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Cemetery Archives: St. George’s Gardens
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.
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