Built over a period of 10 years in the mid-19th century, the Magnificent Seven cemeteries are a group of seven large private cemeteries in London, England. Before their inception, those who died in London were almost always buried in small churchyards. This practice eventually became impossible, as London’s population grew exponentially in the 18th and 19th centuries, overcrowding the city and its graveyards. In the first half of the 19th century especially, the population of London more than doubled from roughly 1 million to 2.3 million residents.
Overcrowded graveyards began to impact the quality of life of Londoners, as decaying matter began to leach into the city’s water supply and cause epidemics. Bodies were being buried shoulder to shoulder, or, in some cases, on top of each other– it was becoming clear something had to be done. Inspired by the opening of the Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery in 1815, British officials felt it was time to devote time and resources into building an equivalent in London. In 1832, British Parliament finally passed a bill encouraging the establishment of private cemeteries outside of London. Over the following 10 years, the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries were built.
The Magnificent Seven Cemeteries
Victorian Garden Cemeteries
When the decision had been made to begin burying London’s dead outside of the city limits, the trend towards rural and suburban burial grounds was fully embraced. As the building of the Magnificent Seven was a government-funded initiative, these cemeteries were also independent of parish churches. Using the Père Lachaise cemetery as a model, the chosen designers (who had designed cemeteries based mainly on functionality in the past) incorporated much more elaborate features into the landscape of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries. The incorporation of paths for carriages, as well as foot paths for visitors, were important design features of these cemeteries. There was also a focus upon carefully planned and planted foliage as accents to the architecture of the cemetery: a trend which became perhaps the most defining feature of these cemeteries. The Magnificent Seven are known for their sweeping paths, lush greenery, and intricate monuments to the dead.
Kensal Green Cemetery
Kensal Green was the first of the Magnificent Seven to be built, with ground first broken in 1832. With more mausoleums than any other cemetery in the United Kingdom, this member of the Magnificent Seven sprawls over 75 acres! In addition to the numerous dead buried there (including over 500 members of British aristocracy), Kensal Green is also home to countless mature trees, rare plants, and species of birds. As a result, the cemetery is a treated by the city as a natural reserve!
West Norwood Cemetery
West Norwood, established in 1836, is nestled in South-East London. This member of the Magnificent Seven has unfortunately been the victim of much neglect and vandalism over the years. Though in recent years, there has been a great initiative to restore and preserve this sprawling 40 acre graveyard.
Situated in North London, Highgate was first built in 1839 on a plot of 37 acres. Similarly to Kensal Green, Highgate boasts its status as a nature reserve. In addition to its numerous species of flora and fauna, Highgate is home to over 170,000 dead in around 53,000 graves, earning its unofficial title as the “spookiest” of the Magnificent Seven! Highgate is also famous for being the final resting place of the father of communism, Karl Marx (1818-1883).
Abney Park Cemetery
Abney Park was one of the only two cemeteries in London for religious non-conformists such as Methodists, Baptists, Wesleyans, and so on. First built in 1840, this member of the Magnificent Seven is definitely one of the less showy of the group. The entrance to the cemetery remains in keeping with the elaborate style of the Victorian era, however. Built in the then very popular “Egyptian Revival” style, Abney Park’s entrance is engraved with hieroglyphics signifying the “Abode of the Mortal Part of Man”.
Opened in 1840, Nunhead is the least known of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries. Stretching over 52 acres, Nunhead is the second largest member of this list. The cemetery was almost completely filled by the mid 20th century, and was thus abandoned by the cemetery company that had been running it. The cemetery began to evolve into an untamed woodland from general neglect over the years. In the 1980s, with the establishment of the group, Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, it has been slowly restored and continues to be protected!
Managed by the Royal Parks, Brompton Cemetery is definitely one of the more well-maintained members of the Magnificent Seven. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Brompton is situated in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Consecrated by Charles Blomfield, the Bishop of London, in 1840, Brompton is one of Britain’s oldest and most distinguished garden cemeteries!
Tower Hamlets Cemetery
Located in the East End of London, Tower Hamlets opened in 1841 and has been closed for burials since 1966. By 1889 alone, there had already been 247,000 interred in the cemetery. Like a few other members of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries, Tower Hamlets is an officially designated Local Nature Reserve, and is now maintained by an official group with the explicit purpose of maintaining and protecting the cemetery and its biodiversity.
Find cemeteries fascinating and want to know more about the history of death in London? Necropolis: London and It’s Dead by Catharine Arnold is an intriguing narrative of the history of death, dying and burial in London. From Roman outposts to Garden cemeteries, she covers it all.