We have a plan to visit all of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ – the seven vast cemeteries laid out in the years on either side of 1840, around what was then the periphery of the city. Some we’ve been to before, some are new territory.

London’s older graveyards had become notoriously overcrowded and insanitary by the 1830s. We currently have a copy of Isabella Holmes’ entertaining and groundbreaking 1896 book on the subject, London’s Burial Grounds. Immersed though she clearly was in London’s past, many of Holmes’ ideas looked to the future. She approved of cremation (a controversial view in the 1890s) and wrote with passion about the ‘extravagant imposition’ of the whole Victorian funeral system: ‘can there be any more profitless mode of throwing away money than by erecting costly tombstones?’ 

She and her husband Basil, who was Secretary to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, were enthusiastically driving the conversion of full or disused graveyards into public parks and gardens (though calling for the protection of monuments to ‘notable persons’). Her research was partly motivated by a fear that forgotten graveyards would be quietly converted into building land. Her work was hugely beneficial for London’s inner city poor, and those of us who enjoy a good epitaph now travel a little further afield, to where the tombstones and monuments have not been cleared.

We started at Nunhead, our first visit there. The gates and lodges (covered in scaffolding at the time of our visit) are by James Bunstone Bunning, a municipal architect whose work we have come across before. We were once fortunate enough to have his manuscript plans for early improvements (including more treadmills) to his now-demolished Holloway Prison, modelled on Warwick Castle: nothing quite so grand here, but there were the usual joys of a fine Victorian cemetery including some neighbourly rivalry (with competing family monuments next to one another) and a fair bit of social snobbery. Putting a street address on a tomb seems redundant – no Royal Mail forwarding service is capable of reaching the departed – but as these normally adorn grander structures close to the chapel the suggestion is that the deceased occupied as prestigious an address in life as in death. 

We are pretty sound on the usual funerary imagery (inverted torches etc) but we were stumped by the fouled anchor entwined with a dead snake which was finely carved onto the family monument of Henry Daniel, a successful monumental mason and sometime mason to the London Cemetery Company which owned the site. In other words, he knew his stuff. Thanks to friends on social media who explained that it is an allegory of hope, and evil overcome: the anchor represents Christ; the snake is evil, and has died after fruitlessly biting the iron.

Nunhead appears on a number of maps of London and environs. ‘Environs’ is key: although now comfortably in Zone 2, the cemetery was too far from the centre to show up on many of our older maps. These examples show how London has gradually crept out to claim it. 

James Lingard’s map of the environs of London, 1841, is one of the first to show Nunhead Cemetery. Like Brompton and Abney Park it was consecrated in 1840, and like all the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries it was originally sited on the periphery of London, surrounded by countryside. The whole point was to close the insanitary and overcrowded burial grounds in the densely populated central areas.

This edition of Benjamin Rees Davies’ map of the environs of London was published half a century later, in 1889. The suburbs are creeping out, but there are still fields and named farms within a few moments walk.


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