Bunhill Fields

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Bunhill Fields
William Blake's grave with flower.jpg
Blake Memorial in Bunhill Fields.
Year established 1665
Location London Borough of Islington
Country England
Type Public (closed)
Owned by City of London Corporation
Size 4 hectares (9.9 acres)
Number of graves 120,000

Bunhill Fields is an old burial ground in the London Borough of Islington, north of the City of London, and managed by the City of London Corporation. It is about 4 hectares (9.9 acres) in extent,[1] although historically was much larger.

It was used as a burial site for Nonconformists from the late 17th century until the middle of the 19th century and contains the graves of many notable people.

Historical background[edit]

Map of Bunhill Fields

Bunhill Fields was part of the Manor of Finsbury (originally Fensbury), which is of great antiquity, the manor having its origins as a prebend of St Paul's Cathedral established in 1104. In 1315 the prebendary manor was granted by Robert de Baldock to the Mayor and commonalty of London. This act enabled more general public access to a large area of fen or moor stretching from the City of London's boundary (London Wall), to the village of Hoxton.

In 1498 part of the otherwise unenclosed landscape was set aside to form a large field for military exercises of archers and others. This part of the manor still bears the name "Artillery Ground".

Next to this lies Bunhill Fields, the name deriving from "Bone Hill", which is possibly a reference to the district having been used for occasional burials from at least Saxon times. It more likely is based on unusual events of the mid-16th century. In about 1549, cartloads of human bones were periodically brought here – some 1,000 loads in total – to make space in St Paul's charnel house for new interments. The dried bones were deposited on the moor and capped with a thin layer of soil. This built up a hill across the otherwise damp, flat fens, such that three windmills could safely be erected in a spot that came to be known as Windmill Hill.

Opening as a burial ground[edit]

Three men of letters in Bunhill Fields: John Bunyan's tomb (foreground) with memorials to Daniel Defoe (obelisk, left) and Willam Blake (headstone, right) in background. (January 2006).

In keeping with this tradition, in 1665 the City of London Corporation decided to use some of the fen as a common burial ground for the interment of bodies of inhabitants who had died of the plague and could not be accommodated in the churchyards. Although enclosing walls for the burial ground were completed, Church of England officials never consecrated the ground or used it for burials. A Mr Tindal took over the lease.

He allowed extramural burials in its unconsecrated soil, which became popular with Nonconformists – those area citizens who treasured their religious independence and practised Christianity outside of the Church of England. The burial ground, which became known as "Tindal's Burial Ground," attracted mainly Protestant dissenters from the established church. More of them lived in the area than did Catholic or Jewish residents. The burial ground was open for interment to anyone who could afford the fees.

John Bunyan's tomb

An inscription at the entrance gate to Bunhill Fields says: "This church-yard was inclosed with a brick wall at the sole charges of the City of London, in the mayoralty of Sir John Lawrence, Knt., Anno Domini 1665; and afterwards the gates thereof were built and finished in the mayoralty of Sir Thomas Bloudworth, Knt., Anno Domini, 1666."

In 1769 an Act of Parliament gave the City of London Corporation the right to continue to lease the ground from the prebendal estate for 99 years. The City authorities continued to let the ground to their tenant as a burial ground; in 1781 the Corporation decided to take over management of the burial ground.

So many historically important Protestant Nonconformists chose this as their place of interment that the 19th-century poet and writer Robert Southey characterized Bunhill Fields as "the Campo Santo of the Dissenters." This term was also later applied to its "daughter" cemetery established at Abney Park in Stoke Newington.

Thousands of Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) are buried in the neighbouring Quaker Burying Ground. This was purchased in 1660 as the burial place for London Quakers and constituted their first freehold burial land in London.

Closure as a burial ground[edit]

In 1852 the Burial Act was passed which enabled places such as Bunhill Fields to be closed once they became full. Its Order for closure was made in December 1853 and the final burial (Elizabeth Howell Oliver) took place on 5 January 1854. By this date approximately 120,000 interments had taken place.

Two decades before, a group of City Nonconformists led by George Collison secured a site for a new landscaped alternative, at part of Abney Park in Stoke Newington. This was named Abney Park Cemetery and opened in 1840. All parts were available for the burial of any person, regardless of religious creed. Abney Park Cemetery was the only Victorian garden cemetery in Britain with "no invidious dividing lines" and a unique nondenominational chapel, designed by William Hosking.

The neighbouring Quaker Burying Ground was closed for burials in 1855.

Opening as a community garden[edit]

Act of 1867 for the Preservation of Bunhill fields as an Open Space

Following closure of the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, its future was uncertain as its lessee, the City of London Corporation, was close to expiry of its lease, scheduled for Christmas 1867. To prevent the land from being developed at expiry of the lease, the Corporation formed the Special Bunhill Fields Burial Ground Committee in 1865, which became formally known as the Bunhill Fields Preservation Committee.

Appointed by the Corporation, the committee consisted on twelve advisors under the chairmanship of Charles Reed FSA (son of the Congregational philanthropist Dr Andrew Reed). Charles Reed later rose to prominence as the first MP for Hackney and Chairman of the first School Board for London before being knighted. Along with his interest in making Bunhill Fields into a parkland landscape, he was similarly interested in the wider educational and public benefits of Abney Park Cemetery, of which he was a prominent director.

Following the committee's work, the City of London Corporation obtained an Act of Parliament, the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground Act 1867,[1] "for the Preservation of Bunhill Fields Burial Ground ... as an open space". The legislation enabled the corporation to continue to maintain the site when the freehold reverted to the Church Commissioners; provided it was laid out as a public open space with seating, gardens, and some of its most worthy monuments were restored. The new park was opened by the Lord Mayor on 14 October 1869.

The nearby Quaker Burial ground was similarly landscaped. It became maintained at private expense by the Quakers; today the burial ground park provides open space around a Quaker Meeting House (the remnant of the Bunhill Memorial Buildings (1881) that survives after bomb damage in 1942).

The main burial ground was severely damaged by German bombing during World War II. The public park area was expanded in 1960, such that close to half of the former burial ground was developed and maintained as a public garden with open access. The rest remains attractively landscaped, though enclosed behind railings to protect the areas with more delicate monuments. The whole is maintained by the City of London Corporation. Legislation in 1960 transferred the freehold to the Corporation.

Today, the earliest monumental inscription that can be read in the main Bunhill Fields Burial Ground says: Grace, daughter of T. Cloudesly, of Leeds. February 1666. (Maitland's Hist. of London, p. 775.) Many monuments of historical note can be visited, in particular, those of

  • John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress (a book translated into more languages than any other apart from the Bible)
  • Dr Isaac Watts, the celebrated 'Father of Hymnology,' whose hymns have been sung worldwide, and who was also a poet and educator, an author of logic texts.

Close by are the burial of many other eminent Nonconformists, such as the ministers Dr John Owen (d. 1683) and Dr Goodwin (d. 1679). A more complete listing of the burials of well known figures is provided below.

In February 2012, Occupy London opened a site in the northwestern corner of Bunhill Fields to replace their Bank of Ideas at Sun Street.

Notable graves[edit]

Notable burials here include:


  1. ^ a b "Bunhill Fields Burial Ground", City of London, retrieved 21 June 2011 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°31′25″N 0°05′20″W / 51.52361°N 0.08889°W / 51.52361; -0.08889