When I first arrived in London in 2013, one of the first cemeteries I visited was Camberwell Old Cemetery and at the time I did not really take too much notice of it. It is an old cemetery and there is a small chance that I may have family buried there, but I cannot confirm it.
I visited the cemetery twice, and on both occasions the weather was grey and chilly and the remnants of snow may still be seen on some of my pics. I had no real reason to visit it though, and it was by sheer luck that I picked up one of the two Victoria Cross burials in the cemetery during my first visit (Albert McKenzie VC).
The cemetery was really divided in two, the first part being a normal maintained cemetery, while the other being a heavily wooded area, probably much older and reminiscent of Nunhead Cemetery. Given the weather I did not explore very long in this area because the mud and undergrowth really precluded doing very much. I was actually quite puzzled by the state of this area, but I did not know the history at the time.
The cemetery is located on Forest Hill Road, and covers approximately 30 acres (0.12 km2). The site was purchased in 1855 and it was originally meadow land. The first interment took place in July 1856 and over 30,000 burials took place in the subsequent 30 years. In 1874 the cemetery was further expanded by seven more acres and by 1984, there were 300,000 interments. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camberwell_Cemeteries)
There are 291 First World War burials, and war graves plot is in the north-east corner of the cemetery and contains two screen walls. One commemorates almost 160 casualties buried in the plot, the other bears the names of those buried in the remaining war graves scattered throughout the cemetery that could not be individually marked. Those remaining graves are much important than we realise in the light of what is happening at Camberwell Old Cemetery.
The war graves plot also contains a group of special memorials to the 14 casualties of the Second World War buried in the cemetery.
So what is going on at Camberwell Old Cemetery?
From what I can read in short it is “Southwark Council is cutting down acres of inner city woods to mound over graves and next to dig up thousands of people’s remains to sell their graves as ‘new’ burial plots” (http://www.savesouthwarkwoods.org.uk/home/4593424362). That will include the unknown burial plots of the war graves scattered that are throughout the cemetery that could not be individually marked. The cemetery is more than a mere burial place, it is a green lung in a busy city, it provides homes for woodland and small creatures, it is a valuable recreational space and it is a historic cemetery. It is difficult to know the whole story because there are two sides to each story, but my gut instinct says that what they want to do is fundamentally wrong, although the rational part of me says that come hell or high water they are going to do it irrespective. The part that really gets to me is that “the Church of England has said the Commonwealth War Graves Commission do not need to mark the poor soldiers’ graves – to avoid making them seem special and for ‘practical purposes’, that is, to allow cemeteries to bury on top of them”. http://www.savesouthwarkwoods.org.uk/48-ww1-soldiers-graves/4593715253. It would be interesting to know why these graves have been “lost” in the first place and why they were not accorded a CWGC headstone at the time. I do suspect that there may be private memorials involved, and as such CWGC has no real jurisdiction over those graves.
Camberwell New Cemetery
Before I made my second trip I first visited Camberwell New Cemetery which is not too far away. It contains 198 Second World War burials, almost 80 of them forming a war graves plot and the rest are scattered throughout the cemetery. A screen wall commemorates almost 120 of these casualties (including those buried in the plot) whose graves could not be marked with individual headstones, together with a further 56 Second World War casualties whose remains were cremated in Camberwell (Honor Oak) Crematorium. I will be honest and say that the cemetery was not really memorable, in fact I took very few photographs of the place.
In 1926 the first part of the land was laid out as a cemetery and was consecrated by the Right Reverend William Woodcock Hough, Bishop of Woolwich, and the first interment took place on 23 May 1927. The Crematorium was built in 1939 to meet a growing demand for cremations and it is situated in the cemetery grounds, ten acres of which were landscaped as memorial gardens.
What did interest me at this cemetery was the Civilian Casualties Memorial that was seemingly under restoration.
This was the first one that I had seen since arriving in London, and I have seen a number of others since then.
I did not spend too long at this cemetery and set off for Camberwell Old Cemetery to photograph the grave of William Stanlake VC, and I recall at the time thinking that finding it in that mass of vegetation was going to be very difficult, but fortunately the plot was easily found.
And then I headed off for home. I seem to recall visiting Motherwell and Brockley cemetery on this trip too. No wonder I was so tired all of the time.
The destruction that is happening at these two cemeteries is very sad, and while I do not live in London I do have an interest in these happening because I have seen it so often before. I do not think that the destruction and re-use of these two cemeteries can be halted, but I do hope that the damage can be minimised or stopped before these two spaces are irreversibly changed.
It is worth visiting the Friend of Camberwell Cemeteries website to read for yourself what is going on. Let us hope that sanity prevails.
© DRW 2013-2021. Retrospectively created 11/03/2017