The Hellenic enclosure of the South Metropolitan (West Norwood) Cemetery

Zetta Theodoropoulou-Polychroniadis

In Kakavas, George (ed.), Treasured offerings : the legacy of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Sophia, London (Athens: Byzantine and Christian Museum, 2002), pp 9-20. ISBN 9602146036.

The Hellenic enclosure of West Norwood cemetery is not only an integral part of the history of the Hellenic Community of London but also of the whole Hellenic Nation. The moral remains of great benefactors of the newly established Hellenic State after the 1821 War of Independence lie under its Neoclassical burial monuments. A secluded area of about half an acre was acquired in 1842 to meet the needs of the distinguished members of the Community for their last journey.

The increasing number of Hellenes settling in Londno, especially between 1835 and 1840, led gradually to the consolidation of a Hellenic Community. 1/ By the end of 1839, the Hellenic Community was solidly established thanks to the leading personality and influence of Pandias S. Ralli.

The Minutes of the Community Sessions and the records of the church that were carefully kept from 1839 onwards, an invaluable source for the projects and activities of the community, reveal the urge of the Hellenes to acquire both a plce of worship and a cemetery for the burial of those "who pay the common debt." 2/

Priority was given to the establishment of a "Greek Orthodox chapel." As most Hellenes were gathered around the area of Finsbury Circus in the City, in 1837 one floor of a residential house at number 9 was turned into a chapel, in order to meet the religious needs of the growing Brotherhood.

At the General Assembly held on 6 November 1841, the Community appointed a Committee to accomplish the difficult task of finding a suitable plot for the burials of its members. The Committee comprised two churchwardens, Alexandros C. Ionidis and Antonios T. Ralli, and two distinguished members of the Brotherhood, Eustratios S. Ralli and Ioannis S. Schilizzi, and was fully authorised to "decide as they think best and to give effect to their decision," as recorded in the Minutes of the General Meetings. 3/ In a relatively short period, the Committee had successfully achieved its task.

On 2 July 1842, they reported to the General Meeting that an arrangement had been made with the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company for a special site in its West Norwood Cemetery to be allotted to serve as the Hellenic Cemetery. 4/ The General Assembly of the Brotherhood unanimously approved the Committee's decision and further authorised them to enclose the site of the cemetery with railings "and empowered them to spend up to 150." 5/ Thus, by mid-1842, the Hellenic Community acquired its own cemetery (Pl. 4).

The plot, 150 feet wide, was 150 feet deep to the right side and 80 feet deep to the left side, thus forming an uneven shape. 6/ The railings, of great artistic value, protect the enclosure and are supported at regular intervals by marble pilasters, adorned with female statues, which slightly exceed the height of the fence.

On the east side of the burial enclosure, a monumental gateway in teh shape of a Doric propylon with a heavy iron door leads to the mausoleums. The propylon is made of square blocks of marble and crowned with a pediment that is adorned with a cross at the top of its cornice. The blank metopes below are alternating with triglyphs. Besides the propylon, the cemetery's monuments reflect the strong influence of Classicism and in particular of the "Greek Revival" movement which reached its apogee in England in the years 1800-1830.

The recognition of the artistic value of these monuments by English Heritage 7/ led to research that produced interesting results. The names of only four architects -- J.O. Scott, George E. Street, Edward M. Barry and T.H. Vernon 8/ --, and only two sculptors -- J.H. Mabey, whose tomb lie not far away -- have been attributed with certainty. Light still needs to be shed on the artistic contributions of other known architects or artists to the Cemetery of Norwood. Nonetheless, it should be noted that all British architects who are appointed by the Community were reputable names in London.

