To many people Wandsworth is somewhere they drive through as fast as the traffic lights will allow on the A3 out of London towards Portsmouth, an area of London that lacks identity and a ‘heart’, with the modern, and partly empty shopping centre since Debenham’s left, Southside at its heart.
Look hard, scratch below the surface, and Wandsworth has a rich history which somehow became lost in the 20th century and, to its credit, the local authority is seeking to regenerate the town as a vibrant place to live, work and enjoy for the future while also celebrating its heritage. .
Who on earth would be mad enough to take on responsibility for a cemetery that is squeezed between two roads on the one-way system around the A3 in East Hill near to Wandsworth Common? The answer is Wandsworth Council.
The Mount Nod Cemetery is the former burial site of the Huguenots in Wandsworth. I enjoy visiting old cemeteries – they are a record of people and society in previous generations and some, like the Necropolis in Glasgow or the Cemetario de Colon in Havana, where people jostled for prestige in death as they had done in life, are works of art in their own right. Plus, these days, they are often a natural haven for wildlife.
The Mount Nod Cemetery was opened in 1687 and is the resting place of many of the Huguenots who came to Wandsworth to escape religious persecution in France, attracted by the cloth and textile mills along the River Wandle. It is difficult to imagine now, but in the 17th and 18th centuries Wandsworth was a renowned centre of fashion, millinery and clothes-making. Also, given current tensions on racial issues, it reminds us of how the people of Britain have welcomed and adopted people from different nationalities across the centuries.
The cemetery is an important part of Wandsworth’s history with tombs dating from c.1687 including those of Peter Paggen (d.1720) of Wandsworth Manor House, and John Gilham (d.1728). In 1911 a memorial, which has now been cleaned and restored, was erected to the memory of the Wandsworth Huguenots and those buried in the graveyard.
The cemetery, like many others across the country, had fallen into disrepair. The interesting question arose of who actually owns the cemetery and the tombs within it – technically, on the latter, I believe the tombs are still owned by the families – if they still exist.
Wandsworth Council was given ownership of the cemetery in 2019, with plans for conservation and repair. It first had to seek permission from any owners of the tombs it could trace and work is currently in progress to conserve the tombs and carefully restore the most important ones, after which it will be open to the public as a space to enjoy. It must be a very sensitive and complex conservation plan, given that many of the tombs are in a very bad state of repair.
At the south end of the burial ground is the former Board of Works offices, built 1888 by J Newton Dunn, whose claim to fame from the plaque outside is a link to Sir Horace Walpole and being the original home of the Booker Prize for literature.
Top marks to Wandsworth Council for this initiative which will reinforce its fascinating and relatively unknown history as centre for fashion, provide it with a new public space for people to enjoy and an environment in which wildlife can thrive.