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Guest post by London Historians Member Caroline Swan.

main_9781445661117_1It’s a fairly common occurrence for builders to uncover disused burial grounds in London; it can feel as though the entire city is built on top of a vast graveyard. Many visitors and Londoners alike are fascinated by London’s multitude of burial grounds and London’s Hidden Burial Grounds will no doubt be of interest to those who have wondered where Londoners were laid to rest in the centuries before edge-of-town cemeteries and cremations became the norm.

Rather than focusing on London’s famous suburban Victorian cemeteries, such as Highgate and Kensal Green, Robert Bard and Adrian Miles take the reader on a journey through central London’s lost burial grounds, little patches of ground that today serve as parks or playgrounds, or have disappeared altogether. The authors clearly covered many miles whilst researching this book, visiting the featured sites and taking photographs, many of which are featured (in colour) in the book, alongside historic images and some wonderful photographs from the archives of Museum of London Archaeology.

This book draws extensively on two key nineteenth-century sources: Gatherings from Graveyards by George Alfred Walker (1839) and The London Burial Grounds by Isabella Holmes (1896). Both of these figures had an interest in improving the health of Londoners – Walker, a surgeon, wanted to see inner-city graveyards shut, as he was concerned that overcrowded burial grounds were the cause of high levels of disease and mortality in the areas surrounding them, while Holmes campaigned for disused cemeteries to be transformed into parks and playgrounds for the use of people with little access to outside space.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds is divided into three main sections: “Plague Pits and Pest Fields,” “London’s Worst Nineteenth Century Burial Grounds,” and “Disused and Hidden Jewish Burial Grounds.” The chapter on plague pits and pesthouse grounds looks at sites from both of London’s famous plague outbreaks, in 1349 and 1665, as well as other sites of mass graves such as workhouse burying grounds. These sites are generally indistinguishable as burial grounds today – one of the featured burial grounds is now beneath a multi-story car park in Soho. Many of the Jewish burial grounds featured in the book’s final chapter are also hidden, but behind high walls and locked gates in unassuming corners of the East End.

The main part of the book is dedicated to the huge number of little churchyards and urban burial grounds that began to disappear during the nineteenth century. Many of the burial grounds used in London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were profit-making ventures run by often unscrupulous owners who crammed thousands of bodies into spaces that were nowhere near big enough. George Alfred Walker’s investigations helped to uncover the horrific practices going on in many of these places; the famous scandals of Spa Fields and the Enon Chapel are recounted here, along with accounts of churchyards literally overflowing with the dead. Bard and Walker also include an account of a woman thought to have died of cholera who, not actually dead, broke out of her coffin en route to burial in Southwark. The horrors of these overcrowded graveyards makes for grim but compelling reading – it is hard to imagine the sights and smells that Londoners must have been confronted with when visiting any of these places.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds sheds light on the often-overlooked history of burials in London before the advent of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries and their successors, and makes for a great guide to central London’s forgotten cemeteries. It is superbly illustrated with colour photographs, while an extensive bibliography includes a wide range of titles for further reading. The use of archaeological reports adds another dimension to the story, providing physical evidence to back up the often-lurid Victorian accounts of overcrowded, squalid burial grounds. All in all, it makes one grateful that the persistence of the likes of George Alfred Walker paid off and that the people of London are no longer forced to bury their loved ones in such dreadful places.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds by Robert Bard & Adrian Miles, is published by Amberley, 2017. Cover price is £14.99.

 

 

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The words of GK Chesterton – penned in 1914 – about the most fashionable of London cemeteries during the Victorian era and early 20th century .

Kensal Green Cemetery, one of London’s so-called Magnificent Seven, opened for business in 1833 on 48 acres of land (now 72 acres) along the Harrow Road to the north of Kensington. Its creation was the result of the urgent need for London to dispose of its dead outside the centre in the wake of severe cholera epidemics. The original plan was to create a massive pyramid in Primrose Hill with a capacity for five million corpses, but this fantastic scheme never came off and suburban cemeteries were adopted instead.

The cemetery’s success was slowly won and it wasn’t until Prince Augustus Frederick – appalled by the brouhaha involved in Royal funerals at St George’s Chapel Windsor – chose to be buried at Kensal Green, that things started looking up. He was interred in a private monument in 1843. This royal was followed by his sister, Princess Sophia,  in 1848 and sometime later by Prince George, Duke of Cambridge in 1904 (I wrote about this gentleman, his mistress and his pet earlier this year, here). With the touch of royal patronage, Kensal Green became the place to be seen dead. 650 members of the titled nobility and over 550 individuals noted in the Dictionary of National Biography reside here.

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General view with the Grade I listed Anglican chapel in the background.

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Yesterday, the London Historians took a tour of the cemetery, led by Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery volunteer guides Joe and Henry, hugely knowledgeable gentlemen both. The advantage of going on an official tour is that you gain access to the Grade I listed Anglican Chapel which sits directly above the larger of two sets of catacombs, which we also toured, mainly by torchlight. Torchlight was a bonus, because fortunately, most of the London Cemetery Company’s neon lighting down there doesn’t work! What does work, however, is the original coffin lowering contraption which has been fully restored, one of only two of its kind still in existence. It is powered via a hydraulic hand pump in the catacomb below, which requires two very sturdy operators pumping like billy-o. Coffins for the catacomb had to be made of sealed lead encased in wood: very heavy. Several of them have crumbled away from woodrot and woodworm and you can see the marks on the lead by the plumbers who had done the work, much in the fashion of stonemasons. Some of the posh coffins still have their velvet and silk drapery, fancy tassles and other decoration, much faded and fragile. All very Gothick. It’s quite an experience.

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Platform of coffin-lowering contraption in the Anglican Chapel. Image by Paul Davey. http://pauldaveycreative.co.uk/

We then took a guided tour of a selection the above ground monuments, 140 of which are Grade I and II listed. Some are interesting because of their style, some because of their incumbents, some both. Among many, the ones I remember and photographed included Blondin the tightrope walker, a favourite because he lived just up the road from me in Northfields; the Brunels; a very recent one, JG Ballard, one of many writers here who also include Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray; from the world of entertainment Terrence Rattigan, Harold Pinter and Andrew Dacrow, trick horse rider and proprietor of Astley’s Amphitheatre.

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London Historians following skilful backward-walking guide, Henry.

The monuments themselves are hugely varied, from the plain (eg the Brunels) to the outrageously flamboyant. Most have classical Graeco-Roman motifs, although Egyptian was a very popular choice for many. Unfortunately, those which had bronze decorations have mostly been desecrated over the years by metal thieves. Skanks!

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Mr and Mrs Blondin

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The Duke of Cambridge. Quite a plain one for royalty.

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William Mulready, Victorian genre painter and inventor of pre-paid letters.

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Egyptian style tomb of Andrew Ducrow, impressario.

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The Brunels, a surprisingly modest affair.

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JG Ballard. 2009.

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The Dissenters' Chapel. About five acres of the cemetery is reserved for the awkward squad.

More information at Wikipedia here, but better still, Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery here. Tours are on Sunday afternoons (contact the Friends via their web site to check availability) and cost £7. I thoroughly recommend you go on one.

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