London: Putney Vale Cemetery

With nearly two weeks off just before Easter, but nowhere to go since even outdoor attractions and non-essential shops aren’t reopening til mid-April, let alone museums (those aren’t opening until May), I was scrambling to find something to do with my leave other than my usual reading and watching TV, particularly as the weather was so nice for a couple of days. Fortunately, I happened to see a post on the fascinating Flickering Lamps blog on Putney Vale Cemetery, near the edge of Wimbledon Common, which I had somehow never heard of even though I lived in Wimbledon for over a decade and love visiting cemeteries. Putney Vale is about a three mile walk away from my house, and a return trip on foot would admittedly be pushing the upper limits of how far I am willing to walk in a day, especially since Marcus and I had walked to Bushy Park the day before and my feet still hurt from that, but because there was nowhere else to go locally that I hadn’t already been a thousand times before, I decided to just suck it up and go for it (Marcus is always game for a walk since he’s not a hater of the outdoors like me).

Putney Vale Cemetery really attracted my attention because of how many famous people are buried there, especially since it’s not even one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries where most of the famous Londoners seem to end up. And, unlike most of the Magnificent Seven, Putney Vale have put together an extremely helpful map marking out the most notable graves that I downloaded on my phone before we left to aid in navigation. And by the time we got there, I was certainly glad I did, because I didn’t want to have to walk one unnecessary step! It is admittedly a nice walk from where we live, as we pretty much went through Richmond Park the entire way (and got to see a road crossing for horses as we crossed over into Putney Vale, which amused me to no end) but I am lazy and prone to wearing uncomfortable shoes so it was still a bit of a trial.

Putney Vale Cemetery is right by a massive Asda that I’ve been to quite a few times over the years (it’s definitely not my supermarket of choice, but I like to look at their Halloween section in October, as they seem to have more than most other supermarkets here), which makes it even weirder I didn’t know it existed, but I guess I’ve only ever travelled to Asda by car or bus, so I’ve never had any reason to explore the area in more depth. One thing to keep in mind is that Putney Vale is still very much an active cemetery and crematorium – there was a funeral taking place there during our visit, so we gave that area of the cemetery a wide berth out of respect. Not that I would do anything inappropriate in a cemetery anyway, but most cemeteries I’ve been to here are so empty that I feel comfortable talking at a normal volume, and this was more of a whispering place, at least when near other visitors. There were also a number of family members visiting and leaving flowers on loved ones’ graves, so it was definitely not as neglected as most of the Magnificent Seven are. However, that said, many of the gravestones were clearly made out of softer rock than one would find ideal as so many of them were completely weathered beyond recognition, despite only being twenty years old in some cases!

Putney Vale is a newer cemetery than most of the others I’ve visited in London – it opened in 1891, and really seems to have expanded in the 1930s after the crematorium opened – but that didn’t stop icons of the Victorian era and early 20th century from being buried here, and those were the graves I was keenest to see. The walk marked out on the map doesn’t start until you pass a long, narrow, obviously much newer section of the cemetery, and enter the gates proper. Because of this, my initial impression was that the cemetery wasn’t all that big, and then we got inside the gates, and I quickly revised my initial estimate of its size. It is plenty big enough to still involve a lot of walking, though it’s certainly no Brookwood!

We skipped the first couple of graves on the map because I’d never heard of the people buried there (and like I said, wanted to avoid any extra walking), and headed straight for J. Bruce Ismay of Titanic fame/infamy. Ismay was the managing director of the White Star Line at the time of the Titanic disaster, and also happened to be on the ship itself, though he managed to escape, which brought horrible criticism from the public, given how many passengers weren’t as lucky (I assume they still would have criticised him if he’d died, he just wouldn’t have known about it). The incident basically destroyed his mental health and he died in 1937 after suffering from depression and ill health for a number of years. However, his grave is one of the most splendid ones in the whole cemetery. It features a large, ship-engraved stone sarcophagus, another stone in front of it with a ship-themed proverb, and then a bench at the back with another verse apparently designed to encourage reflection, though it was a little difficult to read thanks to weathering.

Vesta Tilley was next on the list, which is the stage name of Matilda de Frece (nee Powles), a vaudeville performer who was known for being a male impersonator. She is buried with her husband, and their grave isn’t as elaborate as Ismay’s, but I did like the bits of art deco detailing up the sides.

I’ve read enough about the Russian Revolution to have heard of Alexander Kerensky, so I also checked his out, though I actually spotted what I think was his son’s grave first, realised he wouldn’t have been old enough to have been the Alexander Kerensky I was looking for, carried on searching, and then eventually realised I’d overshot and found the correct Kerensky right next to the younger Kerensky. Anyway, he was president of the short-lived Russian Republic for a couple of months in the period after the February Revolution but before the October one, and ended up having to flee Russia for Paris once the Bolsheviks came to power. He moved to the US when WWII broke out and lived there for the rest of his life, but all the Russian Orthodox churches there refused to bury him because of his role in the Russian Revolution, so they ended up sending his body to London where Putney Vale Cemetery found a place for him.

I’m not at all a sports person, with one exception – I absolutely love World’s Strongest Man. I look forward to it all year, and watch pretty much any kind of strongman competition I can find, including all the qualifying rounds and weird WSM off-shoots. So naturally, my workout room (aka the spare bedroom I keep all my exercise stuff in) is strongman themed, with Victorian strongman wallpaper and a poster of Eugen Sandow, actual Victorian strongman, who is buried in Putney Vale! This was definitely the grave that completely sold me on visiting, if I wasn’t already sold, and it took us a minute to find it, because sadly, it didn’t have a statue of a flexing Sandow on it as I was hoping, but it is actually quite a striking stone, especially compared to the others around it. Apparently, he was originally buried in an unmarked grave by his wife, who was angry that he had cheated on her (fair enough!). He finally received a marker in 2002, after a fellow strongman fan bought him one (though obviously a fan with lots more money than I have), but it was replaced in 2009 by Sandow’s great-grandson, and that is the stone that currently stands here.

