06 January 2012
West Norwood Cemetery was built with Victorian Catacombs to hold about 3,500 coffins. Norwood was the first cemetery to be built in the Gothic style, and from its founding in 1837 it attracted a wealthy and aspirational clientele. It soon gained a reputation as “The Millionaire’s Cemetery”, with elaborate mausolea and tombs. Now acknowledged as arguably the finest in London, 69 buildings are listed by English Heritage. Alas! Its large Anglican chapel was pulled down in 1960, but other than letting in damp, the catacombs below were undamaged.
Today, when you descend the steps and step through the heavy steel doors, you first notice the catafalque, a tall mechanism for receiving coffins from the chapel that once sat above. Joseph Bramah had invented the hydraulic press some years before and his company modified it to lift a platform from the catacombs into the chapel. The coffin was set down on this and, as the funeral ended, the bier and its precious cargo would descend silently into the underworld.
Looking around, you notice the stone-faced family vaults in the central aisle. With shelves full of coffins, each Gothic vault is decorated with castellations, lancet arches and portcullis-like iron gates. Some carry the armorial shields of the people interred; others are decoratively carved with the names of the deceased. No expense was spared in fitting out these private Valhallas.
From the central aisle you can see long corridors leading off into the distance; there are 95 vaults, some divided up into loculi (cubicles) behind stone memorial tablets, others have wide shelves holding whole families locked behind ornate railings, while yet more are simply fitted with iron racks that hold up to 20 coffins. Under the ancient dust and mould and you can pick out decorations: decayed Utrecht velvet, studwork, ornate handles, ironwork and sometimes the remains of a centuries-old wreath or other memorial tribute. Now and again the wooden outer case has rotted, revealing its sealed lead lining (just as well, considering that many bodies must have been infected with smallpox when they died.)
Escutcheons and rusty name plates reveal who these once were: Vice-Admiral of the Fleet William Young; Lord Mayor of London Sir Chapman Marshall; the Hon. Colonel Sambrooke Anson, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars; Edward Bowra of the Chinese Customs Service… The size of some of these coffins hint at their occupants’ girth and high living, although diminutive children’s coffins remind us how death called indiscriminately on all ages. A fleur-de-lys reveals the French origins of one coffin, hinting at the journeys some of these bodies experienced to get here.
One aisle lies empty, save for some salvaged memorial tablets and stone angels. Are they waiting for the day when catacomb interment will once again become fashionable?
West Norwood is now a bustling South London suburb situated 25 minutes from London Bridge or Victoria railway stations. The catacombs at West Norwood Cemetery are not generally accessible to the public. However the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery lead regular tours, see newsletters at www.fownc.org for further information.
Post by Colin R. Fenn, Friends of West Norwood Cemetery.
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