In the early 19th century, the growth of towns and cities due to the Industrial Revolution meant that traditional places of burial, such as church-yards and dissenters' burial grounds, could not cope. In London, the first of the large commercial, inter-denominational cemeteries, the General Cemetert of All Souls at Kensal Green, was opened in 1833. This was followed by the South Metropolitan Cemetery at what was then called Lower Norwood, opened in 1837. It was designed by Sir William Tite, in a Gothic style.
The cemetery was laid out by tite in an informal manner, with curving roadways and deciduous trees, following English landscaping tradition. He designed the Episcopal Anglican and Dissenters' nonconformist Chapels, the lodge, the gates, and the high wall and railings. Both chapels had catacombs beneath, which together could accommodate some 3,500 coffins. The cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester on 7 December 1837, except for an area around the Dissenters' Chapel which was allocated for nonconformists. Provision was made not only for privately-purchased family graves and vaults, but also for paupers' burials in common graves.
The first burial took place in five days afer the consecration. It was of Harriet Raincock, daughter of a stockbroker who had brought a family plot for £3 3s. Sadly, the tombstone with its inscriptions of many members of her famiy, including her sister Sophia, an artist, who died in 1890, no longer survives. The numbers of burials each year rose gradually, and the South Metropolitan soon became the most fashionable cemetery in south London - known as 'Millionaires' Cemetery' from the quality of its mausolea and other elaborate monuments. In 1842 a small enclave was purchased by London's Greek Community. This was subsequently enlarged by further purchases, and a chapel was built some time after 1872. this Greek section now contains an outstanding collection of superb monuments (18 are listed).
By the early 20th century, the cemetery was becoming largely filled with graves, and even some of the original roadways were used for burials. In 1915 a crematorium and columbarium were installed beside the Dissenters' Chapel. Sadly, both chapels were damaged during World War II, and a number of monuments were destroyed or damaged. The cememtery lodge, only just rebuilt in the 1930s, was destroyed by a flying bomb in 1944. The Dissenters' Chapel was demolished in 1955, and replaced by the present chapel incorporating the crematorium, to serve all denominations. The Episcopal Chapel was demolished in 1960 and replaced by a rose garden. The catacombs, however, still survive: those beneath the crematorium house the furnaces, but those beneath the rose garden remain complete with coffins and unique hydraulic coffin lift, and are now listed Grade II, although sadly closed to public access.
In 1965 the cemetery was compulsorily purchased for £6,000 by Lambeth Council, using Public Health Act powers. A condition of the deed of transfer was that the rights of existing grave owners were to be maintained, and the Act of Parliament establishing the cemetery and governing its operations was never repealed. The importance of the cememtery and the quality of its monuments were emphasised in 1978 when it was included within a conservation area, and in 1981 when the entrance arch, gates, walls and railings and 44 monuments were listed (seven Grade II*, the rest Grade II - a further 21 monuments have since been listed.)
Despite this apparent protection in law, the cemetery was subjected over a couple of decades by Lambeth Council to a programmer of 'lawn conversion'. During this period, well over 10,000 monuments were removed, ignoring rights of grave owners and keeping no proper records of the position of graves. Moreover, nearly 1,000 private graves were re-sold for new burials. The destruction was eventually stopped in 1991 (by which time two listed monuments had disappeared and several others had been badly damaged), by the Diocese of Southwark exerting their jurisdiction over the cememtery, 80% of which is consecrated ground. Their Consistory Court in 1994 judged the 'lawn conversion' and re-sale of private graves to have been illegal. The power of management of the cemetery was delegated to a Scheme of Management Committee composed of representatives from both the Diocese and Lambeth Council. As ordered in the judgement, the Council have restored/repaired the disappeared/damaged listed monuments survey has been carried out. In the past few years, a concerted effort by the Council, English Heritage and the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery has resulted in the restoration/repair of numerous monuments, as well as parts of the wall and railings.
The Greek Chapel
St. Stephen's (or the Ralli) Mortuary Chapel is listed grade II*. A massive and chastely correct Greek Doric temple, it was reputedly built in memory of Augustus Ralli, a prominent member of the Greek merchant community in London. Built of Monk's Park Bath stone, it sports a peripteral hexastyle portico at each end, with side wings containing vaults. The inner row of columns is set in antis. The portico has a coffered ceiling. Along the abacus is the inscription (in Greek): 'the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised' (I Corinthians xv, 52.)
