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The need for new cemeteries to bury London's dead arose from the early C19th when many of London's small churchyards had acute problems of overcrowding and insanitation, which led to the creation of large cemeteries on what was then the edges of the London. The first such cemetery was Kensal Green Cemetery (q.v.), which opened in 1832. Following a Burial Act of 1836 that enabled the establishment of a cemetery 'southward of the Metropolis', land was purchased at Lower Norwood from the executors of the Lord Chancellor, Baron Thurlow (d.1806), who had owned much land in Norwood. The cemetery was incorporated as the South Metropolitan Cemetery, and became the second of London's 'Magnificent Seven' new cemeteries. The land was consecrated in 1837 and the cemetery built for £75,000, laid out in 1838 by Sir William Tite. It is surrounded by massive walls with iron railings, entrance forecourt and gates on Norwood High Street.
Norwood, once part of the Great North Wood, was a rural landscape and in the 1830s and '40s the cemetery, set on rising ground, was surrounded by open country. Tite's layout of gently winding paths rising to the Anglian and Nonconformist chapels on the upper slopes was that of a rural park. It was planted in the style advocated by J C Loudon and there are numerous mature evergreen and deciduous trees among the monuments, such as copper beech, weeping willow and plane. Catacombs were constructed below the Anglican chapel and had space for 2000 coffins, a hydraulic pump lowering the coffin from the chapel to the vaults below. From the outset the cemetery was divided into a consecrated Anglican section with an unconsecrated Nonconformist section in the north-east corner, within which is a discrete Greek Orthodox burial ground.
In December 1842 four prominent members of the Greek community took out a lease on a small area of land, 52ft 4ins x 30ft, c.2,570 square feet, 'for the exclusive right of burial and interment in the parcel of land and the right to erect monuments or cenotaphs'. This was added to in 1860 by an additional 3,200 square feet and again in 1872 and 1899. The Greek Orthodox church was responsible for burials in this area and the condition of the monuments has tended to have fared better than in the rest of the cemetery, which is more overgrown. The Greek mortuary chapel was built in 1872 by wealthy merchant Stephen Ralli in memory of his son Augustus, its design attributed to architect John Oldrid Scott, son of Sir Gilbert Scott. Among the fine monuments in this section, 19 or 20 of them are listed, as is the mausoleum to Eustratios Stephanou Ralli (d.1884) by E M Barry.
The South Metropolitan Cemetery was the burial place of many illustrious Victorians. Among them are Mrs Beeton; John Johnstone, the dietician who invented Bovril; Sir Henry Doulton; Dr Gideon Mantell, who discovered iguanodon; Sir Henry Tate, a prominent philanthropist whose art collection became the basis of the Tate Gallery. At the top of the hill is a small railed plot reserved for parishioners at the City church of St Mary at Hill (q.v.), which was used when the churchyard became overcrowded in the mid C19th.
By the early C20th the cemetery had become somewhat neglected and complaints were made in the press by Algernon Ashton in 1905. The Nonconformist chapel was adapted as a crematorium in 1915, the South Metropolitan Cemetery becoming the first cemetery to do so. In 1936 the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company purchased additional land adjacent to the main entrance and moved their offices to the enlarged lodge, which replaced Tite's original gothic lodge inside the entrance. The cemetery suffered severe bomb damage in WWII as a result of which the lodge and both chapels were demolished. The Nonconformist chapel was demolished in 1955 and was replaced in 1960 by the new crematorium by A Underdown. The Anglican chapel was demolished in 1960, the catacombs were sealed, and a garden of remembrance laid out. Another garden of remembrance exists in the north of the cemetery, enclosed by evergreens and planted with roses.
In 1966 the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company was purchase by Lambeth Council and renamed West Norwood Cemetery, sometimes known as West Norwood Memorial Park. It is still open for burials and in 1977 the Local Authority Cemetery Order enabled older graves to be re-used. There is an active Friends of West Norwood Cemetery who produce a newsletter and organise events and tours including special themed tours during the summer, and meetings with talks during the winter. There are details of these tours and talks in our programme of events. As a result of their efforts, numerous monuments have been repaired or more substantially restored during the past decade, and an extensive programme of works directed by Lambeth Council is currently under way. The area to the east is managed for nature conservation.
Norwood Cemetery Guide; Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South (Penguin) 1999; Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons, 'London Cemeteries, An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer', 4th edition (The History Press, 2008); Country Life 6 September 1956 p476; Ian Yarham, Michael Waite, Andrew Simpson, Niall Machin, 'Nature Conservation in Lambeth', Ecology Handbook 26 (London Ecology Unit), 1994. See Friends of West Norwood Cemetery for publications and information on those buried here.