Saturday 25 January 2020

Victorian cemetery's storage building for coffins given Grade II listing

The reception house in Margravine Cemetery, west London, has been given protected status (Department for Culture Media and Sport/PA Wire)
The reception house in Margravine Cemetery, west London, has been given protected status (Department for Culture Media and Sport/PA Wire)

A unique "reception house for the dead" tucked away in the corner of a Victorian cemetery has been given protected status.

The building in Hammersmith's Margravine Cemetery, West London, which was used to store coffins before burial to address concerns about leaving the dead in their homes or burying people when they were still alive, has been listed as Grade II.

The structure dates from a time when many poor people were living in crowded conditions in London, with families unable to immediately pay for funerals for their dead.

Bodies would be left on a table in the house while money was raised for the funeral, a situation which contributed to the spread of cholera, with repeated outbreaks in London between 1832 and 1866.

The reception house was a rare example of the buildings used to address the problem, a solution proposed by Edwin Chadwick, secretary to the Poor Law Commission, who led a nationwide review of sanitary conditions of the poor.

It also addressed a common fear that people would be buried when they were not actually dead, and copied the European "waiting mortuaries" where bodies would be held until signs of decomposition were evident.

Some nine mortuaries were constructed across the city, but they were larger and combined space for the dead with coroner's facilities, and the reception house is the only one of its kind remaining in London.

After undertakers were introduced in the 1880s, the use of such reception houses was phased out.

The octagonal building, though small, still manages to have a typically Victorian Gothic feel to it, with four narrow, iron-latticed windows and a steep roof with dormer vents which is topped off with a weather vane.

It survives in its original condition, and inside the stone slabs on the walls where coffins would have rested still remain.

It has been listed on the basis of its rarity, architectural interest and for adding to the understanding of Victorian funeral practices and improvements in public health.

Roger Bowdler, director of listing at government heritage agency Historic England, said that at the time the reception house was built, the dead were being kept "in the bosom of their family, and lots of people didn't have much room, so you've got the living cheek-by-jowl with the dead".

And he said: "The history of death is the history of life as well: of how we remember, how we improve public health and how we separate the living from the dead.

"Nowhere tells this as eloquently as a cemetery, and Margravine Cemetery contains some truly eloquent reminders of the London Way of Death".

He said of the building, built in 1869, "it's pretty, it's ghoulish in a way and it's absolutely fascinating".

Robert Stephenson, trustee of the Friends of Margravine Cemetery and chairman of the National Federation of Cemetery Friends, researched the history of the building tucked away under trees in a part of the cemetery where many headstones have been cleared away.

He said: "It's a unique thing, that puts this cemetery apart from anybody else. I haven't found anything like it in London."

Receiving the listing could help with securing funding for conservation work to the building.

Heritage minister Tracey Crouch said: "This reception house gives us a glimpse into how cholera outbreaks changed Victorian attitudes to burials and public health standards.

"It's an important part of London's history and I'm delighted that it will be listed."

PA Media

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