The moment of my greatness, Flickr
Category Archives: 18th Century & earlier
Bunhill Fields' history as a burial place goes back at least to the sixteenth century, when it was used as a depository for bones from the charnel house of St. Paul's. This is maybe the origin of its name, deriving from "bone hill". Though there is no evidence for its long-standing reputation as the site of a plague pit, it may have been reserved as such, but not used: instead, it became a burial ground for Dissenters (those who did not follow the exact prescriptions of the Church of England).
The earliest date on any memorial in the current graveyard is 1623: nothing follows until 1665, and Meller suggests that the isolated early burial is in fact a reinterment. Burials here in the late seventeenth century were so numerous that by 1700, the ground had to be enlarged, and by 1852 it was declared full, and closed: though interments into existing graves did continue as late as 1884. Threatened with sale for development by the Church Commissioners, Bunhill was transferred by Act of Parliament to the ownership of the City in 1867, and two years later, having been restored, opened to the public.
It's often said that Bunhill recalls the cramped, dark City church yards against which Walker, Chadwick, Holmes and their ilk campaigned so hard. Bunhill today is indeed dark and cramped compared to a modern cemetery, filled with row upon row of limestone slabes, still blackened from when the City ran on coal. But this is hardly one of the grounds described by Walker, though, where "rotten coffin wood and fragments of bone are scattered about." This darkly romantic place should not be allowed to cloud our eyes to the nasty reality of what has gone before.