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Bethnal Green
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Additional notes by Brian Firth

St. Matthew's Churchyard.
Neat and tidy.
Consecrated as a burial ground in 1746 but by 1819 was already full. Burial vaults were included under the new National school built on part of the churchyard and finished by 1820, when 17 vaults could each hold 20 bodies. In 1826 the vestry stopped the bringing of 'boxes or cases of bones' from St. Katharine's and other London churches to St. Matthew's churchyard, where c. 50,000 had been buried by 1848.  In the cholera epidemic of 1849 the vaults contained 96 coffins piled up like 'bales of goods' and the common graves of cholera victims were a cause of sickness. Burials in St. Matthew's churchyard and vaults were discontinued from 1853.
(Adapted from the History of the County of Middlesex, 1998 edn. )
Slope to  west door built with remains from St Katharine’s Church restored after bomb damage. Garden in two pleasant rectangles. More tree covered to N and more municipal garden to S. Only two tombs remain. Now open to E after demolition of enclosing houses. Good railings and remnants of entry lampholder to W. A couple of palm trees! School to N  and 17thc watchhouse remain. (B.F.)
2 acres. This was consecrated in 1746, and was much overcrowded. A mortuary was built in it some years ago. There are vaults under the schools as well as the church. It is closed, but negotiations are on foot respecting its conversion into a garden. (Holmes)

View in 1818

View now
(by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell. See links for details of Ken's website)


    Interments in this parish take place to a great extent, in the crowded graveyards of Shoreditch Church (which is partly in this parish), of St. Matthew, and of Gibraltar Chapel, and in the Jews' burying-ground. There are no great number of interments in either of the cemeteries in the Green District. In Shoreditch and in St. Matthew's the ground has been very considerably raised by the numerous bodies which have been interred. I regret to state, that at no very great distance of time it was the practice to burn the coffins in one of the church-yards; it would be needless to inquire what became of the corpses. It would be greatly to the credit and advantage of the Christians, if they would follow the practice of the Hebrews, who never, upon any account, reopen a grave, or inter more than one in it. They bury at a depth of four feet below the surface, and when the ground has been fully occupied, they cover the whole surface with a fresh layer of earth, to a height of four feet, in which they again bury as before. This process has been twice followed in the Jews' burying- ground, so that three persons are interred in every 21 feet (3 feet by 7 feet), at a depth of 4, 8, and 12 feet below the surface. This practice is to be preferred to sinking a deep grave, as is the custom in some grave-yards, burying in it, filling it up a few feet, and leaving the grave open for the next occupant, when the same process is carried on, till the last coffin reaches a few feet sometimes a few inches from the surface.
    The practice of the Hebrews proves that interment in towns is not necessarily accompanied with desecration of the dead. It is the practice in St. Matthew's to bury in vaults, in the church, and as lately as last week a body was thus deposited. This practice is most abominable and reprehensible, and imperiously demands immediate abatement, as an offensive, dangerous, and disgusting nuisance. The smells and exhalations from a dead body are quite as offensive, and deleterious, as those from a dead ox or horse. Yet vaults, and grave-yards are less thought of than knackers'-yards, and slaughter-houses, which probably will be removed long before attention shall be bestowed on the evil effects which arise from neglecting to provide appropriate places for the decomposition of the remains of the human species. Proh pudor.
It is earnestly desired that the whole subject of' interment in towns should receive the early attention of Parliament, and that the practice should be abolished.    

                                                                           .     .      .

The better to illustrate the necessity of supervision, to improve the sanitary condition of schools, those attached to St. Matthews and St. James-the-Less may be selected. The St. Matthew schools, consist of the Charity, National, and Infant Schools, they were built in 1846, and consist of two large rooms, for scholastic purposes; there are other rooms, for other purposes. The building is situate in the north western corner of the church-yard, which is filled to repletion with corpses, the underground portion of the building consists of a central passage 49 feet long, and a side entrance. This passage is branched with seventeen brick vaults, or law cellars, which are used as catacombs, four of these are public cellars, in these last I counted ninety-six coffins piled one on the other, like so many bales of goods. I could not ascertain the number of bodies deposited in the other vaults, one only of which was bricked up. There is a large aperture at the end of the passage, for the emission of air from this place, the aperture is right under, and close to, the back entrance to the school, as well as to a most abominably filthy privy used by the children. On endeavouring to examine the state of this place, I was overcome by the most distressing nausea I have ever experienced during my sanitary investigations; whether this nausea should be entirely attributed to the filthy cesspool, or was partly due to the escape of foul air from the catacombs, I did not stay to inquire. I presume, however, that it was chiefly attributable to the former cause. How the children can use, and remain in, such a place, is almost incomprehensible.
    There is no supply of water whatever for the wants of the children, and the warming is accomplished by a common stove in the centre of the room, utterly insufficient to diffuse either an equable, or a sufficient heat; the children must therefore suffer greatly during winter from cold. The upper room is 75 feet long, by 32 and a-half broad, at the sides the walls are ten feet four inches nigh, but the roof being triangular, reaches in the centre a height of twenty-two feet six inches. Allowing nothing for the cross beams, desks, and raised platform, the bodies of the children, &c., this room contains 40037 cubic feet of air. It is occupied from nine a.m. till twelve noon, and from two till four p.m. by, on an average, 275 boys and the master. This number of persons, in the three hours of morning teaching, calculating eighteen inspirations to the minute, and twenty cubic inches of air to each respiration, generate 398 cubic feet of carbonic acid gas, or foul air, exactly one part in 100 of the whole contents of the room; consequently, unless there be some provision for the egress of the foul air, and the admission of pure air, the usual consequences arising from the respiration of a poisonous atmosphere, must be produced:-as wherever the proportion of carbonic acid gas is increased from scarcely one part in a thousand, the natural proportion of carbonic acid gas in the atmosphere, to one part in one hundred, its deleterious effects begin to be obviously manifested in man, by headache, languor, general oppression, and more or less stupor; these are the obvious and immediate effects. But, besides the foul air generated in the room itself, the children have the air they breathe still further contaminated by the hot and foul air which ascends by a staircase, from the lower school-room, and which will be presently spoken of: moreover, during the three hours of teaching, they have poured out from their lung d skins in the form of vapour, nearly fifty-two pints of noxious fluid; which noxious fluid is held in solution in the air, and still further defiles and contaminates it. Now the only means of ventilation, and of getting rid of this great amount of poisonous air, consist in opening the small windows on either side, and even this can scarcely be done except during the periods when the room is not used, but if the windows on the south side be opened, an atmosphere loaded with grave-yard emanations sweeps into the room, if on the north side, a nearly as bad result follows, for, but a short time since, a slaughter-house where a great number of cattle were usually killed, is close bye, and though the slaughtering has ceased, still foul smells, and most offensive effluvia arise; it will not then, under these circumstances, be deemed a matter of surprise, that the children constantly suffer from headache and sickness, from languor and listlessness, that they doze and are inattentive, and that fainting and vomiting is a nearly daily occurrence. The master and pupils alike complain of the most distressing sensations, from this wholesale respiration of foul air, which they themselves term very offensive.
   The lower room is forty-nine feet long, thirty-four and a-half broad, and eleven feet 4 inches high; it consequently contains 19.018 cubic feet of air: this space is encroached upon by a staircase, benches, the bodies of the children, &c. In this room, on an average, 135 girls are taught for the periods already specified. They and the mistress consequently generate 196 cubic feet of carbonic acid gas during the matinal hours; a quantity in the proportion of one part in every ninety- seven of the aerial contents of the room. A proportion sufficient to produce sensations and effects even more distressing and deleterious than those above referred to, but there is likewise poured out from the lungs and skins of the children during the same period, more than twenty-five pints of noxious fluid which is held in solution in the air they breathe.
    Between the morning and afternoon hours the windows are generally opened to procure ventilation, but it has always been found that by four o'clock the sense of heat and oppression has become as marked as at noon, thus proving that a considerable quantity of foul air is present, when afternoon teaching begins.
Sanitary Ramblings, Being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green, by Hector Gavin, 1848)

BETHNAL GREEN .- There are two burial grounds in this parish, called the old and new ground; the old ground, like that of Whitechapel, is very full; from eight to ten funerals have taken place daily, and three or four grave diggers are constantly employed. The depth of the graves is, on an average, little more than four feet, - at a greater depth the water flows in. The new ground is situated in the Bethnal Green Road, adjoining to the new church.
(Walker 1839)
Not clear which is the new ground Walker refers to. St John (not mentioned by Holmes as having a burial ground) was built in the 1820s. All other BG churches postdate Walker's book.

St. Peter's Churchyard, Hackney Road.
Church founded 1841. Burials recorded 1843 - 1855
Black flint church with narrow flanking strips and space at E backing onto vicarage. Conventionally Victorian gloom.
¼ acre. This churchyard is maintained as a public garden by the vicar, who opens it during the summer months. There are not many tombstones. (Holmes)

by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell

St. Bartholomew's Churchyard, near Cambridge Road.
Church founded 1844. Ground closed 1855. Shown as recreation ground on O.S. of 1984. Church now converted into flats. 
Obelisk remains and a couple of broken stones in park and play area enclosed by 19thc railings. Useful break in very built-up area.
Nearly an acre. This was laid out by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in 1885, and is maintained by the London County Council. It is immensely appreciated. (Holmes) 

by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell

St. James the Less Churchyard, Old Ford Road. 
Church opened 1842, ground closed 1855. 
Burial a big business here after closure of metropolitan burial grounds. As well as London overspill, it had a contract for West Ham paupers.Enclosed in high walls and razor wire. It is largely a playground for a private school. Apart from some old planes, there is no echo of its past, and there are no chickens.
Over an acre. Closed and considerably below the church. A dreary, swampy waste, containing about 10 sad-looking tombstones and  a colony of cocks and hens. (Holmes)

