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Nunhead Cemetery, originally called All Saints' Cemetery was the second cemetery opened by the London Cemetery Company, which had been established in 1836 and opened Highgate Cemetery (q.v.) in 1839. Its grounds were laid out on Nunhead Hill by James Bunstone Bunning who also designed the gates and lodges c.1840; he was later appointed architect to the City of London. From the entrance gates on the north-west boundary the main drive leads to the Decorated Gothic Anglican Chapel, built in 1844 to designs by Thomas Little, who designed Paddington Cemetery (q.v.). Little also designed a Nonconformist chapel on the west of the cemetery, but this was demolished in the 1960s. The Catacombs, now sealed, are to the north-east of the entrance drive. Bunning was influenced by J C Loudon in his layout of the cemetery, which had a linked scheme of gently curving paths and much planting, allowing considerable variety of scene within the cemetery. On hilly ground with fine views over London from the upper slopes, the new cemetery was entirely surrounded by fields and market gardens. Some of the trees from the original planting survive such as holm oak, lime, plane, yew, ginkgo and swamp cypress. Most of the site was consecrated on 29 July 1840 by the Bishop of Winchester, with the north-west corner reserved for dissenters. The area is called Nunhead after the Old Nun's Head Tavern, beneath which are reputedly the foundations of a convent established after the execution at Tyburn of Elizabeth Barton, the 'Holy Maid of Kent'. She was condemned to death in 1534 for criticising the Henry VIII and was buried at Greyfriars graveyard in the City of London.
Although burial here became fashionable among the wealthy of the surrounding area, the cemetery began to decline somewhat after 1865 when it was discovered that the late first superintendent, Edward Buxton, had defrauded the company of £18,000, although he was then buried here. The building of the new Crystal Palace railway also caused problems of access to Nunhead Cemetery until a new entrance was built in 1870. The 1870s saw much attention paid to the cemetery's grounds and greenhouses were built to supply plants. In the early years of the C20th its income gradually dropped as a result of economic recession, high maintenance costs, and also lessening demand for burials due to greater longevity of the population. Despite this, a new south entrance was built and plans were made in 1911 for building a crematorium, although this was unrealised. As the C20th progressed the cemetery was increasingly neglected; it suffered bomb damage in WWII and the railings were removed at that time for scrap metal, leaving the cemetery open to vandalism.
In 1960 United Cemeteries Ltd purchased the cemetery and had plans to build on part of it, but local protest led to this proposal being rejected. Over the next 10 years the cemetery was unmaintained and deteriorated rapidly. It was eventually closed in 1969 by which time it was losing £5,000 a year despite being only two-thirds full. The nonconformist chapel had been demolished, other buildings were in ruins, the catacombs had been raided for lead and jewellery, and a number of fine monuments stolen. The once carefully kept grounds had become densely overgrown and it suffered vandalism throughout, with the Anglican chapel set on fire in the early 1970s.
In 1975/6 LB Southwark purchased the site for £1 by special Act of Parliament with the intention of retaining c.8 hectares as a cemetery and developing the remainder as public open space, part a nature reserve. In 1981 the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery was founded and in 1986 were granted licence by LB Southwark to undertake restoration works at the north end of the cemetery. A successful HLF bid submitted by LB Southwark and the Friends to restore the cemetery led to the award of a grant of £1.2m in 1998. As a result the cemetery has undergone extensive renovation with the ruined chapel, together with some 50 memorials, restored, the landscape cleared and new paths laid. Nunhead Cemetery re-opened in May 2001, with part of the cemetery now maintained as a nature reserve. The cemetery is almost full and burials are generally only carried out in family plots.
Among the monuments is the Martyrs' Memorial, an obelisk erected in 1851 to commemorate the five Scottish nationalists who campaigned for Parliamentary Reform and were transported to Australia in 1793. Many notable people are buried at Nunhead including Sir George Livesey (d.1908), local philanthropist who provided Camberwell with its first free library; water-colourist John Arthur Poulter, born in Deptford, who painted in the local area; and Thomas Tilling whose omnibus firm was set up in Peckham in 1851, running from Rye Lane to Oxford Circus. Among the fine listed monuments are those of Henry Daniel (d.1867); John Allan (d.1865); Maria Proom (d.1872); Oppenheim & Shroeter monument of 1849; Sophia Kempton (d.1849); Thomas Humphreys (d.1868); Vincent Figgins (d.1844); and the Stearns Mausoleum of c.1900.
EH Register: Country Life, 17 July 1975, p146-148; J S Curl, 'A Celebration of Death', 1980 p227-238; J S Curl, 'Nunhead Cemetery, London' in Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society N.S. 22, 1977, p28-29; Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons, 'London Cemeteries, An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer', 4th edition (The History Press, 2008); Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South (Penguin) 1999; Peter de Loriol, 'Not a grave post-mortem' in Southwest Magazine, issue 105, March 1998; John Archer, Bob Britton, Robert Burley, Tony Hare, Ian Yarham, 'Nature Conservation in Southwark' Ecology Handbook 12, London Ecology Unit, 1989; John Beasley, 'Southwark Remembered', Tempus Publishing 2001; Southwark Listed Buildings data