The tympanum of the main pediment contains very unusual and notable sculptures depicting the Sounding of the Last Trumpet and the Resurrection of the Dead; the central angels are executed in terra cotta, while the awakened shrouded dead, emerging from their coffins, are in white marble. Iconographically, it is a very unusual sculptural group, more 17th century Baroque than High Victorian. The sculptor was clearly influenced by Caius Gabriel Cibber's sculptures of Melancholy and Raving Madness, carved in c.1676 for the Bethlehem (or Bedlam) Hospital.
There are fifteen sculped metopes along the northern end of the entablature, three per side and nine along the principal front. The are realised in white marble.
John Oldrid Scott has been accredited with the design of the chapel. Scott designed the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia in Moscow Road, Bayswater (described in the RIBA drawings catalogue as his masterpiece) in 1877, in a Byzantine style, but no mention is made of the West Norwood mortuary chapel in the lenghy list of works attached to his obituary in The Builder. We do not belive that Scott did design this chapel: his ledger books, held by the RIBA, would not have omitted a work of this scale. the extreme precision, and utter reliance upon classical models, of this temple mean that anyone might have been responsible for its design; this is a building without such personal style as to make an attribution possible.
The classical sources of the building may be summarised briefly. The order seems to be derived from the Theseon, or Temple of Hephaestus, in Athens (449-444 BC) which is a hexastyle peripteral structure, whereas this chapel is an amphi-tetra prostyle temple. The Theseon has figural metopes but no pedimental sculpture; the source for that may be the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (470-456 BC).
The chapel (dedicated to St Stephen) dates from after July 1872. In that month, the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company sold the land upon which the chapel stands to Stephen Ralli of 25 Finsbury Circus in perpetuity; the attached schedule of burial fees payable to the cemetery company includes the clause 'in any catacomb or in the mortuary chapel: (if erected) adult £5/5/- child £3/10/.' No mention of its construction is to be found in the District Surveyor's Returns or Building Act applications for the next ten years after 1872, but the chapel is illustrated on the plan of the cemetery issued by the mason William Piper which predates 1889.
It was restored in 1974 in memory of Eugenia, wife of John D Pateras. The etched glass south window was executed by Harold Warren Wilson in 1952.
The grade II listed catacombs are situated below the site of the former Anglican chapel, now occupied by a rose garden of remembrance. Little is visible externally of these catacombs save a curving flight of steps and six semi-circular light shaft openings. Inside, though, is much of great interest.
The catacombs consist of a central axis with six long corridors leading off it, three per side. Each corridor is lined on each side with recessed bays: many of these contain shelves upon which coffins are placed and are screened off from the corridor by fine Gothic metal doors (some are empty, though, with no shelviing or doors). The corridors are constructed throughout of pale brick and have vaulted ceilings, and at the end of each is a light shaft. Circular light openings set in the ceilings of the outer corridors have been blocked. The floor was originally paved with stone slabs but much has been taken up, revealing bare earth.
On descending the steps into the catacombs, one passes through the entrance (which has been extensively altered, although the original wooden doors survive stacked inside) into the central axial hall. The walls are rendered, and lined out in imitation ashlar work. Set into shallow arched niches are private vaults which externally resemble 15th century chantry chapels. These are fronted by cast iron doors which incorporate Tudor badges into their traceried form. Behind these doors the ranks of coffins are plain to see.
The most prominent feature encountered is the hydraulic catafalque situated in the centre of the hall. A plaque attached to one of the upright rails, up which the wheels of the coffin rank ran, reveals that the apparatus was manufactured by Messrs. Bramah and Robinson in 1839. The hand-operated pump is all in place, if somewhat corroded. The only other surviving catafalque machinery comparable with Norwood's is at Kensal Green, in the catacombs of the Anglican Chapel; their hydraulic lift was made by Smith of London in 1837 and has been fully restored. Eminent people interred in the catacombs include Lord Hannen (1821-1862), chemist, who ran an agricultural college at Kennington, and was the father of the children's story writer Edith Nesbit, and Vice-Admiral William Richardson (1785-1864) who had been a young midshipman in the 'Glorious First of June' sea battle in 1794.
Norwood's catacombs rank amongst the earliest, largest and best-preserved catacombs in the country.