Setting out in the late afternoon of the 31st October 2016 I frequented my usual haunt of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, yet this time with a more specific purpose in mind. I have walked my dog, Achilles, there almost every afternoon for the past 5 months, and for many of these walks I have pondered over the gravestones there, the names of their dead, their lives and wondering what kind of London they used to live in.
Catherine Arnold’s book ‘Necropolis: London and It’s Dead’ (2006) inspired me, alongside Mrs Basil Holmes ‘London Burial Grounds’ (1888), to combine the topics of cemeteries and walking to uncover knowledge about historical London with a specific focus on the local area of Brockley and Ladywell.
As a joint honours student of History and Anthropology, I am not unused to using walking as a methodology in an anthropological sense. As any anthropologist knows, we spend a great deal of time wandering around and carrying out ‘participant observation’ in our fieldwork. Surprisingly though, I had never considered how walking might be utilised by historians in the uncovering of the past and I believe that part of this is that I had fallen prey to the unconscious association of historians getting stuck in dusty old archives.
However, this assumption began to be challenged as I familiarised myself with walking as a historical methodology through psycho-geographic work and reassessment of classic literary works which took place in London, such as those by Charles Dickens. Similarly, the discovery of Victorian historian Mrs Holmes’ charming work really began to bring the themes of walking and history to life for me. In assessing the use of walking to her own historical investigations, Holmes emphasises the benefits of walking as “it is never safe to take anything on trust, nothing but actual perambulations and inquiries on the spot could show the present size and condition of the burial-grounds, and even several that are marked on the ordinance maps have been built upon since they were published” (Holmes, 1888, p15).
Whilst I did not fully commit to Holmes’ way of walking, as she recounts many amusing tales of tramping through unsuspecting but reluctantly obliging strangers’ houses in order to peer out of their windows, her ideas inspired me to consider how the themes of walking, death, the environment, the use of public spaces, and using cemeteries as a tool that is ‘good to think with’ to invigorate my understanding of historical London.
As I was already familiar with my area of walking I thought it would be interesting to use this handy little map, made by the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, to guide the majority of my walk. I was curious about the choice of natural and historical landmarks of the cemetery which the Friends had chosen to focus on, whilst wanting to allow myself (read Achilles) the freedom to meander off the recommended paths to see if we could uncover anything else along the way.
Starting at the impressive wrought iron gates of the Ladywell entrance, I followed the route to the left of the main avenue and had my attention immediately directed to the avenue of trees, impressive family vaults which lined the path, and collection of war graves.
As a regular walker in the cemetery I have previously noted the prevalence of military graves throughout the cemetery. These little white commemorative gravestones can be found all throughout the cemetery in groups or as singular stones. Upon first discovering these I did not know anything about war graves and had been confused over their uniformity and whether there was anyone buried alongside the graves. However, after doing research I became aware that these graves had been erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who ensure that all those who died during the two world wars are commemorated and their names remembered. The uniformity preserves the “memory of the dead with simply dignity and true equality” (CWGC).
I discovered many more war graves throughout the walk including large war memorials recording the names of soldiers from the local area who died throughout the two world wars, as well as gravestones of naval men, tellingly marked by their anchors. These anchored graves are particularly prevalent on the Brockley side of the cemetery, formerly Deptford cemetery until shortly after 1914, and hark back to Deptford’s maritime history in which the Deptford Dockyard was the leading dockyard throughout the 16th-18th centuries (Royal Naval Dockyards website). Subsequently, Deptford hosted a large population of naval men who lived or worked in the local area, and so it is not surprising to see so many of them eternally anchored to their local land.
Image of “the Royal Dock, Deptford” from The British History website
I came across many examples of grand gravestones which recorded the burial of a notable rank of individual who had served in the armed forces and who had been buried in their family plot. These family graves deny the aimed uniformity of the commemorative graves by the Commission, often incorporating the wealth of the family. Possibly one of the most eye-catching examples of this was the grave of Dudley Granville Brown who served in the RAF during the First World War, whose grand gravestone towers over the surrounding graves.
