If you search Google for “The Magnificent Seven”, the first results you’ll come across are related to a 1960 western movie starrring Yul Brynner, directed by John Sturges.
The music was composed by Elmer Bernstein. It’s probably the most iconic western theme ever released.
This is not the Magnificent Seven I want to address in Scrib.am though.
The seven we’ll be talking about are not gunfighters protecting a small village in Mexico but Victorian cemeteries in London.
There’s actually a link between the cowboys and the graveyards. The group of London cemeteries was dubbed “The Magnificent Seven” by the architectural historian Hugh Meller in 1981. He said he was inspired by the title of the 1960 western movie.
London was one of the last major European capitals to consider the need for new graveyards on the outskirts of the city, supplementing or replacing the old parish churchyards which had become overcrowded due to a rapid increase in urban population.
With 40,000 deaths each year, fed by cholera epidemics and by the growth of population, conditions rapidly deteriorated and cemetery reforms became a focus of writers, such as Charles Dickens, and periodicals, like the zealous Builder, both quoted by Meller, who exposed the horrific and putrid state of London’s churchyards, which contrasted sharply to the capital’s exalted proposition as “the center of civilization”.
In Paris, burial grounds had to be moved outside of the city by a decision of Parliament as early as 1765.
In 1786, the bones from the dead buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents were moved to underground quarry tunnels, which became known as the Catacombs.
The famous Père Lachaise cemetery opened in 1804 in the 20th arrondissement.
The main justification to move cemeteries out of densely populated areas, besides the overcrowding of small churchyards, was that the miasma (intoxicating smell) from decaying corpses would have been the major cause of disease in the city. London doctor John Snow discovered 90 years later, in 1850, that sewage in drinking water was the actual culprit of urban epidemics, not the stench of the dead. Eight years later, Snow was buried in one of the Magnificent Seven, at Brompton Cemetery.
In London, Parliament passed an act in 1832 encouraging the establishment of private suburban cemeteries.
At a time of excitement for anything Egyptian, another suggestion, put forward by the architect Thomas Wilson, was to build the Metropolitan Sepulchre, a giant pyramid on Primrose Hill, taller than St Paul’s Cathedral.
Had it been built for a planned budget of £2,500, it could have generated a profit of £10.7 million when finally filled with 5 million corpses! This “monstrous piece of folly”, as described by the Literary Gazette in 1828, never went beyond the drawing board.
Instead of a pharaonic mausoleum, seven traditional cemeteries were established over the next decade, following a proposal of an Inner Temple barrister named George Frederick Carden, directly inspired by the Père Lachaise garden-graveyard model. Kensal Green Cemetery, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was the first one, in 1833. It was developed by the General Cemetery Company, still in operation today. After his failed pyramid, Wilson joined the architects who designed the graveyard. It is the resting place of a series of illustrious personalities, including author William Makepeace Thackeray, engineer Marc Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Babbage “father of computing” and playwright Harold Pinter. Over 250,000 people have been buried at the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green since 1833.
West Norwood Cemetery, in the London Borough of Lambeth, followed in 1837. Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899), founder of the Tate Gallery, is buried here, as well as Sir Hiram S Maxim (1840-1916), the inventor of the machine gun.
Highgate Cemetery, probably the most famous today, opened in 1839 (West section) and 1860 (east Section). It’s located in the London Borough of Camden. Karl Marx is interred in the East Cemetery (17 March 1883), as well as Michael Faraday (1791-1867). More recently (2016) the singer George Michael was also buried at Highgate. 170,000 people are resting here, in 53,000 graves.
The next four graveyards to open were Abney Park Cemetery (1840, founded a non-denominational resting place. It became London’s foremost burial ground for Dissenters, those who practised their religion outside of the established church), Brompton Cemetery (1840), resting place of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882, inventor of the Christmas card) and of the founders of nearby Chelsea Football Club, Nunhead Cemetery (1840) and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841).
They are part of the ~ 3,500 historic (pre-1914) cemeteries inventoried in the UK.
The group of 7 cemeteries, built on almost 300 acres of land, represented £400,000 of investment. They all featured “water-tight” graves, vaults and catacombs. The creation of those graveyards contributed to the “industrial side of life’s dissolution” (T.W. Wilkinson in Burying London, 1906), the “black trade” of wreath makers, coffin merchants, ironmongers, mourning clothes suppliers and stonemasons, all congregating around the Magnificent Seven.
Inspired by the Père Lachaise, those cemeteries were conceived as public open spaces, designed to be attractive destinations, not only for potential clients but also for visitors and tourists.
They have a strong architectural and landscape interest, offering the untouched testimony of a bygone era. I love to walk in those Victorian cemeteries, randomly stopping by a tomb to read the epitaphs carved in the stone and reflect upon the life of the deceased.
We often forget that behind each headstone, there used to be a real multiple human being of flesh and bone, just like us, with joys, sorrows, exciting plans, dreams, fulfilled or broken. Now, in the best case scenario, all that’s left of their existence is a few words on an ivy-covered greenish stone and a vague memory of their short time on earth.
Beyond their primary function as a final resting place of hundreds of thousands of people, those cemeteries are also recognised as havens for flora and fauna. You’ll come across plenty of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates in the leafy alleys of the Magnificent Seven.
In 1852, another magnificent Victorian cemetery came to life in Brookwood, Surrey, 25 miles away from London. The origins of the project date back to the cholera epidemic of 1848.
Brookwood became the largest graveyard in the world, connected to the city by the Necropolis Railway Company, operating from Waterloo.
There were two railway lines, one for Anglicans and the one for Dissenters. The train left once a day and the journey took one hour. The ticket office sold one-way “coffin tickets” for the dead.
Business went down with the advent of the motorcar and German bombers put a final end to the trade when they destroyed the departure station in 1941. Over 235,000 people have been buried there.