Inventory Site Record

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground * (Islington)

Brief Description

* on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens

Bunhill is probably a corruption of 'Bone Hill', and the area has been a site of burial for upwards of 1,000 years. The Corporation of London had originally enclosed this site for a new burial ground for plague victims just outside the City walls, but it was subsequently leased for a private cemetery. Bunhill Fields was established in 1665 and became the country's pre-eminent Nonconformist cemetery. Between 1665-1854, when it was closed for burials, some 123,000 interments took place, the oldest existing memorial that of Theophilus Gale, d.1678. Among many important Nonconformists buried here are John Bunyan, Susannah Wesley (mother of Charles and John Wesley), Isaac Watts, Daniel Defoe and William Blake. In 1868 it was converted into public gardens by the Corporation of London, when new walls and gates were erected, paths laid out and trees planted. Following bomb damage, after WWII the north area was largely cleared and laid out as a garden and the south area re-landscaped with 5 railed areas containing over 2000 monuments.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
The Great Dissenters' Burial Ground; Finsbury Fields; Tindall's Burial Ground; 'God's Acre'
Site location:
City Road/Bunhill Row
What 3 Words:
Type of site:
Cemetery, Public Gardens
Open to public?
Opening times:
Mon-Fri 7.30am (9.30am Sat/Sun/BH) - 4pm (Oct-March)/7pm (April-Sept). Closed Xmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year's Day
Has taken part in Open Garden Squares Weekend 7 times, most recently in 2023.
Special conditions:
no cycling, dogs on leads, no feeding of pigeons
Public transport:
Tube: Moorgate (Hammersmith & City, Circle, Northern, Metropolitan); Old Street (Northern). Rail: Moorgate; Old Street. Bus 76, 141, 214, 271.
Research updated:
Last minor changes:

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

Full Site Description

Site on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens, for Register Entry see https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England was established in 1984 and was commonly called English Heritage. In April 2015 it split into 2 separate entities, Historic England (HE), which continues to champion and protect the historic environment, and the English Heritage Trust, whose role is to look after the 400+ historic sites and monuments owned by the state. HE manages the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) that includes over 400,000 items ranging from prehistoric monuments to office blocks, battlefields and parks, which benefit from legal protection.

Bunhill Fields was the largest and longest-established of London's C17th 'suburban graveyards' and the land was leased by the Corporation of London from 1315-1867 who then managed it as a public open space from 1868. Bunhill is a corruption of 'Bone Hill', and the area had been the site of burials for upwards of a thousand years. The first burials were Saxon and took place in the Finsbury Fen when the Finsbury Fields were within the Manor of Finsbury, part of the estate of the Prebendary of Haliwell and Finsbury, which belonged to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral. In 1549 cartloads of bones were brought here from the Charnel House in St Paul's Churchyard (q.v.). In the mid C17th the Corporation of London proposed a new burial ground here to bury victims of the Great Plague and the site was enclosed by brick walls and gates in 1665-66 by bricklayer John Tanner, with the gates erected c.1667. The ground did not actually receive plague dead and was leased to John Tyndall for a private cemetery, which opened for burials in 1665. Additional land was added c.1700. Stowe's map of 1720 shows 'Bunn Hill Fields' with a single diagonal path and a subsequent undated map shows the site divided into the '3 great fields of Finsbury', the northernmost of which was the site of St Luke's workhouse. By 1746 Featherstone Street had cut across the site separating the top third from the Fields, which at the time formed two discrete enclosures, the 'burial ground' and 'Tindals Burial Ground'.

The area was important for Nonconformists; John Wesley first preached nearby at Moorfields, and Wesley's Chapel and burial ground (q.v.) is adjacent. Among those buried here are John Bunyan (1628-88); Susannah Wesley (1669-1742), the mother of Charles and John Wesley; Isaac Watts (1674-1742); other memorials include a stone obelisk to Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) of 1870, headstone to William Blake (1702-61) and his wife. There were open views to the south overlooking the Honourable Artillery Company Grounds (q.v.).

By the mid-C18th Bunhill Fields were 'a resort of idle and disorderly persons', a situation that galvanised nearby residents to petition Parliament in 1776 to improve the grounds. The Common Council of Parliament reached a resolution in 1778 decreeing that the cemetery be restored to the Corporation of London, which probably resulted in new planting. Horwood's plan of 1799 shows an avenue of trees crossing the site from City Road to Bunhill Road.

