London's Burial Ground Gardens

In the 19th century many old burial grounds in London were re-landscaped as public gardens. 
LIZ GOODEFELLOW tells how these make an important contribution to London's open space.

Bunhill Fields, once called 'a melancholy failure without flowers or seats'
Bunhill Fields, once called 'a melancholy failure without flowers or seats'

Euterpe, the muse of music, looks out over St George's Gardens.
Euterpe, the muse of music, looks out over St George's Gardens.

The MPGA was instrumental in the renovation of the Christ Church Gardens, which were rededicated in 2000, on the centenary of their first opening.
The MPGA was instrumental in the renovation of the Christ Church Gardens, which were rededicated in 2000, on the centenary of their first opening.

Like most old cities, London is one big burial ground: Romans, Saxons and Danes lie below the City; 12th-century writer William Fitzstephen reported 13 convents and 126 parish churches throughout London, each with its burial ground; 17th-century plagues required mass graves to bury the dead, and pest fields were established north, south and east of the City, one example being Vincent Square, now home to the Royal Horticultural Society, and playing fields for Westminster School.

In many ways, ancient burial grounds are now integral to London's open space network, as churchyards, playgrounds, courtyards, office entrances. Together with about 130 Burial Ground Gardens, they provide green oases throughout central London.

By the end of the 18th century, major cities in Europe and America had begun closing their inner-city burial grounds in favour of outlying cemeteries. London, lacking central governance, and largely run by parishes whose interest was to keep profitable burial grounds active, turned a blind eye to the catastrophe growing in its midst. Children played in churchyards with skulls and bones.

Polluted Drinking Water

Worse, the source of drinking water was often in the local burial ground. Outbreaks of typhus and cholera - and increasingly strident warnings about the dangers of burying the dead in the midst of the living - finally convinced the Government to close more than 500 overcrowded and diseased burial grounds in the 1850s. Most non-conformist sites were quickly built over, but parish grounds generally remained as open space. Lacking burial income, they were financial burdens and many became neglected dumping grounds for rubbish and dead cats.

Meanwhile, central London was desperately short of open space, and children often had no place to play but in the streets. Octavia Hill, philanthropist to the poor (and later founder of the National Trust), suggested that the most easily available open space would be disused burial grounds. The City of London had tried, opening Bunhill Fields to the public in 1869, but it was described as "a melancholy failure with no flowers or seats and many trees as dead as the remains below." Octavia Hill persisted and, with her Kyrle Society - dedicated to beauty in all aspects of life - succeeded in convincing six churchyards to clean up and open as public gardens.

MPGA Formed

In 1882, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, MPGA, was formed to 'provide breathing and resting places, for the old, and playgrounds for the young, in the midst of densely populated areas'. They invited the Kyrle and National Health Societies to join them, but Hill declined, preferring to remain independent, although the two groups co-operated in promoting regulations to make it easier to convert burial grounds, and illegal to build on them.

The MPGA encouraged and enabled burial grounds to be converted, but they insisted that the new Burial Ground Gardens be managed by the Local Authority. Since bodies were not to be removed, the grounds were left largely undisturbed and simply turfed over, adding benches, flowers, shrubs and trees. Headstones were often set around the outside walls and, when possible, playgrounds were provided for young children.

Some people questioned the propriety of using old burial sites, but it was generally felt more respectful to clean them up and make them attractive, and the MPGA was responsible for 124 burial grounds being laid out as public gardens. Members donated seating and drinking fountains, which were seen as an aid to sobriety as well as health, since poor people could not afford tea and coffee and often resorted to beer and spirits. In addition to Burial Ground Gardens, many churchyards and City of London burial grounds were inspired to open informally to the public.

By the turn of the 20th century, the population of London had risen 18% while open space increased by 50%, largely due to efforts by the MPGA and Kyrle Society. By then the new emphasis was on playing fields and bigger, regional parks. Smaller gardens were left in local care and fared well for much of the century, being cherished and supported by their neighbourhoods, although often lacking in capital investment. However, when open space responsibility reverted to local boroughs in the 1980s, the small Burial Ground Gardens were often overlooked, and became dangerous nuisances rather than assets. Most work that was done focused on making them safe, and easily maintained, obliterating their historical character of walls, ancient trees and plants.

St George's Friends Group

In 1994, neighbours in Bloomsbury formed a friends group to save St. George's Gardens, a burial ground dating from 1714, converted in 1883 to gardens which flourished for a hundred years. They had become overgrown and decayed and the Friends convinced Camden to make a successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for restoration work. Enclosed by its original brick walls, and bounded by no roads, St. Georges Gardens are now an oasis in a densely urban setting.

Tower Hamlets has also obtained Heritage Lottery Funding for restoration work at St. Anne's Limehouse, St. Dunstan's in the East, and St. George in the East, possibly the first burial ground to be converted to a Garden in 1877. Popular and well maintained for many years, by the 1990s it was badly degraded and used mostly for drugs and prostitution. A restoration project was completed in 2008.

Christ Church Gardens on Blackfriars Road in Southwark were originally laid out at the expense of the MPGA and opened to the public on June 16, 1800. Using a combination of public/private funding, the MPGA was again instrumental in the recent renovation of the Gardens, which were rededicated in 2000, on the centenary of their first opening.

Almost all the 136 original Burial Ground Gardens still exist as open space in the Cities of London and Westminster and throughout 12 central London Boroughs. This number does not include hundreds of informally open grounds - taboos, and laws against disturbing the dead have saved them. Recognising their economic, as well as psychological value, renovation of burial grounds has been central to recent gentrification.

Westminster and the Corporation of London usually give them good signage, but elsewhere their history is seldom acknowledged. No other city in the world has such a wealth of ancient burial grounds which form an integral part of London's open space system and provide oases of calm and nature within the ever-busier metropolis. Equally importantly, they are part of our history and heritage.