Inventory Site Record

St John's Churchyard Gardens (Hackney)

Brief Description

St John-at-Hackney Churchyard Gardens was the burial ground of Hackney's first parish church of St Augustine. The medieval church was demolished in 1790 although the C13th tower remains. Its burial ground was walled in 1707 and expanded twice in the C18th, in 1763 and 1790. The latter expansion enabled the erection of the new church of St John when a much larger church was needed for the growing population. The burial ground was declared full in 1859, and in 1893/4 was converted into a public garden; graves were grassed over, headstones moved to the perimeter and chest tombs into railed enclosures. It was re-opened as St John’s Gardens in 1894. In 1963, a walled garden was laid out. Neglected by the late C20th, in 2006/7 the gardens were extensively refurbished.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
Hackney Parish Church; St John's Gardens; St John-at-Hackney
Site location:
Lower Clapton Road/Mare Street
E5 0PD
What 3 Words:
Type of site:
Public Gardens;, Churchyard
Open to public?
Opening times:
unrestricted; church open Weds 10am-2pm. St Augustine's Tower open last Sunday of month 2-4.30pm
Special conditions:
Play area, water play facility in walled garden. Brew for Two café open Mon-Fri 6am-6pm, Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 12-6pm
Events for families, adults and schools groups run by St John at Hackney Churchyard Heritage Officer. Concerts in church.
Public transport:
London Overground: Hackney Central. Bus: 36, 48, 55, 106, 253, S2.
Research updated:
Last minor changes:

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.hackney.gov.uk/cp-st-johns.htm; www.stjohnathackney.org.uk

Full Site Description

St John-at-Hackney Churchyard Gardens is on the site of the burial ground of Hackney's first parish church, dedicated to St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, on land probably given by the Knights Templar whose patron saint was St Augustine. When the Knights Templar were suppressed in 1308 their lands were given to the Knights of St John which is the likely cause of the change of dedication when the new church was built. The old church was demolished in 1790 although the C13th tower remains in the south-west corner, Hackney's oldest surviving building; stone posts in the delineate where the church had stood. Its burial ground was walled in 1707 and expanded twice during the C18th taking in New Church Field in 1763 and New Church Yard in 1790, this latter expansion allowing for the erection of the new church of St John. This was necessitated by the population expansion in the parish, increasing from 1,000 houses recorded in 1756 to 1,500 by 1789, and a church to accommodate 3,000 was proposed, although some felt this was too large The original architect was William Blackburn, who had designed prisons and was a friend of prison reformer John Howard. When Blackburn died suddenly in 1790, James Spiller was appointed as architect; he also feared that there would be problems with audibility in a building accommodating 3,000 people but only managed to argue for bringing it down to 2,600 which he still felt obliged him 'to build a Church in which it is difficult to hear in unless it be full and then I believe not in all parts'.

Work began in 1792 and the church was consecrated in1797; Spiller's church has been described by Andrew Saint as 'one of Britain's most imposing churches of the 1790s - a civic symbol of a suburb at the height of its prosperity, and the masterpiece of its architect'. The porch and tower were not completed until 1814. In the 1920s, the roof of the church was sagging badly and was repaired in 1929; during World War II bombs landed on the churchyard without damage to the church except to the east window which had earlier been damaged as a result of the Silvertown explosion of 1917. However, in 1955 a serious fire destroyed the roof, many pews and the organ, after which the church was restored and re-consecrated in 1958 with various alterations made to its interior.

Planning of the new expanded churchyard was completed by 1797 when trees had been set around the barren carcass of the church. The trees were well established by 1853 as shown on a lithograph by G J Greenwood. After the churchyard was closed to burials in 1859 it became overgrown and derelict and by c.1888 the southern extension of the New Church Field had gone, later to become Clapton Bus Garage. In 1892 the Rev Evelyn Gardiner proposed that sections of the disused grounds should be taken under the control of the District Board of Works with a view to improving the area for public recreation. A Faculty was granted in 1893 and work began on refurbishing the burial ground, flat gravestones were grassed over, the 1614 Rowe Mortuary Chapel, which had been located next to the old church of St Augustine's was demolished, and paths, seats and planting were introduced. The costs were shared by the Board of Works, the London County Council, with assistance from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, whose landscape architect, Fanny Wilkinson, laid out the garden. The churchyard was renamed St John's Gardens, and opened on 1st July 1894.

In an LCC Report in 1895 the public garden is described as 'neatly kept by the Hackney District Board of Works, and the newer part of all, the 'poor ground' at the extreme southern end, is laid out for the use of children'. Mrs Basil Holmes reported in 1896 that 'the newer part to the south of the church is still full of tombstones and rather untidy gras'. In 1916 the gardens, then known as Hackney Gardens, had paths edged with small hedges around open lawns dotted with island beds filled with displays of annuals and numerous urns filled with cascading flower displays. After 1954 the Borough Council wanted to revitalise the fabric of the gardens and in 1963/4 a walled 'Quiet Garden' was created south of the church, designed and laid out by the Borough Engineer and Surveyor's Department with covered draught boards, a scented garden and a pool surrounded by cobbles for the safety of blind visitors; in 1989 raised beds were replanted here. This garden won a Civic Design Award.

