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Cemetery Archives: Bunhill Fields
If you're lucky enough to work in the area around Bunhill Fields, the City of London Corporation are running a series of events at lunchtimes next week. Ranging from complementary therapy sessions and bike surgery to (rather more to my taste) history tours and natural history talks, there's something on between 12.30 and 13.30 each lunchtime next week. Check out the press release for more information.
Organisers of events in cemeteries and friends' groups may like to know that I now have a calendar of London cemetery events in the sidebar over there -> to which your event can be added (for free, obviously). Just drop me a line with as much info as possible and a web link if there is one.
Bunhill Fields is - today - a small garden to the north of the City of London, opened on the site of a burial ground used between the sixteenth and nineteenth century. As the ground was never consecrated, it became the favoured burial site for nonconformists, and now is the resting place for John Bunyan, William Blake, Daniel Defoe, several members of the Cromwell family (though not Oliver) and Susanna Wesley (mother of John & Charles), as well as John Benjamin Tolkien, grandfather of J. R. R. of that ilk.
It's often said that Bunhill Fields gives us a taste of what the old burial grounds in London were like before the nineteenth century. Frankly, this is nonsense: Bunhill today is cleaned up, grassed over, with the graves tidily put away behind railings. The coffins, bones and even bodies that nineteenth century writers record as protruding from graves are all gone: all that really remains are some of the gravestones, with epitaphs deteriorated beyond reading.
I also discovered the small Quaker Burial Ground which was once part of Bunhill Fields, but now is hidden away in the midst of a housing development. The founder of the Quaker movement, George Fox, has a tiny memorial beside the wall; the rest of the ground has been turned into a (frankly, not very attractive) garden.
Visiting: Old Street, Moorgate, Barbican and Liverpool Street tubes are all within walking distance. Lots of livings, many dog walkers and some other photographers. Many of the stones are behind fenced enclosures: visit early afternoon in the week or make an appointment if you want to get closer.
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.
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