The Magnificent Seven, London, UK

brompton cemetery magnificent seven victorian
Here on Dead Good Travel you might see reference to ‘The Magnificent Seven’ a lot. As a a born and bred Londoner, I’m more than familiar with these seven cemeteries (I was brought up almost on top of one of them). I’m not talking about the 1960s (or most recently 2016) Western films, but a group of Victorian cemeteries situated in the London boroughs.

For centuries London’s deceased had traditionally been buried in private burial grounds or in the graveyards of parish churches. That all changed at the beginning of the 19th Century when the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity and huge growth to Britain’s cities. As London gathered economic pace, the population relocated to the capital and the infrastructure was unable to support the influx of bodies. Overpopulation led to overcrowding which resulted in poor living conditions and a fall in sanitisation. Squalor and malnutrition spread diseases and epidemics of dysentery, typhoid and cholera leading to a high mortality rate.

Churchyards became dangerously full and decaying matter was polluting the water supply. Coupled with incidents of bodies being dumped in unmarked plots, sometimes up to 40 coffins in a single plot, London had a serious issue on its hands. The Victorians, however, were an entrepreneurial lot and seized on the idea to invest in death and turn it into a business.

chest tomb gravestone nunhead cemetery london

Chest tomb at Nunhead Cemetery

The General Cemetery Company was formed in 1830 and included members such as sculptor Robert William Sievier, MP Andrew Spottiswood and George Frederick Carden (a barrister and magazine editor who founded the committee). Carden issued a prospectus in 1825 for large suburban cemeteries to combat the issue of overcrowding in graveyards. This idea came to him after he had visited Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1821. Interestingly the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral Sir Christopher Wren also proposed similar ideas of walled cemeteries on the outskirts of towns as early as 1711.

In 1832 Parliament established a law to encourage the creation of burial grounds “for the interment of the Dead in the neighbourhood of the Metropolis” and the idea for large municipal cemeteries gained both financial and public support. Soon cemeteries became a game of property development and the first of the Magnificent Seven; The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, opened its gates.

magnificent seven cemeteries london

Map from Wikimedia Commons

As the burial reform progressed over the next decade six more cemeteries were opened around London becoming known later as the Magnificent Seven, a phrased first coined by Hugh Meller and Brian Parsons in their 1981 book ‘London Cemeteries: an Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer’. These were: West Norwood Cemetery in 1836; Highgate Cemetery in 1839; Abney Park Cemetery in 1840; All Saints Cemetery (now known as Nunhead Cemetery) in 1840; West of London and Westminster Cemetery (now known as Brompton Cemetery) also in 1840 and finally The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (now just known as Tower Hamlets Cemetery) in 1841.

Highgate Victorian cemetery

An unknown artist’s drawing of the Circle of Lebanon at Highgate Cemetery from The Mirror (Meller & Parsons, 2011)

The General Cemetery Company provided a template for other private cemetery companies and soon many other joint-stock companies were set up for new cemeteries. These companies usually comprised of individual members of either wealth or power and became shareholders who each held a part or stock of the company. Land was purchased; in the case of the Magnificent Seven approximately six miles outside the city of London centre, and architects and engineers were brought in to advise on the layout. Plots were then sold (at a profit) to families wishing to bury their dead in that particular cemetery and the money was reinvested into the company for the benefit of the shareholders.

So what makes the Magnificent Seven so interesting to grave seekers? The cemeteries weren’t your run of the mill graveyard with a few headstones and angels thrown in for good measure. They were landscaped and planned spaces with tree-lined avenues with exotic flora and fauna and they were as elegant as any London park, usually elevated on higher ground commanding good views above the smog-filled London. Highgate even boasted its own promenade where families could take their afternoon Sunday walk. This not only offered Victorian Londoners the ‘breathing space’ they so desperately needed from the poisoned miasma filled the air of the inner city but also gave the cemetery some advertising as families walked around and witnessed the spectacular mausoleums and artfully carved monuments. From Greek to Gothic, Egyptian to Celtic, all architectural styles can be found in these Victorian Valhallas. Graves grew more and more ostentatious the more money the family had and were seen almost as an extension of the family home.

mausoleum kensal green cemetery

Mausoleum in Kensal Green

As it was in life, there was status in death for the Victorians. The first of the Magnificent Seven to be built, Kensal Green, was also called the ‘Belgravia of death’ and was the most popular cemetery to be buried in, followed by Highgate. It is still regarded as the most acclaimed of all the Magnificent Seven boasting not one but three royal burials and is also the resting place of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, poet Lord Byron’s wife, Oscar Wilde’s mother, Charles Dickens’ in-laws and Winston Churchill’s daughter.

egyptian avenue highgate cemetery

Entrance to Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery

Highgate, built by the London Cemetery Company is probably the best known of all of the Magnificent Seven. With its spectacular views across the capital and Egyptian elegance, it’s not hard to see why it was a trendy spot to be buried. In fact, the cemetery was so successful a second cemetery was built on the west side of Swain’s Lane in 1839 dividing Highgate into an East and West cemetery. Highgate soon became (and still is) a tourist attraction with the public flocking to witness its winding avenues flanked by columns and a vast array of trees and plants. Highgate also prides itself on some of the most notable burials of all the Seven; Karl Marx, Lucian Freud, Douglas Adams, and Patrick Caulfield (who has, in my opinion, one of the best headstones ever made) to name just a few.

