Imagine knowing that deep beneath your feet lay an unexplored, twilight world. A twisting, turning place of oily shadows, Gothic statues, and the endless silence of the dead. It may sound like something out of a fever dream experienced by H.P. Lovecraft, but this otherworldly necropolis really exists. If you live in the London borough of Lambeth, you may be sat above it at this very moment.
The creepy, subterranean catacombs of West Norwood Cemetery are one of the area’s best-kept secrets. A spooky collection of tunnels, filled with the lead-lined coffins of the dead, they are rarely used and rarely opened to the public. With a history stretching back to 1837, they represent Victorian Britain at its Gothic peak. And, as these photos demonstrate, the catacombs an atmosphere guaranteed to send chills running down your spine.
The early-mid 19th century was a time of great changes in Britain’s capital. It was around this time that pioneering sewage systems were created to end the cholera outbreaks that plagued the city. Part of this general drive toward sanitation included clearing up London’s chronically overcrowded cemeteries. After generations of use, the grounds of these churchyards were now swampy, pulpy wastelands of decaying remains and churning mud, where disease was rife and dreadful, apocalyptic odours were common.
The solution: create a host of grand new cemeteries on what was then the fringes of the town. Known as the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries, these marvels of Victorian architecture changed the way Londoners treated their dead.
West Norwood’s spooky catacombs were only a small part of a sea-change that saw the installation of hydraulic coffin lifts, improved sanitation facilities, and a renewed respect for the deceased. Largely forgotten today amid verdant, overgrown cemeteries, they represent the Victorian era at its inventive, artistic, and, yes, spooky peak.
Note: these images were taken by photographer Konstantin Binder during an official tour of West Norwood Cemetery catacombs.