In particular, Edward Middleton Barry (1830-1880) was one of the foremost architets of his time, a member of and Professor in the Royal Academy. 9/ Among his best-known works, testifying his preference for classical design, re the new Covent Garden Theater (1857-8), the Floral Hall (1857-1858), parts of the New Palace, Westminster (1866-1869), the Birmingham and Midland Institute (1856-1857) and the Sick Children's Hospital, Ormond Street (1871-1876). The quality of his work is reflected in two Grade II listed tombs in the South Metropolitan (West Norwood) cemetery. The tomb of Alexander Berens erected in 1858 in medieval Italian style is arguably the finest in the whole cemetery. In 1875 Berry was in charge of the erection of another fine monument, the tomb of the Greek family of Eustratios Ralli.

George Edmund Street (1824-1881), an accomplished ecclesiologist, by 1844 was accepted as an assistant in the office of Sir George Gilbert Scott and soon after started an independent practice. 10/ In 1868 he was nominated as sole architect for the Law Courts in the Strand and was recognised as one of the great champions of Gothic architecture, the style of choice, as shown from the long list of monuments he designed or restored in York, Winchester, Ripon, Oxford, Paris, Rome and Switzerland. He also was a member of and Professor in teh Royal Academy as well as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913), to whom the mortuary chapel of St Stephen is attributed, was later unanimously chosen to design the church of St Sophia.

The very first burials that took place in the cemetery of Norwood can be traced in the records of the church of Our Saviour, under the title Index of Deaths where all deaths between the years 1838 and 1859 11/ are listed. There was a notable increase in the number of deaths among infants and youngsters, possibly due to climate and the smog. However, there is no evidence to our knowledge as to where the Community had buried their kin before the acquisition of the Norwood cemetery. 12/

In the Index of Deaths the first to be mentioned is the name of Penelopi Ziffos, daughter of Lucas Ziffos, whose stories about the massacre of Chios inspired Demetrios Vikelas to write the book Loukis Laras. 13/ The girl, aged 3, died in 1838 and her remains were the first to be translated to Norwood on 3 September 1842. The funeral of Aglaia Tricoupis, the eldest child of Spyridon Tricoupis, who had served as Ambassador of Hellas in London between 1841 and 1843, also took place at Norwood on 5 September 1842.

One of the earliset documented uses of Norwood was the translation to the cemetery of the remains of an 18-year-old boy named Eustratios Spartalis, son of Demetrios Spartalis from Smyrna, on 5 July 1845. He died in December 1831 and in 1845 his family erected a mausoleum (TQ 3272 32/1114) in his memory, which was among the monuments by the English Heritage in 1981. It is situated south of the monumental gate. It was erected in the form of a distyle in antis Doric temple. Regrettably, the architect's name has not been documented. The monument has marble columns, set against pink granite. A pediment with a deep cornice and antefixes in the shape of palmettes crowns the building.

It is notable that certain families, i.e. the Ralli and the Schilizzi, had several tombs each. Four tombs belonging to the Ralli family and three tot he Schilizzi family have been listed. The earliest listed (TQ 3372 32/1117) was built in memory of John P. Ralli and dates from 1863. The mausoleum (Pl. 5) is situated west of the gate of the Hellenic enclosure, designed by G.E. Street (1824-1881). The rectangular building has a tall chamber in modified Gothic sytle, iron grille doors and a boat-shaped roof with massive ribs and trefoil cresting. It is probably that Street was inspired by Lycian tombs.

In the southeast corner of the cemetery, three impressive memorial tombs also testify to the glory of the Ralli Brothers: The family vaults of Antonios (1812-1882), Eustratios (1800-1884) and Alexander Ralli (1852-1927). The first monument (TQ 3272 32/1110), a distyle in antis pseudo-peripteral Doric temple, with elements borrowed from Roman and Hellenistic architecture, more closely resembles a Macedonian tomb than a Classical Doric temple (Pl 7). The name and place of origin (the island of Chios) of the family, as well as the date of erection (1876) appear in Greek on the pediment. Regrettably, the designer's name is unknown. The entire building is made of Portland stone. The heavy entablature is decorated with triglyphs and the pediment is surmounted by a stone cross.

