Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead's often cited as the "least known" of the Magnificent Seven, and while this might be true, darling Nunhead is one of my favourite cemeteries in London. Though it doesn't have the most spectacular monuments (you want Norwood, Brompton or Kensal Green for those), it does have an absolutely irresistable atmosphere. It's being managed as a nature reserve, which means that much of it is fairly overgrown, but the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery are doing an absolutely amazing job of keeping it good as a cemetery too. Don't expect too many spectacular monuments - the inhabitants of Nunhead are mostly like to prove their solid respectability with square columns and box tombs - but there is nowhere in London with an atmosphere quite like this.

Nunhead's fortunes over the years have been mixed. Founded in 1840 by the London Cemetery Company (who also founded Highgate), on the death of its first superintendent in 1865, it was discovered that he had defrauded the company of thousands of pounds. Lower mortality rates (fewer customers!) didn't help, and by 1960, the cemetery had been bought by a property company planning to build on part of the land. Perhaps the harshest blow was in 1974, when the Anglican chapel was all but destroyed by an arsonist. With vandalism and tales of "black magic rituals" rife, the London Borough of Southwark stepped in, and in 1975 bought the cemetery for £1.

When we first visited Nunhead, nine years ago, I was unsure that the cemetery would win. Today, I was delighted to see that it has. The Chapel has been stabilised, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund; though it lacks a roof, it's still suitable for summertime concerts and exhibitions, and its slightly ruinous appearance just adds to the Romantic air of Nunhead: it looks like the ruin of a mediaeval abbey. Though many areas of the cemetery are still overgrown, at least the main paths are clear, and the more spectacular monuments intact.

Some parts towards the back of the cemetery have been turned over to lawn and are accepting new burials. This might feel incongruous, but at least it's generating much-needed funds to keep the rest of the place intact.

Posted in 19th Century London Cemeteries Magnificent Seven | Leave a comment

Where are the British royal family buried?

Royal Burial Ground

image courtesy Wikipedia

In a blantant attempt to cash in on current events, this is the first in a series I'll be writing about the burial sites of the British royal family. In the main, I'll be considering monarchs, their spouses and their children, though in particularly interesting cases, I might splurge out into more remote relatives.

The House of Windsor in the twentieth century

The house of Windsor is mostly buried *in* Windsor, with two sites providing the majority of burial sites for the royal family during the twentieth century.

Monarchs and their spouses are almost all buried in St. George's Chapel. Windsor Castle: Edward VII and Queen Alexandra; George V and Queen Mary; George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother). George V's elder brother, Albert Victor, and his sister, Louise the Princess Royal, are also in SGC.

Princess Margaret, the sister of the present Queen and daughter of George VI, was cremated at Slough Crematorium; her ashes are held in the Royal Vault in St George's Chapel. She was the first member of the royal family to be cremated. Despite what the Guardian thinks, Margaret was not the first member of the Royal Family to be cremated, as her great-great-aunt, Princess Louise (daughter of Queen Victoria and sister to Edward VII) was cremated in 1939 at Golders Green.

Diana, Princess of Wales is buried on an island in a lake on her family's estate at Althorp.

Otherwise, most other recent royals can be found in the Royal Burial Ground behind the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore House. These include Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, and his Duchess, formerly Mrs Wallis Simpson, as well as Edward's brothers Henry Duke of Gloucester and George Duke of Kent, and their aunt, Princess Victoria.

Of the two remaining children of George V, his only daughter, Mary, Countess of Harewood, is buried at All Saints' Church in Harewood, and his youngest son, Prince John, is buried at Sandringham. The latter is buried alongside his uncle, Alexander John, youngest son of Edward VII, who lived only one day. Alexander John's older sister, Maud, became Queen of Norway and is buried in the royal mausoleum in Norway.


St. George's Chapel is open to visitors. The Royal Burial Ground is not open to the public, but may be viewed from around its perimeter; Frogmore House has very limited opening times. Althorp is open for visitors in July and August this year.

