Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery, the South Metropolitan (West Norwood) Cemetery Scheme of Management Committee, the South Metropolitan (West Norwood) Cemetery Management Advisory Group; and the London Borough of Lambeth (CEM 53)



  1.  The Council owns three cemeteries, the South Metropolitan Cemetery at West Norwood in Lambeth, and Lambeth Cemetery and Streatham Cemetery, both of which are situated at Tooting within the London Borough of Wandsworth. It also owns two crematoria, one of which is situated within the cemetery at West Norwood. The resident population of the Borough is 272,500 (1999 mid-year estimate). Ethnic minorities make up some 34 per cent of the Borough's population, a substantial proportion of whom favour earth burial. In 1999 the Council undertook 639 interments (including 7 stillborn infants and 81 cremated remains) and 1470 cremations. There is also a privately-owned cemetery and crematorium and a Jewish burial ground within the Borough (Streatham Vale). Interments have also taken place in churchyards in the Borough, but all are now closed to new burials.

  2.  The Friends of West Norwood Cemetery were formed in 1989 to attempt to preserve what remained of the cemetery and to promote knowledge and appreciation of its historical, cultural, and environmental significance. The South Metropolitan (West Norwood) Cemetery Scheme of Management Committee and Management Advisory Group were constituted in 1997.

  3.  Lambeth and Streatham Cemeteries were established by Parish burial boards from 1853. Portions of the grounds of both cemeteries are consecrated. Whilst serving the burial and commemorative needs of the Borough for the last 150 years they have attracted limited attention on environmental, historical, or cultural grounds. Both cemeteries were subjected to extensive "lawn conversion" from 1969-91 and many thousands of monuments were removed. No new graves are available in Streatham Cemetery. There is some limited grave space available at Lambeth Cemetery for new burials.

  4.  The South Metropolitan Cemetery at what was then Lower Norwood was established by statute in1836 (opened 1837) and was the first cemetery in the UK to be designed in the Gothic style. It is also thought to be the first cemetery in the UK to have been designed in toto by one person, the architect (Sir) William Tite (see Annex 1 and attachments for a brief history of the cemetery). It is a site of international importance. The Council purchased the cemetery compulsorily in 1965, the principal enabling power being the Public Health (Interments) Act, 1879. The Council's management of the site until 1994 has been the subject of much critical consideration. We feel that some of the issues encountered at West Norwood reflect national problems hence this memorandum.

Issues Encountered at West Norwood

  5.  The Council purchased the cemetery with no clear aim in view, other than that of continuing to operate it as a working cemetery. In the early 1970s there was some consultation with the Victorian Society that resulted in a proposal to create "West Norwood Memorial Park". Large numbers of memorials were to be demolished, and "significant" memorials were to be retained, but there was no definition of "significant". The extent of consultation within the Victorian Society at the time is unclear, and the Society now regrets the advice given. In the event the cemetery managers approached the work piecemeal. This situation continued until the formation of the Scheme of Management Committee in 1997 and only in this last year has the Committee commissioned a detailed Land Management Survey for consideration and development by all interested parties. It is hoped that this survey will form the basis for the conservation, development, and enhancement of what remains of this historic site over the next 20 years or so.


    (i)  There should be a requirement for a business or development plan or conservation (including nature conservation) strategy for cemeteries, either alone or as part of a group of related sites;

    (ii)  There should be a mechanism whereby local groups and concerned individuals as well as National bodies might have input into the plan or strategy; and

    (iii)  A proper, detailed survey of the existing state of the cemetery should be considered an important initial step in the planning process.

  6.  The South Metropolitan Cemetery was established by statute. The Council inherited all the responsibilities of the Cemetery Company as a result of the purchase of the site, although this was not accepted until the 1994 Consistory Court judgment delivered by the late Chancellor Gray. As is made clear in the judgment, the Council decided in 1980 to review its lawn conversion policy following substantial protests, including complaints to MPs and the Local Government Ombudsman. Unfortunately, the persons then responsible for management of the Council's cemeteries carried on clearance work in the cemetery notwithstanding. This culminated in substantial clearance operations on consecrated portions of the Cemetery in 1991 that led to further serious public concern. In retrospect, it is clear that the officers involved in these decisions were purporting to rely on various pieces of cemetery legislation, reliance that was entirely misplaced. In addition, statutory requirements inherent in these self-same pieces of legislation were not followed. The consequences of these illegal actions are far reaching at Norwood.


