7 Secrets Of Abney Park Cemetery

By Daan Deol Last edited 41 months ago
7 Secrets Of Abney Park Cemetery

Abney Park Cemetery: home to London's dissenters, a lion tamer and some problematic mushrooms...

Abney Park Cemetery. Photo: David Holt.

1. The lion tamer's grave

At first glance, you might think a lion had been buried in Abney Park. Actually, the big white cat marks the grave of Frank Bostock (and his wife, Susannah). Known for educating Victorian Britain about African and Asian wildlife — an Attenborough of his day, if you will — Frank had been a lion trainer since he was 15. He survived both a tiger and lion mauling and had his finger bitten off by an ape. He died of the flu.

General William and Catherine Booth are also buried here. They were the founders of the Salvation Army, and their family plot lies near the Church Street entrance, a Salvation Army badge marking their plot.

Frank and Susannah Bostock's monument in Abney Park Cemetery. Photo: David Holt.

2. A resting place for rebels

When the cemetery was originally opened in 1840, it was a burial site for nonconformists, those who rejected the ways of the Church of England, and didn't align with a particular Christian sect. It was set up just as Bunhill Fields — London's leading burial ground for dissenters — was reaching capacity. Abney Park is now Europe's longest standing non-denominational chapel.

Architect William Hosking was very deliberate in his design of the chapel (the first stone of which was laid on the day the rest of the cemetery opened). Considered a controversial architect in his time, Hosking ensured the chapel in no way showed any bias towards a single Christian sect.

An aerial view of the chapel at Abney Park Cemetery (Photo: AbneyPark.org)

3. Entertainment central

Scores of Victorian comedians, pantomime actors and other performers are buried here. These include Albert Chevalier (full incredible first name Albert Onésime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louis Chevalier), songstress and male impersonator Nelly Power, and famous comedian and 'Dame of Drury Lane' panto star Herbert Campbell. George Leybourne, aka Champagne, is also buried here. His act was to extol the joys of high living, but he died penniless.

As for more straight-laced creatives: prolific hymn writer Sir Isaac Watts lived at Abney Manor a while before the cemetery came along. Although he was buried in Bunhill Fields, there is a statue and plaque commemorating him on the northeast corner mound.

4. It's made its mark on pop culture

Late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse filmed the cemetery scenes for her Back to Black music video at Abney Park:

5. Home to a 170-year-old bush

Abney Park Cemetery is home to many rare species of plants and creatures.

The cemetery's designers, architect John Hoskins and horticulturalist George Loddiges, aimed to create a space combining burials with a public land full of trees from around the world. The oldest recorded tree is a 170 year-old Perry's Weeping Holly, which is actually a bush.

Hundreds of species of insects thrive in the cemetery grounds including the hover fly Pocota personata; the rare moth Adela reaumurella and the girdled mining bee — a species that is nationally scarce.

A view of Abney Park Cemetery in autumn. Photo: Fred Adams LRPS

6. Fire, fire, fire

You don't really think of cemeteries catching on fire — but Abney Park's had its fair share. One fire damaged two common ash trees in the 1890s. On Sir Isaac Watts walk, a silver birch was struck by lightning, but survived with a long black gash down its trunk. The centre chapel also burned down in the 1970s. For the last 40 years, the chapel has been empty — although refurbishment is now under way.

7. Don't go mushrooming

It's not advisable to go mushrooming in Abney Park. Edible plants are likely to be infused with arsenic, from the bodies embalmed in the Victorian era. Mushrooms are also likely to be full of lead because of the lead-lined coffins used by Victorians. Bloody Victorians.

Special thanks to Romany Reagan for providing additional information on Abney Park Cemetery. Find out more at abneyrambles.com and follow her on Twitter at @msromany

Last Updated 11 November 2020