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.

Posted in 18th Century & earlier London Cemeteries | 1 Comment

Palmerston’s new burial regulations

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:


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Posted in 19th Century London Cemeteries 2 Comments

Putting the fun in funereal: Kensal Green Cemetery Open Day

An Evening Standard columnist once said of Kensal Green's annual open day: "It was like a cross between a funeral, a gig by the Cure and a village fete." He wasn't wrong. For me, it's one of the highlights of the cemetery calendar.

The open day centred around the Anglican Chapel, with a range of stalls: most were Etsy Live, with artisans selling everything from jewellery and jams, to cemetery photographs and books. Gingerbread coffins, complete with iced skeletons, were much in evidence, and classic hearses lined the main avenue. Death, Goths and a man on a penny farthing milled about. It was magic.

Top of the bill for me were the tours. The Friends of Kensal Green run tours regularly on Sundays, but Open Day has many to choose from, including the opportunity to go into the catacombs. The latter are fascinating: please go if you have the chance. At 2,000 deposits in the last 170-odd years, they're not exactly a commercial proposition, but they are still being used. And seeing 150-year-old coffins with their red velvet covering still intact and even a trace of gilding left on the coffin furnishings is amazing.

Special hat-tips: Dr Julian Litten for the most excellent tour of the above-ground cemetery (and his equally excellent pre-need gravestone); the guys from Silent Cities: great to finally meet you; all the Friends for their amazing work and such a good day out.

Inevitably, there are more KG photos...

Posted in 19th Century Events London Cemeteries Magnificent Seven | 1 Comment

Mortlake Cemetery

Hammersmith New Cemetery seems to have changed its name back to Mortlake Cemetery. This - in case of future confusion - is the one on the east side of Mortlake Road, opposite North Sheen Cemetery, which latter is sometimes known as Fulham New Cemetery. I don't know what it is about having two cemeteries in close proximity that causes such confusion, but this is worse than the Hanwells!

Anyway. Like its sister over the road, lots of Mortlake Cemetery is being allowed to go grassy until the autumn, to encourage wildlife in the area. And it's really rather nice. Not spectacular, but shady and quiet on a hot June afternoon. It was opened in 1926 but somehow feels older than North Sheen's 1909: I suspect because the older memorials are more visible, and the lawn plaques are currently in a very small area only.

Mortlake's most notable graves for me today were two police officers killed in the line of duty. PC Edwin P Cook died in 1927, aged 33, attempting to rescue two workmen trapped in an inspection chamber and overcome by poisonous gas. He's also memorialised at Postman's Park as Percy Edwin Cook... wonder which name he preferred?

WPC Jane Arbuthnot, killed in the Harrod's bombing, is also buried here, and has a tree planted in her memory: no photo because there were some mourners tending a grave right opposite hers. It's odd, which memorials move me, and I can never quite predict what will: but this 22 year old police officer, killed on duty, certainly did.

In the north-east corner, a hedged-off area of the cemetery hides the crematorium. Mellor calls it "dour"; I rather liked it: at least the Deco windows are trying. The gardens are neat and tidy and utterly souless, but honestly I'd rather have that than acres of standard roses (sorry, people who plant standard roses).

Visiting: go to North Sheen Cemetery and walk through; otherwise the R68 bus stops outside. Has toilets disguised as a ski chalet behind a lot of hydrangeas.

Posted in 20th Century London Cemeteries | 2 Comments

North Sheen Cemetery

Just when we had given up all hope - yes, I know that is always the time that things do happen in novels and tales; but I can't help it. ... It WAS just when we had given up all hope, and I must therefore say so.

Jerome K. Jerome's words from Three Men in a Boat have never seemed more apt. I had trailed round a goodly part of North Sheen Cemetery hoping to prove that Neil hadn't made up the most improbable epitaph ever. And just when I'd decided that turning up with no real idea of where the grave was, was silly, and resolving to phone the cemetery office tomorrow, there she was. I'm torn between asking what her family can have been going through, and what they can have been thinking of:

Treated Wrong

North Sheen (a.k.a. Fulham New) is a cemetery of two halves. The southern, older half is covered in long grass, being left that way until the autumn to encourage wildlife in the area. Wildlife spotted included a green woodpecker, but nothing else very unusual.

The northern, newer half is filled with regimented, back-to-back rows of gravestones, with just enough room to run the grass mower between them. There's some evidence that in the 60s, Hammersmith and Fulham Council wanted to standardise things even further: there are a couple of rows of headstones, all the same size and shape, engraved on both sides. They look like council-supplied stones. Whatever they in fact were, I don't think they were terribly popular because there are several not engraved at all, and the practise was obviously discontinued after a few years: the rows revert to individually chosen formats.

Joan Keat's family are not the only people in North Sheen Cemetery with unusual ideas about what should be written on a gravestone. The family of biochemist Edward Tomich have a chunk of Gray's Elegy - was he as depressed as that choice makes him sound? But the best work is from Tony O'Gorman, who's set up at least three gravestones with the most wonderful, personal messages I've ever read. Good on you, sir.

Visiting: Allegedly 10 mins walk from Kew Gardens rail station (take the "not Kew Gardens" exit): this is only true if you turn down West Park Road and turn right down Mortlake Road. I, unfortunately, walked down North Road to the roundabout by Sainsburys. Once you've done that walk, it's 10 mins to the cemetery, or three stops on the 190 bus. Or drive, if you do drive.

Has toilets. Plenty of livings about, but no one bothering me about taking photos, possibly because I had my "looking for a grave" face on. Which indeed I was.

Posted in 20th Century London Cemeteries | 1 Comment