Rest in Peace London, Eventually

London has a long history of what has happened to it’s dead, how it has coped with the growing numbers of deceased and some of those being less favourable than others. Recently it has struck me just how many people over time have been moved after being buried, adding a slight irony to the term ‘Rest in Peace’. The thought that your final resting place may not be as final as you or your family anticipated is unthinkable in modern terms, but in burial grounds that were not equipped to hold the number of dead within them forever, the City has always found ways to move the dead if needs must.

In 1666, it was noted that before the Great Fire of London there were 109 parish churches in the Square Mile of the City, while some of these would not be built to be hugely permanent structures and be lost in the fire of that year, many of these were later rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren to leave around 80-90. From an early point in their life, churchyards in the city struggled with the number of dead in the overcrowded space. Some churches would have had a charnel house or ossuary like the one that remains in the crypt at St. Brides in Fleet Street. In these places it would have been common practice to dig up the bones of the long dead and arrange them in rows tucked away to rest in pieces and in peace, and in order to make space in a churchyard that is in high demand for burials. It is very satisfying to see rows of femurs and other long bones all neatly arranged, and it is astounding to think of how many people could be (and are) accommodated in this way. It may seem unjust today to exhume bones in that manner, but in some ways you can see the burial ground as preparation for the charnel house and it would keep their remains safe and tucked away within their parish for as long as it exists. But then one issue arises, what if it was to no longer exist?

St. Brides, Fleet Street

Most of you will know that I love to wander around a cemetery and get to know the people there a little better while I do. One of my favourite things to do is to read and say aloud the names of those who died a hundred years ago or more. Names that you don’t hear anymore, or unusual names that sound grand and old fashioned. I think saying them out loud acknowledges them in a way they may have not been for some time, and in a respectful way I hope they would appreciate.

While walking around many an old cemetery, I have noticed a few times that there are monuments to remains that have been moved often with no names but stating the place from where they originated. I imagine a giant scoop that sweeps down to pick up all the coffins in the ground and then place them in a not quite so giant hole somewhere else. All neatly in little rows. The only problem with that is how a whole churchyard of deceased, particularly a London churchyard that we know was probably filled to literal bursting in some cases, would fit in a space I can walk around in seconds. That and, as an ex archaeologist, I do have a much better idea of how the exhumation of a burial ground used to happen and how it happens now.

I think I first saw a similar kind of act when I visited the burial ground at St. Pancras Old Church near to Kings Cross in the city of London. In this very sparse looking graveyard there are a few monuments but many people visit purely to see what is called ‘The Hardy Tree’. This tree is a sight to behold, with what seems like a huge number of headstones, a number that seems impossible to count, packed tightly around the base of the tree. They are wedged in so you cannot read the inscriptions on the majority, encircling the entire tree like a cuff. It is said the writer Thomas Hardy placed these headstones here, when he was involved in the movement of hundreds of burials from the churchyard as part of the construction of the railway coming in and out of Euston station. The headstones are long seperated from the people that they refer to, but are lasting monument to the number of dead who were disturbed as part of a huge project to improve the lives of the living.

The Hardy Tree

London has, for a long time, had a reputation as being cramped and dirty. Throughout it’s history you can see through the different legislation that has been passed, there has been attempts to help this problem for quite some time, even up to the relatively modern Congestion Charge. In the mid-19th Century, it was recognised that a number of inner city churches were no longer functional and were falling or had fallen into disrepair. It breaks my heart to think of these ancient churches being destroyed, but the Union of Benefices Act of 1860 sought to do just this, unifying parishes in the city and removing some of the older churches which would make way for larger roads and bigger buildings. The removal of these parish churches meant that often the burial ground was too removed, and the deceased from there relocated to another burial ground, usually in the suburbs of the city.

The City of London Cemetery is on the edge of Epping Forest in the borough of Newham in East London. It is a huge cemetery with a stunning Columbarium and even a small natural burial area forming part of the grounds. As you enter, if you head towards the newer cremation facility and then turn right before you get to that and the path that leads to the columbarium, there is a long road that loops around up towards the railway which cuts across one side. Along this road there are a number of monuments which stand tall and proudly in a range of styles and sizes, each one is dedicated to a parish church and their dead who now lay to rest there. These church clearances happened from the late 1800s onwards and includes churches later destroyed in the Blitz attacks on the city.

One such monument from 1921

While researching this, I discovered a plea from 1925 as part of The St. Mildred’s Churchyard Bill where there was a concern expressed over the disappearing churchyards in London and therefore too the green spaces which Londoners relied on. While this discourse well represents the growing and still present fears around the loss of green spaces (or ‘lungs’) in the city, there is one section from the opening remarks that I would like to highlight.

“Its position opposite to the present Mansion House is a proof that in former days the inhabitants of this City parish were important citizens of London. Their bones are now to be removed to cemeteries with which they had no connection, and which did not exist in those days. Why is Parliament invited to give authority to such violent action? Forsooth, to enable the Midland Bank to add to its already magnificent offices and increase its business by giving to the public eye a still further visible proof of its financial stability. Who besides the bank will benefit if this burial ground is built over? Will the citizens of London in any way benefit? Certainly not. Will the congestion of population be diminished? No. Will those who now can find no roof under which to sleep be accommodated? No.”

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1925/mar/12/st-mildreds-churchyard-bill-hl#S5LV0060P0_19250312_HOL_7
The monument for St. Andrews parish in Holborn which was removed to make way for a viaduct in 1867

I think we can clearly see that the concerns of Londoners have been fairly consistent for a long time, but largely ignored as they city expands and reaches out across this corner of the country. I find these monuments fascinating, as they stand proudly to represent possibly a long forgotten parish and it’s deceased inhabitants. I would imagine these monuments are walked or driven past by many modern mourners who don’t have the time or inclination to observe them fully. It’s a respectful thing to do for the deceased who’s rest was disturbed, but would this still be the case now? I am aware of a large scale project in London currently which is exhuming huge numbers of deceased and it would be interesting to see what is done for them if anything. I can’t help think of too the boxes and boxes sat in archaeological archives containing bones of those from the past, a final resting place that would never have been imagined by those who inhabit them in life.

Lastly, I would like to mention that outside of the planned moves for the supposed greater good, it cannot be forgotten that some people have been moved against everyone’s will and taken to other places under the cover of darkness. Body snatching was rife at a time when a dead person could fetch good money from an anatomy school where the study of the human body was crying out for people to dissect. I could write as much as I have again and more on this topic but my friend Suzie does a much better job over on her blog Digging Up 1800 which I thoroughly recommend you check out!

I hope this longer read has been interesting and let me know if you would like to see more like this in the future! Huge thanks to my friend Laura T. who had spent many afternoons walking up and down and around the paths of the City of London with me. She has a lot of patience, especially when I am distracted by the wildlife too.

MG x

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