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Inventory Site Record

St John's Garden (Islington)

Brief Description

St John's Garden is the former burial ground of the Church of St John Clerkenwell, the quarter acre of land having been given for the purpose by John Mitchell in 1751 in order to supplement the churchyard located off St John Street. Plaques are set into the old wall in the garden that once divided the original burial ground from back gardens of adjoining houses. Closed to burial in 1854, it was eventually laid out as a public garden in the 1880s with trees, paths and a drinking fountain.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
Benjamin Street Burial Ground
Site location:
Benjamin Street/Britten Street, Clerkenwell
Postcode:
EC1
What 3 Words:
basic.highs.lungs
Type of site:
Public Gardens
Borough:
Islington
Open to public?
Yes
Opening times:
8am - dusk
Special conditions:
Facilities:
Events:
Public transport:
Rail/Tube: Farringdon (Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City, Circle). Bus: 19, 38, 55, 153, 341
Research updated:
18/09/2023
Last minor changes:
18/09/2023

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.islington.gov.uk/services/parks-environment/parks/your_parks/greenspace_az

Full Site Description

St John's Garden is the former Benjamin Street burial ground of the Church of St John Clerkenwell, the quarter acre of land having been given for the purpose by John Mitchell in 1751 in order to supplement the churchyard off St John Street, a fragment of which remains as St John's Church Garden (q.v.). Three plaques are set on the west facing side of the relict C18th/C19th wall, which once divided the original burial ground from gardens of houses in Red Lion Street. One of these plaques, partially decipherable, describes the first use of the land for burial as follows: 'John Michele [sic], second son of Simon Michele of St John Clerkenwell gave this ground as a place of burial to the parish of St John Clerkenwell by a grant dated May (17..) and enrolled in Chancery. In memory of his father'. Red Lion Street had been built in c.1715-19 'for the wealthier class of persons' by John Mitchell's father, Simon Mitchell, a wealthy magistrate (d.1750); it was renamed Britton Street in 1937 after John Britton, a local draughtsman (1771-1857). A further plaque erected in 1881 states that the ground had 'received for 100 years the bodies of the Christian dead' and was dedicated as 'a garden for the quiet enjoyment and refreshment of the living, especially of the dwellers in its densely populated neighbourhood.'

The burial ground, which had mainly been used for burial of the poor, was closed in 1854 by order of the Queen in Council, after which it became dilapidated. According to Revd. William Dawson writing in his history of the parish of St John Clerkenwell: 'It became a sort of waste ground on which pots and pans, and refuse of all kinds, were flung from the neighbouring houses. Encroachments were made on it. The locks were taken off the gates, and others put on by some person or other, so that the Vestry were debarred from access to the ground of which they were Trustees, and all its sacredness as a resting place for the dead, and all its possible benefit to the living, were set at naught. At length the claim of St John's Church to the ground was, at great cost, vindicated. It had been consecrated for the reception of the dead: it was resolved to use it for the refreshment of the living. A letter to The Times brought in over £500 by return of post.'

It was laid out as a public garden with trees, a perimeter path and drinking fountain, to a design by Mr J Forsyth Johnson, Honorary Landscape Gardener for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, which was founded in 1882. The intention was to provide: "a nook of greenery in this dingy and squalid part of London, where the workman may smoke his pipe in the dinner hour, and the old and feeble folk rest and chat in the summer sunshine, drinking in some little 'light and sweetness' in this hallowed spot." (Dawson). This spirit is reflected in a late C19th cutting about St John's Burial Ground Gardens in which it was reported that 'although they have the power to exclude children, unless accompanied by adults, they do not do so, but admit all comers, the poorest being most welcome, and they see no reason to regret it, for the destruction has been practically nil.' Mrs Basil Holmes, writing in 1896, reported that the garden was very well kept. It was at that time maintained by Trustees with the help of Holborn District Board of Works and the Clerkenwell Vestry.

St John's Garden was later overshadowed by Booth's Gin Distillery in Britton Street. It was extended following the demolition of houses in Benjamin Street and Britton Street as can be observed from a comparison of OS maps that show the layout from the 1960s. Within the garden are mature trees, mainly London plane and birch, with shrub and flower borders and an elaborate network of paths, various areas for seating and a number of stone objects. By the late 1990s the gardens had again become neglected and the Smithfield Trust lobbied for Islington Council to carry out much-needed improvements. An unusual feature in the garden was the installation of a number of innovative benches designed by artists, which were sponsored by Bloomberg.

In 2023 environmental charity Groundwork teamed up with Islington Council, the Friends of St John’s Garden and the Central District Alliance to design and deliver improvements to enhance the garden while retaining its character and woodland feel, building on its rich history and heritage and improving its biodiversity.  The project aim is to introduce enhancements to provide an attractive, colourful and biodiverse space for the benefit of people and wildlife alike. Ideas under discussion include enhancing the woodland setting to create a rich sensory experience, with the sights, sounds and aromas of nature; creating new habits and improving the nature conservation value by protecting and enhancing existing trees, refreshing the planting scheme, planning species for year-round pollinators and wildlife food sources, species-rich grass and wildflower mixes; installing eco features such as bird boxes and bug hotels; and making space for community activity and social interaction, with signage and interpretation improved. Initial works commenced in June 2023, including minor clearance work, improvement of planting beds with compost and bark mulch, refurbishment of wooden benches, formalisation of desire lines created through the beds, bed edging and new compost bins. The remainder of the improvements will take place following a period of consultation and design by the team. 



Sources consulted:

Rev. William Dawson, 'A Mid London Parish, a short history of the parish of St John's Clerkenwell' (1885); Mrs Basil Holmes, 'The London Burial Grounds', (London, 1896); Mary Cosh, 'An historical walk through Clerkenwell', (London, 1987); Michael Waite, John Archer, 'Nature Conservation in Islington', Ecology Handbook 19 (London Ecology Unit, 1992)

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ316819 (531630,181930)
Size in hectares:
0.14
Site ownership:
LB Islington
Site management:
Greenspace, Friends of St John's Garden
Date(s):
1751; 1880s; 1960s
Designer(s):
1880s: Mr J Forsyth Johnson, honorary landscape gardener of the MPGA
Listed structures:
None
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

No
Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

No
Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:

No

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:
No
In Conservation Area:
Yes
Conservation Area name:
Clerkenwell Green
Tree Preservation Order:
No
Nature Conservation Area:
Yes - Local Importance
Green Belt:
No
Metropolitan Open Land:
No
Special Policy Area:
No
Other LA designation:
Local/strategic view corridor
Photos

St John's Garden

St John's Gardens, June 2005. Photograph Sally Williams

St John's Gardens showing path layout and original burial ground wall set with grave plaques, January 2022. Photograph Sally Williams
2022
St John's Gardens, showing one of artist-designed benches, May 2013. Photograph Sally Williams
2013
St John's Gardens, with one of artist-designed benches and unknown sculpture, May 2013. Photograph Sally Williams
2013
St John's Gardens, June 2005. Photograph Sally Williams
2005

Click a photo to enlarge.

Please note the Inventory and its content are provided for your general information only and are subject to change. It is your responsibility to check the accuracy.