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Introduction to the site

A Curious Practice

From the perspective of those whose religious and cultural background is a Christian one, the funerary customs of our parish churches seem conventional and familiar enough. Yet members of other faiths may well regard them as revoltingly bizarre. Jews and Muslims traditionally bury their dead quickly, usually well outside their community. Hindus adopt the hygienic practice of cremation. In the Christian tradition, however, the corpses of the dead have until recently been interred in churchyards close to the living; the wealthy or distinguished were often buried within the building itself.  Consider Westminster Abbey from the perspective of a visitor from one of these other faiths. Here is a sacred building, yet the space beneath it, the ground around it, even its walls are stuffed with the decaying remains of human corpses. The Christian obsession with the remains of the dead is outdone only by the ancient Egyptians  or Madagascan ancestor cults.

            What is astonishing is just how long these practices continued, particularly in the cities of Britain.  By the end of the eighteenth century most of Europe, and the United States, recognised that the practice of uncontrolled burial in towns and cities was not just unpleasant but had serious health implications for such matters as water supply. Yet in London and other major cities these practices continued until the 1850s, despite the campaigns of men such as Edwin Chadwick and George Walker. 

            In one way, their failure is our gain; had the London churchyards and burial grounds been closed earlier, very few would remain today. As it is, there are many still scattered across the city. In 1800 there were around 500 of them; by 1900 this was down to around 350; a hundred years on many more have gone, despite supposedly strict rules on such matters. Inevitably in London there are powerful financial motives to twist the arms of the authorities, as there were in the nineteenth century when many fine Wren churches were sold off.  Even today the word ‘simony!’ has been muttered by one city churchman.

 Medieval London 

            The typical medieval churchyard was a model of ‘green’ practice. Most people were buried without coffins, and there was no tradition of gravestones. After a number of years had passed, the grave could be reopened, any remaining bones removed to a charnel, and the ground used again. The only effect would be the slow raising of the ground level as the centuries passed.
Disruption could be caused by the outbreak of plague. In severe outbreaks, plague pits were dug, usually outside the city, such as at Charterhouse Square, Smithfield. This worked well enough, though of course as the city spread the plague pits would end up within it, usually built over.
Apart from such emergencies burial within the parish was an entitlement.  For some of the very small pre-fire parish churchyards in London this must  have caused problems even when London was small; things would get much, much worse. 

The great Plague and Fire 

            The great plague of 1665 was a severe test for the London parishes.  At its height, plague pits were dug in areas such as Finsbury, Houndsditch, Tothill Fields and Knightsbridge. For the most part, however, parishes struggled on with burial within the parish, resorting to great pits within existing churchyards such as that at Aldgate described by Daniel Defoe. Pepys commented on how high the ground had risen in the churchyard of St Olave Hart Street as a result of the plague.            

           Before the fire there were around 109 parish churches within the city alone, each with its own burial ground. Most were destroyed in the fire, and less that half were rebuilt. This, however, had little effect on the space available for burials, as many of the old churchyards, and the spaces where the churches themselves had stood, were taken over by the new enlarged parish as additional burial grounds. This can be seen clearly in the existing grounds of St Laurence Pountney, where the north ground is the site of the church and the south ground the old churchyard. Where more than one ground was available to a parish there is evidence that there was a system of rotation, allowing grounds a period of ‘rest’ before being reused.

Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century

The population of London was by now increasing at an enormous rate, and yet still the right to burial within the parish remained. The parishes of the city itself were less affected as the population increases were most felt in the surrounding parishes: St Giles, St Martin in the Fields, The Strand parishes, Clerkenwell, St Lukes, Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Stepney, Southwark. Here matters were rapidly reaching crisis point. As an example, Holmes suggests the figure of 110,250 burials in a period of 160 years in the half acre of St Anne’s Soho. This would have been by no means the worst; figures for St Giles, The Green Ground in Portugal Street, or the Russell Court ground in St Mary le Strand Parish are incalculable. Most parishes had ‘poor grounds’ where human remains were dealt with with minimum ceremony, and left underground for the shortest time possible before being dug up to make room for someone else.

Non conformist, Catholic and private grounds

A tradition of separate grounds for non conformists  began with Bunhill fields. Following this many grounds were opened for various denominations, such as Methodists and Quakers. Grounds specifically for Catholics were opened in the early nineteenth century, notably at St Mary's Finsbury Circus, Cadogan Terrace Chelsea, and the ephemeral ground at Dog Row Whitechapel. Interestingly, a lead coffin recently found at Chelsea proved to be 18th century, before the establishment of the ground, which suggests that some bodies were moved to  more congenial surroundings once the burial grounds had been established. Many Catholics were happy with burial in older grounds such as at St Pancras or St Giles, which stretch back before the reformation.
          Some entrepreneurs - often funeral directors - established their own grounds and vaults at the end of the eighteenth century. While nominally non-conformist, they were in fact merely a means to make a quick buck by providing burials on the cheap, no questions asked. The conditions at sites such as Enon chapel, Spa fields  or New Bunhill Ground New Kent Rd were indescribably dreadful,  though Walker tackles the task of describing them with morbid relish.