Highgate’s sister cemetery Nunhead was slow to attract custom and soon became used to house communal graves where up to 40 coffins could be placed in one grave for £1.50 each (in Victorian money). In fact, this idea was so popular and the demand became so high they had to start burying coffins along the pathways! Nunhead does, however, trump Highgate with its views. On a clear day (and when the trees have been properly pruned!) there is an unimpeded view of the London skyline complete with St Paul’s Cathedral.

Like Nunhead and Highgate, West Norwood Cemetery is built atop a hill. Built by the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company it is perhaps the more architecturally Gothic of all of the Seven and also contains a collection of rather more unconventional structures. The South Metropolitan Cemetery Company also took the idea of grave robbing, body snatching and vandalism very seriously and included high walls and railings in its design.

brompton cemetery gravestone crow bird wildlife

Brompton Cemetery was the brainchild of the West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company and architect Stephen Geary who had previously designed both Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries. A competition was set to design the cemetery with architect Benjamin Baud announced as the winner. Geary was asked to resign and later tried to sue the company. Unfortunately, this was not the end of Brompton’s difficulties. More changes in architects and builders left the cemetery in disarray ahead of its consecration and opening in 1840. This deterred the public from using it and soon the cemetery was haemorrhaging money and began its slow decline until the 1850 act.

Abney Park Cemetery, like Norwood, Brompton and Kensal Green, was owned solely by its own company. It was opened as a model example of a garden cemetery, home to over 3,500 species of trees, shrubs and flowers. It was a pioneering cemetery built wholly as a non-denominational place of rest and attracted burials from all religions and became popular with Methodists and Baptists.

Tower Hamlets, known by locals as Bow Cemetery was the last of the Seven to be built but one of the first to fall into disrepair. A popular burial place with people from the East End it was opened and built by The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Company in 1841, but by 1896 it was already overcrowded and neglected.

tree fauna graves brompton cemetery

In the decade of 1830 – 1840 private cemeteries were in their golden years but what lead to the decline of the Magnificent Seven and other Victorian garden cemeteries?
In 1865 the Secretary and Registrar of the London Cemetery Company Edward Buxton died suddenly. A few days after his death a clerk found a set of books in the office of Buxton and it emerged that he had kept two sets of ledgers and had embezzled the company out of money over several years. This left a sense of unease with the public and discouraged them from burying their family members in privately owned cemeteries.

However, the most attributable cause to the beginning of the end for private cemetery companies was the Metropolitan Interments act of 1850. The act proposed that funerals should be made a public service, interments in burial grounds would cease and the companies closed down.
In 1852, because of its financial difficulties, Brompton became the first cemetery to be nationalised. With worries of miasma the belief that decomposing corpses and other rotting matter polluted the air and caused disease, the Interment Act recommended that burial sites be placed further afield. While Highgate, West Norwood, Brompton and Kensal Green were originally safe from the act, London was growing and the Magnificent Seven were no longer on the outskirts of London. Competition also came in the form of Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey. Designed to cater for multiple faiths in a sprawling 2,000 plus acres and its specially designed railway and private station, Brookwood became London’s new city of the dead.

gravestone nunhead cemetery headstone monument

Fallen monument at Nunhead

The final nail in the coffin for the Magnificent Seven came after the Victorian era ended. Cemeteries had become recognised as grim and depressing places and the tradition of mourning and the pomp and ceremony of funerals started to die out in favour of more subdued affairs and cremation. The events of the First World War put a strain on Britain’s finances and the cost of being interred in one of the Seven caused their attraction to lessen. During the Second World War, all the cemeteries bar Highgate suffered extensive bomb damage and with no funds available to repair them many were simply abandoned and the gates closed. Soon vandals moved in and neglect and overgrowth stole a lot of their beauty. In some cases, local councils wanted to demolish parts of the cemeteries as they were deemed unsafe. Luckily the creation of the ‘friends’ groups have brought the Magnificent Seven back to their former grandeur so they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Whilst this is a brief history and overview of the Magnificent Seven, I will explore each of them in more detail in our other blog posts providing greater detail on their architecture, burials and designs.


4 thoughts on “The Magnificent Seven, London, UK

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