Roving reporter and guest writer Jeane Trend-Hill was allowed rare access to the the bits we missed when we visited West Norwood Cemetery a while back. Here’s her account…
I had the pleasure of visiting West Norwood Cemetery Catacombs in London again. I say again: on my first visit my camera decided to join the deceased half way around and promptly died. This time I came prepared – three cameras! Now I might be a little biased here but I consider these catacombs to be finest in London. I am lucky enough that my work has let me go behind (under?) the scenes in many catacombs and I have visited those at Nunhead, Brompton and Kensal Green cemeteries. They are all pretty amazing but nothing in my opinion compares to West Norwood. Incidentally, in Kensal Green catacombs there was a power cut and I had to wander around in the dark with several people sharing a miniscule pocket torch: that was interesting, but I digress….. On a gloomy sunless day in October right before Hallowe’en I found myself descending the slippery steps into the dark underground cavern. As my eyes became accustomed to the yellowish lighting I made out the familiar corridors.
Opened in 1837 they include a group of 95 vaults with private and shared loculi (coffin spaces) with a capacity of 3500 coffins. The Anglican and Dissenters’ chapels above the catacombs suffered bomb damage during World War II and were subsequently demolished. No coffins have been interred since the 1930s. Some were moved at relatives’ requests; however most remain untouched. The catacombs are laid out in six narrow vaulted passages, either side of the main vault, each with seven bays. Some bays contain gated vaults or are individual loculi with either cast-iron gates or stone memorial tablets, others were left open. Also visible are the remains of funeral tributes or ‘immortals’. At the end of each of the vaulted passages there is an open grating designed to allow air flow through the catacombs. In the middle of the central area is a hydraulic catafalque (coffin lift) designed by Bramah & Robinson dated 1839. This was used to transfer coffins into the catacombs from the chapel above.
I don’t find it creepy – interesting yes, damp yes (the catacombs have regularly flooded) but creepy no. Coffins that are not buried in the ground are required by law to be lead lined (just as well considering some of them died of smallpox), although as you go around you find coffins in various states of decay and one or two which have completely collapsed into themselves. The children’s coffins of which there are sadly many are slightly unnerving. Did I just imagine someone pulling at the bottom of my jacket or hear a tiny giggle… or was it just the echo of my footsteps? I was allowed access for around an hour and a half and wandered up and down each section to photograph as much as I could. I wore a face mask although the air in there is surprisingly good but I have this tendency to want to get up close and personal to rotting wood, lead and….ewww…is that mould?!
By Jeane Trend-Hill
Please note the catacombs are not presently open to the public although next year’s tours will be arranged approx 5 or 6 times per year, contact West Norwood Cemetery for further information. You can see more pictures over at Jeane’s website.