Church vaults

On a number of pages there is a list headed 'possible vaults'.
Churches built in the eighteenth century and early would almost inevitably have vaults under them. There would also usually be burials under the floor of the church itself.  This tradition continued into the nineteenth century: many new churches were built in the 1820s and 1830s, and most would make provision for vault burial. Why?
  During the early 19th century, burial space was at a premium; the new cemeteries had yet to be opened, and parish grounds were full to bursting. The new churches were often built on small sites, hemmed in by buildings, with no room for a burial ground. Vaults were a solution to the problem.

    Vaults also made an enormous contribution too the finances of the parish. In some cases the vaults started to fill before the rest of the church was finished, establishing an income stream very early on in the life of the church. For all of these reasons I have listed churches that were built or in use before 1850. Where I  have no evidence at this time of the presence of vaults I have listed them as ‘possible’.

    By the 1850s the vaults were increasingly seen as a health hazard, though the churches for obvious financial reasons stoutly defended them. During this decade all church buildings and vaults were closed to further burials, unless special permission was granted.

Later History

Most of the parish grounds were closed after the passing of the burial act of 1852 and large cemeteries were opened much further out - even as far out as Brookwood, Surrey, which was served by its own train service from the London Necropolis station at Waterloo.  Over the next few years some grounds were built on, while other were simply left to fill up with rubbish.  By the 1880s people such as Arabella Holmes were waking up to the possibilities of reusing graveyards and burial grounds as public open spaces, and the remaining grounds were supposedly protected from any further development by the Disused Burials Act of 1884.  However, grounds continued, and continue, to disappear - the most recent loss in the City of London being the ground of St Benet Sherehog during the development of No. 1 Poultry. A surprising number of  grounds lost or curtailed in the nineteenth century became the sites for schools - a sensible use, perhaps, for redundant church land - and many a London school playground lies over a burial ground or even a plague pit.
         A considerable number of City grounds were lost in post-war development - Disused Burial Grounds Act notwithstanding - but many still remain, ranging from dreary stretches of grass to those few that still have the feel of an ancient churchyard. Their situation, surrounded by tall office blocks, is not always conducive to imaginative horticulture. Beyond the city, many grounds, especially those used for pauper burials are difficult to trace - therein lies the fun of the chase! 

Existing or lost?

When is a burial ground still a burial ground? City grounds on this website are divided into 'existing' and 'lost' but the distinction is not always clear cut. Clearly a ground that is covered completely by a large office block is 'lost', but what about a site now paved over, with no indication as to its previous purpose? The burial ground of St Lawrence Jewry is a case in point. It is not built on, but now forms part of the pedestrian precinct in front of the Guildhall with no indication that it was once a burial ground.   Even further complications can arrive when buildings are demolished and a once built over ground becomes open space again. Lost or existing?
      Probably the only true definition of a lost ground is one that has been emptied of human remains, but that information is not always available, though interesting evidence comes from the website of Cherished lands Ltd., exhumation experts, who list all of the exhumations they have done in London since the sixties.  As it is, visitors to this site should not consider 'existing' and 'lost' as hard and fast definitions.

The aim of this website
      I am attempting to provide a record of all the burial grounds in London, with current photographs and/or maps and historical notes and images where possible. Maps used (by kind permission of the London Topographical society) are mainly extracts from Rocque's plan that sparked Mrs Holmes's interest over 100 years ago. In some cases Horwood has been used for greater clarity.  Although in most  cases I have been unable to acquire permission to reproduce early Ordnance Survey maps, these are easily available in the excellent reprints produced by Alan Godfrey Maps. (See links.) 
         The task is a long way from being complete. I live outside London, and so photographic trips have to be taken when time is available. Currently, the City itself is fairly well covered, the suburbs sporadic. In many cases, the entry simply consists of the brief notes taken from Holmes' appendices.
           Clearly at the present rate the task will take  some years, and so I welcome contributions of current photographs and notes, corrections, and any historical information, all of which will be acknowledged.  Unlike a published book, a website can be a joint enterprise and have an unlimited number of authors.

Please note; although this site may be helpful to genealogists, tracing ancestors is not its primary function and I do not have information about who is buried where, apart from a handful of celebrity burials. On my links page I have listed some useful genealogical links.