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Category Archives: London Cemeteries
St. James' was opened in 1788 as the new burial ground for St. James' Piccadilly. Following the typical pattern of burial grounds in this area, it was closed to burials in the mid-nineteenth century and opened as a public garden in 1887. Now run by Camden Council, it shows little evidence of its former use: there's a large tennis/baseball court in one corner, and only a few headstones remain in place.
Perhaps the most infamous resident of St. James' Gardens is the one-time President of the Protestant Association, Lord George Gordon, who lent his name to the Gordon Riots. Gordon had put out some very misleading propaganda against the Catholic Relief Act, itself designed to end the worst prejudices and exclusions practised against Catholics - he suggested, amongst other things, that there was a plot to turn Smithfield Market into a new seat for the Spanish Inquisition. Gordon's nonsense precipitated a series of attacks on Catholic businesses, chapels and homes across London, which then turned into general attacks on just about everything, incluing the Bank of England and Newgate prison. The King sent the army in, and 285 rioters ended up shot: another 25 were executed.
Though Gordon later converted to Judaism and lived a life of strict adherence to Jewish law, he was buried in St. James' burial ground; it's not clear why he wasn't put in a Jewish cemetery. There is (as far as I can see) no marker for his grave remaining.
The other intriguing grave, which does survive, is that of the Christie family: a large, dark slate cross by the western gate. Many of the causes of death are recorded: Edward, who died of fever caught on board ship at Port Royal, Jamaica; Charles, of the Bombay Infantry killed in Persia by Russian troops; James, the patriarch, recorded with his Pall Mall address, and two daughters who died young. Architypal early-nineteenth century family history.
Visiting: Open 7.30am to dusk. Euston station and turn right and right again up Hampstead Road. The burial ground is on your left. On a July Saturday lunchtime, many sunbathers and kids puffing; none of them had anything to say to a photographer in their midst.
St. Andrew's Gardens was originally the burial ground for the church of St. Andrew's Holborn. It was opened in 1747; like its near neighbour St. George's Gardens, it was separated from the church it served by quite some distance.
In 1850 the ground was closed for burials; it was opened again in 1885 as a public garden. Many of the headstones were removed, though some do remain to line the walls, and others sit in a pile, now fenced off. Several box tombs remain. As with St. George's, the beautiful wrought iron gates date from the opening as a garden, not from the burial ground. Camden Council is keeping it very nicely, with flower beds, not just grass and tarmac.
Visiting: Open 7.30am to dusk. King's Cross station, cross the road, straight down Grey's Inn Road and it's on the left after the Dental Hospital. Plenty of livings and dogs about, but no one bats an eyelid at photographers.
When people find out I hang around in cemeteries, one question that's inevitable is: "where do you want to be buried?" The answer, for a very long time, has been "nowhere". I didn't want to be buried at all, because - forgive me for being blunt here - I couldn't stand the thought of rotting (severe eczema in childhood will have that effect). I like cremation: it's quick, it's easy and - with a bit of luck - there's no memorial spot for my friends and relations to neglect after I'm gone. And I like fire.
But I'm really worried about the environmental impact. Assuming that the Natural Death Centre have their figure right, I don't want my last act on earth to be the equivalent of a 500 mile car journey. What to do?
Chums, I've figured out what to do. Woodland burial is it. Here's how I found out.
I spent an utterly brilliant day at the London Funeral Exhibition at Epping Forest Burial Park (no indeed; Epping is definitely not London). Burial at the park is done in an environmentally sustainable way: that means biodegradable coffins, wooden memorials only, in land that - once it's full - will revert to natural woodland.
It's a gorgeous site, which just feels like part of Epping Forest. Until, that is, you're walking through the woodland and come across small clearings with wooden markers, some decorated, many not, then you spot the newer graves... And it feels like being buried there would be returning my atoms to the dust whence they came: I like the idea of feeding trees very much.
Many thanks to the following for an excellent time:
- Paula and Kevin for lifts to the station and not telling me I'm crazy
- the other staff of the Woodland Burial Parks Group for their obvious love of their jobs
- Dr Hannah Rumble for the lecture on natural burial
- Rosie from the Natural Death Centre: let's get open-air cremation in the UK!
- Mervyn from the Institute of Civil Funerals for explaining why they're not humanists (and calling me "dogmatic" - he's right)
- the horses for an excellent trip round the park.
Visiting: Epping tube station and a cab, or drive. Kinda ironic that an environmentally sensitive burial site can only be reached by car. But also inevitable. Photography not an issue (be sensitive to livings, of which there were a few): on finding out about my website, at least three members of staff asked me "have you brought your camera?"
You can never go wrong saying that The Rise of the Middle Classes is what's happening at any period in English history. Similarly in London, Running Out of Burial Sites is the perennial feature. If it were possible to map every burial ground the city's ever had, there would be a series of dendrochronologous rings, ending in our own time with out of town burial parks in Ilford and Epping, moving in past the Magnificent Seven to Roman London where St. Paul's was on the edge of town. And on the way, passing the places I visited today.
St. George's Gardens was established in 1713 as a pair of burial grounds to serve the parishes of St. George the Martyr Queen Square and St. George's Bloomsbury: Rocque's map of 1746 shows the dividing line between the two grounds (today is marked by a line of broken headstones in the grass) as well as their rural situation. They were the first Anglican burial grounds to be set away from the churches they served.
Despite the perennially horrible state of the City churchyards, it seems that families were initially reluctant to bury their dead so far from the church (or perhaps, so far from their homes). But in 1715, Robert Nelson, the philanthropist who commissioned fifty new churches, was buried on the site, and from then on, it seems to have become rather fashionable: by 1725 there were around 20 burials a month.
St. George's also received the bodies of ten Jacobites who, after Culloden, were hanged, drawn and quartered at Kennington. Still more gruesomely, it was the site of the first theft of a dead body for dissection resulting in an indictment. In 1777, the gravedigger and his assistant were stopped nearby the burial ground, and quizzed on the contents of the sack they were carrying. Though they replied that they "didn't know", the contents proved to be the body of Mrs Jane Sainsbury. The two men were sentenced to six months' imprisonment, and to be "each be severely whipped from Kingsgate Street, Holborn, for a distance of half a mile to the Seven Dials".
By the early 1800s, the ground was overcrowded, and it was closed in 1855 under the Metropolitan Burials Act. It was reopened in 1890 by Princess Louise, then Marchioness of Lorne, as a public garden: some of the headstones were lined against the walls of the garden and the larger tombs retained. William Holmes designed a series of winding paths amongst the existing trees, and planted flower beds and lawns.
The terracotta statue of Euterpe, the Muse of Instrumental Music came from the Apollo Inn on Tottenham Court Road. It was presented to the Gardens in 1961 when the pub was demolished. (I can't seem to find what happened to the other Muses; does anyone know?)
The site is currently looked after by Camden Council's parks department, who on the whole do a pretty good job. The Friends of St. George's Gardens were founded in 1994 and continue to play a pivotal role in keeping this lovely place sacred.
Visiting: Open 7.30am to dusk. King's Cross station, cross the road and walk down Grey's Inn Road and turn right into Heathcote Street. Plenty of livings and dogs; no one minds about photography.
In 1853, the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, published regulations for the new cemeteries established under the Metropolitan Burial Act 1852. Here's how they looked published in the Illustrated London News in December of that year: