What Not To Miss In Nunhead Cemetery

Around 5 miles from the centre of London stands 52 acres of tranquil wilderness. Nunhead Cemetery was established in 1840 and is the second largest of London’s ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

No, not the 1960s Western film*

In the 19th century London was becoming overcrowded and Parish church ground could no longer keep up with the demand for burials.

Nunhead Cemetery

Seven large, private cemeteries were established in what was then the outskirts of central London. Today they open as public parks or nature reserves and include; Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Tower Hamlets and Nunhead Cemetery.

*The term ‘magnificent seven’ was actually inspired by the 1960s film and only coined in 1981 by Architectural Historian; Hugh Mellor.

The Monuments

The first person buried at Nunhead Cemetery was an 101-year old grocer called Charles Abbott and today there are almost 2,000 graves. Walking around the cemetery I feel that ‘graves’ as a term seems an unsuitable description for their grandeur.

The picture below shows two of the most monumental tombs, on the right is the grave of Vincent Figgins (1766-1844) who worked as a printer in Peckham.

Nunhead Cemetery

On the left is the tomb of John Allen (1790-1865). He was a partner in a City of London shipping firm but also an amateur archeologist. This explains the unusual design, thought to be based on the Payava Tomb which dates from the Greek Empire around 370 BC.

The original can be seen in the British Museum;

Nunhead Cemetery

The building that dominates the entrance view is a former Anglican chapel, built by Thomas Little in 1843.

Nunhead Cemetery
Nunhead Cemetery

A lone obelisk stands tall among the memorials, commemorating the Scottish Martyrs.

Nunhead Cemetery

In 1794 five political radicals were transported to Australia for sedition (provoking riots and rebellion).  They wanted parliamentary reform – at the time only a small percentage of the population had the vote – and were forerunners of the Chartist movement of the 1830s.

Even if graves aren’t your thing, it’s worth going for the geography…

The Views

I don’t know about you but I’m constantly surprised by evidence that London isn’t as flat as you might think.

Nunhead Cemetery overlooks the rest of London and provides some stunning views of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral (though apologies for the pesky crane!)

Nunhead Cemetery

and the London Eye.

Nunhead Cemetery

By the mid 20th century, the company that owned Nunhead went bankrupt and the cemetery fell into neglect. The well-kept lawns transformed into an unruly woodland. In 1975 Southwark Council purchased the site for the princely sum of £1 but it was only in the 1990s that heritage lottery funding was secured and the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery could restore it.

It’s still looked after by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery (FONC) who host events and tours. You can read more about them here.

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Nunhead Cemetery

2 Comments

  • john

    Reply

    Some inaccuracies here, Nunhead cemetery is a cemetery NOT a public park and burials stil arise. People visit the graves of their loved ones to tender to the graves and place flowers, it is not some sort of adventure playground. Please remember respect when visitin. The cemetery was not full in the 1980s!

    June 2, 2019 at 8:13 pm

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