Inventory Site Record

St Thomas's Recreation Ground (Hackney)

Brief Description

St Thomas's Recreation Ground is on the site of the former burial ground of a Nonconformist Chapel at St Thomas's Square. The burial ground was on land leased by St Thomas's Hospital and was used from at least the late C18th. Following closure for burial, it was eventually laid out as a public garden in 1888 and was maintained by Hackney District Board of Works. The grave markers were cleared, many now fixed or against the walls, and some chest tombs remain. Entry from Mare Street is via an early C19th archway, and a pavilion in the centre dates from the late C19th or early C20th.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
St Thomas's Square Chapel Burial Ground; Independent Chapel Ground
Site location:
off Mare Street
What 3 Words:
Type of site:
Public Gardens
Open to public?
Opening times:
7.30am - dusk (summer 9.30pm, winter 4pm).
Special conditions:
Public transport:
Rail: London Fields. Bus: 48, 55, 106, 236, 253, 277, D6.
Research updated:
Last minor changes:

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.hackney.gov.uk

Full Site Description

The Recreation Ground is on the site of the former burial ground of the Nonconformist Chapel at St Thomas's Square (q.v.). The chapel was established in 1672 and the burial ground is known to have existed here by the end of the C18th, but may be of earlier date. The Chapel's first minister was Revd Dr William Bates, an Anglican priest who served at St Dunstan's in the City, and who was one-time chaplain to Charles II. He became interested in Presbyterianism in the 1660s and left the established church following the Act of Uniformity of 1662. In 1672, when Nonconformity was officially accepted following the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, Bates was granted a licence authorising a meeting house at St Thomas's Square and built a chapel on the south side of the Square on a site said to have been formed 'out of an ancient edifice, which in Roman times had been a religious house' (according to a manuscript of 1826). The land was leased by St Thomas's Hospital, which had holdings in the area. Hackney was a hotbed of Nonconformity from the late C17th to the late C19th and the chapel here thrived under a number of charismatic preachers, although in 1714 the congregation divided over the choice of a new minister and this led to the New Gravel Pit Chapel being established further north along Mare Street. A new meeting house was constructed on the site in 1771; the chapel eventually closed in 1896 and in 1935 the C18th meeting house became the site of the ABC Cinema, itself now demolished.

Among those who were buried in the burial ground was Thomas Braidwood (d.1806) who had moved to Hackney in 1783 from Edinburgh where he had set up the world's first school for the deaf in 1760 and developed a system of sign language, speech reading, articulation, reading and writing. He then set up the first public school for the deaf in Hackney in 1792.

Following closure under the Burial Acts of the 1850s, the burial ground was laid out as a public garden in 1888 with grants from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council, and was maintained by Hackney District Board of Works. It was designed by Fanny Wilkinson, landscape gardener to the MPGA who created over 75 public gardens in London, many of them former burial grounds. Like many overcrowded churchyards in London, its closure came as a result of the first Burial Act of 1852, which was amended during the 1850s. The Metropolitan Open Spaces Acts of 1877 and 1881 and the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884, later extended under the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act of 1887, enabled 'open spaces and burial grounds in the Metropolis for the use of the inhabitants thereof for exercise and recreation'. The garden was described in 1896 by Mrs Basil Holmes as 'very bright and neat', and as the best-kept Nonconformist ground in London. Hackney District Board of Works also paid £100 for a passage to join the garden with the nearby Wells Street Burial-ground, now known as St Thomas's Burial Ground (q.v.), and the two were maintained by a single caretaker. The early C19th Archway from Mare Street and some late C18th and C19th walls survive. The 'ornamental shelter' in the centre is described by Mrs Holmes as occupying the site of a previous building. The grave markers were cleared, many fixed to the walls, with some chest tombs and other gravestones remaining in the grass, which is traversed by gravel paths. It is reached either through the high archway from Mare Street, which is adjacent to the Greek Orthodox Church of St John the Theologian, or from a gunnell off St Thomas's Square. Headstones are lined up along the walls that surround the site, one side of which is overlooked by the backs of a high terrace of Victorian houses. In the garden the small open pavilion is painted cream with white painted timbering and a low pitched roof, and shrubs and some trees are generally on the perimeter, although there is some shrub planting near the pavilion.

Sources consulted:

Dr C E Miele, EH Proposed Listing Report (19 October 1994); David Mander 'Strength in the Tower, an illustrated history of Hackney' (Sutton, 1998); Mrs Basil Holmes 'The London Burial Grounds', London 1896; Elizabeth Crawford, 'Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle' (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2nd ed. 2009)

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ350842 (535030,184302)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
LB Hackney
Site management:
Hackney Parks Service
C17th; 1888
1888: MPGA (Fanny Wilkinson)
Listed structures:
LBII: Archway on Mare Street
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:
Mare Street
Tree Preservation Order:
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Yes - Area of Archaeological Priority
Other LA designation:
Open Space

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