Similarly to the ornate military family plots are the imposing family vaults. These grand family vaults would have been very costly and many of the inscriptions detailing the owners of the vaults are often from noble families or men of high social ranks. Whilst the number of vaults is far fewer than in the older Magnificent Seven cemeteries, for example the towering vaults of Nunhead Cemetery (1840) or the impressive catacombs of Norwood Cemetery (1837), there are still a considerable number throughout the cemetery indicating the diverse demographic from the surrounding areas.
Impressive family vaults lining the entrance path at Nunhead
Image: Neville Blackwood, flickr
Brockley and Ladywell’s family vaults comparatively with the poorer graves
I continued along the path taking note of the intertwining theme of nature and history as my attention was drawn to the rows of Plane Trees, various flowers and animal life, wilderness and wildlife conservation areas which interspersed the numerous graves until I was met by a small archway. It was unbeknown to me that this archway marked the entrance to the separate Roman Catholic area of the cemetery. Whilst I could not find information on the date of consecration, the North West Kent Family History Society details that the land was further expanded in 1922-35. Apart from this archway, there is no other physical separation currently existing between the Protestant and Catholic ground. There had been an additional chapel which separately dealt with Catholic burials, however the only existing remains of this chapel now are a few left over bricks possibly as a result of bomb damage to the cemetery during World War II.
I meandered off the map path for a while towards the Brockley entrance and surprisingly came across the inconspicuous grave of both Rachel and Margaret McMillan. Whilst I was tenuously aware of their connection to Deptford, I had not realised that they were buried in the cemetery despite having walked past their grave dozens of times. I felt that Mrs Holmes would have greatly admired the McMillan sisters work, particularly in their reform contributions centred around the improvement of children’s health through the Open-Air Nursery School and Training Centre opened in 1914 in Deptford, as Holmes was a great advocate for the use of burial-grounds for the public’s benefits. Holmes had even argued for more burial grounds to follow the example of Spa Fields in which a playground for children was set up to prevent burial-grounds falling into disuse whilst providing fresh air for the public’s welfare (Holmes, p278).
The Rachel McMillan Open-Air Nursey (Image: http://www.rachelmcmillannursery.co.uk/) and the Spa Fields Playground (Image: http://www.cdesignc.org/blog/2016/08/15/risky-business) still stand today.
Continuing to meander off of the path for a while I took a shortcut round the side of the cemetery. Once again, I found myself discovering things about the cemetery which were entirely new to me. For months I had been stepping up the small bricked wall and onto the grassy banks as a shortcut into the undergrowth with little thought.
Map Image from: http://www.nwkfhs.org.uk/ladywell.htm
It was only as a result of going on this walk that I discovered that this low wall was in fact the boundary of what had originally been two separate cemeteries; Brockley (previously Deptford) and Ladywell (previously Lewisham) Cemeteries, that were made in 1858 in response legislation in 1854 to prevent further overcrowding in London cemeteries. Both cemeteries ran alongside one another, only separated by this wall until they were joined together in 1948. Unfortunately, as both of these cemeteries were built 17 years after the last Magnificent Seven cemetery, less attention has been given to Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery with much of its history yet to be uncovered.
Old Postcard images of Brockley Cemetery and Ladywell Cemetery before they were joined together. (Images from http://www.foblc.org.uk/)
Despite much of its history still being hidden from me, using walking as a methodology was incredibly useful for facilitating discoveries that I would not otherwise have made. Reiterating my frequent statement, despite having walked through this cemetery every afternoon for five months it was only through the unique combination of walking and historical inquiry that I was able to uncover much of the history of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, as well as incorporate this into the wider picture of historical London. The works of Arnold and Holmes have greatly inspired me to continue research into the many cemeteries of London, expanding my knowledge on how the dead have helped London to develop since the 19th century. Lastly, walking not only provided a new perspective on history, but I felt that it helped to bring history alive and allowed access to previously hidden knowledge.
In the closing words of Holmes… “I have never been out of my way for the sake of idle curiosity, but have not hesitated to go down any street or court or to knock at any door which was in my way, and I have never had cause to regret it. An appearance of utter insignificance and an air of knowing where you are going and what you want, is the passport for all parts of London” (p19).
Catherine Arnold, Necropolis: London and its Dead (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006)
Mrs Basil Holmes, The London Burial Grounds: Notes on Their History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888)