west norwood cemetery

West Norwood Cemetery

West Norwood Cemetery

Breath-taking scenery, amazing architecture, and an incredible history- what more could a girl want from her local cemetery?

West Norwood Cemetery was one of my favourite places growing up and it still is to this day! On my way back from school every afternoon I would get off my 322 bus early to go grave exploring. Which of course earnt me strange looks from all of my friends. But the allure of the beautiful gothic stone arches was enough for me to risk their condescension.

As well as living out my gothic fantasies, hanging out in the cemetery also taught me a lot about local history. Norwood was named after the ancient Great North Wood. The woodlands were home to many Romany people which can be seen through the names of places like Gipsy Hill and Romany Road. In 1668 Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary that his wife and friends went to visit “the Gypsies at Lambeth, and have their fortunes told; but what they did, I did not enquire.”
One of the most famous was Margaret Finch also known as the “Queen of the Gypsies”. Finch lived at the bottom of Gipsy Hill and died in 1740. She was buried in a square box in Beckenham Parish Church.

Queen of the Gypsies
Margaret Finch “Queen of the Gypsies”

Due to an increasing population and overfull churchyards, there was a growing demand for more burial grounds. As early as 1711 Sir Christopher Wren suggested that burial grounds be built on the outskirts of town. In 1837 West Norwood cemetery was consecrated for burial by the Bishop of Winchester. As one of London’s first private cemeteries, it became part of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ Club alongside Nunhead and Tower Hamlets to name a few.

cemetery overview of West Norwood Cemetery

The cemetery was built by architect Sir William Tite who was the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. It was also the first in the UK to be built in the beautiful Gothic revival style. The grounds are a mixture of historic monuments, lawn cemetery, columbarium’s, cremation plots and catacombs- yes you read that correctly catacombs!

catacombs in West Norwood Cemetery
Some coffins in the catacombs. Image credit Jeane Trend-Hill.

Tite constructed two Chapels with the catacombs lying beneath the Episcopal Chapel. The Episcopal Chapel was fitted with a catafalque or coffin lift designed by Bramah & Robinson and installed in 1839. This handy device allowed coffins to be transported from the Chapel above to the vaults below. The last coffins to be interred there was in the 1930s. Both Chapels were damaged during World War II as Norwood was bombed regularly and heavily. The Episcopal Chapel was subsequently demolished in 1955 and was replaced with a Rose Garden. The catacombs beneath remain unharmed, however, they do get flooded regularly and much of the wood has rotted over the years.

Plan of West Norwood catacombs
Plan of West Norwood catacombs. Image credit: Subterranea Britannica.

In 1966 Lambeth council compulsorily purchased the cemetery. Several monuments were removed, existing plots were resold and many tombs were damaged due to bad management. Lambeth now has to publish an index of all resold plots so that descendants can request the restoration of their family’s plot. More information here.

The Friends of West Norwood Cemetery help preserve the amazing history of the cemetery. They have regular talks, tours and other events including occasional visits to the catacombs!

Here Lies…

Here are some of the final resting places of some interesting local celebrities to satisfy your morbid curiosity. Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for #TombstoneTuesday fun.

Sir Henry Tate 1819- 1899

sir henry tate grave in West Norwood Cemetery
Sir Henry Tate mausoleum

Tate was a sugar merchant whose name you may recognise from the Tate Britain gallery. Henry Tate was a philanthropist and the wealthier he became the more money he donated to charity. He donated his collection of paintings in 1889 to the government and donated approximately £80,000 to the construction of the gallery. Tate donated to the construction of many other places including libraries in Brixton and South London, Liverpool University and Hahnemann Hospital.

Sir Hiram Maxim 1840- 1916 and his wife Sarah 1854- 1941

Hiram S. Maxim and Wife Sarah' s Gravestone in West Norwood Cemetery
Hiram S. Maxim and Wife Sarah’ s Gravestone

Maxim was a British inventor and is known as the creator of the first portable machine gun or the Maxim gun. Although originally from the US Maxim moved to the United Kingdom and became naturalised in 1899. Maxim had patents on many other items and claimed to be the inventor of the lightbulb.

Mrs Beeton 1836- 1865

Headstone of Mrs Beeton in West Norwood Cemetery
Headstone of Mrs Beeton and her husband.

Isabella Beeton was an English author and worked as a journalist alongside her husband Samuel. Beeton published her first instalment of the famous ‘The Book of Household Management’ in 1861. The book included information on childcare, household management, etiquette and recipes. It was the first book to layout recipes in the format that we know and love today. She died of an infection which was most likely caused by complications with her fourth child’s birth.

James William Gilbart 1794- 1863

James William Gilbart Memorial
James William Gilbart Memorial

 

Gilbart was the General Manager of the London and Westminster Bank, which became the Westminster Bank in 1970 until it was dissolved in 2017. Gilbart is also credited with standardising the spelling on the word ‘Cheque’.

Oswald Manoah Denniston 1913- 2000

 

Oswald Manoah Denniston
Oswald Manoah Denniston

 

 

Oswald “Columbus” Denniston was the first Caribbean market trader in South London. He came to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and became the first Windrush passenger to gain employment in the UK. He was also the founding member of the Association of Jamaicans and the Lambeth Community Relations Council.

West Norwood Cemetery is truly one of my favourite places. Does anyone else have a strange place they were fascinated with as a child? It can’t just be me!

References

Geni.com for people buried in West Norwood Cemetery
Friends of West Norwood Cemetery
Subterranea Britannica: West Norwood Cemetery Catacombs
The Londonist: 5 secrets of West Norwood Cemetery
Bang The Bore: The Great North Wood
The Diary of Samuel Pepys

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LoisThrifDeeDubaiShannonSara | mshealthesteem.comsafaecreations Recent comment authors
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safaecreations
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loooooove itttt ♥♥

Sara | mshealthesteem.com
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Old cemeterys have always fascinated me too! I love to explore them and take in all of the history. I hope I can visit this one someday! Thank you for sharing your story and all of the rich history ♡

Shannon
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I absolutely love old cemeteries like this. They’re so fascinating to learn about! Not even just their history, but about the people resting there. I love the way you did just that!

ThrifDeeDubai
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When I 1st came across your post… I thought what an unusual place to write about & I’m glad I read it now, I had no idea of the Romany history in that area, my great, great grandmother was a Romany gypsy & My mother taught me their language, fascinating architecture & history! Thanks for sharing!
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