The Last of the Magnificent Seven to open in 1840: a cockney gem just five minutes walk from Mile End tube station.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is unlike what you would refer to as it siblings. The better known Highgate or Kensal Green have their affluent dead on prominent display: the regular people who weren’t able to afford ornate graves are cast to the sides and behind the architectural and sepulchral magnificence of Victorian funerary monuments. What better way to have the rich so prominently displayed in your showroom.
It also happens to be the most active on social media, and after a Twitter exchange, Cemetery Park manager Kenneth Greenway invited self and Christina for a toddle amongst the tombs to encounter some rather more pedestrian, but equally vital and important, social history.
We made our way to the Cemetery and met Ken at the entrance lodge. With great trepidation and expectation, Ken jovially welcomed us to a place he’d managed for eleven years and enthusiastically began showing us around. This is clearly more than just a job to him: he is fully aware of the responsibility of having 250,000 dead Londoners in his ‘office’.
“We were the last of the seven to open, in 1841” he began, as we made our way into the depths of this Woodland/Cemetery hybrid. “When we opened in 1841, London hadn’t reached much further than Regents Canal. There was development on the Mile End Road but pretty much all seven opened up in the countryside. When you stood here and looked south, you could’ve seen Shooters Hill in the distance and you would have been able to see the masts of the ships in the Thames and around you would have been sheep, cows and hay meadows. The residents of Mile End were often called ‘country bumpkins’, so all the cemeteries were installed at the edge of rural London, and they were farming to feed the city.”
We walked deeper into the site and immediately on our right hand side some huge monuments appeared. Some of them were unbelievably huge, looking far too grandiose for even Highgate of all places. “We’re walking along what I affectionately call Millionaire’s Row. For us these are our most expensive/most ornate graves in the whole place because every Horse-drawn hearse would come along this route for one of the two ceremonies”. Unlike the other cemeteries, there are only a handful of these grandiose monuments, and are all in one row. Unsurprisingly, 60% of the burials in the first ten years were in common graves, increasing to 80% by the end of the century, averaging to roughly 9000 people per year per acre. The rich either got buried elsewhere or settled for this little parade of magnificence.
“This meant the site quickly became full, but it also generated very little profit to return to shareholders, so the areas that became full with burials stopped being tended, so this beautiful woodland grew up and we do have accounts of people writing before the turn of the twentieth century talking about the inaccessibility of parts of the site, because the company just weren’t doing their job”.
This is backed up by stroingly worded complaints to the local press in the 1880s, that even had the local MP launching an investigation into terrible stories of common graves being filled with far too many people. The sorry tale seemed to continue, as the cemetery, like its sisters, fell into decline as mourning practices changed. Minor bomb damage during the War saw the demolition of the Anglican and Dissenter Chapels and the infilling of the catacombs beneath with concrete.
As the Cemetery approached capacity in 1963, the company declared bankruptcy, with the Greater London Authority buying the site for £100,000 to begin the process of closure, which finished in 1966. Modern day sensitivities would have been horrified at how this was executed, certainly in respect to monument clearing to landfills in Essex. “The only legal obligation that they (the council) had to fill for clearance here was to put notices in local papers and on all the entrances, so when you bear in mind London has experienced some massive migrations in its life , especially in East London, to places like Essex, Kent, elsewhere in Britain, or abroad – the people weren’t local anymore, there was no-one here to know what was going on!”
This destruction was too costly and it ceased shortly afterwards. The friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park were formed in the mid 1980’s after a newly formed Tower Hamlets Council inherited the space, sending representatives out into the local community to form a constituted group, which then became the charity that it is today a few years later. With the help of 3,000 volunteers: “they work with us to manage our three themes of wildlife, people and education. We’re the only woodland park in Tower Hamlets, we’re the most urban woodland in London:, we’re also a designated local nature reserve and a site of metropolitan importance for nature conversation.”
The cemetery is as valuable to the living residents of the local area as it is to its dead. Ken spoke of how important the local community finds this place, particularly schoolchildren, of whom 8,500 visit yearly as the Cemetery Park works in conjunction with Setpoint London East. “It’s their outdoor classroom, and this is an oasis in the middle of Tower Hamlets which makes people feel like they’re in the Countryside. We’re one of the best places in London for Butterflies, 28 different species are recorded here, and rare Bumblebees, Spiders and Beetles with plants found nowhere else this close to the city. These places are worth their weight in gold for local schools to have on their doorstep to have that up-close and personal connection with nature.” Despite the difficulties the Park faces from working with the council, which although supportive, faces many economic pressures as any other council does.
As we walk around this very pretty woodland, dog-walkers, joggers, Mums with push-chairs all wave and say hello to him. You feel that Ken and his able team of volunteers and the trustees who he works for have struck the right balance between heritage and nature, and this managed woodland in many ways is the natural succession from its former use as a cemetery, reflecting in the people who find solace whilst out walking or exercising. “We’re doing something right here. The people who come here and use the space feel safe and happy, as does the wildlife.”
“I never thought I’d come to a historic cemetery to invest that experience and knowledge but…I’ve found a home here. I look forward to seeing what it’ll be like in fifty years and the people who follow behind myself, because they’re going to have a lovely woodland to enjoy because of much of the new planting with a view of it being something in fifty to a hundred years time. The longer it exists, the more mature it is, and the more valuable it will be. We love to show off the place – for people to see, enjoy and discover how unique it is. ” There’s a strong lesson to be learnt here, and that these places of the dead can, if managed correctly, can contribute to the local community. Charlie Brown, the uncrowned King of Limehouse and eternal resident here, would certainly attest to that.
And little did I know how involved I would become with the cemetery in the subsequent years.