Memorandum by Southwark Regeneration (CEM
Prior to the amalgamation of Southwark Corporation,
Bermondsey Borough Council and Camberwell Borough Council, the
Southwark Corporation or Bermondsey Borough Council did not own
cemeteries. The deceased from these two authorities were interred
in either private cemeteries or cemeteries in other neighbouring
parishes. Camberwell Borough Council however were owners of two
large cemeteries, and on the whole did not encourage interments
from outside of Camberwell.
The history of the Cemeteries in the London
Borough of Southwark began in 1856, when the main burial grounds
in use in Camberwell were the parish churchyards of St Giles and
St George as well as the burial ground at Dulwich. There were
also two dissenters' burial grounds in the village of Peckham.
The wealthy tended to use privately owned cemeteries, usually
at Nunhead Cemetery or West Norwood cemetery.
The Metropolitan Interments Act, which was the
first Prohibitory Act, was passed by Parliament in 1850. This,
along with the subsequent Acts of 1852 and 1853, closed the old
London churchyards, and empowered the Metropolitan Parishes to
appoint a Burial Board. This allowed them the choice of making
use of the private cemeteries, or providing cemeteries of their
Viscount Palmerston wrote to Camberwell Vestry
in 1853 stating that it was his intention to represent to Her
Majesty in Council that interments should no longer take place
in the churchyard of St Giles in Camberwell after the 1st May
1854. He recommended that the local authorities adopt such measures
A Burial Board was appointed. At a meeting of
the Vestry on the 27th April 1854, it was resolved that "a
Parish so extensive and popular as Camberwell should have its
own cemetery and not be compelled to rely on the cemetery companies"
Chair of the Burial Board Robert Alexander Gray JP disapproved
of profit-making commercial cemeteries. He claimed that: "The
middle, artisan, and poorer classes have experienced considerable
difficulty in burying their dead, the feelings of the poor have
been disregarded, and the charges for interments are beyond their
In 1855, the Camberwell Burial Board bought
about thirty acres of freehold meadowland near Honor Oak for £9,927.00
from the Trustees of Sir Walter St John's Charity at Battersea.
And so the cemetery known as the Burial Ground of St Giles, Camberwell
(Camberwell Old Cemetery, Forest Hill Road) was established.
The first interment took place on the 3rd July
1856. By 1874 over 30,000 interments had taken place, and the
cemetery was expanded by seven acres with land bought from the
British Land Company for £4,550.00. The cemetery filled rapidly,
and soon pathways were being used as the land was used up. A new
site for a larger cemetery had to be found for future burials.
The newly formed Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell
acquired this in 1901. The central portion was bought from Alfred
Stevens, Farmer and landowner of Peckham Rye in June 1901. These
twenty-four acres cost £11,305. The western portion comprises
32 acres and adjoins One Tree Hill Park. This was bought from
the same landowner for £19,469. In November 1901 another
12 acres adjoining the Brockley footpath were bought from the
Governors of Christ's Hospital for £6,325. In total 68 acres
of land was purchased for future burials. The greater part of
the site was let on a ten year lease from 1909 to Honor Oak Golf
Club. Also, a small plot of land was let on a quarterly tenancy
to the firework maker J.Wells, for use as a pyrotechnics factory.
Part of the land was set out as a cemetery in
1926. This was consecrated by the Right Reverend William Woodcock
Hough DD, MA, Bishop of Woolwich, and the first burial took place
on the 23rd May 1927. A smaller site was set aside for use of
Free Churches, and the remaining land, not required for the time
being, was left as open space. The twin chapels in this part of
the cemetery were designed by Aston Webb.
The demand for cremations was rising, and in
1939 saw the opening of Honor Oak Crematorium by the Borough of
Camberwell. This was located next to the New Cemetery and consisted
of 10 acres of the cemetery land. By 1984 over 91,000 cremations
had taken place at Honor Oak.
At the outbreak of the second world war approximately
eight acres of unused cemetery land was set aside for allotments
and are still used to day.
