A guide to London’s Victorian cemeteries and a cycle route giving you the keys to the city.
Lately I have been listening to a podcast by adventurer Alister Humphrys ‘LIving Adventurously’. One idea he promotes is a ‘micro adventure’; to go and have a short adventure locally with the gear and equipment you already possess. So my mind started to go into overdrive. How could I do this in London and how could I combine this with my interests of history and photography? The Idea I struck upon was the magnificent 7. In a day I would cycle to all of the magnificent 7 cemeteries, dotted around London’s inner city suburbs. The adventure would be about a 40 mile round trip and take me through parts of London I had not explored.
Below is a guide to the Magnificent 7 cemeteries including the cycle route I took. Feel free to follow this route or create your own.
The Magnificent 7: An Overview
The cemeteries were built during the 19th century as a response to an overcrowded and disease ridden London, where grave sites were overflowing. Quicklime was often poured on top of the deceased, to accelerate the decaying process and allow the graves to be used more quickly. Parliament subsequently passed a statute to allow seven new private cemeteries to be opened in the countryside around the capital. These cemeteries were Kensal Green 1833, West Norwood 1836, Highgate 1839, Abney Park 1840, Brompton 1840, Nunhead 1840 and Tower Hamlets 1841. Today all seven are nature reserves and are now part of the inner city suburbs, providing green space for Londoners. Sections of each cemetery have consecrated ground meaning that you will find a variety of different faiths and non believers buried in each cemetery.
Stop 1: Kensal Green
First stop on my bike tour was Kensla Green located in West London in the London Borough of Brent. The cemetery was completed in 1833 and is home to some notable people: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Andrew Duncan ( a circus stunt man who is buried in an eccentric tomb) and Kelso Cochrane. Cochrane was a victim of a racist attack in Ladbroke Grove in 1959. He was 32. Cochrane worked as a carpenter and aimed to save enough money to study law. The police investigation was poor; they denied that it was a racist attack and suspects were not questioned correctly. This was despite the suspected murderer being a member of Oswold Mosley's fascist Union Movement. Kelso Cochrane's funeral was partly organised by Cludia Jones who would go onto campaign for justice and organise Nottinghill Carnival. People lined Ladbroke Grove for the funeral procession which passed through up the hill to Kensal Green Cemetery.
Stop 2: Brompton
The second stop is in the heart of Kensington and Chelsea and is shadowed by the monstrosity which is Stamford Bridge. If on your ride you are in need of refreshments there is a cafe on site.
It was built in 1840 and is home to about 35,000 monuments, from simple headstones to substantial mausolea, which mark more than 205,000 resting places. Beatrix Potter used to live nearby and spent time wandering between the graves and named many of her characters after the names she discovered on gravestones: Peter Rabbet, Mr McGreggor, Mr Todd all buried here.
Famous residents include the suffragette Emmeline Pakhurst, Physician John Snow and Polish Prime Minister in exile (during WW2) Tomasz Arciszewski. John Snow is considered one of the founders of modern epidemiology and traced the source of cholera in Soho to a water pump proving that cholera was spread through contaminated Water. There are also a number of polish grave stones alongside that of the Prime Minister in Exile because the area around Earls Court became an area where many polish refugees and migrants settled during and in the aftermath of World War Two following the Soviet occupation of Poland.
Stop 3: West Norwood
The cycle route now takes you South of the river to West Norwood. This felt like the longest stretch between any of the cemeteries. West Norwood was the first cemetery to be built in the Gothic revival style and was opened in 1836. However, during WW2, the Dissenters' chapel was damaged by a V-1 flying bomb. Like the other cemeteries their ar significant residents. These include: Dr William Marsden, founder of the Royal Free Hospital and the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate who died in 1899.
However, it is important to remember who these people were and question how we memorialise them. Henry Tate’s legacy is in every supermarket and many people's kitchen cupboards; his company merged after his death to form Tate and Lyle. His name is also tied to some of Britain's best art galleries after he donated to the Tate Gallery. However, he made his money through sugar, which is linked to both slavery and empire. He did not own salves himself, it was abolished before his time, but his company had been built on the foundations of slavery. Furthermore, he may have also sourced raw sugar from slave sates, such as Brazil, after slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. Even if he did not own slaves Henry Tate is unlikely to be innocent and cannot rinse his hands of wrongdoing. After slavery was abolished former slaves were not really free. The former slaves were often tied to the land and made indebted to their former masters who forced them to work in terrible conditions in order to pay their debts. Therefore, his fortunes are likely to have connections with slavery. This story shows how we must assess the legacy of the notable people buried in these cemeteries and evaluate what they reveal about past societies.
