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The Tombs of Old London

December 31, 2012
by the gentle author

Monument to Lady Elizabeth Nightingale, Westminster Abbey, c.1910

What could be more uplifting in this festive season than a virtual tour of the Tombs of Old London, courtesy of these glass slides once used by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for magic lantern shows at the Bishopsgate Institute? We can admire the aesthetic wonders of statuary and architecture in these magnificent designs, and receive an education in the history and achievements of our illustrious forbears as a bonus.

In my childhood, no Christmas was complete without a family visit to some ancient abbey or cathedral. Yet while – ostensibly – we went to admire the tree and the crib, our interest was always drawn by the stone tombs and ancient monuments which consistently offered more extravagant rewards for our attention than the seasonal fripperies. Thus it was that my fascination with mortality became intertwined with Christmas, even before my nearest and dearest began to slip away from me into their graves – until today I have no other members of my family left alive.

In recent years, several of my relatives died at this season – imbuing festivities since then with an inescapable grave resonance. First, my grandmother expired one Boxing Day and, ten years later, my mother died on 31st December just as the daylight was fading. Then, a few years ago, my oldest friend collapsed unexpectedly on Christmas Eve. Consequently, while others delight to whoop it up over the holidays, I prefer to seek peace. Let me confide, my enduring image of New Year’s Eve will always be that of the undertakers carrying my mother’s body from the house out into the darkness.

It is a human impulse to challenge the ephemeral nature of existence by striving to create monuments, even if the paradox is that these attempts to render tenderness in granite will always be poignant failures, reminding us of death rather than life. Yet there is soulful beauty in these overwrought confections and a certain liberating consolation to be drawn, setting our modest personal grief against the wider perspective of history.

Tomb of Sir Francis Vere, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Monument to William Wilberforce, Westminster Abbey, c.1910

Memorial to Admiral Sir Peter Warren,  Westminster Abbey, c.1910

Monument to William Wordsworth in Baptistery, Westminster Abbey, c.1910

St Benedict’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey,  c.1910

Chapel of St Edmund, Westminster Abbey, c.1910

Tombstone of Laurence Sterne, St George’s Hanover Sq, c.1910 – Buried, grave-robbed and reburied in 1768, subsequently removed to Coxwold in 1969 due to redevelopment of the churchyard.

Hogarth’s tomb, St Nicholas’ Churchyard, Chiswick, c.1910

Sir Hans Sloane and Miller Monuments in Old Chelsea Churchyard, c. 1910

Stanley’s Monument in Chelsea Church, c. 1910

Sanctuary at All Saint’s Church, Chelsea, c. 1910

Shakespeare’s memorial, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Colville Monument in All Saint’s Church, Chelsea, c. 1910

Tomb of Daniel Defoe at Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, c. 1910

At the gates of Bunhill Fields, c. 1910

Tomb of John Bunyan, Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, c. 1910

North Transept of Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

North Ambulatory, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Ambulatory, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Monument to John Milton, St Giles, Cripplegate, c. 1910

Offley Monument, St Andrew Undershaft, c. 1910

Pickering Monument, St Helen’s Bishopsgate, c. 1920

Plaque, Christ Church, Newgate, 1921

Tombs in Temple churchyard, c. 1910

King Sebert’s Tomb, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Monument to Historian John Stow in St.Andrew Undershaft, c. 1910

Tomb of Edward III, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Queen Elizabeth I’s Tomb, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Monument to Charles James Fox, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Poets’ Corner with David Garrick’s Memorial, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Memorial to George Frederick Handel, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Monument to Francis Holles, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Tombstone of the Kidney family, c. 1910

Cradle monument to Sophia, Daughter of James I, Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Tomb of Sir Francis Vere, Chapel of St John the Evangelist, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Tomb of John Dryden, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Wellington’s Funeral Carriage, St Paul’s Cathedral,c. 1910

Robert Preston’s grave stone, St Magnus, c. 1910

Tomb of Henry VII, Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Glass slides copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Nights of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

The Shops of Old London

The Streets of Old London

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

The Chambers of Old London

17 Responses leave one →
  1. December 31, 2012

    Thankyou for your time and effort in running this most interesting site. Every day I look forward to it. We had a death in the immediate family this year so your remarks today were rather apt. I was you a happy new year – keep up the good work!

  2. December 31, 2012

    I wish you a happy new year!

  3. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 31, 2012

    I love your tales of spitalfields,&I love old tombs & monuments all these together,fabulous.I wish you a Happy New Year in spite of the melancholy associations.

  4. june wilson permalink
    December 31, 2012

    Firstly i would like to wish you a Happy new year, and thank you so much for the Spitalfields book it is a pleasure getting the emails every morning to see something new, I’ve learn’t so much about the area and especially as so many of my ancestors are from the area it is helping me with my family tree. i also have many family members that are buried in Bunhill cemetery so thats good to see too, may i also ask if you ever sell photo’s

  5. Robin permalink
    December 31, 2012

    Brilliant! Thank you G.A. for this post. These tomb photos are a marvel. I look forward to your history posts .
    Happiest and safe New Year to all.

  6. December 31, 2012

    Happy New Year, Gentle Author :o)

  7. Jill permalink
    December 31, 2012

    A reflective post to end the year, when many people will also be sad too. Thank you for your daily news and information, it really is appreciated. Can you get a New Year’s Honour anonymously? I’ll nominate you for next year for services to entertainment!

    Very best wishes, Jill x

  8. Tommy Folkesson permalink
    December 31, 2012

    Happy New Year, G.A.
    I have no connection to this part of the world, (Swedish), but surely this must be the best and most interesting blog on the net

    Best wishes, Tommy

  9. December 31, 2012

    Tommy, I’ve yet to find a better one. Happy new year GA.

  10. andrea permalink
    December 31, 2012

    A poignant post. I wish you a peaceful New Year’s Eve. Best wishes for the coming year, and thanks as always, Gentle Author.

  11. December 31, 2012

    this time of year, the 12 days of christmas, is about liminality, the neo-pagans tell me, and i’ve been posting a little bit about it over at FB. so anything you’ve got on piercing the veil at this time of year goes down good with me.

  12. January 1, 2013

    Happy New Year, Gentle Author.

    It makes me sad that you have no family and my offer to research your family tree should you want me to, stands. 🙂

  13. sprite permalink
    January 1, 2013

    grief long gone
    of unsubstantial abscences…
    grave matters


  14. gianna guidi permalink
    February 14, 2015

    I live in Italy (Bologna) and in a short time I will move to Merano (South Tyrol). I had been living a year in London (2009-2010) attending a Master at London Metropolitan University. I love London. I came across your website.
    Do you accept a hug form Italy? Don’t feel alone, our dearest are near us.

  15. Robert Snashall permalink
    December 13, 2021

    Dear Gentle Author.

    Please know that your words are eagerly read and photos devoured every morning in Melbourne, Victoria, (ashamed to add these days, Australia)

    Thank you so very much.

    Robert Snashall

  16. Marilyn Kopecky permalink
    September 9, 2022

    enjoyable tour via internet .

  17. Philip Hodgson permalink
    October 8, 2022

    Can anybody tell me which firm cleared all the monuments, and gravestones from Christchurch Spitalfields churchyard in 1950?
    I am trying to find the final resting place of my 4 x great grandfather.
    Or at the very least, what happened to these gravestones?
    I have tried the London Metropolitan Archives, but they have no record as to burial plots on the still consecrated churchyard.

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