Nunhead Cemetery, one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’

Posted: 14 March 2024

As we celebrate a century of existence as an organisation, we have revisited articles from our annual journal to draw inspiration for our events programme. For 2024 we have curated a series of events we trust will captivate participants and serve as a tribute to our rich past.

In 1977 Historic Buildings & Places published an article in Volume 22 of Transaction on ‘Nunhead Cemetery, London: A History of the Planning, Architecture, Landscaping and Fortunes of a Great Nineteenth-century Cemetery’ by James Stevens Curl. The article delves deep into the intricate details of the cemetery’s inception and development.

Grade II* Nunhead Cemetery is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Victorian cemeteries in London. It is the second largest, with Kensal Green Cemetery taking top place for size. Built by the London Cemetery Company and consecrated in 1840, it was built at a time when London’s population was rapidly expanding and it soon became fashionable for the wealthy citizens of nearby Bermondsey, Blackheath, Camberwell and Lewisham to be buried there.

However, during the 20th century Nunhead Cemetery fell into decline. It was bombed heavily during the Second World War, with the Dissenters’ chapel so badly damaged during the Blitz that it was later demolished, and the iron railings around the cemetery were requisitioned for the war effort.

After the war, the cemetery was neglected, left to succumb to nature and open to vandalism and theft. The cemetery was sold to Southwark Council in 1975 for just £1, but the following year the Anglican Chapel, designed by Thomas Little and now Grade II listed, was badly damaged by an arson attack. Finally, in 1998, a Heritage Lottery Fund grant was secured to enable the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery to renovate the ruined chapel, restore the gates, walls and railings, repair 50 memorials, lay new paths and clear much of the overgrown landscape. The work was completed and the cemetery reopened in 2001.

Almost 270,000 people are buried here, including 700 Commonwealth servicemen. The cemetery features a mixture of grand, gothic monuments and small, simple headstones for common burials, with avenues of lime trees and wild undergrowth leading to the designation of the site as a Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for wildlife.

We look forward to our visit to Nunhead Cemetery on Wednesday 17th April.

Read James Stevens Curl’s article from Transactions Vol 22, 1977.

Book your ticket for this event here.

Explore the full digital archive of our Journal here.