Stop 4: Nunhead Cemetery
The fourth cemetery I visited was Nunhead in South London which was built in 1840 and originally known as All Saints’ Cemetery. The first burial here was Charles Abbot, a 101 year old grocer from Ipswich. Alongside ordinary people there are some notable mentions. Alfred Vance who was an English music hall performer buried in 1888 and Bryan Donkin who was an engineer that developed a paper-making machine and food-canning process.
Once you have finished here continue along the route past Telegraph Hill and down into New Cross. We stopped for lunch at Red Lion in New Cross for a coffee and refuel. There is plenty to choose from. After a quick lunch stop we travelled down to the river to get the ferry across to Canary Wharf. Get the ferry from Greenland Surrey Quays Pier and not Nelson Dock Pier which was closed and blocked by a hotel.
Stop 5: Tower Hamlets
Now you are back north of river cycle past Canary Wharf and north through Limehouse towards Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Built in 1941 is probably the most working class of London's Victorian Cemeteries. In its first two years, 60% of burials were in public graves, those of people who could not afford a plot and funeral. Individuals unrelated to each other could be buried in the same grave within the space of a few weeks.
The buried come from all over the globe; sailors, shipbuilders, merchants, philanthropists, campaigners, trade unionists and champions of workers' rights are all buried here. Due to the cemeteries close proximity to the dock a high proportion of those laid to rest here were sailors who drowned at sea, many left in unmarked graves.
Notable graves include Joseph Westwood's, who ran a ship building company which would evolve into Thames Iron Works. Employees from the company would go on to form a company football team which would later evolve from Thames Ironworks FC into West Ham United FC. This is why West ham have hammers on their crest.
However, alongside industrialists, empire builders and ordinary people are social reformers and activists such as Clara Ellen Grant OBE and William Crooks. Clara Ellen Grant was known as 'The Farthing Bundle Woman of Bow' after she founded in 1907 the Fern Street Settlement, set up to feed and clothe poor and hungry children in the East End of London. William Crooks, born in Poplar, was a trade unionist and politician during the Victorian age. He was an active member of the Labour Party during its formative years and a member of the Fabian Society. He is particularly remembered for his campaigning work against poverty and inequality.
Stop 6: Abney Park
The sixth cemetery is located in Stoke Newington, North of Tower Hamlets but remaining in East London in the neighbouring borough of Hackney. Out of all the cemeteries we visited this was probably the most busy and the most green. Built in 1840 Abney Park is unique as it was originally laid out as an arboretum, with 2,500 varieties of plants. An alphabetical planting of tree species was set out around the perimeter along with collections of oaks, thorns, pine and others within.
In the centre of the cemetery is a dissenters chapel and statue of Isaac Watts, a renowned non-conformist and hymn writer. His lyrics are engraved in Egypician hieroglyphs above one of the gates which read ‘the adobe of the Mortal part of man’. This association quickly made Abney the foremost burial ground for Dissenters, those practising their religion outside the established church.
Significant people buried here include: William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army; Joanna Vassa daughter of former slave and abolitionist Olaundo Equiano; and Bestie Cadwaldere a 60 year old welsh military nurse who served during the Crimean War.
Stop 6: Highgate Cemetery.
Unfortunately my camera ran out of battery before we reached Highgate so we did not manage to tick off the final stop of the tour, but instead revisited it a couple of days later.
Highgate is probably the most famous of all the cemeteries. Unfortunately, it was not open when we visited. The cemetery stretches for 37 acres with the first burial taking place 1839. The first person laid to rest was 36 year old Elizabeth Jackson of Soho. The cemetery is divided into the East and West West Cemetery with the East cemetery opening later in 1856 because the original cemetery already had over 10,400 graves.
The most famous person buried here is probably philosopher, political thinker and economist Karl Marx. Other interesting people include Tom Sayers, who was a famous bare-knuckled prize-fighter who to this day boasts the largest funeral in the history of the cemetery with press reports of over ten-thousand mourners in attendance.
If you have made it this far, thank you for reading my ramblings and putting up with the inevitable spelling and grammar mistakes that my dyslexic brain has missed whilst proofreading. All you have to do now is get outside and go on your own adventure. If you have enjoyed this guide please share it with anyone else who may find it interesting.
Now get outside to explore, create and tread out of time.