The second monument (TQ3272 32/1123) also follows the pattern of a Doric temple enriched with Renaissance elements. The mausoleum was erected in 1875, designed by Edward M. Barry and completed by T.H. Vernon. This is the only monument where the names of the sculptors are known: C.H. and J.H. Mabey of Westminster. 14/ The monument (Pl. 8) made of Portland stone, has a projecting tetrastyle portico that is approached by steps. Carved religious stymbols and monograms such as the Star of David, XP and poppies decorate the metopes, which continue all around the building, while the pediment bears an elaborate carved laurel wreath, surrounded by two putti. The other elevations of the monument have pediments filled with sculpted figures. The building is crowned by the dominating marble ribbed dome with fish scale patterning; on its centre a metal cross rises from a rectangular base.

The third monument (TQ 3372 32/1112) is a rectangular marble chest tomb, whose exact date and designer are not recorded. The Italianate tomb (Pl. 9) is situated on a wide marble plinth, surrounded by hexagonal bollards with Lombard friezes and conical caps, which are linked by a heavy iron chain with spikes. The long sides of the tomb have two panels decorated with carved laurel wreaths and flanked by pilasters. The flat top of the tomb is surmounted by a raised cross.

The most impressive monument in the cemetery was erected in 1872, after the tragic death of Augustus Ralli, a 16-year-old student at Eton College. His father, Stephanos Ralli, sent a letter on 18 March 1872 to the members of the General Assembly, asking for authorisation from the Brotherhood to build, at his own expense, a small chapel in memory of his son. 15/ The General Assembly gratefully accepted this generous proposal and the churchwardens were charged to express the Community's gratitude to the donor. The churchwardens carried out the resolution of the General Assembly and asked permission from Stephanos Ralli to dedicate the Chapel to St Stephen, "in order that the remembrance of this valued gift might remain more vivid in the minds of our descendants."

The mortuary chape of St Stephen in the form of a Doric temple (TQ 3372 32/740), with sound classical proportions for its time of erection is attributed to John Oldrid Scott. The monument aligned North-South (Pl. O), 61 ft x 44 ft, with tetrastyle porticoes at the front and rear side was approached by four broad steps at both ends. The entrance, with its double doors, is crowned by a heavy architrave. The long sides of the chapel are flanked with lower side wings; each has a vertically inset narrow window. The chapel was entirely made of white and gold coloured fossiliferous limestone, while the sculptural decorations were made out of marble.

The rich sculptural decoration, in total harmony with the architectural plan, crowns the magnificent edifice (Pl. 10). It is clear that the architect was strongly influenced by the architecture of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis at Athens. The influence is apparent in the metopes of the chapel, which have figures depicting scenes from the life of Christ, reminiscent of those of the Parthenon sculptures. Particularly impressive is the first metope on the east side, which recalls the struggle between Lapiths and Centaurs of the south metopes of the Parthenon. The pediment is filled with in the round sculptured standing and reclining figures.

On the epistyle the inscription "The trumpet shall suond and the dad shall arise" 16/ in Greek, is still decipherable. Inside the chapel an inset inscription, recording the erection of the monument, catches the eye of the visitor: "Donated by Stephen and Marietta Ralli, in memory of their son Augustus, who died from rheumatic fever at the age of 16, at Eton." The richly coffered blue ceiling at the interior of the chapel is another element indicating the desire to imitate the Parthenon as accurately as possible. Sadly, the chapel, as most of the monuments, fell victim to vandalism in 1970 and the lead cover of its roof, an artistic masterpiece, was completely removed.

Twenty-one years after the erection of the chapel, Stephanos Ralli addressed a letter to the churchwardens stating that he was offering the amount of 1,000 on condition that it would be placed on a separate account and its interest would be kept for the maintenance of the cemetery chapel. The churchwardens administered this Special Cemetery Account until 1926. 17/ That year, the General Assembly decided to elect a body of Trustees to administer the cemetery estate, a situation that continues to our days.

