The time had come to look east for our next excursion together – all Magnificent Seven had now been visited bar the two that lie in the East end of London. What with my recent acquaintance with the area – more specifically Mile End (Novo Cemetery being just a stone’s throw away) and its locality, I decided I’d like to see a little bit more of Tower Hamlets, and both myself and Christina were interested to see how the glamour of funerary practices a century ago would’ve been dealt with in this historically poor area.
After we followed the official Twitter account, a conversation struck up between us and Ken Greenway, the general manager of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and he invited us to a guided tour, allowing us the chance to interview him.
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’s presided over for eleven years, and enthusiastically began showing us around. It was immediately obvious this place meant a great deal to him: the passion he broadcast as the tour began was both infectious and heartwarming.
“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, this increasing to 80% by the end of the century. In sixty years 250,000 people were interred, 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”.
The sorry tale seemed to continue, as the Cemetery, like its sisters, fell into decline as mourning practices changed. Bomb damage in the War led the council to demolish both of the damaged Anglican and Dissenter Chapels, collapsing the Catacombs in the process which made me and Christina gasp in disbelief. 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 thirty-three acre site only losing 0.7 hectares to this thoughtless wreckage. The friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park were formed in the mid 80’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.”
One of the most encouraging things I’ve seen from our little jaunts so far is that this Cemetery has a clear vision to its future. 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, Mum’s 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.
Our thanks to Ken for taking the time from his busy schedule to show us around. The Park is also featured in ”Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival, and featured in episode three. Next week, Christina contributes her own thoughts on the visit, with this post we’ll also debut our first podcast (excitement! Woo!) – Ken said far too much of interest to be condensed into one post. Stay tuned and thank you for reading.
- The Novo Jewish Cemetery at Queen Mary (cemeteryclub.wordpress.com)