The burial ground possesses a great number and variety of monuments dating from the early C18th: chest tombs, C18th and C19th headstones and ledger stones, altar tombs, obelisks, draped urns, table tombs, and early C19th bale tombs. Many of these were reordered and grouped in 1893/4 and enclosed by handsome early C20th iron palisades; headstones and ledgers were stacked in serried rows against many of the north, south and west perimeter walls. Among the distinguished local residents commemorated with chest tombs are Conrad Loddiges, nurseryman and owner of Hackney Botanic Garden, whose family tomb is just north of the church; the Ashpitel family, which included architects Arthur Ashpitel, responsible for the design of Homerton's St Barnabas Church (q.v.), and W H Ashpitel who designed St John's South Hackney; and Harry Sedgwick (d.1818) who according to the inscription on his tomb 'suggested and superintended' the planting of the churchyard trees in 1797. Sir Francis Beaufort, Royal Navy Hydrographer, who developed the Beaufort windscale is buried here and also members of the French Protestant Huguenot community from the 16th and 17th centuries.

There are two War memorials in the churchyard, in 1919 a Portland stone cenotaph was erected in the Memorial Gardens fronting Lower Clapton Road, and metal plaque in the Lidice Rose Garden commemorates the destruction of Lidice in Czechoslovakia during World War II. Another small bronze plaque was installed on the railings to the north between Sutton Place and Mehetabel Road to commemorate Fred Peters who used to sell matches and herbal tablets in the churchyard. The churchyard also has an C18th whipping post and a drinking fountain donated in 1891 along the boundary with Lower Clapton Road, and a C19th metal poor box.

A tree survey in 1991 identified over 50 species of trees and shrubs, the oldest trees are London planes, beech and elm dating from the late C19th, the planes probably replacing Sedgwick's elms planted in 1797. By the late 1990s the churchyard gardens had become neglected and there were problems of anti-social behaviour. In 2000 Groundwork Hackney, Hackney Society and others commissioned consultation 'to enable the development of an integrated overall regeneration plan for the gardens, which are in desperate need of improvement'. £100,000 was allocated for the project. The Friends of St John-at-Hackney Churchyard Gardens were founded in 2002 and a joint friends group is now established to encompass St Augustine's Tower and the churchyard gardens. As a result of these efforts £2.5m was raised for regeneration and conservation of the churchyard gardens. The funding included an HLF grant of £1.79m, £410k from Groundwork London and £100k from Hackney Council. The work commenced in February 2006 and was completed in 2007. Tombs and monuments were renovated; boards with information on site history were erected; new trees, flowerbeds and lighting were installed, as were a play area in the walled garden and a base for the Council’s maintenance staff. In 2008 the renovated gardens won a Hackney Design Award. The churchyard gardens reached the semi-finals of The National Lottery Awards 2009, in the Best Heritage Project category. A café, Brew for Two, opened in the churchyard in 2014.

Sources consulted:

Candidate for EH Register: Brief Guide to the Parish church of St John-at-Hackney (u.d.); Benjamin Clarke, 'Glimpses of Ancient Hackney and Stoke Newington' ed. David Mander (London) 1986; F C Heward, 'St John-at-Hackney', 1935; Mrs Basil Holmes, 'The London Burial Grounds', (London) 1896; Parks and Open Spaces in Hackney Report (Hackney Society) 1980; Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 4: North (Penguin, 1998); William Robinson 'The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hackney', London 1843; Andrew Saint 'The Rebuilding of St John at Hackney: a Bicentennial Bulletin' in The Hackney Terrier, The Friends of Hackney Archives Newsletter No 28, Autumn 1992; St John-at-Hackney information pack, 1992; R Simpson 'Memorials of St John-at-Hackney' (London) 1881-83; Isobel Watson 'Hackney and Stoke Newington Past' (London) 1990; David Mander 'St John-at-Hackney, The Story of a Church' (Parish of Hackney) 1993; Elizabeth Crawford, 'Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle' (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2nd ed. 2009). See www.hackney.gov.uk/st-john-at-hackney-history.htm

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ350851 (535073,185145)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
LB Hackney
Site management:
Hackney Parks Service; Friends of St John-at-Hackney Churchyard Gardens and St Augustine's Tower
1275; 1763; 1792-97; 1893/4; 1964
1893: MPGA (Fanny Wilkinson)
Listed structures:
LBI: St Augustine's Tower. LBII*: St John at Hackney Church. LBII: late C17/early C18th brick wall to north of former churchyard of St Augustine; late 17/early 18 wall to south-west of St John (probably former rectory garden wall); Beaufort family tomb, Hunter family tomb, Loddiges family tomb
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:


Local Authority Data

The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.

On Local List:
In Conservation Area:
Conservation Area name:
Clapton Square
Tree Preservation Order:
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Other LA designation:
Green Link; Open Space

St John's Churchyard Gardens

St John's Churchyard Gardens - Photo: London Gardens Trust
Date taken: 14/10/21 14:00

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