5 Secrets Of West Norwood Cemetery

By Daan Deol Last edited 12 months ago
5 Secrets Of West Norwood Cemetery

West Norwood Cemetery is home to Victorian millionaires, gothic catacombs, and a rather strange railway...

The catacombs at West Norwood Cemetery. Photo: Konstantin Binder.

1. Resting place of a sugar entrepreneur...

Many notable figures are buried in this grand cemetery, which opened in 1836. Darren Beach highlights in his book London's Cemeteries that Baron Julias de Reuter, founder of the Reuters news agency, has a pink granite obelisk here. Sir Henry Tate, sugar merchant and founder of the Tate Gallery, lies in a pinkish brick mausoleum, as does Royal Doulton bigwig Sir Henry Doulton (it's rather a shame his mausoleum isn't made out of pottery).

Sir Henry Tate's mausoleum. Photo: Matt Brown.

2. ... and the founder of one the first superfoods

Entrepreneur Eliza James is also buried in West Norwood. Originally from Birmingham, James began selling watercress at the age of five. Upon moving to London, she continued to sell watercress and became famous in Covent Garden, where she sold it from a stall for 50 years. Known as the Watercress Queen, she became virtually the sole watercress supplier in London, owing to the fact she owned several watercress farms around the UK.

3. The design of the cemetery is very specific

The world's first ever Gothic-style cemetery, West Norwood is built on a hill. There are several reasons for this. One is that it was believed that the raised ground would help prevent spread of disease. Additionally, the chapel, (which was demolished in the 1960s) was positioned so that the whole town could see it — a reminder of man's mortality. And of course, by being on a hill, the dead were that little bit closer to heaven.

Photo: Jason_Cobb

4. Dancing on the dead

Enon Chapel is best known for its 'Dancing on the Dead' events that went on there in the 19th century. Newspapers used to advertise the event: "Enon Chapel — Dancing on the Dead — Admission Threepence! No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings!"

The story behind this is closely connected to West Norwood Cemetery. Baptist minister W Howse offered his burial services at a cheaper rate, carrying out up to nine or 10 every Sunday. Beneath Enon Chapel was a cellar — in which Howse stuffed 12,000 corpses.

In 1848, Mr George Walker, a surgeon, bought the chapel and had the bodies moved to West Norwood, where they were reburied in a single grave. Not a good afterlife.

5. The cemetery has a railway track... sort of

In 2010, in an exploration of the remains of the Dissenters' Catacombs, a rusty bier (a frame used to move corpses or coffins before burial or cremation) was found. The wheels of the bier had been designed to run on a narrow-gauge railway track. A sort of miniature necropolis railway, if you will.

The Friends of West Norwood Cemetery (FOWNC) hold guided tours on the first Sunday of every month. Members can also go on a guided tour of the catacombs.

Last Updated 24 November 2016