Amongst the numerous significant monuments of prestigious families of the London Hellenic Community of the late nineteenth century is the family tomb of Nicholas A. Mavrocordato (TQ 3272 32/1119) -- the second Hellenic firm to appear in the directories of the City of London after the Ralli Brothers -- on the north side of the cemetery. The monument, whose designer is unknown, was built circa 1890 and is a rectangular stepped marble pedestal with a cross on its flat surface. A wrought iron crested screen of an elaborate design surrounds the marble cross.

The presence of one of the five noblest families of Chios, the Rodocanachi, is made prominent with their elegant monuments. One of these tombs was also listed in 1981. It carries the name of Petros P. Rodocanachi (1831-1899), who lost two of his six children in infancy. It is a table tomb (TQ3272 32/1115) on a rectangular moulded base, made of pink polished grantite, with an Ionic column at each corner. It is situated southwest of the monumental gate of the cemetery. The flat top of the monument is surmounted by a raised cross.

On the north side of the cemetery, the Pantelis A. Argenti mausoleum (TQ 3272 32/1120) catches the visitor's eye. Built in the late nineteenth century in Egyptian style, (Pl. 11) its chamber rests on a moulded base. Massive clasping pilasters with fluted capitals support the entablature. A fluted frieze runs aruond the building. Above the bronze double doors an inset panel bears the name of the family.

Adjacent to the above, stands the also listed (TQ 3272 32/1118) mausoleum of Xenophon E. Ballis, a trader from Smyrna who arrived in London in 1840. His daughter was married to Alkiviadis M. Vagliano. This late nineteenth-century temple-like mausoleum made of marble (Pl. 12), stands on a plinth approached by four steps. Fluted columns, a frieze with a Greek inscription and antefixes to the pediment and cornice compose its elegant Ionic style.

At the southeast corner of the cemetery an elegant late nineteenth-century chest tomb testifies the presence of the Antonios A. Vlastos family (1863-1933). The marble rectangular tomb (TQ 3272 32/1113) has a rolled at the edges round-arched top and its pediments are filled with carvings at either end.

Three imposing monuments of distinguished members of the Schilizzi family are also included in the English Heritage list. The earliest belongs to Theodore E. Schilizzi (1840-1887) and is situated Southwest of the monumental gateway. The baldacchino monument (TQ 3272 32/1116) was erected in 1872. Pink marble columns with white marble antae protect a life-size marble female statue dressed in classical robes, clasping a crucifix, which stands on a pink granite plinth (Pl 13).

The elegant classical chamber mausoleum (TQ 3272 32/1111) of John S. Schilizzi (1805-1892), whose family was said to be the richest Chiot family of the time, is situated in the southwest corner of the cemetery. (Pl 14) It consists of a tall rectangular chamber with battered sides on a stepped plinth. A projecting cornice and a frieze are placed above the elaborate couble ironwork doors. An inscription on the pediment gives the date of the building's erection: 1 June 1879.

An early twentieth-century (1908) listed monument belongs to John S. Schilizzi (1840-1908) and his wife Virginia (1849-1927), nie Sechiaris and mother of Helena Venizelos. The monument (TQ 3272 32/1122), situated near the west corner of the burial ground, consists of a sarcophagus with a female statue. A pink granite base supports the veined marble sarcophagus, both of which bear the names of the deceased. The sarcophagus is topped with a white marble female figure, half nude with flowing robes and veiled, abandoning herself to grief. To the rear, pink granite steps lead down to the vault (Pl 15).

The last listed monument, dated 1911, belongs to Marie Z. Michalinos, a relative of Zorzis Michalinos, the first Chiot to open a shipping office in London in 1892. The monument (TQ 3272 32/1121), situated next to the John S. and Virginia Schilizzi sarcophagus, is a close imitation of the fifth-century BC Athenian funerary stele of Hegeso (Pl. 15).

Significant, although not among the monuments listed in 1981, are the memorials of Panayis A. Vagliano (1814-1902) (Pl. 16) and Ioannis J. Gennadios (1844-1932), founders of the National Library and Gennadios Library at Athens respectively. The Vagliano monument was eventually listed in 1993 together with the sarcophagi of the Cassavetis and Sheridan families.

