant”, “ornamental” and “sumptuous”? Yet, the Abbey Mills Pumping Station from 1868 is all this and more. You may not be able to polish the proverbial, but Charles Driver’s Byzantine masterpiece comes pretty close.
If the Victorians treated sewage in style, they dealt with that other unpleasant side effect of life – death – with no less grandeur. The Nineteenth Century saw a marked shift away from simple burial in a parish churchyard to lavish, European style public cemeteries, beautifully landscaped with tomb-lined avenues and shady cypress trees. Vast amounts of money were spent on grandiose memorials and prestigious plots. At a time when the average factory worker earned just 35p / week, prime cemetery places cost anything up to 10 guineas, the same as a house in wealthy Holland Park.
So what changed? Even though every parishioner had the right to be buried in their parish churchyard, massive increases in population plus a series of cholera epidemics meant the churchyards were running out of space. London was hardest hit : In the 50 years between 1800 and 1850, the city’s population more than doubled. The writings of London doctor and social reformer, George Walker, are full of horrific descriptions of stinking shallow graves and overflowing decay. Eventually, Parliament bowed to public pressure : Between 1832 – 1841, they authorised the establishment of a seven commercial cemeteries in suburban districts around London. A decade later, the city’s churchyards were closed to further burials.
In all, the Victorian period saw over 100 cemeteries established around the city but these first few remain the most important. In 1981, the historian Hugh Meller christened them “The Magnificent Seven” and the nickname’s stuck ever since. At the heart of their magnificence lies a complex Victorian relationship with death – The fact that death was all around and average life expectancy only 44, even for the wealthiest; the influence of Ancient Rome and the need for your name to live on after death; the far greater part played in everyday life by Christianity, the belief in the eternal soul and resurrection of the body. Queen Victoria herself set the social standard for the day, building memorial after memorial and staying in mourning for Prince Albert for over 40 years.
Each of the Magnificent Seven has its own distinct characteristic from the relative simplicity of Tower Hamlets to the splendour of West Norwood. By far the most famous is Highgate, something often ascribed to the fact Karl Marx is buried there although all the cemeteries have their fair share of celebrities. Its popularity in literature and film must also have helped. Either way, it’s undeniably magnificent and would certainly have figured in my list of favourites had it been possible to wander round freely – As it is, you can meet Mr. Marx and enjoy the East Cemetery at leisure, but visits to the older (and arguably more impressive) West Cemetery are as part of a guided tour only (For more information see www.highgatecemetery.org)
So which then are amongst my pick of London’s Magnificent Seven?
Abney Park is everything you’d imagine an old cemetery to be. Although it was once the most impressively landscaped cemetery of the period, years of neglect left the 31 acre site wild and overgrown. Now a local nature reserve, gravestones and monuments peep through untamed woodland and ivy ensnares even the tallest statues. The effect is at once both magical and eerie – part fairy grotto, part Hammer House of Horror set. There’s even an old, ruined chapel at its heart just to complete the effect. In reality, however, the most famous thing ever filmed here is far less sinister – The video for Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
Look out for – William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.
For a complete contrast, head west to Earls Court and Brompton Cemetery. Light, open and impeccably maintained, a grand carriage-way runs through the centre to a beautiful Italian-style chapel: It could be the grounds of lavish stately home. Created by architect Benjamin Baud, key to the design also was John Loudon, the Scottish botantist who would go on to write the single most important book of the period on cemetery design. He believed all townsfolk should have access to green ‘breathing spaces’ and saw cemeteries as the public gardens of the future.
Look out for – Peter Rabbett, Jeremiah Fisher & Mr.McGregor. Beatrix Potter apparently took inspiration for the names of her characters from tombstones in Brompton Cemetery.
Last but by no means least is the grand old dame of London cemeteries, the 72 acre Kensal Green Cemetery. Although the oldest of the seven (it celebrates its 180th Birthday this year), for me it’s also the most vibrant, no doubt in part because it’s still a working cemetery. Old and new sit side by side, a poignant reminder that death comes to us all but also a celebration of the ever-continuing cycle of life. Not that the old is eclipsed by the new. In spite of the odd example of vandalism, Kensal Green is art gallery meets history lesson: No less than 140 monuments and buildings are listed, including a stunning Grade I Anglican chapel based on the temples of Ancient Greece (For the truly macabre, there’s an extensive network of coffin-lined catacombs to be found under the chapel; They’re currently closed but normally, you can take a tour on the first and third Sunday of the month).
Look out for – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer and one of the greatest Britons of all time.
The word ‘cemetery’ come from the Greek ‘koimeterion’ or ‘a place of sleep’. London’s Victorian cemeteries are as much a respite for the living from city life as a resting place for the dead. Morbid, eerie, peaceful, sublime, they are a fascinating taste of times gone by, a gateway to another world; and you never know, you might even meet a few famous faces whilst you’re there.