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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

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Vicky Stewart permalink
    August 21, 2019

    The Hardy Tree has a fungal disease, so its days are numbered.

  2. August 21, 2019

    This is fascinating: I hadn’t realised that the outrage over St Pancras led to the preservation as gardens of so many East End churches, with the gravestones moved to the walls. I believe we have Lord Brabazon to thank for a lot of energetic philanthropy over open spaces for the poor?

  3. Rupert Bumfrey permalink
    August 21, 2019

    Superb writing.

    A return to shrouds is sensible, after all for those of faith “we are dust and should return to dust”

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    August 21, 2019

    I used to live in a tower block very near Abney Park cemetery. It was rumored that it was built upon an extension of the cemetery and that the remains were excavated and removed just like those at St Pancras . There were a cluster of sad events there and some of tenants put it down that the remains were disturbed. Even our family of hard head atheists , when we were stopped on the street by our neighbours , and the subject of the misfortunes to befall the block arose, would quietly nod our head in agreement at the suggestion that it was down to it being built on a former cemetery .
    The cemeteries are there to remember lives lived . Why do we need so many offices in these days of mobile coms and computerss, are they just there for speculation ? There is enough empty space in London

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