7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Nunhead Cemetery

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 12 months ago
7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead Cemetery is the second largest of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, and probably the wildest. Almost 270,000 people are buried here, dating back as far as 1840.

Strawberry Thieves choir perform at Nunhead Cemetery's chapel. Photo: Andrew Smith.

It only cost £1

Photo: Stephanie Sadler

OK, the cemetery cost a lot more to build, but in 1975 it was bought for £1.

The London Cemetery Company, which had originally owned it, went bankrupt and passed the cemetery into to the ownership of the United Cemetery Company (UCC) in 1960. The UCC couldn't run the cemetery profitably, so closed it in 1969, locked the gates, and left it to wrack and ruin.

In 1975, Southwark Council bought the site for £1, although very little was done with it until the late 1990s when it was awarded Lottery funding, allowing the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery to renovate and restore it.

Much of the cemetery is still wild as a result of being left untended for years, with many paths and gravestones inaccessible.

War effort

As with many parks and gardens, the iron railings from the perimeter fence were removed to be used in the war effort during the second world war (maybe they ended up in the Thames Estuary). The cemetery's Dissenters' Chapel was bombed so heavily, it was later demolished.

An arson attack

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Inside Nunhead Catacombs. Photo: Steve Bell

With the above in mind, you may think the ruined Anglican chapel in the centre of the cemetery (top picture) is the result of years of neglect and decay or war damage. In reality, it was destroyed by arson in 1976. The interior and roof were completely destroyed by the fire, and the catacombs apparently raided for lead and jewellery.

The chapel was only stabilised in 2001 and, though a ruin, is used for music and theatre performances. At the same time, the catacombs were restored. Want to visit? Go on the next annual open day in May.

The view of St Paul's

Photo: Londonist

On the western side of the cemetery, a viewpoint is marked on the map. Climb the hill and you'll be rewarded with the above vista of St Paul's Cathedral. The trees are trimmed so as to protect the view. On the horizon to the left of St Paul's, Alexandra Palace can be espied.

Bodies from Bank

An unknown number of the bodies laid to rest in Nunhead Cemetery were previously buried in the City of London. They came from the churchyard of St Christopher le Stocks, which stood on the site now occupied by the Bank of England's Garden Court.

The first wave of bodies was moved in 1867 during development of Bank. This was followed by a further redevelopment in 1933, which led to more corpses being rediscovered and relocated to Nunhead.

The Scottish Martyrs Memorial

The inscription at the base of the Scottish Martyrs Memorial. Photo: David Fisher under a Creative Commons license.

One of the more interesting listed memorials is The Scottish Martyrs Memorial, located close to the cemetery's main entrance. It doesn't mark a grave, but is more of an obelisk structure, in memory of five political radicals; Thomas Muir, Fyshe Palmer, William Skriving, Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot.

There are not thought to be any particular connections between the martyrs and Nunhead. Rather, Nunhead Cemetery was a prominent and prestigious London cemetery when the memorial was unveiled in 1851. There's another memorial in Edinburgh.

The Walworth Scouts

Photo: Londonist

Perhaps one of the most shocking memorials in the cemetery is the above, commemorating the lives of nine young boys who died aged between 11 and 14. Eight of them were from the 2nd Walworth Scouts who were on a camping and sailing trip at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey when their boat overturned and they sadly drowned. The ninth was Frank Masters from the training ship Arethusa, who died trying to help them.

In August 2012, on the centenary of the tragedy, the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery commemorated the anniversary.

Last Updated 18 November 2016