During the darkest days of lockdown, West Norwood Cemetery was closed to visitors, depriving us of probably our favourite pastime of wandering around the graves. The cemetery is hardly a secret, one of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ Victorian cemeteries, but it is a powerful place full of histories compressed beneath the ground and unsuspected connections to all aspects of life. Burials began in 1837 and include many remarkable figures of the time. Isabella Beeton, buried on the hill, is famous but much of her success came, unfortunately, after her death at the age of 28 in childbirth. William Tite was buried in the cemetery he helped to design, by the cemetery company of which he was a director, having designed many of Britain’s first railway stations. The engineer James Greathead invented the Greathead Shield, used to tunnel under the Thames and dig early tube lines. Charles Alcock, meanwhile, almost invented international sport, being responsible for the first football international (England v Scotland, Glasgow, 1872) and the first home test match (England v Australia at the Oval, 1880), as well as inventing the FA Cup. Elsewhere in the cemetery, a mass grave holds the remains of 20,000 unidentifiable bodies removed from under the floor of Enon Chapel, Aldwych, where they were illegally buried by the Rev. William Holmes, a fact discovered only after his death.
The cemetery seems restless, and many of its tombs are toppling as the ground shifts. The presence of the underground River Effra, which passes under the western side, and the clay-heavy soil above which slips on its bank. Cracks in the ground in the Greek Orthodox section are truly alarming and the memorial garden built on the catacombs of the demolished Dissenters’ Chapel is heaving itself apart. The cemetery was also partly cleared by Lambeth Council during the 1980s and 1990s, until their actions were declared illegal. But despite its tribulations there are, ironically, few places so alive – with the present as well as the past – and where connections can be made so easily to the thousands here, known and unknown.