With an ever increasing urban population and overcrowded churchyards the first public cemeteries in London, distinct from those associated with churches, appeared in the first half of the 19th Century. There had been some burial grounds for non-conformists in the 17th Century with many more established in the 18th Century. The first London Cemetery opened at Kensal Green in 1827 with West Norwood following ten years later.
The cemetery was opened by the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company, one of 8 private cemetery companies authorised by Acts of Parliament to alleviate the overcrowding by establishing public burial sites around the capital.
The company acquired 40 acres of land at Norwood within the Parish of Lambeth in 1836. One of the company directors and its architect was William Tite (later Sir. William), president of the Royal Institution of British Architects and architect for the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange in 1884 and many notable railway stations like Gosport and Southampton Terminus. Tite planned the layout of the site, which included two chapels with a series of vaults or catacombs constructed beneath the Episcopal Chapel (similar in style to Kings College Chapel). This included a hydraulic coffin lift or catafalque to transport the coffins from the chapel to the vaults below.
Both chapels were severely damaged during the war and the Episcopal Chapel was finally demolished in 1955 and replaced by a walled rose garden, the catacombs below were undamaged and remain intact and accessible today.
The London Borough of Lambeth bought the Cemetery in 1966. It was their intention to continue with the cremation service and turn the grounds into a memorial park although several years of neglect and bad management led to considerable damage to numerous tombs and the destruction of a number of listed structures. There are 64 Grade 2 and Grade2* listed monuments and memorials on the site and the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery arrange regular tours with occasional visits to the catacombs.
The catacombs consist of a wide vaulted spine corridor with the catafalque intact and disused in the middle. There are a number of vaults with intricate wrought iron gates opening onto this central corridor. There is also a stairway, now blocked at ceiling level that once provided access from the chapel above. There are eight narrower vaulted passages, three on each side, emanating from this main tunnel, each of these has a number of bays on either side some of these contain gated vaults, some of have been shelved and stacked with coffins while others remain unused and empty. At the end of each of these passages is an open grating just outside the walls of the rose garden above. By law all burials not actually in the ground must be in lead lined coffins. Much of the wood has rotted over the years but generally the lead lined boxes within are intact although a few have been vandalised.
The coffin lift made Bramah & Robinson was installed in 1839. It was worked by hydraulics, which made its operation silent, which was a distinct advantage considering its use. Only the top of the catafalque on which the coffin was placed was moveable and could be swivelled to allow easy removal of the coffin in the catacombs. The system used a single pump.
Bramah & Robinson, also installed a similar coffin lift at Kensal Green Cemetery Catacombs in 1844. The main difference is that the whole structure can be raised and lowered and incorporates 2 pumps.
At Kensal Green the box on which the pumps are mounted contains the hydraulic fluid (water). The rams are of 2 in diameter and 5.5 in stroke. The cylinder in which the ram fits extends into the reservoir and is terminated by a non-return ball valve.
The wheel controls the descent by operating a valve, which bypasses both pump, and valves, feeding water directly from the ram cylinder to the reservoir. One stroke of the pump will raise the catafalque by one inch; therefore 180 strokes are required to raise it to the fully elevated position, a distance of approximately 15 feet. The effort is halved by the two pumps.
The coffin lift at Kensal Green has recently been fully restored and is available for use for transporting coffins from the Anglican Mortuary Chapel Above. That at West Norwood while still largely intact is derelict and unusable.