    (i)  Some attempt should be made to simplify and consolidate the law as it presently applies to cemetery operation;

    (ii)  Enquiry might usefully be made of burial authorities as to their implementation of certain provisions especially as regards "lawn conversion" and the requirements to keep records of monuments removed and to place markers on graves when a monument has been removed;

    (iii)  A mechanism whereby clear and consistent central guidance on the implementation of existing recommendations on cemetery policy and operation within the law should be established; and

    (iv)  An avenue whereby concerned local groups or individuals may appeal to a central authority for help and guidance in the event that they feel illegal operations may be continuing in a given cemetery should be made available.

  7.  At Norwood it might have been thought that statutory listing in 1981 of 44 (7 grade II*) memorials and inclusion of the whole cemetery within the West Norwood Conservation Area should have provided some protection to the surviving historic monuments. That it did not is because the Council's cemetery managers did not apply for listed building or conservation area consent for operations within the cemetery, the group within the Council responsible for enforcement of listed building and conservation area legislation failed to act, English Heritage failed to take enforcement action even though this option was clearly available to them, and the Department of National Heritage also failed to act, one consideration being that individually the monuments were too small to be protected by conservation area legislation. In the event the Archdeacon of Lambeth was able to intervene because some 80 per cent of the cemetery is consecrated ground and no Faculty to permit operation on such ground had been obtained.


    (i)  A mechanism is needed whereby conservation area and listed building legislation can be enforced when a Council or other agency responsible for enforcement of the legislation is itself the owner of the property being altered or demolished without consent and/or the initiator of the works;

    (ii)  Advice should be made available to concerned groups and individuals as to the appropriate course of action to be followed to prevent wilful destruction or damage occurring in breach of conservation area and related legislation when the statutory bodies charged with enforcement of the legislation fail to act;

    (iii)  For cemeteries within conservation areas the minimum volume requirement before individual monuments gain protection should be abolished;

    (iv)  Specific guidance should be provided by Government in DCMS/DETR PPG 15 as to the importance of conserving and maintaining cemeteries of significant historic, architectural, landscape, and/or nature conservation value;

    (v)  The implications of Chancellor Gray's Consistory Court judgment as to surrounding historic monuments being within the curtilage of listed tombstones might usefully be explored in other cemeteries [at Norwood with 64 listed tombs from 1993, the curtilage was defined as the boundary wall/railings of the cemetery]; and

    (vi)  Cemetery owners should be reminded of the requirement to obtain a Faculty to permit any operations on consecrated ground.


  8.  In 1994 the Consistory Court ordered the restoration of the listed monuments that had disappeared and the repair of those damaged since 1989. The Council has reinstated the tombs of Sir William Cubitt (d. 1861) and John Garrett (d. 1881). Repairs to the other listed monuments cited in the judgment, including those of JW Gilbart (d. 1863) and the Revd. William Morley Punshon (d. 1881), have also been completed. Other listed monuments repaired with funds from various sources include those of Anne Farrow (d. 1854), Sir Henry Tate (d. 1899), Sir Henry Doulton (d. 1897), and Baron Julius de Reuter (d. 1899). A number of other important monuments have also been restored. However, there is still a vast backlog of work required to surviving monuments not only to preserve them for future generations, but also to ensure a safe environment for present-day cemetery visitors. It is acknowledged by all parties that the fabric of the cemetery (as well as, to a lesser extent, the cemetery's documentary records) had deteriorated considerably by 1966 when the Council acquired it. A further highly relevant consideration is the pressure on Council funds from many sources.

  9.  The iron gates and railings at the Cemetery entrance have been renovated by the Council and painted light brown ("spice") to conform to their original colouring. The rest of the railings on Robson Road are to be painted in the same colour, whilst the railings near to Auckland Hill are to be painted a shade of green. Reconstruction of the wall in the SE corner of the Cemetery was completed in 1999 and repairs to the northern boundary wall are in progress. Major areas of continuing concern are (i) the continued deterioration of the Grade II listed Catacombs and their associated coffins beneath the site of the former Episcopal mortuary chapel, and (ii)) the extensive invasion of scrub into parts of the cemetery containing the greatest concentration of historic memorials and the consequent damage to memorials this causes.

