Dead but not forgotten: exploring the great London cemeteries

The dead live in London. Their names are immortalised on road signs, blue plaques and etched brass plates on landmark monuments. But what about the actual final resting places of great, departed Londoners? Most are overlooked, once you get beyond the top tier of celebrity Londoners buried at St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, mouldering unmourned in forgotten London cemeteries.

How many people know, for example, that Keith Moon and Mark Bolan passed from the physical world at Golders Green Crematorium, or that Howard Carter, who discovered and defiled the tomb of Tutankhamen, sleeps with the pharoahs at the municipal cemetery in Putney Vale, close to Carry On-actress Hattie Jacques and Doctor Who-actor John Pertwee?

Here’s my pick of the best London cemeteries to visit to see how the dead live in England’s eccentric capital.

Victorian catacombs at Highgate Cemetery
Theatrical Victorian tombs at Highgate Cemetery © Pablo Trinacado /CC by-2.0

Highgate Cemetery, Highgate

Every creative Londoner wants to be buried in Highgate Cemetery. Passing the centuries in London’s most famous burial ground is almost as desirable as having a residence in nearby Hampstead while alive. Those interred here can enjoy the spectral company of such London icons as George Michael, Sex Pistols-manager Malcolm McLaren, and founder of socialism Karl Marx.

Predictably, it is Karl Marx’s tomb that receives the most visitors, attracting a flood of left-leaning pilgrims and the occasional right-wing vandal. In contrast to Marx’s looming, bust-topped memorial, a small, easily-missed gravestone marks the spot where Douglas Adams, creater of such iconic characters as Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin the Paranoid Android, snoozes through the centuries.

The most striking part of the cemetery – the Victorian West Cemetery with its deliciously theatrical family catacombs – is only accessible on a guided tour, but it’s worth booking to explore such extraordinary pieces of architecture as the Egyptian Avenue, the Circle of Lebanon and the extravagant Tomb of Julius Beer.

The Hardy Tree at St Pancras Old Church
The enigmatic Hardy Tree © Andrea Vail/CC by-ND 2.0

St Pancras Old Church, St Pancras

Not to be confused with St Pancras New Church near Euston Station, the graveyard at this handsome Victorian church has a pedigree to die for. St Pancras Old Church is said to be one of the oldest places of Christian worship in the UK, thanks to possibly spurious tales about a Roman camp on the site founded by Julius Caesar.

What is known with rather more certainty is that St Pancras Old Church is the last resting place of the transgender French spy Chevalier d’Éon (1728–1810), Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son William Franklin (1730–1813) and Bank of England architect Sir John Soane (1753–1837).

Mary Wollstonecraft also did a brief stint here, before her grave was relocated to Bournemouth. Her daughter, Frankenstein-author Mary Shelley, planned her elopement with the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, beside the grave in 1814, and Charles Dickens picked the cemetery as a hunting ground for body-snatchers in A Tale of Two Cities.

Today, the cemetery is probably most famous as the setting for the Hardy Tree, a curious ornamental arrangement of gravestones around an ancient ash tree, assembled by the writer Thomas Hardy when he was working for the company charged with clearing part of the cemetery for the railway line to St Pancras. With stones now melded into its roots, it looks creepily arcane, like a prop from Pan’s Labyrinth.

Memorial ribbons at Crossbones, one of the least known London cemeteries
Memorials to the forgotten women buried at Crossbones © Loz Pycock/CC by-SA 2.0

Crossbones, Southwark

Not all London cemeteries have celebrity residents. A short stroll south from foodie-mobbed Borough Market, the Crossbones is one of the most moving London cemeteries, established in the 16th century as a graveyard for paupers and ‘single women’ – at that time a euphemism for prostitutes and the promiscuous.

Most of the 15,000 people buried here are children and young women, many abandoned to penury after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. A significant number of the graves belong to the Winchester Geese, prostitutes licensed and taxed by the Bishop of Southwark under a legal loophole that placed the south bank outside the laws of the City of London.

Despite swelling the church’s coffers – and no doubt servicing members of the clergy – these unfortunate women were buried in unmarked graves in unconsecrated ground far from the parish church. Rediscovered during works for the Jubilee Line in the 1990s, the cemetery is today a humbling memorial, with hundreds of ribbons tied to its gates in tribute to the ‘outcast dead’.

A squirrel on a tomb at Bunhill Fields
A nonconformist squirrel at Bunhill Fields © Dun.can/CC by-2.0

Bunhill Fields, City Road

Being a nonconformist used to mean more than wearing tight black jeans and a My Chemical Romance T-shirt. Bunhill Fields, edging into the City from the London Borough of Islington, is the final resting place of a roll call of religious rebels and political freethinkers who rejected the orthodoxy of the Church of England.

Like most London cemeteries, Bunhill has no shortage of famous names. Amongst the luminaries buried in this sprawl of moss-dusted tombstones are John Bunyan (1628–1688), author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, poet and mystic William Blake (1757–1827), Robinson Crusoe-author Daniel Defoe (1660–1732), and ‘mother of Methodism’ Susanna Wesley (1669–1742), whose son John Wesley preached reformist sermons across the road at Wesley’s Chapel.

If you duck into the chapel compound, you can use one of the last unaltered Victorian gentlemen’s toilets in London, complete with red marble sinks and original Thomas Crapper ‘valveless waste preventers’. Next door to the chapel is the Wesley’s House Museum, preserved much as the minister left it in 1791.

Hyde Park pet cemetery, one of the most unusual London cemeteries
Memorials to Victorian pooches at Hyde Park Pet Cemetery © Pedro Cambra/CC by-2.0

Hyde Park’s Pet Cemetery, Hyde Park

Fido. Chips. Wobbles. Spot. Okay, the dead interred in the small cluster of graves tucked into a quiet corner of Hyde Park near Bayswater Road may not be as famous as Dickens or Pepys, but this curious Victorian burial ground is a fascinating window onto a time when Londoners fetishised the dead.

In an age of seances and ornamental taxidermy, even humble house-pets were given full burial rites and stone-etched epitaphs by weeping owners in widows weeds. Visit on a Royal Parks tour, or peer through the fence on Bayswater Road, and you’ll spot tributes to a string of ‘faithful friends’ and ‘small dogs with big hearts’.

Fortunately, Hyde Park Pet Cemetery was not built on the site of an old Indian burial ground, so the chances of undead pooches returning to wreak havoc on the living are remote, but there’s a definite strangeness in the air as you stand in front of these tiny graves. Keep an eye out for the plain, undated gravestone marked simply with the name ‘Scum’.

Find It

Recent Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *