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The Bones Of Old London

August 21, 2019
by Gillian Tindall

Inspired by my recent fracture, the distinguished historian Gillian Tindall sent me this wonderful rumination upon the capital’s osteological history. Gillian’s forthcoming memoir, The Pulse Glass: And the Beat of Other Hearts, is published in October.

The Hardy Tree

The name given to this tree commemorates the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy who, as an architectural student, was sent to monitor the place one week in 1865 when Old St Pancras Church and graveyard were threatened by the construction of the new Midland Railway line into St Pancras Station.

Although there is little evidence to link Hardy with the ash tree, people like the story that the superfluous gravestones were stacked around the sapling at his instigation. Even if it is unlikely that Hardy, or the fellow student who accompanied him, had the authority to suggest such a notion, it is fascinating to realise that he was a witness when it became apparent that the Midland Railway’s attempt to dig a tunnel under the ancient graveyard was going wrong.

The Midland Railway directors had failed to get permission for a truly terrible plan to obliterate the church and graveyard altogether. After further discussion, they and the Home Office agreed that a tunnel fifteen feet under would be deep enough to pass beneath any graves. Yet the site had been used for burial for over a thousand years, during which time the green hill had grown steadily higher. Soon the workmen began to complain that they were digging through compacted, rotten coffin wood and a mass of human bones. ‘It was not,’ they said, ‘healthy,’ though whether they were more worried about ancient disease or revenge from the dishonoured dead is unclear.

A top level decision was taken. A high fence was erected and, over one long weekend, a huge quantity of human remains were removed, carted under cover to Paddington Station and thence by train to a cemetery in Bournemouth. Among them were the remains of Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in 1797 after giving birth to the daughter who was to marry Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary’s husband the philosopher William Godwin – though their tombstone remains in the garden to this day.

Hardy’s lasting connection to this disgraceful removal drama is a poem he wrote long after, In the Cemetery, imagining an old graveyard that had been summarily dug-up for the passage of a new main drain.

‘… we moved the lot some nights ago,

And packed them away in the general foss

With hundreds more. But their folks don’t know,

And as well cry over a new-laid drain

As anything else, to ease your pain!’

If this saga of the Midland Railway’s misjudgement is well known, few are aware that they had another go at taking the churchyard nine years later. I only know this because I came upon a letter written to The Times in May 1874 by the company directors, who were still hoping to run railway lines over the burial ground.

They claimed they ‘did not propose to create thoroughfares or to take the ground by high-handed powers.’ Nor did they did actually intend ‘to break the soil.’ All they wanted was ‘to use the ground for lines of rails and light sheds… It is also proposed to allow monuments and remains to stay… but the ground would be raised ten feet to bring it on a level with the other property of the company.’

The sheer conceit and nerve of this proposal takes your breath away. Did they really imagine that those visiting a grave between the light sheds and rails would climb up and down ten foot high railway embankments in their crinolines and top-hats, hoping not to be hit by a train?

It was made clear to the railway company that they were not going to win this one. So outraged was public opinion by this example of commercial priority attempting to nullify ancient decency, that Parliament, which had already enacted legislation about old burial grounds earlier in the century, got fiercer on the matter. Henceforth it became illegal to obliterate any such ground, to use it to erect a permanent building or indeed for anything but a park or a playground. And although all ordinary gravestones might be removed for this purpose, they were not to be destroyed but recorded, and then ranged around the perimeter walls or some other convenient place. Such as round a significant tree.

Two hundred and fifty years later, we arrive at the current agitation about the removal of graves from St James Gardens for the High Speed Two scheme, just a short distance from St Pancras Old Church. Until recently this was in use as a back garden for the National Temperance Hospital, but it was created in the late eighteenth century as an overflow burial ground for St James, Piccadilly. Currently it is a huge excavation site, with diggers and archaeologists beavering away.

Since the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884, created partly in response to the Midland Railway’s attempts to get their hands on Old St Pancras, it has been illegal to build on or otherwise disturb a burial ground. This is the general principle, but a big government-sponsored scheme may bypass this legislation with its own specific Act of Parliament. The graveyard will still be subject to a raft of rules about the recording of stones, the preservation and re-siting of monuments, the removal of all remains and their eventual reburial or other respectful treatment – but it will go.

You might imagine from the emotion generated about the desecration of St James Gardens that is a uniquely modern disgrace, but it is not. Countless burial grounds on eighteenth century maps have disappeared without any formal record.

Nor is this the first assault on St James Gardens. Between about 1788, when it was laid out, and 1853 when it was shut for burial, some sixty-one thousand people were interred there. Even when it was still in constant use, in the eighteen-thirties, it had a substantial triangular chunk cut out when the London & Birmingham line into Euston was constructed through it. There was no great fuss about this and the bodies were re-buried in the remaining part of the cemetery.

The reality is there are human remains almost everywhere, far under our feet, all over London. It is simply that we are not aware of them, mostly. The fact that St James Garden was laid out as an overflow indicates the scale of the problem that arose. Another new ground to the north was laid out to accommodate the dead of St Martins-in-the-Fields. Similarly, Old St Pancras graveyard was actually two grounds, one belonging to St Pancras parish and the other to St-Giles-in-the-Fields.

Why, you may wonder, did all these ancient graveyards, which had been in use for hundreds of years, all get full all at the same time, in the days of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian Georges?

With the City of London expanding into its surrounding hamlets, the populations of the surrounding country parishes grew. By then coffins had for the first time come into general use, filling up the graveyards. In earlier centuries, most people were buried only in woollen shrouds, with little or no attempt to mark individual graves. That was how churchyards managed for so many centuries to accommodate uncounted numbers: gravediggers simply dug and re-dug the same earth, piling old bones in charnel houses and dumping more earth on top of fresher burials.  One may well feel that coffins-for-all has not, by and large, been a good idea. Especially when they are tightly sealed and lined with lead, in flat contradiction of the biblical view that we are dust and should return to dust.

Who is aware, as they hurry down Farringdon Rd towards Blackfriars Bridge, that they are treading over the former graveyard of St Brides, Fleet St? No-one knew until post-war excavations in the fifties revealed the fact. And, going back still further in time, who, wandering round the City today, reflects that in the Middle Ages the Square Mile housed more than fifty religious foundations each with its own burial place, most of which were lost after the Reformation half a millennium ago? We enjoy a large number of tiny gardens in the City, much valued for eating sandwiches in lunch hours. These are the churchyards of the numerous parishes, all of which were shut for burial in 1853 but protected from developers, just in time, by the Act of 1884. Already, many grounds had been appropriated for other uses, both in the City and over the river in Southwark.

Southwark inhabitants were particularly vulnerable to being built on after death, since many non-conformists settled there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and their graveyards do not have consecrated status. When a site in the area is redeveloped, the builders often come upon old bones and there is often local speculation that it was a plague pit, perhaps because that sounds exciting. Usually, checking an old map confirms that what has been found is just a congregation of early Methodists or Primitive Baptists.

Much excitement has arisen in recent years over the Cross Bones Yard off Borough High St which is widely believed to contain the burials of prostitutes who were put there because they were despised. Yet there is little historical evidence for this nor that it was a pauper yard any more than many other burial places. It was an overflow ground for the parish of St Saviour’s (now Southward Cathedral) and dates from after the South Bank had ceased to be a district of medieval brothels.

Personally, I am glad the Cross Bones Yard is preserved because far too much of historic Southwark was unnecessarily destroyed in the decades after World War Two. Yet we should be wary of automatically regarding the dead as victims of disgraceful treatment in the past. The past was not just ‘a foreign country’ where things were ‘done differently’ as L.P. Hartley wrote. It was also a place full of people just as intelligent as us, leading lives just as complex as our own. In this sense, they were indeed ‘just like us.’ So it follows that we today, with our own prejudices, blind spots and sentimentalities are just like them too. Let us not patronise them.

At the Cross Bones Yard

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time


Leon Silver, Nelson St Synagogue

August 20, 2019
by the gentle author

When Leon Silver opened the golden shutter of the ark at the East London Central Synagogue in Nelson St for me, a stash of Torah scrolls were revealed shrouded in ancient velvet with embroidered texts in silver thread gleaming through the gloom, caught by last rays of afternoon sunlight.

Leon told me that no-one any longer knows the origin of all these scrolls, which were acquired as synagogues closed or amalgamated with the departure of Jewish people from the East End since World War II. Many scrolls were brought over in the nineteenth century from all across Eastern Europe, and some are of the eighteenth century or earlier, originating from communities that no longer exist and places that vanished from the map generations ago.

Yet the scrolls are safe in Nelson St under the remarkable stewardship of Leon Silver, President, Senior Warden & Treasurer, who has selflessly devoted himself to keeping this beautiful synagogue open for the small yet devoted congregation – mostly in their eighties and nineties – for whom it fulfils a vital function. An earlier world still glimmers here in this beautiful synagogue that may not have seen a coat of new paint in a while, but is well tended by Leon and kept perfectly clean with freshly hoovered carpet and polished wood by a diligent cleaner of ninety years old.

As the sunlight faded, Leon and I sat at the long table at the back of the lofty synagogue where refreshments are enjoyed after the service, and Leon’s cool grey eyes sparkled as he spoke of this synagogue that means so much to him, and of its place in the lives of his congregation.

“I grew up in the East End, in Albert Gardens, half a mile from here. I first came to the synagogue as a little boy of four years old and I’ve been coming here all my life. Three generations of my family have been involved here, my maternal grandfather was the vice-president and my late uncle’s mother’s brother was the last president, he was still taking sacrament at ninety-five. My father used to come here to every service in the days when it was twice daily. And when I was twenty-nine, I came here to recite the mourner’s prayer after my father died. I remember when it was so crowded on the Sabbath, we had to put benches in front of the bimmah to accommodate everyone, now it is a much smaller congregation but we always get the ten you need to hold a service.

I’m a professional actor, so it gives me plenty of free time. I was asked to be the Honorary Treasurer and told that it entailed no responsibility – which was entirely untrue – and I’ve done it ever since. As people have died or moved away, I have taken on more responsibility. It means a lot to me. There was talk of closing us down or moving to smaller premises, but I’ve fought battles and we are still here. I spend quite a lot of hours at the end of the week. We have refreshments after the service, cake, crisps and whisky. I do the shopping and put out the drinks. The majority here are quite elderly and they are very friendly, everyone gets on well, especially when they have had a few drinks. In the main, they are East Enders. We don’t ask how they come because strictly speaking you shouldn’t ride the bus on the Sabbath. Now, even if young Jewish people wanted to come to return to the East End there are no facilities for them. No kosher butcher or baker, just the kosher counter at Sainsburys.

My father’s family came here at the end of the nineteenth century, and my maternal grandfather Lewis (who I’m named after) came at the outbreak of the First World War. As a resident alien, he had to report to Leman St Police Station every day. He came from part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and he came on an Austrian passport, but when my mother came in 1920, she came on a Polish passport. Then in 1940, my grandfather and his brothers were arrested and my grandmother was put in Holloway Prison, before they were all interned on the Isle of Man. Then my uncle joined the British army and was told on his way to the camp that his parents had been released. My grandparents’ families on both sides died in the Holocaust. My mother once tried to write a list of all the names but she gave up after fifty because it was too upsetting. And this story is true for most of the congregation at the synagogue. One man of ninety from Alsace, he won’t talk about it. A lot of them won’t talk about it. These people carry a lot of history and that’s why it’s important for them to come together.

When Jewish people first came here, they took comfort from being with their compatriots who spoke the same style of Yiddish, the same style of pronunciation, the same style of worship. It was their security in a strange new world, a self-help society to help with unemployment and funeral expenses.”

Thanks to Leon, I understood the imperative for this shul to exist as a sacred meeting place for these first generation immigrants – now in their senior years – who share a common need to be among others with comparable experiences. Polite and softly spoken yet resolute in his purpose, Leon Silver is custodian of a synagogue that is a secure home for ancient scrolls and a safe harbour for those whose lives are shaped by their shared histories.

Photographs 2 & 3 © Mike Tsang

At Bevis Marks Synagogue

At Princelet St Synagogue

At Sandys Row Synagogue

Chris Miles’ East End

August 19, 2019
by the gentle author

Chris Miles contacted me from Vancouver Island, where he describes himself as a Londoner in exile. ‘In the early seventies, I lived as a recently-graduated student in the East End, firstly on Grove Rd and then on Lauriston Rd above a supermarket,’ he explained and sent me his splendid photographs. Most were taken around Bethnal Green, Roman Rd and Mile End, and Chris & I welcome identification of precise locations from eagle-eyed readers.

George Davis is Innocent, Mile End Rd

Linda ‘n Laura

Getting a loaf, Stepney Green

S Kornbloom, Newsagent & Confectioner, Jubilee St

Corner Shop Groceries & Provisions, Stepney Way

Ronchetti’s Cafe, Piano’s & Kitchen Chairs Wanted

Snacks & Grills

The Bell Dining Rooms, Lot 63 Buildings at back

Leslies Restaurant, Fresh Up with your Meal

Harry’s Cafe, Teas & Snacks, Breakfasts & Dinners

Valente’s Cafe, Hackney Rd

Cafe Restaurant

Dinkie

Station Cafe

Fish Bar

J Kelly, No Prams or Trollie’s, Please

G Kelly

Charlie & Mick’s Cafe

Menu at Charlie & Mick’s Cafe

John Pelican

Joe’s Saloon – ‘We cater for long and short hair styles’

M Evans & Sons, Garn Dairy

Marion’s, Blouses, Trouser Suits, Smock Dresses, Ect.

Sunset Stores

N Berg, Watch & Clock Repairs

S Grant, High Class Tailor, Seamens Outfitter

Littlewood Brothers Ltd, Domestic Stores, Grocery & Hardware

J Galley & Sons, Established 1901

Henry Freund & Son, Established 1837

Rito for Better Roof Repairs

Common Market NO

Alan Enterprises Ltd, L & R Ostroff Ltd, Brick Lane

Photographs copyright © Chris Miles

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s Cafe Society

Tony Hall at the Shops

Alan Dein’s Shopfronts

Eleanor Crow’s Cafes

August 18, 2019
by the gentle author

Years have passed since we first featured Eleanor Crow’s beautiful watercolours in these pages and Spitalfields Life Books is now publishing a handsome hardback collection of them SHOPFRONTS OF LONDON, In Praise of Small Neighbourhood Shops in collaboration with Batsford Books.

You can preorder to support publication and you will receive a signed copy in the first week of September. Click here to preorder for £14.99

An exhibition of Eleanor’s watercolours opens at Townhouse Spitalfields on 3rd October.

Eleanor will giving an illustrated lecture at Wanstead Tap on Wednesday 9th October, showing her pictures and telling the stories of the shops. Click here for tickets

Syd’s Coffee Stall, Shoreditch High St

Eleanor made this set of watercolour portraits of cafes as a tribute to those cherished institutions which incarnate the essence of civility in the East End. “It’s because they’re individual concerns, often owned by families across generations who get to know all their customers,” admitted Eleanor, revealing the source of her devotion to cafe culture ,“I like the frontages because each is designed uniquely for that café with wonderful sign-writing or lettering and eye-catching colours. Some of these cafés have been here for a very long time and everyone in the area is familiar with them, and is very fond of them. They make the streets into a better place and are landmarks upon the landscape of the East End.”