The burial ground was closed for burials in 1854, some 123,000 bodies having been buried here. An engraving of 1866 shows the burial ground 'enclosed with iron railings . . . crowded with tombs, intersected with walks planted with trees' (Illustrated London Journal). The Corporation of London's lease was due to expire in 1867 and the freehold passed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for England and there were fears that the land might be used for building or other secular purposes. As a result the Corporation was pressed to secure its preservation and set up a committee for the purpose to negotiate with the Commissioners. The Bunhill Fields Burial Ground Act was passed in 1867 and improvements were then carried out, 'laid out ornamentally and planted with trees and flowers' (London Illustrated News) and the ground re-opened on 14 October 1869 by the Lord Mayor. The gates, railings and granite piers on the east site date from 1868/9 and those on the west are 1878. Between 1870-1880 new planting, paths and seating were introduced, tombs were raised, headstones straightened, illegible inscriptions deciphered transcribed and in some cases re-cut. Among notable vaults discovered below the surface were those of Lieutenant-General Charles Fleetwood and Henry Cromwell. John Bunyan's tomb was replaced in 1862 with a fine memorial by Papworth. In 1878 Augustus Hare described Bunhill Fields as 'a forest of tombs . . shaded by young trees . . a green oasis in one of the blackest parts of London'. By the 1920s the grounds were 'dark, damp and uninviting' and in the 1930s were used to record air pollution in central London.

The area was severely bombed in World War II. Many monuments were listed by the then Ministry of Town and Country Planning in 1950. The northern portion of the grounds was cleared to form a garden of rest in the 1960s, a redevelopment plan providing for 'walks, lawns, flower beds and trees' having been prepared by Peter Shepheard (1913-2002) for the Corporation of London in c.1950, who had been engaged by the Corporation in 1949. Trained as an architect, Peter, later Sir Peter, Shepheard worked with Sir Patrick Abercrombie and was involved in the Festival of Britain, and in 1969 he became President of the RIBA. Initial proposals were to clear the cemetery but intervention by the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Fine Art Commission led to gravestones only being removed from the worst damaged area in the north. A broadwalk paved with salvaged York stone and brick was laid linking the new garden with the main east / west path through the cemetery. A number of the important and fragile monuments were railed off and a caretaker's bothy was built. Trees within the cemetery include mature lime, plane, sycamore and horse chestnut.

In 2010 the City of London and British Land collaborated in 'Beyond the Hive', an architectural competition to celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity. The design brief called for proposals for 'Insect Hotels': ecologically sustainable and creative insect habitats, and resulted in five finalists. The winning entries were built during June 2010 in 5 public gardens in the City: Cleary Garden, West Smithfield Garden, Postman's Park, St Dunstan-in-the-East (q.q.v.) and Bunhill Fields. Here, the 'InnVertebrate' designed by ORTLOS Space Engineering and Metalanguage Design, was designed to reflect the diverse architecture of London and provides a multi-story habitat with different-sized cavities to house a wide variety of invertebrates.

Sources consulted:

Candidate for Register: Roger Bowdler, 'Wisdom's School: London's Pre-Victorian Cemeteries' in The London Gardener vol 1, no 1, 1995; 'Bunhill Fields' in Islington's People, no 18 Sept/Oct 1897; Andrew Crowe, 'The Parks and Woodlands of London', (Fourth Estate, 1987); K A Esdaile 'Report and Recommendations for Bunhill Fields' (unpublished typescript, 1939); August Hare, 'Walks in London', London 1878; Mrs Basil Holmes 'The London Burial Grounds', London 1896; Alfred W Light 'Bunhill Fields', London 1913; London Illustrated News 27 /1/1866 and 17/12/1949; Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons, 'London Cemeteries, An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer', 4th edition (The History Press, 2008); Eileen Moore, 'History of Bunhill Fields' in Middlesex Family History Society Journal, vol 2, summer 1980; Eric Robinson, 'Opening Unknown Doors' in Country Life 11/5/1989; A D Webster, 'London Trees', London 1920; George Wright 'Solitary Walks', London 1775; Finsbury Local History Library press clippings and photographs; MPGA archives. EH Register: 'A History of the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground', Corporation of London, 1902; J A Jones, 'Bunhill memorials, sacred reminiscences of three hundred ministers and other persons of note', 1849; A W Light, 'Bunhill Fields' vols I and II, 1915; Richard Rawlinson, 'The Inscriptions upon the Tombs, Grave-Stones etc. in the Dissenters Burial Place in Bunhill Fields, 1717, reprinted 1867; Dr John Rippon, Manuscripts relating to Bunhill Fields Cemetery, early C19, at British Library (Ms.Add. 28516); John Stow, 'A Survey of the cities of London and Westminster . . .' Corrected, improved and enlarged by John Strype, 1720.

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ326822 (532691,182258)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
City of London Corporation & LB Islington
Site management:
City of London Corporation Open Spaces Dept.
c.1665; 1868/9; 1964-5
1964/5: Sir Peter Shepheard (Bridgewater & Shepheard)
Listed structures:
LBII: Boundary walls, railings and gates on City Road; boundary walls, railings and gates on Bunhill Row; brick wall to south; numerous tombs are listed.
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

NHLE grade:
Grade I
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:
Bunhill Fields & Finsbury Square
Tree Preservation Order:
Not known
Nature Conservation Area:
Yes - Borough Importance II
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Yes - Archaeological Priority Area
Other LA designation:

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground *

Bunhill Fields - William Blake - Photo: Colin Wing
Date taken: 21/08/06 13:10

Click a photo to enlarge.

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