Six Feet Under the Nun’s Head
The dome of St Paul’s peeped through a narrow gap at High Point, where fresh breezes filtered through the Horse Chestnuts. Wearing a t-shirt depicting an air-brushed angel in prayer, jet-black hair and ear studs, the young Goth politely edged between the Cow Parsley and the elderly folks’ tour of Nunhead Cemetery.
Beneath our feet, in the sacred clays of south London, the toppled memorials were barely visible beneath our feet and the wheels of trundling pushchairs. One caught my eye and after I let a young dad pass-by the exposed corner of marble headstone, I scraped at it with my boot heel to reveal more: “The Family of AC Ardley and GA Fletcher ..” The mortal remains of these Victorians are still buried in the undergrowth after a Philistine 70s council’s bulldozers rode over their many graves.
Nunhead’s occupants were some of Victorian society’s hoi-palloi: Chemist, Frederick Augustus Abel, inventor of cordite is there. So is the writer Hilda Caroline Gregg (1933) whose pseudonym Sydney Carolyn Grier wrote the first of 23 novels at the age of 13); Bryan Donkin (1855) developer of the air-tight tin can; teenage chanteuse Jenny Hill (1896) whose sweet voice delighted music hall crowds; horsepowered bus magnate Thomas Tilling (1893) owning a stable of 4,000 horses and Alfred Peek Stevens (1888) who penned the earliest known use in England of the term O.K. (“Walking in the zoo is the O.K. thing to do.”).
With needle-like nettle stings on my shins, I too traipsed along the ever-encroached paths to see yet more tombs and mausolea, some covered by mother nature, just as a thousand tragic repercussions of social expansion were now overtaken by industrial progress: the ghosts of London’s tycoons, their privileged children and their slumming workers.
In the first 50 years of the 19th century the population of London more than doubled from 1 to 2.3 million. The city’s dead were being stacked in overcrowded parish churchyards, leading to decaying matter entering the water supply and to a series of cholera epidemics. All Saints Nunhead was consecrated in 1840 and was one of the seven great Victorian cemeteries established in a picturesque ring around the outskirts of London known as the Magnificent Seven.
Henry Daniel (died 29th August 1867, age 62) was the monumental mason par excellence of Nunhead. His own memorial, with that of his wife Charlotte and son – also Henry – holds court on one of the fashionable corners, shared by city merchant bankers, the rich and influential on a sort of sweeping red carpet for the great and the good. His hugely popular architectural features show a monolith-come-billboard for the family business, posthumously advertising the much-loved architecture for faith and eternal life: Maidens, cherubs, anchors, snakes, scrolls and urns. “The dust remaineth to earth but the spirit to God who gave it,” reads the inscription of the man who helped carve the poetry of the Gothic burial age.
Queen Victoria’s 40-year obsession with grief taught a superstitious nation how to mourn, inventing an industry of hearses, rings, lockets and silk gloves bought for the undertakers to wear. If there was a corpse in the house, mirrors were covered and the deceased was taken out feet first to stop the head looking backwards for others to follow ..
Then, 80% of deaths occurred at home and the funeral industry was profitable and respectable. By the Edwardian age then the first war, with few bodies to bury nor horses to bear them, this tradition was finished, funeral staff were laid off and the ivy started to strangle the once-lavish monuments. The 50s and 60s saw the sad decline of urban cemeteries and local authorities saw this redundant, wasteland as a drain on resources, allowing them to degrade into playgrounds, toilets and the places for procreation, vandalism and theft.
The bronze Gilbert Scott memorial to the 9 Walworth Sea Scouts (aged between 11 and 14) who drowned in an estuary squall off Leysdown on 4th August 1912, was shamelessly stolen from here and melted down. Elsewhere, locals were encouraged to come and buy up items from shrines and families who came to pay their respects at loved-ones graves, found nothing but rubble. But in 2000, a £1.25m windfall was spent on renovation and conservation so many pieces of Victoriana have been saved from the JCB and Brylcreem boys.
But choosing a council square in which to deposit the body of son or daughter, parent or partner must be the most wretched of choices. Umar (above) was only 8 years-old when he died this month. The earth that was displaced by his small casket is still a mound above ground level, at a spot where tour groups shuffle past.
And five traffic cones that might elsewhere be part of some B-road disruption stand like pagan pyramids in anticipation of a fresh reservation.
Filed under: burial, cemetery, England, history, Landscape, London, Photography, Victoriana | 2 Comments