London’s Bunhill Fields is known as a place for dissenters. Not living ones – though I daresay there are plenty of those too – but dead ones, non-conformist Protestants opposed to the practices of the established Church of England, who were able to be laid to rest here without having the form of service prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer at their ending. Many were imprisoned for their beliefs. Sandwiched between Bunhill Row and City Road, Bunhill Fields burial ground closed in 1854, for health reasons and because it was full, and is said to be the last resting place for some 123,000 souls. Actually, I suspect it is considerably more than that.
Among those commemorated at Bunhill are the extraordinary poet, printer and painter William Blake (1757-1827), whose words, “And did those feet in ancient time” became our school hymn, Jerusalem (and many other schools’ too); Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), novelist and spy, among other things, perhaps best known as the writer of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders; John Bunyan (1628-1688), soldier, preacher and author of the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress; Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “Father of English Hymnody” whose many compositions include O God Our Help in Ages Past; Joseph Hart (1712-1768), evangelist (before he became a goalkeeper); Susannah Wesley (1669-1742), John Wesley’s mum; and Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), creator of the first commercially successful steam engine. It is astonishing that the originators of so many of our cultural references lie in such close proximity in this soil.
An Act of Parliament of 1867 preserves Bunhill Fields as an open space, so it has been planted, rearranged slightly, bombed, restored, and turned into a kind of park. Workers eat their lunch under the shade of its trees, visitors linger by the memorials and it’s used as a thoroughfare by busy pedestrians. Old headstones have been reused as paving in places. Most of the surviving marked burials are behind railings, possibly to make escape difficult, perhaps to inconvenience body snatchers, but more likely for preservation purposes. Access can be gained as part of an official tour, but a glance inside is enough to take on board the dense, cramped, nature of burials, certainly at ground level, in London’s cemeteries before new cities of the dead had to be created in the 19th century. Many of the memorials at Bunhill might not be quite in the right place; what looks like a headstone commemorating Blake and his wife, Catherine, for example, is yards from where their bodies were interred – and they were buried apart in any case; Defoe, who seems to have died in poverty, is remembered with a large obelisk erected in 1870 – again, possibly not on the site of his grave.
One of the stranger memorials is to Dame Mary Page, wife of the wealthy merchant, director of the British East India Company, Member of Parliament (etc etc), Sir Gregory Page. You can’t miss Dame Mary’s tomb – it’s enormous, and prominent. Inscribed on one side is:
Here lyes Dame Mary Page, relict [widow] of Sir Gregory Page Bart. She departed this life March 4 1728 in the 56th year of her age.
And on the other…
In 67 months she was tap’d 66 times. Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.
The rumble of traffic and the general heartbeat of a great city ensure that Bunhill isn’t exactly an oasis of quiet, but it’s nonetheless one of those lovely spaces you find in London, which help make it the special city that it is. And, as you might expect, it comes with a bit more history than I’ve told you so far. To begin with, they say there was once a Saxon burial ground here – which would presumably add to that figure of 123,000. By the 12th century, Bunhill Fields belonged to the Manor of Finsbury and, by the 14th century, the fields – open spaces beyond the city boundaries – were leased to the Corporation of London for grazing and archery practice. Indeed, in 1498, part of the ground was specifically set aside for training in the use of longbows, crossbows and handguns, all weapons then loosely designated ‘artillery’; and the Honourable Artillery Company, the oldest regiment of the British Army, which traces its origins back to 1537, still occupies the land. Nearby is the Artillery Arms, which was presumably named for this association – though it used to be called the Blue Anchor and was famous for its rat baiting. It looks like a typical London pub – and serves one of my favourite ales.
It may be that part of Bunhill Fields was used as a tip, a place to leave rubbish that included bones from Smithfield meat market. The name Bunhill is derived from bone-hill, though it’s not clear whether this refers to animal remains – or human, because, in 1549, the contents of St Paul’s Cathedral’s charnel house were moved here. It seems it was a practice in medieval times to bury people for just long enough for the flesh to rot away – since, apparently, the soul remained in situ only as long as the flesh did. Well, I never! After that, the bones could be safely moved to long-term storage in the charnel house – a neat way of freeing up space in churchyards. But, post Reformation, this practice was deemed Popish, so St Pauls’ charnel house was demolished and its contents – the bones of thousands of Londoners – were shifted by the cartload to Bunhill Fields. The story goes that there were so many remains that they heaped to form a mound, a hill of bones, large enough to accommodate a windmill – or three. Where did all those bones go? And, for that matter, the windmill(s)?! Anyway, there’s another reason to increase that 123,000 figure.
The Great Plague of 1665 is thought to have killed some 100,000 people in London, about 25% of the population. At its peak, thousands were dying each week, churchyards became full and the stench of death was literally in the air. The digging of mass graves – plague pits – was ordered and Bunhill was designated for one of these – though it is believed that it was never actually put to use, because the deaths started dropping off before it was ready. London’s next crisis, the Great Fire of 1666, made a further estimated 100,000 homeless and these poor folk camped as best they could in the open spaces to the north, probably including Bunhill Fields. Thereafter, the southern part of Bunhill Fields was leased to a John Tyndall, who maintained it as a private burial ground – it was briefly known as Tyndall’s burial ground. Outside the City boundaries, not attached to any church or preacher (though actually owned by the Dean & Chapter of St Paul’s from 1514 to 1867), Bunhill Fields became the burial ground of choice for dissenting believers in London, until its closure.
Historian and travel writer Richard Tames amusingly describes Bunhill Fields as a “Valhalla of nonconformity”: but there are two more non-conformist landmarks nearby, a Quaker Garden and, across City Road, John Wesley’s House and Museum of Methodism – and John Wesley’s burial place. So, if you have any sense of humour, you can add to Tames’ description and call Bunhill a Mecca for dissenters.
The Quaker Gardens lies just to the west, across Bunhill Row. Also known as Quaker Garden Bunhill Fields, it is the remaining portion of a Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) burial ground, in use between 1661 and 1855 and containing some 12,000 unmarked burials in its own right, including that of the Society’s Founder, George Fox (1624-1691). It has never had any gravestones. In the 1880s, the Quakers built the Bunhill Memorial Buildings on the site, providing a coffee house, school and medical mission, but only the caretaker’s cottage – now used as the Meeting House – survived World War Two bombing. The Quakers were also subsequently forced to sell part of the land for development and the reduced area is now a garden, with a playground attached. Two guys were performing some kind of weird, ritual-like, exercise in the playground when I visited. Sadly, the Quaker Gardens have a slightly edgy, threatening, feel – quite at odds with the movement’s beliefs. Unlike the main section of Bunhill Fields, the gardens were deserted, their reasonably tranquil design enhanced with random graffiti, scattered litter and the sensation of being watched. It was not a place I was inclined to linger; in big cities, you generally know when you’ve crossed an invisible line.
So, there we are: Bunhill is part of historic London, a memorial to thousands that lie there, forgotten and remembered, to their achievements – known and unknown – and, also, to religious division. We would need an awful lot of different burial grounds if we set out to cater separately for the enormous variety of beliefs held in more liberal societies today. Of course, some still cling on to one special tribal status or another; me, I have my eye on a nice little patch in the corner of the local Jedi cemetery, where I feel a real presence.