Historic Highlights of West Norwood Cemetery
One of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Cemeteries in London, West Norwood Cemetery is the final resting place for almost 200,000 people.
In this post I’m taking a look at the history and some of the notable burials in this fascinating green space.
History of West Norwood Cemetery
West Norwood Cemetery was founded in 1836 and opened the following year. The context in which it was created is entwined with a growing London in the early 1800s.
In 1801 the population of London stood at roughly 1 million people and that would double by the middle of the century.
Amidst concerns about over-crowded churchyards, in 1832 parliament passed a law which encouraged private companies to build and run cemeteries on the outskirts of the metropolis.
Starting with Kensal Green in 1833 a total of seven were built by 1841 and they became known as the Magnificent Seven.
Today Highgate is probably the most famous but West Norwood was one of the most fashionable places to be buried during the Victorian period, attracting the rich and famous. So much so it was nicknamed the Millionaire’s Cemetery (on average it cost twice as much to be buried here than in Highgate).
An elevated position was chosen, built on London clay which is good for digging through. The only downside seems to be that the River Effra runs below it which can sometimes push up coffins!
After the First World War the site was pretty much full and the lack of new burials (and the cash that came with them) meant it started falling into disrepair.
The 1945 bomb damage map below shows the mortuary chapel as seriously damaged while the lodge to the left is ‘damage beyond repair’.
By the 1960s it fell into the hands of – the newly created – Lambeth Council who shockingly approved a ‘lawn clearance’ scheme to free up space, removing and damaging 100,000 memorials. A report since confirms these actions were illegal
While it’s still managed by Lambeth, since 1989 the formation of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery means there’s a dedicated group preserving the cemetery and promoting its historic and cultural significance.
Notable Burials and Monuments
Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim
Maxim was an inventor, born in Maine in 1840. He worked on artificial lighting and was a competitor of Thomas Edison with whom he had a lengthy dispute about patents.
He is best known for the self-powered machine gun which he designed in 1881 in London’s Hatton Garden. Maxim lived in West Norwood and all the noise from firing test guns destroyed his hearing. Ironically (or perhaps because of this) his son would eventually invent a ‘silencer’ for the gun.
Maxim died peacefully at home in 1916, sadly his invention resulted in the opposite outcome for millions of people.
In 1823, as a young teenager, John made his first sea voyage. By 26 he was a captain in the East India Company, sailing to India via Madeira and South Africa.
There are multiple ships and voyages depicted on his monument but the most intriguing is this image of his ship, ‘The London’ tossed amongst waves and with a broken mast. It’s described as “off Gangam October 1832” when the boat was caught in a storm on the coast of Odisha, India.
When it was first unveiled the ship on top apparently had masts and rigging. Buried with John is his wife, Mary Anne who intriguing is described as ‘sharing in some of his perils’.
As mentioned above, the growth of London’s population meant new cemeteries were being built on the (then) outskirts of the metropolis. With the 1852 Burial Act came the final move to ban all burials with London and this didn’t place everyone.
Henry Dawkins (1773-1857) is rather upset at the fact he cannot be reunited with his wife and his monument irritably states:
“Indicted by Parliament from mingling his ashes with his wife and family who lie buried in St Margaret’s Westminster graveyard.”
Perhaps the biggest household name in the cemetery, Isabella Mary Beaten was better known under her cookbook writer name; Mrs Beeton.
Born in 1836 (the oldest of 20 children!) she went to school in Germany where she became interested in baking. Her husband was a journalist and publisher but she also became an editor in her own right and were quick to seize on the trend of well to do, upwardly mobile Londoners who wanted tips and trick to appear fashionable, impress and entertain guests.
In May 1860, only in her mid twenties, the first parts of Beeton’s Book of Household Management were published. Released in stages, in total it contained 1,112 pages including 900 page of recipes as well as a guide on how to manage, budget and maintain a household. Over the next 7 years it sold over 125,000 copies.
In an odd tangential fact one of her descendants today is the explorer and presenter, Bear Grylls!
On the subject of baking, we can move smoothly onto the sugar magnate…
Sir Henry Tate
Born in Lancashire in 1819, Tate grew up in Liverpool and by 1854 had a chain of six grocery stores. He then became a partner of a sugar refinery and in 1869 it was known as Henry Tate & Sons.
The biggest shift came with the purchase of a German patent to make sugar cubes in 1872 and this revolutionised the industry and made Tate a multi-millionaire.
A philanthropist and keen art collector, he’s best known for the London galleries that bear his name, Tate Britain and Tate Gallery as well as branches In Liverpool and St Ives. The Tate and Lyle Factory still stands on the banks of the Thames at Silvertown and still makes 1.2million tonnes of sugar each year.
A similarly grand terracotta mausoleum is a short walk away and contains another Victorian businessman…
Sir Henry Doulton
Based in Lambeth from 1815 to 1955, the impressive ceramic manufacturing site and showroom can still be seen along the Thames here.
I hope you enjoyed this blog about the history and notable burials in West Norwood Cemetery, of course I’ve only scratched the surface of the many lives here.
With over 64 Grade II listed monuments and plenty of wildlife to spot across its 39 acres, it’s a wonderful place to explore.
Have you been? Let me know your favourite bits in the comments!
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