After attending the ‘Pets in the Lives of Twentieth Century Londoners’ talk and accompanying pop-up exhibition Pets in the Archives at Putney Library in June 2018, I was inspired to discover more about my recollection of the ‘Pet Cemetery’ in Southfields, where I lived as a child in the 1950s.
Having spoken with neighbours, who have lived in the area for more years than myself, there was an agreement that the cemetery had been in the garden of a house in Melrose Road, just south of West Hill.
My first ‘port of call’ when commencing local research is to visit Wandsworth Heritage Service based at Battersea Library. A Street Directory confirmed the address as 69 Melrose Road, Southfields Nursery, resident Mr Ernest Dixon (Landscape Gardener). On advice from the always helpful Archivist, I looked through the postcard index drawers. There were reference cards for the Cemetery – Pet, Ernest Dixon and his wife Dora Dixon. (I couldn’t believe my good fortune). Assistance was required to use the micro film reader. (I don’t think it will ever be my ‘friend’ but the film(s) are a valuable source of non-digitised information).
With the use of Ancestry.com, Wandsworth Street Directories and speaking to neighbours, I was able to start to construct a ‘history’ for Ernest Dixon.
Melrose Road was ‘exploring distance’ from the house where my brother and I lived as children in the 1950s. We liked to visit this spot as number 69 was the last house on the road and was next to the District Line railway. Here we could peer through the mesh fencing and see the trains emerge on their journey between East Putney and Southfields. A report in the Wandsworth Borough News of 1956 tells us about the cemetery at this time, and described it as being to the ‘comfort of those who like to know that old friends are treated with respect at the close of life’:
The recent showing of a picture of the old, and closed, pets’ cemetery at one of the lodges in Hyde Park seems to have stimulated interest in the subject.
Our photographer has visited Mr Ernest Dixon’s 30-year old pets’ cemetery at Southfields Nurseries next to the railway at Melrose Road, which is still functioning to the comfort of those who like to know that old friends are treated with respect at the close of life. Buried in the garden set apart for the purpose are many dogs, cats, a parrot, canary, goldfish and a white mouse which had to die because the little boy that owned and loved him was evacuated in 1939. The cemetery can be seen any time except Saturday afternoon (Wandsworth Borough News, 19 October 1956, p. 5)
The then 69 Melrose Road, which on maps appears as a long, triangulated sliver of land between 67 Melrose Road and the railway embankment, is now a three-floor development of eleven flats called Roxburgh Court.
Ernest Dixon, Landscape Gardener and local historian
Ernest Dixon was quite a well-known landscape gardener, specialising in rock gardens, winning a Silver Gilt Flora Medal for his octagonal garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 1915. He continued to exhibit at Chelsea in the 1920s and also the Ideal Home Show (see, for example, Illustrated London News, 30 May 1925, p. 1053 and The Sphere, 15 March 1924, p. 288). His father and grandfather (both named James) worked as nurserymen and Ernest was to become a nurseryman and landscape gardener and F.R.H.S (Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society). The Dixon family, who came originally from Huntingdonshire, owned several properties and businesses in the Southfields / Putney / Wandsworth area. Ernest, a lifelong resident of the borough of Wandsworth, was born in Battersea in 1881 and attended Emanuel School as a day boy. In the 1901 Census, when nineteen-year-old Ernest was living at home on Wandsworth Common North Side, both he and his father were enumerated as ‘Nurseryman & Florist’, and as employers. Ernest Dixon was listed in The Garden magazine of 1912 as being of Putney and Roehampton and, from about 1915, at West Hill Nursery, Putney; the latter address could refer to the Melrose Road site since Dixon was living in Melrose Road from about 1911, but could equally represent another, larger grounds and family business nearby (134 West Hill appears as one of Dixon’s two addresses in the Wandsworth Street Directory of 1914-15). More certainly, directories place him at 69 Melrose Road from 1935, and he was advertising the Pets’ Cemetery there from at least 1938. This tallies with the notice of 1956 above, which said that the cemetery was thirty years old.
Ernest Dixon was also a local historian and member of Wandsworth Historical Society. In 1920 it was reported in the national and local press that Dixon had discovered a lost Roman monument to Lucius Ampudius Philomusus, a sepulchral carving measuring 5ft long and 2ft wide. Dixon had acquired the sculpture ‘from a contractor in whose yard it had lain for many years’, and removed it to his nursery at Putney, where it ‘formed the central feature of a rock garden’ (Wandsworth Borough News, 27th August 1920, p. 7). Dixon later gave the tomb monument to the British Museum, where it could be seen on the wall among the Roman antiquities.
Quite why Dixon established the pet cemetery is not known, but it does not appear to have been common to combine a nursery with a pet cemetery, and advertisements indicate that he was very enterprising. In 1938, My Garden magazine thought that the Pets’ Cemetery at Dixon’s Nurseries, Melrose Road, was a ‘charming idea’ that readers would like to hear more about (December 1938, p. 553). Dixon’s advertisements for this service, which were placed in My Garden in 1938 and also in the dog pages of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News during 1939, offered a ‘Cemetery for Pets in a London flower garden’ (e.g., Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 3 February 1939, p. 4).
Twenty years later a short article on the cemetery appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. This piece, entitled the ‘Animals’ Garden of Rest’, noted that a retired landscape gardener had ‘earned the gratitude of hundreds of animal-lovers by devoting a large part of his allotment to a pets’ cemetery’, and that it was recommended by the RSPCA, the Blue Cross and local vets:
The cemetery, at the foot of a railway embankment in Southfields, London, is the idea of 80 years old Mr Ernest Dixon … There are nearly 400 graves, shaded by flowering shrubs, rose bushes and fruit trees, and bordered by neatly-trimmed hedges. The largest buried animal is a Great Dane, and the smallest a budgerigar.
A small fee was charged for burials but Dixon said he ‘wouldn’t turn away anyone who was genuinely too poor to pay’ (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 22 June 1961, p. 8).
Ernest Dixon died, at the age of 87, in 1969. His obituary by Wandsworth Historical Society (News Sheet, No. 2, 1969, p. 1) did not mention the nursery business but a ‘Pets Cemetery’ is still shown on the 1970 Ordnance Survey (previously it had been marked simply as ‘Nursery’); the nursery and presumably the pet cemetery were built over by Roxburgh Court from around that time.
The first pet I recall was a large ginger tom cat. He was called Chelsea (nothing to do with the football club) and named after my brother’s imaginary friend who lived in the hallstand drawer. Strangely, after the arrival of our handsome cat the mysterious friend moved out. Big ginger was a patient cat and endured many a journey around the local streets in my doll’s pram. No explanation was given to us as children about his final ‘departure’. However, I feel the extravagance of a memorial in the nearby pet cemetery would not have been an option.
This post was written by Jen Cobb and she would like to thank the staff at Wandsworth Heritage Service for their help in finding the articles and other records used above.
Sadly only the above picture of Chelsea the cat has survived but photographs of some of the other pets in Jen’s family, including her Nana’s budgies, can be found at: https://www.instagram.com/pet_histories/
The blog about Florence Turtle and her pets by Emma Anthony, Wandsworth Heritage Service Archivist, can be read here: https://pethistories.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/living-flesh-to-clothe-these-bones-the-diaries-of-florence-turtle/