In the following hundred years the Hellenic Community became a reputable and important economic factor in British society, numbering about 2,500 people. Many of its members felt the necessity of securing plots for their burials elsewhere, as the Cemetery of Norwood had limited available space and, in 1935, a Committee was authorized to look into this matter.

The Committee consisted of three churchwardens. Theodoros Vlassopoulos, Octavius Valieris and Sir John Stavridis and three members of the Brotherhood, Theodore Mavrocordato, Planton Sinanidis and Pandias Lambrynoudis. The Committee reached an agreement with the Abney Park Cemetery Company for a plot measuring 42,000 squre feet. In 1937, the plot was purchased in Hendon Park Cemetery, NW4, at the price of 2,400. The layout of the cemetery was designed by Hector Corfiatos, Professor of Architecture at University College, London. 18/

The establishment of the new Hendon Cemetery, together with the withdrawal of many long-established families to the cuontryside, marked the beginning of the decline of the Cemetery of Norwood. Very soon, the abandoned memorials became victims of looting and vandalism.

The abandonment of the cemetery might have even led to the demolition of the chapel of St Stephen, until strong reactino from Kyriakos Metaxas, editor of the Greek Gazette, convinced the British authorities to list the chapel and fifteen other memorials as protected works of art. The commitment of distinguished members of the Hellenic Community, including the late Captain John D. Pateras, Michaelis Garris, John Psarros and the late Costas P. Lemos, led to essential conservation work in the chapel.

Norwood Cemetery contains the remains of renowned Hellenes who laid in many ways the foundations of modern Hellas, brought back to public awareness the Hellenic spirit, honoured their origin and won the respect of the British public. The cathedral of St Sophia and Norwood Cemetery are reminders of the determination of the Hellenic diaspora to maintain their cultural and spiritual identity not only while in this world but in eternal life as well. The enormous amount of work and money required to preserve this valuable source of modern Hellenic history is an outstanding debt owed to the founders of the Community by us and future generations. 19/


1/ Constantinides 1933, 18-19, 21-22. Catsiyannis 1993, 49-52.

2/ Constantinides 1933, 143. Catsiyannis 1993, 52.

3/ Constantinides 1933, 144 and footnote 1. Catsiyannis 1993, 355.

4/ The South Metropolitan Company was incorporated in 1836 and acquired 40 acres of land. The cemetery, designed by the famous architect Sir William Tite, was designated in 1977, as a conservation area. Famous Victorians buried there include Dr. W. Marsden, Sir Henry Tate, Thomas Cubitt, Dr. Gideon Mantell and Elisabeth Burgess.

5/ Constantinides 1933, 145.

6/ Catsiyannis 1985, 537-556. Catsiyannis 1993, 355.

7/ The descriptions of the following 15 monuments are based on the entries of English Heritage's list of protected monuments compiled in 1981.

8/ No information on the architect has been found.

9/ Dictionary 1885, 315-317.

10/ Dictionary 1898, 42-45.

11/ Tsibidaros 1974, 79-80.

12/ The information on E. Spartans' burial "on December 19, 1831, in the church of St Stephen, Coleman street..." from the Index of Deaths is the sole exception.

13/ Catsiyannis 1993, 129.

14/ On certain monuments the descriptions in the English Heritage entries have been revised, based on my personal research on site.

15/ Constantinides 1933, 144-145, Catsiyannis 1985, 538-542. Catsiyannis 1993, 356. Tsibidaros 1974, 85-86.

16/ Corinthians I, 15: 52.

17/ Constantinides 1933, 145.

18/ Catsiyannis 1985, 538. Catsiyannis 1993, 356.

19/ I would like to thank Bishop Theodoritos of Nazianzos for entrusting me with this article. I also want to acknoledge the assistance of Dr D. delmousou-Peppas, Ken Walton, George Manginis and Evangelia Roussou, Nicolas Skinitis, and of English Heritage for providing me with valuable information.