Bunhill Fields

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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Brompton Cemetery

Brompton Cemetery has always been one of the more spectacular cemeteries in London, but its history has not been without problems. In 1836, The West London and Westminster Cemetery Company purchased thirty-five acres of land from Lord Kensington, and a further four acres from the Equitable Gas Company on which to establish their cemetery. The architect Benjamin Baud won a competition to design the layout, with an ambitious plan involving two grand entrances, a water gate to the canal, a circular colonade above catacombs and a trio of chapels.

Sadly, financial problems set in early for the company; a dispute about the ownership of the land meant that the first burial did not take place until 1840. By this time, fashion had moved away somewhat from Baud’s formal Classicism towards the wild and romantic Gothic seen at its height in Highgate, and Brompton’s custom was slow to get started. Chris Brooks ("Mortal Remains") gives early figures of "a handful" of burials in 1840, and just 89 in 1841. The Catholic and Dissenters’ chapels were dropped from Baud’s plan, and corners were cut on the construction of the other buildings. In 1844, Baud was sacked, and went on to sue the Company for unpaid fees.

Brompton’s difficulties coincided with government scrutity of the business of privately run burial grounds. Speculative ventures were too often run simply with an eye for profit: such as the notorious Enon Chapel, where 12,000 bodies were buried in one stinking crypt within twenty years and still others carted away and thrown into the Thames. Such scandals had finally led in 1850 to the Metropolitan Interments Act, which allowed for the compulsory public purchase of commercial burial sites. This legislation was revised in 1852, leaving Brompton as the only cemetery purchased under its provisions, and that for a price of £74,921.14s, less than half the Company’s asking price.

This may in the end have been the saving of Brompton Cemetery. Now managed by the Royal Parks, it never suffered the same neglect in the later twentieth century that threatened so many other cemeteries, and which might have lead to the loss altogether of this prime Chelsea real estate.

Today, Brompton is one of the busiest cemeteries we’ve ever visted, well-used by dog-walkers, skaters, local goths and cottaging men. The Friends’ group, though apparently lacking a website, is active throughout the year with tours and lectures (details from the lodge on Fulham Road).

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St. Thomas’ Roman Catholic Cemetery

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Fulham Palace Road Cemetery

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The Great Northern Cemetery at New Southgate

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