  10.    Although re-sale of unused burial space in private graves for new interments was not envisaged when the "lawn conversion" was started at Norwood, statutory instruments (1974 and 1977 Local Authorities Cemeteries Orders) allowed this to be done in certain cases where there had been no burial for 100 (later 75) years. At Norwood the Council started to resell unused space in private graves under the mistaken belief that this was authorised under these orders. However, resale of private graves was deemed illegal at Norwood by the 1994 Consistory Court judgment, which the Council did not appeal. Most recently the Council have sought to rely on the provisions of Section 9 of the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1976 to regularise, insofar as is legally possible, the former resale of unused grave space. This issue was the subject of a further Consistory Court hearing in April 2000 and is likely to be considered further by the Court in the early part of 2001. Some 1,000 graves are affected, a recent independent survey having shown that the Council failed to keep proper records of even the graves it had resold, or indeed keep to the provisions of the 1976 Act in all cases (graves in which the latest previous interment was as recent as 1945 appear to have been resold—the 1976 Act specifies a minimum of 75 years since the grave was last opened before remaining space could be resold, and no marker stones were placed on graves from which the original monuments were removed, and no records were kept of such monuments).


    (i)  Some attempt should be made to simplify and consolidate the law as it presently applies to resale of unused burial space in private graves in certain cemeteries;

    (ii)  Enquiry might usefully be made of burial authorities as to their implementation of provisions in the 1974 and 1977 Local Authority Cemeteries Orders and the GLC (General Powers) Act 1976 as regards resale of unused burial space in private graves and the requirements to keep records of monuments removed and to place markers on graves when a monument has been removed; and

    (iii)  Clear distinction should be drawn between resale of unused burial space in private graves, which does not involve disturbance of human remains, and proposals to reuse existing graves that would involve excavation and reburial of those remains already buried in the grave, and would require legislation allowing the disturbance of human remains.

  11.  At Norwood, some 164,000 interments have taken place in some 42,000 individual graves and there have been some 34,000 cremations. At one time it was claimed that there were 14,000 private graves that had not been opened for 100 years. However, it seems that many of the cemetery records may be incomplete. In addition, since no proper records of the position of the graves were kept when many of the headstones were swept away, it is not possible to locate existing graves in "converted" areas of the cemetery with any accuracy even if the Council wished to resell unused grave space in them.


  Enquiry might usefully be made of burial authorities as to the nature and accuracy of records kept in cemeteries from which monuments have been removed either in the course of "lawn conversion", or in order to release space for future burials. This must include detailed site or grave location plans if either the resale of unused grave space or reuse of the entire grave is contemplated.

  12.  Although new burials continue to take place in existing graves at Norwood, in June 1999 the decision was taken not to offer "new" graves for sale in the cemetery for the foreseeable future.


Possible Extension of the South Metropolitan Cemetery

  13.  At Norwood a unique opportunity to extend the existing cemetery and thus to provide new burial space is presented by the availability of a disused Council depot adjoining the Eastern wall of the cemetery. The use of this site could provide: (i) proper facilities for the Council's mechanical equipment and staff, (ii) sufficient new burial space to meet the needs of the Borough for a number years if properly managed, thereby providing a source of income to offset in part the cost of acquiring the site, and (iii) a Heritage Centre that could incorporate facilities for local residents such as a Community Centre, a long-term local need. We would hope that such a scheme incorporating the above items and others would qualify for external grant funding. It must be stressed, however, that this proposal is one of several options for the land that the Council is presently considering.

  14.  The Council also owns additional land adjacent to the cemetery and to the recently vacated depot and this might also become available in due course.

Possible Creation of New Burial Space

  15.  As discussed above it is thought impossible to locate unused burial space in private graves in "lawn converted" areas at Norwood even if it were deemed legal to resell such space because of past mismanagement of the site. Similarly the suggestion of excavating existing graves where no burials had taken place for a given period of time, collecting and reinterring surviving remains at the bottom of the grave, and thereby liberating the grave for new interments, is not helpful if the precise location of the grave to be excavated is not known.