Next up: Victoria, Albert, and their children's burial sites

Posted in Famous Graves London Cemeteries Leave a comment

Where are my London ancestors buried?

BluebellsI've been hanging out on some genealogy forums recently, with a lot of people who are finding it very difficult to find their relatives' graves. And not just the burial spot itself, but even the cemetery in which they're buried. Here are a few tips if you're trying to find a grave yourself.

  1. Cemeteries change names. This is the biggest cause of confusion. Nineteenth-century cemeteries are often named after the Burial Board which owned them; twentieth-century ones frequently after the London borough which managed them, and later, after the area in which they were situated. That means that cemeteries change names frequently.
  2. Cemeteries share names. There are two "Hanwell Cemeteries", two "Paddington Cemeteries", several pairs of "Old" and "New" cemeteries... Check the burial date against the opening date of cemeteries to narrow it down.
  3. Cemeteries have different names at the same time. Locals will frequently refer to [name of road] Cemetery, which isn't and never has been its official name. Check the map!
  4. Parish cemeteries may be out of town. For example, residents of Islington are probably buried in "Islington Cemetery"... which is in East Finchley, nowhere near Islington.
  5. Religion makes a difference. "Dissenters" - that is, Christians who didn't acknowledge the primacy of the Church of England - had their own cemeteries: probably Bunhill Fields until 1854; Abney Park from 1840. Christian denomination seems to have stopped being so problematic in the twentieth century.
  6. The Jewish and Catholic communities had their own cemeteries. If you share the same faith as your ancestor, you probably know this - but if your family line changed or abandoned its faith, you may find your remoter relatives in a "specialist" cemetery.
  7. Family still matters. Later in the twentieth century, many cemeteries have specific sections for the Chinese, Greek and Muslim communities, and other groups which are strongly represented in a particular part of town. Your family may well have chosen a cemetery further from their home in order to have a grave in one of these. Bahai people are probably in Southgate Cemetery. (Apologies to the national and religious groups I've left out; leave us a comment and tell us where your community likes to bury its dead, or scatter their ashes.)
  8. Burial records don't necessarily exist. Deaths are a matter of public record. Burials and cremations are not. Many sets of burial records seem to have been lost during transfers of ownership of burial grounds. Others, happily, are being put online at Deceased Online, the central database for UK burials and cremations.
  9. Don't expect a gravestone.I'm throwing this in here because of the number of people I've spoken to who've been devastated that their ancestor had no marker, or a marker that once existed has gone. Your relative may have been buried in a common grave; a stone that once existed may have been removed for safety (or grave reuse) purposes by the cemetery; there may never have been a stone in the first place (they're very expensive!). Before you go look, try to think that you're looking at the place itself, not solely an inscription on a stone.

If you're stuck tracking down a burial site, leave a comment with as much information as you have, and I'll do my best to help.

Posted in London Cemeteries 30 Comments

Why Mill Hill East?

If I weren't obsessed with cemeteries, I would possibly be obsessed with the Tube instead, like Annie and Geoff and this guy, to whom BBC4 should definitely give a job.

Episode 2, about unfinished London ring roads is also excellent.

Posted in Not Cemeteries The Tube 9 Comments

South Ealing Cemetery

I'm a bit worried about dear little South Ealing. The graves seem to be lurching all over the place more than they ever were, and I spotted more than one stone which had fallen over and been left, rather than tidied up and made safe. The windows to the chapel have been broken and boarded up, and the back of the chapel is fenced off. All this smacks of a place that's being neglected rather. I hope I'm wrong, because it's a beautiful cemetery. It's covered with bluebells even at the end of April, and though it acts as a cut-through for locals (and is itself bisected by a fenced-in footpath), it's peaceful and rural. See it while it's still here.

Posted in 19th Century 20th Century London Cemeteries | 10 Comments