In 1956 six and a half acres of unused cemetery
land was used to construct a garden nursery site for the Parks
Department, these nurseries were in constant use until 1995. The
nursery remained unused for a further three years and the buildings
were eventually demolished in 1998.
Also in 1956 it was decided by the Committee
to allow part of the cemetery site to be used for recreational
use and until such times, as it would be required by the cemetery
for burial. Hence in 1956 Camberwell New Cemetery consisted of
thirty-three acres only being used for burials, while the remaining
thirty-five acres were for other uses.
Camberwell Old Cemetery continued to be used
following the establishment of the New Cemetery and Crematorium,
as there were still spaces in the private graves. By 1984, over
300,000 interments had taken place within its thirty-eight acres.
Southwark Council took possession of the privately
owned Nunhead Cemetery when its owners, the London Cemetery Company
went into liquidation, but in reality Nunhead Cemetery was full
except for very small areas of unused or made up ground.
The 33 acres in Camberwell New Cemetery was
exhausted by 1985; it was decided to excavate all the new graves
in Camberwell Old Cemetery using the spaces between the existing
graves. This operation proved to be a minor disaster, mainly because
of ground movement and years of tree/sapling growth, the ground
was very hard for hand digging, and on occasions old coffins were
found to be laying at angles in these spaces. Also local people
did not like the idea of having interments in a cemetery that
over the years had fallen into neglect and by now did not have
a chapel. The service was held in the chapel in Camberwell New
Cemetery and following the service the cortege would proceed to
the other cemetery for the interment.
In 1991 it was decided to reclaim part of the
original land purchased for the Camberwell New Cemetery, that
was currently being used for recreational purpose. An application
was submitted to the Borough Planner, to change the use of part
of the recreation ground to cemetery use. This application was
approved on 7 November 1991 and 2,476 grave spaces have been leased
and 280 interments of foetal remains and stillbirths. At the same
time as the transfer of use from recreation ground to cemetery,
the whole of Nunhead cemetery was transferred over to the Parks
Department for management as a nature reserve sight in conjunction
with the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. There were plans originally
to try to reclaim land in Nunhead Cemetery, by removing memorials
and making up ground, this was decided against, because mainly
it would of meant the ruination of Victorian memorials and insufficient
The decision by the Council to claim back previously
used recreation ground for cemetery use was met with stiff opposition
from local residents, although it must be said, the majority of
opposition came from the residents of the London Borough of Lewisham,
who live bordering Southwark.
In 1996 the Cemeteries Department presented
to the Regeneration and Environment Committee a future burial
policy, but it was agreed by the Committee to undertake a consultation
exercise before any decision was taken. This consultation exercise
took place on the 22nd April 1996 and invites were sent out to,
local Funeral Directors, local Ministers of Religion, London Planning
Advisory Committee, National Playing Fields Association, all the
Southwark's Tenants' Associations and the three Members of Parliament
who represent Southwark's constituencies.
At this consultation exercise various options
were presented to those attending, it was decided to hold a further
consultation exercise where these options were streamlined down.
(A copy of this consultation exercise is available). It was decided
at the consultation exercise to return to the Committee with three
options. These three options were,
1. Deeper graves to accommodate four interments,
but because of the soil compound (clay) all new graves would be
excavated by leaving a space between the graves, which could be
returned to and used at a later date, after the consolidation
of the soil.
2. Previously used ground was to be made
up in Camberwell Old Cemetery, using the spoil from graves excavated
in Camberwell New Cemetery, this also resulted in a saving of
£12,000 per year, previously paid to have this surplus soil
3. A further three acres of recreation ground
should be given back to be used for cemetery use, but this ground
only to be used when the existing ground was exhausted, using
the intermediate burial scheme.
We have now reached that stage, where we have
exhausted the intermediate spaces and have now returned to those
spaces. This is proving to be a problem, because the ground has
had insufficient time to consolidate only two years and the inclement
weather; it is impossible to get the required depth of 10 feet.
