In 1802, an Act of Parliament was passed to turn four acres of farmland in north London into Camden Town Cemetery, as the new burial ground for St. Martin's in the Fields. The Act provided for the building of a chapel and other accomodation on the site, as well as stating that the cemetery should be enclosed by a "substantial brick wall"; the north wall which still exists today is believed to be part of that.
Three years later, the cemetery was consecrated by Beilby Porteous, the Bishop of London. But its life was not a peaceful one: someone always had their eyes on this desirable bit of land. In 1817, permission was granted to build almshouses on an unused part of the ground: these survive to this day. In 1854, further permission was granted for development on the site, including demolition of the existing buildings.
Work began in 1855. The project required the exhumation of hundreds of bodies from the site, and the public outcry was huge. Fencing around the site was torn down, and navvies working on the dig were pelted with stones. It was said in contemporary newspaper reports that the stench from the exhumed bodies was "abominable" and that the Under-Secretary of State visited the site and immediately had the digging stopped. It's thought that the large mound in the centre of the gardens could be the exhumed bodies from this time, though it may date back several decades earlier, to the clearing of St. Martin's original burial ground, lost when Trafalgar Square was constructed in the 1820s.
Either way, by 1884 the cemetery was closed as a burial ground, and reopened as public gardens five years later by the Countess of Rosebery, Hannah Rothschild. These days, they're in pretty constant use by the sunbathers and beer-drinkers of Camden; one corner has been fenced off to make a children's playground. A few chest tombs survive, and headstones line the north wall. The Gardens were reopened in 2006 after restoration by the council, by the current Countess of Rosebery, the granddaughter-in-law of the last one to do the job.
It's easy to assume that no one else is taking any notice of the history in a place like this, but one lovely Irish gentleman spotted me trying to puzzle out the inscription on a tomb, and told me he's spent the last 15 years walking past it, trying to see what it says. Neither of us could figure it out.
The Friends of St. Martin's Gardens have a blog, though they don't post on it very often.
Visiting: St. Martin's Gardens is on the corner of Pratt Street and Camden Street. Walkable from Camden Town or Camden Road stations; any bus that will get you to Camden will also do. No one bothers about photographers here.
First picture borrowed from Camden Council's website.