Victoria Park Cemetery.- 11 acres. 
Opened by a private company in 1845, and never consecrated.   By 1856 burials were at the rate of 130 every Sunday. Closed in 1876, after which  'the neglected ground was used by ruffians for gambling'.( A History of the County of Middlesex
.) Holmes describes a funeral in 1884; can this date be correct? 
Did good business in 1850s. e.g, St George’s Southwark ratepayers chose it as charges were 7s against Nunhead’s £1. Coffins packed up to ground level. Beside railway line, among flats. Looks typical left-over east End. A gothic entrance gate with one broken spike and brick piers at the NE with one illegible tablet. 

This is maintained as a public garden by the London County Council, having been laid out in 1894 by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association.  Before being laid out it was a most dreary, neglected-looking place; the soil is a heavy clay, and there used to be large wet lumps lying about all over the ground.. At a burial in 1884 the clerk brought a handful of earth out of his pocket to throw upon the coffin. Now it is a bright, useful, little park, and is called Meath Gardens. (Holmes)

Victoria Park Cemetery pre 1894; no sign of any gambling ruffians.

view today 
(by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell. )

Peel Grove Burial-ground  
4 acres. Opened 1840, closd 1855; never consecrated. in 15 years 20,000 corpses were buried six deep. Used extensively for Cholera victims. Shown on 1894 O.S. as open space; Horwood shows a large empty field. Now an asphalted playground.

Also called North-East London Cemetery, Cambridge Heath or Road Burial-ground and Kildy's Ground. According to a return in 1855 it was 4 acres in extent, but now there is hardly one acre. It is in the occupation of J. Glover and Sons, dealers in building materials, and is full of wood, pipes, &c. There are some sheds in it. It was a private ground, formed 100 years ago, and was very much crowded. The late Metropolitan Board of Works saved the existing part from being built over. Before its present use it was often  let out for shows, fairs, &c. (Holmes) 

(by kind permission of Mr Ken Russell. See links for details of Ken's website)

Gibraltar Walk Burial-ground, Bethnal Green Road.
In use from 1792 until 1855. as the ground of  a Congregational chapel.  Record of exhumation here post-war. 
Site of the ground is largely within the courtyard of Meridian Centre.

Another private ground, formed about 100 years ago. It belongs to a lady who lives in the house which opens into it, and who has let pieces of it as yards for the shops and houses round. It is full of shrubs, trees, and weeds, and covered with rubbish, and is about  ¾ acre in size. (Holmes)


Brady Street Ashkenazi Cemetery
Rather less neglected than in Mrs Holmes' day, though its appearance cannot have changed much.  Locked, so this was a climbing the wall job to get a look, rather as Mrs Holmes used to do. Closed 1858.
Burial place of Nathan Rothschild.

This existed 100 years ago, and belongs to the United Synagogue. I believe it is about 4 acres. It is crowded with upright gravestones, and there are no properly made paths, but it is covered with neglected grass. Part of it is higher than the rest, the soil having been raised and the ground having been used a second time. This was the ‘strangers’ portion. (Holmes)



'Strangers' portion in the centre

The Rothschild tombs

Pictures courtesy of Robert Bard

Lost grounds

Roman Catholic Ground, Bethnal Green.  
In use early 19th century. I have been unable to trace this rather ephemeral ground on any map. May also be the site of one of the Stepney plague pits. 

Another burial ground belonging to this chapel, (St Mary's RC Chapel, Finsbury Circus)  in Dog Row, Whitechapel Road, is also excessively full, and requires to be dug with the greatest care. (Walker 1839)

Providence Chapel Burial-ground.
Opened 1835.
This has now disappeared under low-rise flats facing onto Austin St.
Shoreditch Tabernacle, Hackney Road, was built on the site of the chapel. Part of the graveyard exists as a tar-paved yard or passage by the Tabernacle, with 4 tombstones against the walls. (Holmes)

Lost to Cambridge Road.   (Holmes)


Pest field, belonging to Stepney.  
On 1894 O.S. the area is shown as the Albion Brewery.
Now area  South of Lisbon Street and Collingwood Street. (Holmes)
St John's
Built 1826-28. EOLFHS website say there were no funerals at this church, but Middlesex County History confirms that there were vaults here, not used after 1856. 

Possible church burials or vaults:

St Phillip's Swanfield St.
Built 1842-3

St James the Great Bethnal Green Rd
Built 1842-3

Click here for a note on church and vault burials.