Therefore all new graves because of the health and safety of the
operatives are only excavated to seven feet (two coffins). The
Cemeteries Department has been unable to move the operation onto
option three, because we are awaiting a Committee decision, following
more opposition from various groups.
Contractors maintain the Camberwell New Cemetery
on a five-year contract period. The Cemeteries Department manages
and monitors the contract. This cemetery takes on the whole, all
the new burials within Southwark. There is a mixture of full memorials
(memorials with kerb sets) and lawn type headstone only memorials.
The maintenance is of a high standard and includes the Garden
of Remembrance within the crematorium. The grave digging is carried
out by the Council's own staff.
Contractors also maintain the Camberwell Old
Cemetery, but the contract is managed and monitored by the Parks
Department. Approximately one third of the cemetery has selective
maintenance, this is to present a natural look to the cemetery
and is proving to be rather popular with visitors to the cemetery.
The other two thirds is maintained to a high standard, where partly
there has in the past been a memorial clearance scheme. This scheme
was undertaken in the 1950's and 1960's. It is still possible
to have an interment in Camberwell Old Cemetery, but because the
cemetery has limited space available, selection is not possible.
Contractors only maintain a small section of
Nunhead Cemetery, approximately four acres, Nunhead Cemetery has
a total of 52 acres. The cemetery is full, but we have managed
to find sufficient spaces for Moslem only burials. We are currently
using a small area of land previously used for un purchased graves
as a woodland burial site, following the interment. a small tree
is planted. These particular woodland graves will never be reopened.
The rest of the cemetery has been deemed a nature reserve. Selective
maintenance is carried out in conjunction with and by the Friends
of Nunhead Cemetery, an organisation given licence by Southwark
Council to undertake such tasks.
The environmental significance of cemeteries
is immense, in as much as they are havens of wildlife and on the
whole pleasant and tranquil places to visit, whether you are visiting
the final resting place of a departed loved one or just looking
for a little peace and quietness. Although all of the cemeteries
within the London Borough of Southwark have species of wildlife,
Nunhead Cemetery has by far the most interesting. Because of years
of no maintenance within certain parts of the cemetery, there
are numerous trees, birds, foxes and bats. Local people use the
cemetery for walks, while local schools use it for nature walks
and bug hunts. There is a local Health Centre that uses all three
cemeteries for walking exercise for patients who are in need of
The historical significance of cemeteries is
to be found by the numerous enquiries received daily by persons
tracing family history. There is a wealth of information stored
in the Burial and daily registers of cemeteries, beside what can
be gained by actually seeing and copying the old inscriptions
on headstones and vaults. These inquiries come from all over the
world, from Australia, New Zealand, United States of America and
Besides the genealogical researches, there is
a very important historical significance of tradition. Within
all three of the London Borough of Southwark's cemeteries there
are generations of families interred. And although the younger
members of these families discover that these old graves are full
and cannot accept another full coffin burials, some are opting
for cremation and having the cremated remains interred in these
The London Borough of Southwark is a multi-cultural
authority and provides a special area set aside from the Christian
section of the cemetery, for Moslem interments only. We also accommodate
many Caribbean funerals and although it is not unknown for people
of Caribbean and African cultural to be cremated, there certainly
seems a preference for burial. This was the case with Roman Catholic
faith, and although over the years we have seen a trend for Roman
Catholics to accept cremation, there is still the older population
of Roman Catholics who will not accept cremation. This is also
true of younger members of families who have been brought up in
the Roman Catholic faith and will not accept cremation. I remember
speaking with a visitor to the cemetery some years ago, and I
asked her why she visited the cemetery every day, her reply was.
"When her Mother died, her world fell apart, but she had
rebuilt it by visiting the cemetery every day and sitting talking
to her departed Mum, now whether that is right or wrong, it certainly
helped me, you can't do that with cremation".
