Is it Death or Renaissance for Norwood Cemetery?

Published 1983

Who would make 120 people congregate at a cemetery? At ages from one to 91? Easy questions if you’ve ever had the privilege of going on any of his conducted walks - our Secretary Geoffrey Manning.

The tour of West Norwood Cemetery followed hard on the heels of the excellent talk by Lambeth Council planner Barry Jones. Mr. Jones, Assistant Chief Planning Officer had himself found Norwood Cemetery a fascinating revelation.

Opened in 1837 the Cemetery was built to help relieve pressure on London’s overcrowded churchyards. The trustees of Lord Thurlow’s estate sold 40 acres of land to the owners of the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company who commissioned architect William Tite to build the walls, gates and chapels.

Neglected and overgrown, Lambeth Council bought the cemetery in 1966 and began a programme of restoration. The cemetery was created part of the West Norwood Conservation Area, making it eligible for Department of the Environment grants.

In a report, the Victorian Society recommended which monuments should be restored and preserved but agreed that others should be removed. The idea is to create a park effect, in a suburb needing more open spaces.

Subsequently the law was changed six years ago. Cemetery spaces could be re-used for burials after 75 years if no family claimed the tombs.

Instead of being full, Norwood cemetery had suddenly gained thousands of spaces.

Lambeth has restored many of the more famous and architecturally-important tombs. Overgrown areas have been cleared and many tombs revealed in their original splendour. However, several areas have been made into parkland and that has meant removing and destroying hundreds of gravestones.

The Council defends this policy because even left untouched and overgrown, memorials will be lost. The counter argument is that the memorials, however humble, are valuable fragments of our local heritage. Additionally, the overgrown wildernesses are probably better habitats for wildlife and more attractive than the first attempts at landscaping with rose bushes.

Who is right? It is all a matter of personal judgement.

The Tombstone Trail

The walk began outside the Victorian lodges, at the entrance to the cemetery from which a copy of the Tombstone Trail can be obtained. The main monuments are:-

- Main entrance path (right), SIR HIRAM MAXIM (1840-1916). American-born prolific inventor, including the machine gun, who lived at Herne Hill.
- Main entrance path (left) THOMAS KING (1835-1888). Stepney prize fighter.
- The OAKEY FAMILY. Three granite memorials to the Oakey family, makers of ‘Oakies knife polish’.
- At the first intersection. JAMES GILBART. A fine Gothic monument by Sir William Tite to the first manager of the first joint stock bank, the London Westminster (predecessor of the NatWest). From Gilbart’s monument look back at the black granite to JOHN BRITTON (died 1857) a friend of Florence Nightingale.
- Take the right fork and walk to the first major intersection. DR. GIDEON MANTELL. Discoverer of the Iguanadon, which ‘terrified’ visitors to the Crystal Palace.
- Go straight on (same direction) and then go left up grass path to SIR HENRY BESSEMER, prolific inventor and developer of the well-known steelmaking process.
- Walk up hill (same path) to JOHN WIMBLE, (died 1851). Sea captain with a fine memorial of carved ships that sank under his command. Look back through the brambles at JOSEPH MAUDSLEY, the lorry maker.
- Walk a little way further to the splendid ALANDER BERENS tomb. Berens was a haberdasher. The tomb is by E.M. Barry, son of Sir Charles Barry. E.M. designed Crystal Palace High Level Station.
- To the left lies MRS. ISOBEL BEETON (died 1865) of cookery book fame.
- Retrace steps and from Berens monument go right to meet the main path. Turn left. On the right of the path see ANN JOYCE. She, her child and her husband all died within 12 months of each other.
- Further on, left SIR WILLIAM CUBITT, civil engineer. 10-ton monument to the prolific builder of much of central London.
- Walk on down the path, turn left and head northwards across the cemetery to the chapels. SIR HENRY DOULTON, potter of the ‘Royal Doulton’ fame. The Doulton sculpture is by one of George Tinworths’ group.
- Also near the new chapel is WILIAM EDGAR of Swan and Edgar store fame; HIGGS of Higgs and Hill (contractors). Baptist preacher-extraordinaire C.H. SPURGEON; LAWSON JOHNSTONE who founded Bovril; and sugar cube king SIR HENRY TATE in a magnificent tomb by Sydney R.J. Smith.
- Go down the slope, under the oak tree to find another contractor, BENJAMIN COLLS of Trollope and Colls.
- From the new chapel head around the outside path to the northern corner and the GREEK CEMETERY. The main mausoleum is to AUGUSTUS RALLI. The Greek Doric style temple has been restored recently.
- Return to the main entrance (westwards) along the outer main path, passing on the right COL. JOHN CYRIL PORTE, inventor of the British Flying Boats. Further on left (before re-meeting Gilbart) note JAMES and ANNIE EPPS of cocoa fame. London’s trams carried posters ‘EPPS Cocoa: grateful and comforting’.

Further reading: Hugh Mellor ‘London Cemeteries’.

Richard Offer

(Note: The Friends of West Norwood Cemetery have carried out a lot of work since this article was written, and have issued very helpful publications to give a lot more information about the above.)

© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547

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