15 February 2012
During the early 19th century, London became the new home of Greek merchants and shippers displaced from the violent civil wars in their homeland. Here they could insure and finance ships through the City’s financial institutions, arrange for foreign letters of credit and trade cargoes which they could send through the port of London or Liverpool to reach the far ends of the Empire. In London they also constructed the most dramatic necropolis in the country.
These settlers brought not just their businesses, religion, food, and language. They also brought their love of beauty, art and architecture which they expressed through their funerary designs. Within Norwood, one of the most fashionable, stylish and expensive burial grounds of the day, they purchased an enclosure for a necropolis where they could raise Classical temples, grand monuments and beautiful statues with which to cherish their departed loved ones.
In 1872 Stephen Ralli added a large mortuary chapel. It took the form of half-sized Parthenon, with two low wings either side of the main hall, which was a chapel for funeral services. One wing could be used as a mortuary, where coffins could wait while their mausolea or vaults were being constructed. The other wing was for the burial of Stephen Ralli’s family, including his son Augustus, who had just died while a student at Eton.
The building itself was built precisely according to the rules of a C4th BC temple: Doric columns of a particular proportion, a portico with a carved frieze. However, unlike the original Parthenon with its pagan designs of centaurs, this design was updated with Christian motifs; it had 15 scenes from the Old and New Testament in the frieze. Below them an inscription in Greek reads “The trumpet shall sound and the dead will arise”; above them stands the Archangel Gabriel presiding over a scene of resurrection.
Entering through the high double doors, you are greeted by a tall white chamber or ‘cella’. In the centre is a tall mahogany bier, where the coffin would rest like the gem in the centre of a jewellery box. At the far end is an etched window by W Warren of Christ ascending; as your eyes track upwards, you see the coffered ceiling of dramatic starbursts and anthemion petals. The acoustics are such that a whisper can be heard from one side to the other.
The building has been attributed to Oldrid Scott, who was the architect for the Greek Orthodox Cathedral at Moscow Road, Bayswater, whose trustees now own the lease to the necropolis and chapel. It is now little used and in need of repair; if it was connected to the utilities it can be used more for choral services, readings, and events.
The Greek necropolis contains 19 listed buildings, including the Chapel. West Norwood Cemetery is 25 minutes from London Bridge or Victoria railway stations. It is open 7 days a week but the inside of the chapel can only be visited on special tours or events led by the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery. See newsletters at www.fownc.org for further information.
Post by Colin R. Fenn, Friends of West Norwood Cemetery.
Enter your email address below to join our mailing list: