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Why was the Baron buried in suburbia?

Why was Paul Julius Reuter buried in West Norwood Cemetery?

The question is often asked. Suburban south London seems a surprising choice for someone who was born in Germany and made his name in the bustling capital of a growing global empire.

Surely a cemetery nearer to his home in much more fashionable Kensington would have been more likely.

To find the answer we need to go back to the London of the first half of the 19th century.

In 1815 London was the largest city in the world. By 1860 its population had trebled to nearly 3.2 million. The first part of Mother Shipton’s Elizabethan prophesy that “Highgate Hill shall stand in the midst of London” had been fulfilled. The second part - “Then shall the folk of England be undone” - still seemed far from the truth. London and Great Britain were prospering as never before.

This rapid population increase came not at one price but several. High on the list was the urgent problem of how to dispose of the capital’s dead. By the 1830s parish graveyards surrounding London’s churches were beginning to fill up. Space had run out. Contamination of the city’s water supplies was causing epidemics. A serious outbreak of cholera in 1831 brought things to a crisis. Alternative solutions were needed, and quickly. In 1832 parliament closed all inner London churchyards to new burials. Seven new large cemeteries were laid out around the outskirts, beginning with Kensal Green. West Norwood cemetery in south London was consecrated for burials in 1837. Over the next half century, the inexorable expansion of the new railways would bring West Norwood great benefits. It would also lead to great change. 

Paul Julius Reuter bought two adjoining plots at West Norwood, pictured right, in 1863. He was living in Finsbury Square, just outside the City of  London. At the time, the three contiguous villages of Upper, Lower and West Norwood were still overwhelmingly rural. They would remain so for another three decades as depicted in Camille Pisarro’s Impressionist paintings produced while the artist was living in Upper Norwood in the early 1870s. One plot provided space for the graves for Reuter’s son, Alfred (born in 1859) who died in 1863, aged three, and for his daughter Alice (born in 1857) who died in 1872, aged 15. The adjacent plot was kept for use by himself and other members of his family.

Reuter died at his home in Nice in 1899. By now, much of rural Norwood was disappearing under bricks and mortar. At the same time, socially it was heading downwards. Nonetheless, during the intervening years, many famous names had joined the Reuters there. Among many others, Isabella Beeton of cookery book fame, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (the machine gun), William Burgess (architect), Sir Henry Tate (Tate & Lyle sugar; founder of the Tate Gallery) were interred under headstones of varying degrees of ostentation. 

Unlike his father, Reuter’s eldest son Herbert was educated as an English gentleman. But Reuter himself remained a German businessman running a firm based in London. He remained much as he had begun: a foreigner with no special emotional connection to England. In 1899 he owned two homes: 18/19 Kensington Palace Gardens, London, and 97 Promenade des Anglais, Nice. At the end of the 19th century the former was known as “Millionaire’s Row”. It still is. Almost exclusively, the houses there were owned by “new money”. While the houses themselves were overwhelmingly grand and showy, the plots and gardens were modest in size. Unlike the Rothschilds, who had remained true to their Jewish faith, the Reuters had no aspirations to buy country houses and estates and to carve for themselves a permanent place in British society. It is therefore unsurprising to learn that, on retiring in 1878, Reuter quit cold and foggy Kensington for the increasingly cosmopolitan winter warmth of Nice. Four years later Queen Victoria took her first holiday in Menton, beginning a love affair with the Riviera which would endure for the rest of her life.

Despite being the son of a rabbi and a convert to Christianity, there is no evidence of any philosophical religious dimension within Reuter’s make-up. The family already owned the plot at West Norwood; a municipal cemetery fitted the bill. His body was expensively conveyed back by train and steamer to West Norwood and there he was laid to rest beside his two long-dead young children. A curious fact is that, although baptised a Lutheran which meant that strictly he should be buried in the non-consecrated part of the cemetery, Reuter’s grave is in the consecrated part (consecrated by a Bishop of the Church of England). Balanced against this may be some evidence that, by the 1860s, the Reuters had abandoned rather humdrum Alie Street Lutheran Chapel in London’s East End for a more fashionable Anglican Church. As so often, with increased prosperity, the Reuters drifted towards the convenience of Anglicanism. Or is the answer that, because the structure of the Lutheran church has bishops, it is regarded as a sister church?

Over the years, further members of the extended Reuter family were buried in the family grave, the last in 1915 being Count Stenbock, a son-in-law. And here we reach the final irony of this story. For in 1915, during the second year of the Great War, the family decided to commission a new and more elaborate obelisk. This was a bad time for the nation in general and for the Reuters in particular. Herbert, Paul Julius’s son, had committed suicide some three months earlier in April. Hubert, Herbert’s son, was serving in France with the British Expeditionary Force. Olga, his daughter, the wife of John Douglas, Laird of Tilquhillie, was living in faraway Kincardineshire. So nobody was easily available to go down to West Norwood and inspect the newly-installed monument. Had someone done so, he or she would have spotted the glaring spelling error in Reuter’s second Christian name “Juluis”. My personal guess is that the younger craftsmen from the Stonemason’s across the road may already have left for the forces, leaving the work to be tackled by an older man whose eyesight was less sharp.

In 2002 - on receipt of yet another letter from a member of the public pointing out the error - Reuters finally decided that the mistake in the inscription had, itself, now become part of the story. It would be left uncorrected. A small additional tablet would be added to the grave. The wording devised by Donald Read, author of the official Reuters history, and myself is shown in this photo.

John Entwisle is manager of the Reuters Archive at Thomson Reuters. ■