  16.  At Norwood the only graves that have not been opened for 75 or even 50 years and which might therefore be exploited via either resale of unused grave space or reuse of the grave are those whose monuments survived the Council's "lawn conversion" programme. These monuments are now, as all parties accept, protected by listed building and conservation area considerations. However, a further option is the resale of unused space in the grave, or the re-use of the entire grave, on which a historic monument survives, provided the purchaser gives binding undertakings to renovate, restore, and protect the monument for a defined period. Clearly some appropriate form of memorial for the new interments must be considered provided this could be achieved without detracting from the historic and artistic merit of the existing memorial. One of us (Dr RJ Flanagan) has seen this policy in successful operation in Berlin.


  Consideration might usefully be given to the resale of unused grave space or the reuse of the entire grave on which a historic monument survives provided that the purchaser agrees to undertake the full and complete restoration and maintenance of the existing monument.

  17.  If further resale or indeed reuse of graves is planned in order to provide new burial space in existing cemeteries, we would strongly suggest that traditional means of advertising intentions in this respect using advertisements in newspapers and notices in the cemetery are inadequate today. With the growth and widespread availability of modern methods of electronic communication, including the World Wide Web, it is now easy to publish details of intending operations electronically, including digital images of any monuments that might be affected, and thus make them easily and permanently available to interested parties. By way of example, Lambeth Council is in the process of publishing details in the national press drawing attention to the establishment of a special South Metropolitan (West Norwood) Cemetery web-site where details of all the re-used graves at Norwood, including the name and address of the original purchaser of each grave and the names and dates of all the burials in each grave, will be given.


  Consideration should be given to the use of modern information technology by burial authorities to not only inform grave owners and other interested parties of operations which might affect a given grave or monument, but also to provide a proper and permanent record of any operations carried out in a cemetery which will affect or might existing monuments BEFORE any such works are carried out.

  18.  A further option that is perhaps not applicable at Norwood at present, but might be planned for in any extension, is the use of above ground burial as practiced, for example, in Barcelona as witnessed by one of us (Dr Flanagan). Here the citizens took the decision not to demolish historic monuments in order to provide grave space for new burials, but to provide loculi in special structures that can be rented for a specific period (15 years or so in the first instance). At the end of the period the rental can be renewed, the remains removed by the family, or failing either option, the remains removed by the cemetery management and either cremated or interred in a communal plot.


  Consideration should be given to the provision of above ground burial space, or Catacomb or other means of recycling grave space, on a much shorter time scale than practiced in the UK at present.


  19.  Although there is no statutory requirement for cemetery management to be undertaken by professionally qualified staff, we would suggest that this should be encouraged for the future and perhaps in time made compulsory. We feel that many of the problems which led to the partial destruction of Norwood could be attributed to inappropriate staff recruitment and training.


  There should be in time a requirement for cemetery managers to have completed an appropriate training programme and to hold an appropriate professional qualification. This should encompass some training in all the issues that cemetery managers nowadays encounter and not be confined simply to operational matters.


  20.  Traditionally cemeteries and churchyards have generated income from the sale of graves and grave spaces, and by charging fees to erect monuments, maintain memorials, etc. With the increasing scarcity of space for new graves in many urban cemeteries and consequent decrease in the funding derived from these sources, many cemeteries have become financially unviable at the same time as the historic, irreplaceable nature of 19th and early 20th century "tombscapes" has been acknowledged. In many cases the need for substantial repair and reinstatement programs to preserve these tombscapes has also become apparent in recent years. In addition, cemeteries, especially historic cemeteries in larger towns and cities, and urban churchyards have also now acquired rest and recreation, and nature refuge/nature conservation functions that are not reflected in funding provision except in certain special cases.


  Consideration should be given to establishing alternative funding schemes for cemeteries that have acquired conservation, education, and rest and recreation uses additional to the traditional functions of burial and memorialisation.

