23 January 2009
By John Prendergast
GRAVEYARDS ARE not normally places that attract public affection for obvious reasons, but Nunhead Cemetery has carved a place in the heart of residents all over the borough.
The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery annual open days testify to this, with scores of people attending the regular tours that detail the history and wildlife of the place.
The cemetery was consecrated in 1840, when burials began there, and at its opening the area was considered a small hamlet surrounded by a series of fields. At the time the burial industry was very much in a boom period.
As the population exploded in the capital, that saw figures rise above two million by 1851, the sewage system in London began to creak with the pressure making life less than hygienic. The knock on effect was that burial space was now sparse, with local graveyards literally having bodies piled high, and the need for a rethink on how to bury the dead was much needed.
The creation of the profit-making companies who would run graveyards was the result of the new thinking, with the London Cemetery Company owning both Highgate Cemetery and the newly created All Saints at Nunhead.
Despite the scandal of Edwin Buxton, the company secretary, embezzling more than £18,000 of the company's money, the operation was to prove to be a successful and profitable set-up.
The company even expanded into other associated areas, such as horticulture and stonemasonry, and the graveyard become a central focus of the community, creating many jobs for those who lived in the surrounding areas.
In fact one of the streets adjacent to the cemetery, Daniels Road, was named after a firm of stonemasons, whose workshops were based there until 1969.
The greenery, and particular the architecture, meant Nunhead was a scene of many a lavish funeral in its beautiful grounds. The Anglican chapel, leading up to which was a tree lined avenue, was a stunning piece of architecture. It was built alongside a Dissenters’ chapel which did not survive the bombings of the Second World War.
It was at the end of the First World War when the parent company declined, and the cemetery began to hit hard times. Funerals became noticeably less extravagant, and the maintenance of the grounds became a real burden.
The second Great War would hit it more markedly in a physical way, as the iron railings were removed to help the war effort, but as a result left the graveyard open to acts of vandalism.
By 1969 the London Cemetery Company had had enough and closed up shop and shut the gates of the burial ground. The grounds fell into great decline and vandalism became a bane of the area.
An act of arson in 1974 destroyed the interior of the main chapel, the catacombs were ravaged for its lead and jewellery and two monuments were destroyed. One of the monuments was to commemorate the death of nine scouts in the Thames in 1912, and saw a funeral attended by thousands of people who were shocked at the tragedy.
A year after the church arson Southwark Council stepped in and purchased the graveyard for £1. The council managed to make the grounds safe, but loftier plans to create a nature area and new burial plots hit financial problems and progress proved painfully slow.
Due to the hard fiscal time locals became concerned as the cemetery continued to decline, and a friends group was set up in 1981 to work alongside the council.
Starting from a tiny base of just ten members the group's membership can now be counted in the several hundreds, with people from all over the world signing up. The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery (FONC) still proudly hold tours on the last Sunday of each month, and has a much vaunted annual open day where they get to show off the architectural history, the natural beauty in the grounds and the background to the many notables who are buried within the ground.
The luminaries include cricketer Bobby Abel who was the first man to 'carry his bat' through an England innings, Sir George Livesey who gave Camberwell its first free library and Thomas Tilling, who started his south London bus company with a single horse and went on to become London's largest bus proprietor.
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