It was on a cold Winter’s day on January 5th, 1854 that the relatives of fifteen year old Elizabeth Howell Oliver huddled around her grave to say their goodbyes. As the Minister committed her body to the dirt – ashes to ashes and dust to dust, a much broader event was coming to the fore. The cemetery was now full. Her funeral not only marked the passing of her time, but the closure of one of London’s most well-known graveyards. It’s unclear whether she would have been aware of it, but Ms. Oliver was the last person to be interred into the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, which had been taking human remains since the late seventeenth century.
On New Year’s Eve 2012, The Gentle Author recently brought to light some old magic lantern slides from the Bishopsgate Institute themed under the title ‘The Tombs of Old London‘ and one of the pictures he featured was of the Bunhill Fields in the early twentieth century, taken from what seemed to be the top deck of a double decker bus or tram. I fell in love with the image, and despite my interest in all things tomb-related, I’d never heard of it. Earlier this month I got the chance to visit it for the first time.
Bunhill is an elderly survivor of the kind of place many a Londoner found themselves ending up in when they expired. Unusually, this burial ground was not affiliated with the Church of England. Many of the people who chose to be buried here were Methodists, Baptists and other non-conformists, collectively known as dissenters, who were denied burial in many Churchyards for their slightly different view on the teachings of God. The area had been associated with burial since the Saxon times and during a clear-out of Old St.Paul’s charnel house, most of the cleared remains were deposited here.
During its closure and reopening as an open space in 1867, a path was cut straight through from its entrance in City Road to its exit in Bunhill Row, as it would have been impossible to navigate your way through this historic place for the sheer number of headstones. Many famous non-comformist people have been laid to rest here such as writer Daniel Defoe, mathematician Thomas Bayes and poet William Blake, who’s headstone actually marks the general area where he was buried as he was interred into a paupers grave: this was raised by public subscription in 1862.
People were still being buried here when the newer, suburban cemeteries on the fringes of London were being opened, although there was an awareness that its ‘life’ was reaching its end and that its closure would have been inevitable. A number of City non-conformists got together twenty years before its closure and opened what many regard to be its daughter cemetery (and fourth of the Magnificent Seven to be opened) Abney Park in Stoke Newington.
Surprisingly, the Victorians completed a sympathetic restoration of the burial space in 1867, perhaps conscious of the fact this was a dissenters graveyard. Headstones and tombs were re-etched and straightened, with Bunhill being opened as a public space by the Lord Mayor of London, who also happened to be the man who designed the Clarendon font.
Admittedly as you enter Bunhill from City Road, there is a gloomy atmosphere. Magnified by the white, featureless sky and bare trees waiting to burst into blossom, it’s eerie to see an old burial ground on this magnitude to be left so wonderfully intact. Despite the bomb damage it encountered in the Second World War, most of the tombs remain as they were when they were first erected.
There was a grittiness to it that none of its Victorian successors never quite captured: each stone denotes a life that ensured hardship and toil, further signified by the extreme weathering some of the monuments have suffered as a result of the London rain. The austerity of many of the monuments is noticeable too. Grand memorials are few and far between bar the odd obelisk and altar tomb: I was amazed I’d not yet visited considering how close it is to Old Street Station. How lucky we are to have a gem like this in London, where its inhabitants have escaped the clearances that befell many other similar places, and that their memory can still be remembered despite the upset their religious beliefs may have caused them in life.
Photos edited by Stephen Roberts.