Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Southwark Regeneration (CEM 77)


  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 own.

  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 as required.


  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 means."


  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 funding.

  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 removed.

    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 light exercise.

  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 Canada.

  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 old graves.

  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.


  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.

Terry Connor

Superintendent and Registrar

December 2000

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