Grave Encounters: Visiting London’s “Magnificent Seven”

ACCENT London’s Harry Isitt, a native Londoner, recently stumbled across London’s Magnificent Seven: seven overgrown, architecturally beautiful cemeteries that serve as the final resting place of over a million people. Harry discusses the historical and social origins of these cemeteries, the famous people interred therein, and the quiet, eerie beauty of these sites.

Getting to know a place like London can take a lifetime; it can be both thrilling and maddening to realize that just as you feel you’ve figured a place out, you’ll discover something new — perhaps a gallery or a tucked-away pub you didn’t know about — that calls into question everything you thought you knew about this vast city.

Having grown up and lived here for the better part of 25 years, I experience this feeling constantly. For example, I recently “discovered” the “Magnificent Seven” Cemeteries – a vestige of Victorian London in today’s modern city – and since then, have been trying to visit them all.

The “Magnificent Seven” is the colloquial name for the seven large metropolitan lawn cemeteries that were built from 1832 onwards, on what were then the edges of London, in response to overcrowding in the graveyards of the traditional, but small, central parish churches. Modeled after the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, two were built in South London at West Norwood and Nunhead; two were built in North London at Highgate and Abney Park; two were built in West London at Brompton and Kensal Green; and lastly, one was built in Tower Hamlets in the East End.

Their establishment came at a time of great public need. By the 1830s, the population of London had reached 2 million people, double the number of residents than at the start of the century. Mass migration to the city in the wake of the industrial revolution meant that by 1841, almost 40% of people living in London had been born somewhere else — a number that is roughly similar today. Lots of people living in the city meant lots of people dying there too, and to compound the problem, in 1832, cholera swept across London, killing 50,000 people. Put simply, London had run out of places to bury its dead.

Walking through central London today you can find evidence of this everywhere; the churchyard at St. Anne’s Church in the heart of cosmopolitan Soho, for instance, is said to be the final resting place of 80,000 Londoners despite the fact that there has not been a burial there since the 1850s. This may explain why the churchyard sits a good 6 feet above ground level; a sobering thought for those that eat their lunch there daily.

Walking around the cemeteries of West Norwood and Highgate, you get a sense of the crisis our Victorian predecessors faced: there are graves, gravestones, and mausoleums everywhere, and it comes as no surprise that very few Londoners are interred in these cemeteries today. West Norwood is particularly splendid as it houses an Orthodox Greek Necropolis. Built from 1842 onwards by London’s Greek community, it is comprised of a plethora of neo-classical mausoleums and monuments, 19 of which are architecturally listed by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission. The Greek community in London has mostly shifted north of the river, and many of these monuments and graves are in disrepair and overgrown as a result. On the day of my visit, with nobody else around, I felt as though I’d stumbled across South London’s answer to Ephesus or Pompeii – a strange sensation indeed.

Highgate is famous for being the final resting place of Karl Marx, whose spectacular monument belies a much more humble grave hidden deep amongst the cemetery’s weeds and brambles. Famous residents of West Norwood cemetery include the sugar baron and philanthropist, Henry Tate, whose donations of art and copious amounts of cash created the Tate Britain in 1897, Sir Henry Daulton of Royal Daulton, the famous pottery company, and my personal favorite — though perhaps controversial — Sir Hiram Maxim, the Anglo-American inventor of both the automated machine gun and the famous “Captive Flying Machine,” an extant amusement park ride built for Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1904 and copied by Disney in 2001 for the creation of the Golden Zephyr ride at California Adventure Park

While a lifetime is a long time to get to know a place, looking to its graveyards is a great, if macabre, way to try to understand the city’s history and the lives of some of the two millennia’s worth of people who have called themselves “Londoners.” Thanks to the Victorians, residents of the city today brave enough to make the pilgrimage to one of these truly magnificent cemeteries are able to make tangible connections to their predecessors and contemplate the unique experiences of generations living and dying in London.

~Harry Isitt, ACCENT London

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