Without permission from the Church of England, which is required, council workers have demolished or removed several thousand stone monuments, including those of Joseph Whitaker, founder of the almanack that bears his name, Sir William Cubitt, the engineer who supervised the building of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park and Douglas William Jerrold, the journalist who co-founded Punch.
Prompted by conservationists from English Heritage, the Victorian Society and the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery, the Church is taking legal action to try to force the council to restore the site as far as possible to its former state. The Friends' chairman, Dr Robert Flanagan, said: 'Lambeth has behaved throughout in a totally cavalier fashion . . . We think that what remains of West Norwood is worth preserving because we will never see its like again.'
Architecturally and historically as important as London's two other famous Victorian cemeteries, Highgate and Kensal Green, West Norwood boasts the graves of Mrs Beeton, of cookery book fame, Baron Paul de Reuter, who founded the news agency, Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate after whom the gallery is named, John Lawson Johnston, the inventor of Bovril, and Thomas Keen, whose family firm made mustard and whose activities led to the phrase 'keen as . . .'
Their monuments have so far remained untouched, but the list of other Victorian worthies whose memorials have been removed is long. It includes those of Frederick Gye, the impresario who raised the money to build the Royal Opera House; Alexander Parkes, the inventor of celluloid; and William Simms, the optical instrument maker who built the transit circle defining the meridian at Greenwich.
Lambeth council took over West Norwood in a poor state of repair from a near-bankrupt cemetery company in 1966, and then adopted a policy of 'lawn conversion' which involved removing many of the monuments in order to make site maintenance easier and allow gang mowing. Later impetus for memorial clearance came in 1974 when burial law was changed, permitting the council to take possession of private graves which had originally been sold in perpetuity.
The council claims to be under pressure to find more burial space - West Norwood is the only cemetery it owns within the borough. Dr Flanagan said that, from about 42,000 individual graves in the cemetery, most of which would have had monuments, between 5,000 and 10,000 monuments have disappeared. The council has received hundreds of complaints.
On 20 December, a church judge, Michael Gray QC, the Chancellor of Southwark, will preside over a resumed consistory court hearing to consider whether the council should be required to restore the site to its former state - as Richard Bird, the Archdeacon of Lambeth, is asking - or whether, as the council is asking, it should be given retrospective faculty (the ecclesiastical equivalent of planning permission for past clearance work) and be allowed to continue whatever clearance work it wishes in the future.
A Lambeth council spokeswoman declined to comment, in the light of the pending court case.
Julian Litten, an expert on the history of the English funeral, who will be appearing as a witness, says that West Norwood has 'superb examples of almost every type of funerary monument possible . . . everything from earth graves right the way up to mausoleums'.
'What we have seen is the erosion of a 19th-century funerary landscape which was in essence perfection and is now a memory.'