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E. Pellicci, Bethnal Green Rd

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Savoy, Norton Folgate

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Time for Tea, Shoreditch High St

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Dalston Lane Cafe

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Paga Cafe, Lea Bridge Rd

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Lennies Snack Bar, Calvert Avenue

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Marina Cafe, Mare St

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Kingsland Cafe, Kingsland Rd

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Grab & Go, Blackhorse Lane

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Gina’s Restaurant, Bethnal Green Rd

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Copper Grill, Eldon St

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Billy Bunter’s Snack Bar, Mile End Rd

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Beppe’s Cafe, West Smithfield

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B.B. Cafe, Lea Bridge Rd

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Savoy Cafe, Graham Rd

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A.Gold, Brushfield St

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Arthur’s Cafe, Kingsland Rd

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Cafe Bliss, Dalston Lane

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Cafe Rodi, Blackhorse Lane

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Rossi Restaurant, Hanbury St  (Gone but not forgotten)

Eleanor Crow at E.Pellicci

Drawings copyright © Eleanor Crow

Portrait copyright © Colin O’Brien

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At Gina’s Restaurant

At Mister City Sandwich Bar

At Arthur’s Cafe

At City Corner Cafe

At E.Pellicci

At Regis Cafe, Leadenhall Market

At Dino’s Grill & Restuarant

At Syd’s Coffee Stall, Shoreditch High St

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CLICK HERE TO ORDER A SIGNED COPY FOR £14.99

At a time of momentous change in the high street, Eleanor’s witty and fascinating personal survey champions the enduring culture of Britain’s small neighbourhood shops.

As our high streets decline into generic monotony, we cherish the independent shops and family businesses that enrich our city with their characterful frontages and distinctive typography.

Eleanor’s collection includes more than hundred of her watercolours of the capital’s bakers, cafés, butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, chemists, launderettes, hardware stores, eel & pie shops, bookshops and stationers. Her pictures are accompanied by the stories of the shops, their history and their shopkeepers – stretching from Chelsea in the west to Bethnal Green and Walthamstow in the east.

John Thomas Smith’s Ancient Topography

August 17, 2019
by the gentle author

Bethelem Hospital with London Wall in Foreground – Drawn June 1812

Two centuries ago, John Thomas Smith set out to record the last vestiges of ancient London that survived from before the Great Fire of 1666 but which were vanishing in his lifetime. You can click on any of these images to enlarge them and study the tender human detail that Smith recorded in these splendid etchings he made from his own drawings. My passion for John Thomas Smith’s work was first ignited by his portraits of raffish street sellers published as Vagabondiana and I was delighted to spot several of those familiar characters included here in these vivid streets scenes of London long ago.

Bethel Hospital seen from London Wall – Drawn August 1844

Old House in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub St – Drawn July 1791, Taken Down March 1805

Old House in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub St – Drawn July 1791, Taken Down March 1805

London Wall in Churchyard of St Giles’ Cripplegate –  Drawn 1793, Taken Down 1803

Houses on the Corner of Chancery Lane & Fleet St – Drawn August 1789, Taken Down May 1799

Houses in Leadenhall St – Drawn July 1796

Duke St, West Smithfield – Drawn July 1807, Taken Down October 1809

Corner of Hosier Lane, West Smithfield – Drawn April 1795

Houses on the South Side of London Wall – Drawn March 1808

Houses on West Side of Little Moorfields – Drawn May 1810

Magnificent Mansion in Hart St, Crutched Friars – Drawn May 1792, Taken Down 1801

Walls of the Convent of St Clare, Minories – Drawn April 1797

Watch Tower Discovered Near Ludgate Hill – Drawn June 1792

An Arch of London Bridge in the Great Frost – Drawn February 5th 1814

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III