I confess I am not at all interested in motor racing (see above comment on my lack of interest in sports), but I do have such a juvenile sense of humour that I had to see the grave of poor unfortunately named Dick Seaman, who died after crashing his car in the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix. Personally, if my last name was Seaman and my first name Richard, I think I’d probably go by Richard or Rich, but at least he must have had a sense of humour, and his grave was still well-tended, with a crop of blooming daffodils.

I also love cooking shows, and though I’m not the biggest fan of the Two Fat Ladies, mainly because their food always looked super meat-heavy and gross, and I didn’t care for Clarissa Dickson Wright’s antipathy towards vegetarians, love of hunting, and seemingly reactionary views, I did want to see the grave of Jennifer Paterson whilst we were here since at least I knew who she was, and she seemed less objectionable than Clarissa, though I could be wrong about that. Her grave is all the way in the back of the cemetery and is rather hard to find, because even though she only died in 1999, the writing on her tombstone is almost completely worn away (though you can just about make out the Paterson in person, so I’m pretty sure it’s the right one). Jennifer Paterson’s grave aside, the back part of the cemetery generally houses the more ornate Victorian style graves with angels and Jesuses (Jesii?) and stuff on them and a few mausoleums, so I would hazard a guess that this is the oldest part.

The final grave I was interested in seeing, and honestly the one I was most interested in, apart from Sandow, was that of Howard Carter, of Tutankhamun fame. I suspect his tombstone was replaced relatively recently, because he died in 1939 and his stone was in much better condition than those of a similar vintage. It proudly proclaimed that he was an Egyptologist, which made me think that I’d like a similarly prominently displayed title on my grave, though obviously not Egyptologist. I’ll have to come up with something appropriately descriptive of my eclectic interests!

There are certainly other famous people buried here (including an actor from Allo Allo but I’ve never watched the show so wasn’t bothered about seeing his grave), including some famous-adjacent people not on the official map, like one of Dahl’s Chickens’ (Charles Dickens’s) sons, and even more famous people have been cremated here, including Clement Attlee, Clementine Churchill, Donald Pleasance, Jon Pertwee and many others, but they don’t have memorials to look at or anything, so you wouldn’t know unless you’d had a look at the online guide. On the whole, I’m glad we did visit, since not only was it something new to see, it gave me something to blog about, plus the weather turned the next day, so at least I was able to feel that I made the most of the brief warm spell. Almost made it worth literally feeling like I was walking on needles the whole long three miles back!

 

 

16 comments

      1. I think part of it is the bad ’90s food photography too, which made even the rare vegetarian dish look unappealing. The colours always seemed off. I’ve noticed the same problem on Keith Floyd’s old shows too – I quite like Keith Floyd himself, but I wouldn’t have touched his food with a ten foot pole, at least not the way they made it look!

  1. Excellent. That’s a very cool cemetery. 22 years isn’t a long time at all for the letters of a grave to be faded.

  2. Interesting, I do live a good graveyard as you know. We went to one at the weekend, also armed with a map, but failed to find the one grave I really wanted to see. The map was accurate elsewhere so I suspect the stone has disappeared. Very disappointing!

    1. That is disappointing! That’s what happened when I tried to see Isabella Beeton’s grave at West Norwood, though I did manage to confirm with their Friends that it was just undergoing repair and would be replaced at some point. Sad if the stone is gone entirely!

      1. I’m not sure this graveyard has a Friends group unfortunately, though when I get round to making effort I can probably find out who made the map and try to contact them. It was the only woman’s grave highlighted so naturally I wanted to find it.

  3. We had a cemetery near a previous home as well. I didn’t know there were maps, but of course, someone somewhere must have a map! The gravestones that always get me are the very old ones, the writing almost faded, the mothers and children who died at a young age, and those with interesting names or engravings. And now I must check to see if that word has anything to do with graves!

    1. All cemeteries should have a map somewhere, but not all of them are available to the public. I think only ones with a lot of famous burials bother to put a map together, but all of them should be able to point you to a specific grave if you ask in the office. We saw a teddy bear shaped headstone on a baby’s grave here, which was very sad.

  4. I’m sure you’ve been to Golders Green Crematorium outside London. This vivid, always fun post reminded me of my visit there, when the groundsman took me into the cremation-oven room and I got to check out the fires and see lots of jars of human ashes, some labeled “Baby,” heartbreakingly. Love my cemeteries and crematoriums, and enjoy the vicarious visits you describe!

    1. I’ve been to Golders Green many times to top up my bagel supply and shop at Kosher Kingdom, which has a surprisingly large selection of American food (including duplex cookies which are such an old person cookie, but I love them because my grandpa always bought them), but never the crematorium. I wouldn’t have thought you could normally visit the crematorium itself!

  5. I was still laughing at “Jesii” when I caught sight of the Howard Carter stone. Whoa – I was not expecting that … though, come to think of it, I can’t say I’d really considered where he might be. Anyhow, he alone would get me in the gates. And Sandow?! So neat! Glad you discovered this treasure so close to home. Hope your feetses (as we call ‘em) have recovered.

    1. Glad someone appreciates my sacrilegious sense of humour!
      I think you’d expect Howard Carter to be in more of a sarcophagus situation, and it’s frankly a little disappointing that he isn’t, unless his coffin is secretly full-on King Tut splendour.
      Thanks! My feet are fine now, but I didn’t leave the house for about a week afterwards. Mostly because it got really cold, but also because of my sore feet.

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