Unsurprisingly the processes and thoughts towards the idea of death and burial in Britain have significantly adapted and changed throughout time, with life prior to the 1800’s no exception, as those who died were usually buried in their local parish churchyards. At the turn of the nineteenth century however, Britain saw a period of significant changes in its law, industry and social ideals and as the population began to increase, the mortality rate also began to rise, beckoning the question – where could all these burials take place if the local churchyards were becoming overcrowded?
Architects such as Sir Christopher Wren (who designed St Paul’s Cathedral) and Sir John Vanbrugh (architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) believed that the answer lay in the creation of new suburban cemeteries where there would be enough room to cater for London’s deceased, much like the Parisian model of Pere Lachaise, a beautiful cemetery comprised of thousands of gothic style mausoleums, chapels and coffins, with figures such as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Chopin also buried there.
In 1832, British Parliament saw the benefits of the Parisian style cemetery and encouraged the establishment of private cemeteries outside of the London (at this time) and thus the ‘Magnificent Seven’ were born between the years of 1832-1841. Dubbed the ‘Magnificent Seven’ by architectural historian Hugh Meller after the 1960s western movie of the same name, the seven cemeteries are as listed below:
- Kensal Green Cemetery (1832)
- West Norwood Cemetery (1836)
- Highgate Cemetery (1839)
- Abney Park Cemetery (1840)
- Nunhead Cemetery (1840)
- Brompton Cemetery (1840)
- Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841)
Purposefully built for thousands of burials, the cemeteries are famed for their unique and ornate styles with elaborate landscapes which were sculpted to allow carriages and pedestrian footpaths for people to pass through and visit them without the traditional confinements of a churchyard. A key feature to all seven of the cemeteries is their lush green landscapes which are comprised of hundreds of beautiful trees, plants and foliage which give the cemeteries a park-like feel, the nature elements are so profound that cemeteries such as Kensal Green are cared for as if they were nature reserves in their own right!
Another striking feature of the cemeteries unsurprisingly comes from the architectural styles which were popular in Britain at this time. As the cemeteries were built in the mid- nineteenth century, it resulted in their construction coinciding with the gothic revival movement which had begun to emerge in England and played a key feature in the design of the Magnificent Seven. Famed for its ornamental style, and odes to Europe’s medieval past, the gothic revival movement was designed to directly contrast the neoclassical style which was popular throughout the Georgian era in Britain (buildings such as St Martin-in-the-fields or Apsley House are excellent examples of this style) and resulted in the striking design in the catacombs, monuments and headstones which are scattered amongst the cemeteries.
Overshadowed by popular tourist attractions such as the London Eye, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace etc, the Magnificent Seven are an ideal heritage site for visitors who are looking to explore London’s gritty Victorian history for themselves and walk in the footsteps of the many famous figures buried in the cemeteries grounds.
A guide to the ‘Magnificent Sevens’ must see grave sites, will also be available on the Hidden History App, so be sure to check it out!