A guide to searching for death and burial records in Southwark

Historical overview of burials and deaths

Records of deaths and records of burial are different from each other. Civil registration of deaths in England and Wales began in 1837. Before this, all burials, including those from nonconformist denominations could be carried out in the local Anglican parish, which was responsible for recording burials and where they took place. These records show the date of burial and not the date of death, (though this would certainly have been no more than a few days before).

Nunhead cemetery
Nunhead cemetery (2021)

After 1837, registration districts were set up following a similar arrangement to the Poor Law administration and these began recording deaths.

Until the 1850s, most burials in London took place in parish churchyards and people had a right to be buried in one, even if they were not of Anglican faith. There was a distinction between consecrated burials (for those of Anglican faith) and unconsecrated burials (for those of other Christian denominations, other faiths or no faith at all). From around 1810 to 1855 there were a few smaller, private cemeteries in Southwark, like Butler’s Burial Ground near Dockhead, whose records have survived along with a variety of those for the nonconformist chapels, but most have not.

By 1832 as a result of the public health issues caused by overcrowded burials in parish churchyards, the UK Parliament passed an act allowing the building of private cemeteries.

The first large commercial cemetery was Kensal Green, built in 1832, followed by six others including Nunhead (All Saint’s) Cemetery, built in 1840. The seven cemeteries were dubbed 'The Magnificent Seven' due to their scale and grandeur.  In the main, these cemeteries catered for those who could afford burial there, regardless of where they lived.

By 1852 all graveyards and smaller burial grounds were closed by order of the Burial Acts of 1850 and 1852 (though some burials continued until around 1880 for VIPs) and burials would now take place at larger commercial or municipal cemeteries. Camberwell Old Cemetery on Forest Hill Road (in what was then the old Parish of St Giles Camberwell, Surrey) had its first interment in 1856. Camberwell New Cemetery (also known as Honor Oak Cemetery) in Brenchley Gardens was opened by The Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell in 1927 on land purchased decades before, and its crematorium opened in 1929.

Generally, before the First World War, the cost of arranging burials was the most important factor in deciding where the deceased would be buried. It was common for poorer people to bury their dead outside of their parish, as the cost of the grave, not necessarily travel to the cemetery, was the most expensive part of the burial.

Burials covered by the Poor Law mostly went to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey. This cemetery was opened in 1854. Burial costs there were low and this attracted the custom of burial boards across London. However, some burial boards like St Saviour’s, Southwark went to places like Victoria Park Cemetery before Brookwood. Other east London cemeteries like Tower Hamlets, Manor Park and the City of London’s Cemetery also catered to poorer families. Catholic Irish families, particularly those from Bermondsey, tended to bury their dead at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leytonstone.

Page last updated: 23 September 2022

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