The Cemeteries Department has been allocated
6.5 acres of land previously used as a garden nursery. There is
1.5 acres of ground that can be used almost immediately, following
under growth clearance. There are hard standing areas, which with
investment could be used as above ground vaults, or vaults for
the preservation of cremated remains. With the allocation of this
nursery site it is anticipated that there would be no need to
reclaim further ground used for recreational purposes. While the
nursery site is being used, ground previously used for un purchased
graves is being made up to a depth of two metres and will after
consolidation of the soil be re-used for interments. Also with
the allocation of the nursery site it is anticipated that there
will be sufficient land for burial land within Southwark for the
next 30 years.
There are certain graves within Camberwell Old
Cemetery that are over 120 years old, excavated to a depth of
over 10 feet and only accommodate one interment, it is anticipated
that the Burial Registers will be searched and these graves highlighted.
The last recorded owners will be written too and if after a stated
period the authority receives no reply, these graves could be
re-used. To enable the re-use of graves within Nunhead Cemetery
there would have to be an act of Parliament, because the original
burial rights to certain graves have been withdrawn.
The previous interments will not be disturbed
and for decency sake, a covering of at least nine inches of soil
would separate the new interments from the previous. I have been
given to understand that this scheme has worked very efficiently
in some authorities. Perhaps authorities have now reached a juncture
in time, where two or three authorities share burial grounds,
not necessarily within their Council's boundaries, but large sites
outside of the towns and cities.
The funding of most local authority cemeteries
is by way of allocation of funds from the revenue of community
tax levied by the authority. In the past it was not necessary
for these cemeteries to make a surplus of income. But since the
reducing of funds to local Authorities in the past by central
Government, it has become necessary for certain authorities to
finance the cemeteries by other means, this has meant a steady
yearly increase of fees and charges. And as these financial restrictions
are applied almost every year, so the fees and charges rise. It
seems to be an eternal spiral, upwards. The bereaved who, when
making enquiries concerning the purchase of the burial rights
and the excavation fees, are being told almost a thousand pounds,
look visibly shocked. Because they know this is only the beginning,
there is also the Funeral Director to pay and following the funeral,
a headstone to purchase.
In the past cemeteries that were privately owned
continued each year to make profits for the shareholders, while
the local authority run cemeteries were constantly being baled
out financially by the authority, now this seems to be changing,
local authority cemeteries are making surplus to their budgets.
But maybe, there are certain ethics here, should municipal cemeteries
be allowed to make a profit? I think yes, surely there is nothing
wrong in making a profit, so long as that profit is used for the
improvement of the service and cemetery, or used elsewhere within
the community for the improvement of the authority as a whole.
When the large Victorian cemeteries become full
and there is no more room for interments. They then become a liability
to the authority, in as much as there is no more income, and if
there is, it is very small only income sometimes is from the reopening
of existing family graves, but the maintenance costs of these
cemeteries can be enormous. When these cemeteries become full
the economic viability becomes a burden on the authority, this
is where National Lottery money could be used as funding for selective
maintenance and turn these old Victorian Cemeteries into places
of interest and tranquillity for the local people within the inner
cities. Instead of left to become places of rotting vegetation,
dangerous memorials and havens for dumping of all manner of rubbish.
Local Authorities cannot out of their already stretched resources
upkeep these full and decaying cemeteries.
Over the centuries the disposal of the dead
was undertaken by the Church, up until the mid 1800's, with the
population explosion within the large Cities, the Churchyards
became full to capacity. Special provision then had to be made
by Parliament to provide additional facilities for the disposal
of the dead. We now have the scenario of history repeating it
self. Instead of Churchyards bursting at the seams, we now have
massive municipal cemeteries full to capacity and local authorities
and district councils doing they're up most to provide land within
their authority, but it is inevitable that some authorities will
exhaust their land very quickly. Some have already run out of
maiden ground for interments.
OF BURIAL GROUND
The existing graves made deeper and reused.
Local authorities to consider sharing cemeteries. Maybe we have
reached the time where cemeteries within the large cities are
managed not by various authorities, but by one governing body.
This governing body could have control of all the cemeteries and
all of the resources. Through experience I can really only comment
on London, but unless decision are taken pretty quickly, there
are going to be plenty of London Authorities frantically searching
for more burial spaces.
Superintendent and Registrar