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The Woolwich Cemeteries, Old And New

November 10, 2013
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The memorial to those who died in the Princess Alice disaster of 1878. It collided with another vessel, on the Thames just near Thamesmead.

This weekend I did something I rarely manage. I spent the whole two days without straying west of Woolwich Common. I even ignored the siren song of Cornerstone Café, calling me to my Eggs Florentine. Instead, I plunged east into the lovely depths of SE18 and set course for Plumstead. I followed some of the Green Chain paths that link Plumstead Common to Winns Common, and beyond to the Bostall Heath and Woods in the ward of Abbey Wood.

I didn’t make it to the woods this time. Instead, I turned down a path just beyond the Stone Age burial mound on Winn’s Common. A heavily-treed ravine led me down to Kingsdale Road, and to the pastoral beauty and serenity of the Woolwich Old Cemetery.

The cemetery opened in early 1856 and was almost full just short of 30 years later. These days, it’s hard to picture it as crowded. It’s more like a mature and elegant park: a verdant open space with a few headstones and memorial statues dotted here and there among the cypresses, beeches, and Scots pines.

As you wend your way up from the road, a diminutive and charming chapel comes into view, and standing nearby is the impressive Celtic-style memorial to the victims of the Princess Alice disaster of 1878. London’s worst-ever peacetime accident unfolded when the salon steamer The Princess Alice collided with the steam collier Bywell Castle on the Thames, near Thamesmead. About 600 people died. If you walk far enough along the Thames Path from the Woolwich Arsenal you’ll come to the spot near where it happened. An information board at the river’s edge tells the story.

As the old cemetery approached capacity, the resourceful Victorians found the money to buy more space nearby and opened the Woolwich New Cemetery on December 23, 1885. It is still in use today. It’s adjacent to the older one and occupies a larger space, a lovely plateau with sweeping views over the East Wickham Open Space. Moss-covered paths link various sections of the cemetery, and a wide driveway encircles it.

Both the old and new cemeteries also house Commonwealth war graves, 175 in all. The fallen were mostly from the United Kingdom. I saw the graves of some who perished very far from home: from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

The cemeteries are open daily from 9am until 7pm in summer, and 4pm in winter (including Christmas and New Year’s Day). If you haven’t been, consider including them on your next ramble around SE18. I think you’ll be glad you did.

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  1. I’ve done that ramble too – on New Year’s Day 2013 which was v-e-r-y cold.

    A note to add to the Princess Alice information … the reason that everyone died in the tragedy was that the collision occurred just as the Beckton sewage outfall emptied it’s sludge tanks into the outgoing Thames tide. Therefore all the passengers were engulfed in, well, you can guess. It led to a change in how London’s sewage was managed.

  2. They do look so peaceful and beautiful. The Princess Alice disaster must have been devastating for the community and it would have left a massive whole. How sad.

  3. Deborah permalink

    I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Greenwich Cemetery, too. Like most of the cemeteries in the borough, it’s not where you would expect it to be. It is in Eltham, off Well Hall Road, not far from the crossroads on Shooters Hill, where Woolwich and Eltham Commons almost meet.

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