Love Your Burial Ground Month by Dan Brotzel
13th June 2023
13th June 2023
New Southgate Cemetery
This article will feature in our next Palmers Green and Southgate LIFE magazine out this July.
June is Love Your Burial Ground Month. I love walking, even jogging, around cemeteries. They are peaceful, atmospheric places, with a melancholy beauty all their own. It’s pleasant to pace along these avenues of memorialised love, past the faded photos and the red bouquets, the lopsided plots and the implacable angels.
In our area we are spoilt for choice, but my favourite has to be New Southgate Cemetery. It’s a large traditional site, laid out on a spoke-and-wheel plan, with sections focused on different faiths and communities: Roman Catholic, Greek Cypriot, Caribbean. And there’s lots of fascinating history buried here too.
I didn’t know, for example, that special cemetery trains once ran here from Kings Cross, just like the better-known Necropolis Railway (subject of a 2002 novel by Andrew Martin) which ran from Waterloo to Surrey. Opened in 1861, the Great Northern Cemetery Station at Kings Cross was equipped with mourning rooms and a fully functioning morgue, from where bodies were lowered by hydraulic lift onto the twice-weekly service that ran the seven miles to New Southgate, thence up a special single-track branch line to the cemetery itself. The destination was known simply as Cemetery Station.
These funeral trains were an answer to the overcrowded, insanitary condition of urban burial grounds, which were running out of land to service a rapidly expanding population (London’s population soared from 1million in 1801 to almost 2.5million in 1851.) Graves were having to be dug up to accommodate new burials, and the decaying remains disturbed in the process began to contaminate the water supply, leading to epidemics of cholera, smallpox, measles and typhoid. Eventually burials in built-up areas were banned altogether.
The funeral trains also offered a cheaper alternative for the poor, enabling them to avoid undertakers’ fees because the body could be stored at the station pending transit. Mourners could attend the body at the morgue, and travel up on the same train. The journey took 15 minutes. It cost 6 shillings for mortuary fees and coffin transport (one way only!), plus a return fare of 1s 6d per mourner. Burial itself was extra, starting at 13s 6d.
Nothing remains of the station’s buildings at the cemetery end (and very little at Kings Cross either), which is a pity because there were once ornate waiting rooms, a chapel for Dissenters, and a separate one for Anglicans with a 150-foot spire. Trains are thought to have run twice weekly but the service lasted little more than a decade, probably because of under-use.
Perhaps the most famous person buried at New Southgate Cemetery is Shoghi Effendi (1897–1957), Guardian of the Baháʼí Faith, who died on a visit to London in 1957 and, in accordance with the strictures of the religion, was buried near the place of his death. Also buried here are Ross McWhirter, cofounder of the Guinness Book of World Records and former Kray henchman Tony Lambrianou, notorious for his role in the murder of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie in 1967. The war graves section includes the graves of 51 German prisoners who died whilst they were held at an Internment Camp at nearby Alexandra Palace in the first world war.
Another famous resident is Dorothy Lawrence (1896-1964), an English journalist who disguised herself as a male soldier to report from the front line in World War I. Her troubled life ended with institutionalisation in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, now the Princess Park Manor luxury flats. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in the cemetery, the exact site unclear.
Love Your Burial Ground Week is run by Caring for God’s Acre, ‘a national charity dedicated to supporting those managing burial grounds for conservation and heritage purposes’. Burial grounds are fantastic for biodiversity, as they note: ‘The walls and monuments create habitat for amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and invertebrates as well as ferns, mosses and liverworts. Of the 2,000 lichen species in the UK, 700 are found in churchyards, with a third of these rarely found elsewhere.’
Perhaps some people will think it inappropriate to go rambling or running round a cemetery, and of course it’s essential to be respectful of mourners. But if I were lying here (assuming I had any awareness of the matter), I think I’d like the idea of people coming in and doing normal stuff, along with the foxes and the lichen and the bats. I’d like the idea of sweaty joggers chugging past, office workers nipping in to wolf sandwiches, teens draped on benches. Maybe it’s good for us all that the living and the dead slap up against each other a little.
A 1954 article from The Railway Magazine, ‘Kings Cross Cemetery Station, by RG Lucas, is reprinted on the STC New Southgate website at https://stcnsg.org.uk/cemetery1954/ See also the article, ‘The dead bodies service from King’s Cross railway station’ on the ianVisits website: www.ianvisits.co.uk. There’s also a book – The End of the Line: The Story of the Railway Service to the Great Northern London Cemetery, by Martin Dawes.
About the author
Dan Brotzel’s novels include The Wolf in the Woods. His new book, Awareness Daze: From Acts of Kindness Day to Zombie Month is published November 2023 (both books Sandstone Press).