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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Nunhead Cemetery is a delightful oasis in South London where the peace is only interrupted by bird song, the drilling of a woodpecker  and the intermittent squawking of green parakeets.  Part of the cemetery is kept tidy and well maintained but in other parts old Victorian tombs are left to go their own way and are a part of the overgrown woodland, a seemingly haphazard mixture of tilted marble headstones, fallen urns, marble angels whose hands broke off ages ago, trees, shrubs and ivy.  The dead have been incorporated into a living landscape and though the cemetery was built as a final resting place for people, today there is an equal emphasis on the cemetery as a designated nature reserve.


By the early part of the nineteenth century, there was a shortage of places to bury the dead in London.  The population had increased enormously, and was still increasing, and graveyards attached to parish churches were full.  The few tombstones and other markers visible in the graveyards did not reflect the enormous number of burials that had  been conducted over the centuries and parish graveyards were overflowing.  The General Cemetery Act was passed in 1832 which authorized the establishment of a ‘general cemetery for the internment of the dead in the neighbourhood of the metropolis’ and a company to be created for this purpose.  Kensal Green Cemetery was opened shortly afterwards and with other cemeteries on the outskirts of London established, Nunhead Cemetery was opened in 1840 by the London Cemetery Company.


Authorised by a further Act of Parliament in 1836, the company built Nunhead Cemetery in the south of London to partner Highgate Cemetery which they had already opened in the north of London  in 1939.  Designed by James Bunstone Bunning who had previously worked on the cemetery at Highgate, All Saints Cemetery at Nunhead was consecrated in 1840.  The design of the cemetery emphasises and complements the hilly nature of the site with curving paths, and the Anglican chapel is situated at the end of a grove of lime trees looking down over London.  The Anglican Chapel was designed by Thomas Little, who also designed the Dissenters Chapel, both commissions having been advertised in The Builder magazine.  


Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetry 1

Anglican Chapel

Perhaps the result of the popularity of the nearby West Norwood Cemetery, interest in the new cemetery at Nunhead was slow to build up but within 10 years, the well-heeled of Bermondsey, Blackfriars, Camberwell and Lewisham were using it in greater numbers for the burial of their departed.  After the first world war, funerals became less lavish and cremation became more popular, and the cemetery began to decline.  The iron railings that formed the boundary were removed for the war effort and the Dissenters Chapel damaged so badly by German bombers it had to be demolished.  Now no longer profitable, maintenance of the cemetery was wound down in the 1960s and the cemetery closed for further burials in 1969 and it was only open for visitors at weekends.  

Already overgrown and neglected, the cemetery became an uncared for wilderness that attracted vandalism and thieves who ransacked the graves looking for lead and other valuables.


Nunhead Cemetery was not the only cemetery facing such abandonment and in 1973, local MP Harry Lambourn presented a Private Members Bill to the House of Commons whereby neglected cemeteries could be taken over by the local authority.  He described the condition of the cemetery at that time to Parliament as follows:  


“This cemetery, which covers an area of some 52 acres, is far more in keeping with a jungle than with a cemetery. Hundreds of trees are growing up through graves. There is complete absence of supervision, which has led to widespread vandalism, tipping of rubbish and the forcing open of gates—although it must be said that in many cases it has been necessary for relatives to force open gates in order to obtain access to the cemetery, which, on many occasions, has been barred to them.”


Mr Lambourn asserted that in actual fact Nunhead Cemetery was now owned by a property development group who had acquired the site as a speculative investment and had, as a matter of policy, deliberately allowed the cemetery to further deteriorate to gain the support of local residents for a “socially acceptable development.”  Mr Lambourn’s bill failed to become law but two years later provision was made in the Greater London Council Act for Southwark Council to acquire the site of Nunhead Cemetery for £1.


So began the long process of restoration but even four years later, the cemetery was still attracting vandals and the Anglican Chapel was badly damaged by an arson attack which completely destroyed the interior and roof.  While Southwark Council carried out a plan of work in the cemetery, the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery was formed in 1981 and brought great energy and direction into the renewal process.  In 1987 the cemetery and some of its monuments were Grade II listed and it was designated a London site of Nature Conservation importance.  A grant from the Heritage Lottery fund in 1998 enabled further restoration and the cemetery reopened in 2001.  It is now possible to arrange for burial at the cemetery.


So while the mix of nature and crumbling tombs and gravestones appears haphazard, a lot of work and maintenance has gone into creating this apparent disorder.  While nature is integral and welcomed, its excesses have been curbed and it no longer has the upper hand, reflecting the aims of the Friends which are “to promote the conservation and appreciation of the cemetery as a place of remembrance,  of historic importance and of natural beauty.”


Nunhead Cemetery, Linden Grove, SE15

Nunhead Cemetery Nunhead cemetery 1