  21.  There is widespread acknowledgement that the shortage of space for new private graves in cemeteries in London and other metropolitan centres is becoming acute. We would welcome a forum for discussions on this problem with central government and with other burial authorities in London, for example. However, we do not feel that one suggestion that has been made, namely the creation of a single burial authority with administrative powers for London, is necessarily the best way forward given the diversity of cemeteries in London and the range of types of ownership involved. However, the development of regional strategies for the provision of burial and cremation services could prove a valuable initiative. Such an initiative could address the question of widely different fees being charged in adjacent parts of towns and cities by different burial authorities, the need for consultation with elderly cemetery visitors and the provision of facilities to cater for their needs, and the question of vandalism of structures and theft of memorials.


  That consideration be given to establishing Regional Burial Advisory/Coordination groups in areas such as London where the various burial authorities face common problems.


  A1.  In Victorian times the cemetery (42 acres) became the most fashionable cemetery in South London and was known as the "Millionaires' Cemetery" because of the number and quality of the mausolea and other elaborate memorials it contained. The cemetery contains two plots within which exclusive rights of burial have been sold. One belongs to the Greek Community and has survived largely intact thanks to the continuing care of this community. The other belongs to the Parish of St. Mary-at-Hill.

  A2.  Largely full of graves and associated monuments by 1914, some roadways were used for burials. World War II brought the loss of some monuments and damage to the chapels, both of which were later demolished, the Dissenter's chapel and crematorium being replaced by the present Crematorium and the Episcopal chapel being replaced by a rose garden.

  A3.  Despite war damage, the cemetery, including the St. Mary-at-Hill plot, remained largely intact until 1965 and was adjudged "the finest Victorian Cemetery in England" by virtue of its situation and the number and quality of its memorials. In 1978 it was included within the West Norwood Conservation Area and was recognised by the Secretary of State as "outstanding". In 1981 the entrance arch, the boundary walls and railings and some 44 monuments were listed Grade II (7 11*). A further 20 memorials were listed in 1993—at present Norwood has more listed monuments than any other cemetery.

  A4.  In 1965 the cemetery was purchased compulsorily for £6,000 by Lambeth Council. A condition of the deed of transfer was that that rights of existing grave owners were to be maintained (graves had originally been sold either in perpetuity or for a limited period). Moreover, the Acts of Parliament (a supplementary Act was passed in 1914) that govern operations within the cemetery were not repealed.

  A5.  The Council renamed the cemetery "West Norwood Cemetery and Memorial Park", but this title has no basis in law. More importantly a programme of "lawn-conversion" was initiated which in time led to the removal of at least 10,000 (probably 15-20,000 monuments). The Council purported to rely on the powers contained in Section 36 of the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1955, but it has since become clear, and accepted by all parties, that: (i) the rights of grave owners were ignored, (ii) little or no records were kept, (iii) very few markers were placed on graves, and (iv) no Faculty was obtained to permit operations on consecrated ground. Even gravestones recording burials as recent as 1977 were removed.

  A6.  The destruction was stopped in 1991 by the Archdeacon of Lambeth under the Care of Churches & Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, 1991. By this time two listed monuments had been lost, only the bases remained of a further two (1 II*), and eight others had been badly damaged.

  A7.  In 1994 the Consistory Court of Southwark adjudged the "lawn conversion" to have been illegal, but nevertheless granted the Council a retrospective Faculty. However, the power of management of the consecrated portion of the cemetery, power the Council was granted under the LCC (Open Spaces) Act, 1906, was delegated by order of the Court to a Scheme of Management Committee to which the Council appoint representatives. Moreover the Diocesan churchyard regulations were to apply to the cemetery. The land management survey required under the Court judgment has been undertaken recently. Most notably the cemetery has been identified as the principal site of nature conservation value within the Borough in addition to its outstanding value as a site of national historic and cultural interest.

  A8.  In 1997 a Scheme of Management was formally agreed with the Council. The Council, the Scheme of Management Committee, the Management Advisory Group, and the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery are now working together (i) to attempt to preserve and enhance what remains of the historic fabric of the cemetery, (ii) to provide a burial and cremation service within the framework of existing legislation and past use of the cemetery, (iii) to preserve and enhance the nature conservation value of the site, (iv) to provide a safe environment for visitors to the cemetery, and (v) explore ways of funding the above aims.

  A9.  Further details of the cemetery and its history are given in the attached posters. [21]

Dr RJ Flanagan

Friends of West Norwood Cemetery

December 2000

21   Ev not printed. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 29 March 2001