Monday, 24 August 2020

A true sense of their mortal condition; the City of London Cemetery, Aldersbrook E12

All these cemeteries rightly have their constant visitors and sometimes their places in books on London but the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium at Manor Park (1856) should equally be visited. The contrast with Kensal Green at the other end of London is remarkable. The site iS flat, but planted with magnificent planes and one of its chapels is in a most elegant style of gothic, exceptionally good for cemetery architecture. Here the solid merchant worth of the City is symbolised by sheer weight of simple polished granite; there is no fantasy and the most remarkable tomb only has a life-size white marble Descent from the Cross, but there is a curious circus of huge granite books with cord markers, and another of passionate angels (the largest angel is elsewhere, on the tomb of the Elfes, monumental masons). There are also some special plots consecrated to the re-interment of the dead taken from some of the scandalous old City graveyards, A good solemn cemetery. 

Barbara Jones ‘Design for Death’ (1967)

The condition of the churchyards in the City of London was a national scandal by the start of the 1850’s. The City authorities had been slow to react to the threat to health that the overcrowded city churchyards represented; concern over intermural burials had resulted in the establishment of the ‘magnificent seven’ cemeteries in London starting with Kensal Green in 1832 and ending with Tower Hamlets in 1841 but in the City the authority of the Church of England went unchallenged and all attempts at burial reform were passively resisted. The City authorities were belatedly stirred into action when the 1852 Metropolitan burial act allowed the secretary of state to prohibit further burials in any churchyard or burial ground deemed a health risk anywhere in London. The act also made the Commissioner of Sewers a burial authority and so William Haywood, the City Surveyor, found himself given the job of finding a site for the City to open its own cemetery. Haywood’s report to the authorities called the city churchyards ‘overgorged’ and ‘disgusting’ and recommended the purchase of 200 acres of arable, pasture and meadow land at Aldersbrook to the east of London, between Manor Park and Ilford.  

Haywood’s proposition met with stiff opposition from some senior church members. Archdeacon Hale, a High Tory and staunch opponent of any attempt to disrupt traditional burial arrangements was particularly vocal. The Banner of Ulster found the Archdeacons attempts to thwart the opening of a new cemetery so ridiculous that it could only assume that the most reverend William Hale was joking “let the journalist relate how Archdeacon Hale jested with his clergy and hoaxed the City Commissioners of Sewers. It is, indeed, a pity that he did not find a more appropriate theme upon which to display his talent than the sepulchre. The mirth is rather ghastly; but, after all, there are few personages that excite more laughter in theatre than the gravediggers,” it remarked in 1855. The newspapers correspondent was exasperated that the Archdeacon’s objections were taken at all seriously and that William Haywood’s time was wasted having to respond to them. One of Hale’s objections to the new cemetery was that it was not divided into 108 compartments, each one allotted to one of the city parishes, “that all the parishioners, having lived together and traded together, may die together and lie together, and that none presume to mingle their dust with their neighbours of the next parish” the newspaper noted. Another objection to the cemetery was that dissenters should not be suffered to be interred with churchmen; “Excellent! Dissenter may to Heaven and the angels in company with Churchman, but he shan't to the grave and the worms.” His final objection was that there was no need for a cemetery, that the City’s churchyards still had plenty of room, were not overcrowded and were not a health risk, a demurral so risible that it drove the Banner’s journalist to a paroxysm of mockery; “so, far from being unhealthy to inhabitants in the houses around, they are rather the reverse; look at sextons, how old those men generally are; in fact, as the gravedigger says in Hamlet, ‘There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and gravemakers; therefore —no occasion for the Ilford Cemetery. Here he has risen to the height of his great argument, to the climax of his jest. It would appear that the only thing which prevents the authorities from taming our churchyards into a resort for invalids, such as Bath or Brighton, is the extreme difficulty, perhaps also the impropriety, of finding suitable amusements in their precincts. If people would only reconcile themselves to playing at bowls with skulls, and fencing with crossbones, and turning the tombstones into billiard tables, nothing can possibly more salubrious than a graveyard, especially a city one- Pray don’t mention the odours of the place; medicines are odorous, and the stronger the smell, the more potent the medicine, the more certain the cure. “Death is as natural as life;” therefore it is as good as life; it is, in fact, a form of life.”

Haywood’s chosen site at Aldersbrook was on the edge of Wanstead Flats, an area of what was, back in the Pleistocene when mammoths grazed the water meadows, the alluvial plain formed by the Thames. The course of the river has moved southwards by four or five miles over the last 100,000 years but the clay and gravel deposited by the river are well drained and are not too difficult to dig for graves. The land formerly belonged to the Manor of Aldersbrook; the manor house had been demolished by the most recent owner and the formal gardens dug up and converted to pasturage but the site still retained a farmhouse and a large pond. The Evening Standard noted that “the situation of the cemetery, though not picturesque, is nevertheless admirably well adapted for its purposes. It is flat, but at the same time well drained, the land being particularly fertile, which fact is amply testified by the unusually flourishing aspect of the recent horticultural improvements.” The owner of the land was the Earl of Mornington but the purchase was delayed because of a dispute between the Earl and his son about whether the profligate father actually had the right to sell. The dispute was eventually settled and the City Corporation bought the land in 1854. With Haywood in charge work on the site proceeded at a brisk pace; all existing buildings on the land were demolished, the lake was drained and drains and roads laid out. Two chapels were built, one Anglican and the other non-denominational, an impressive entrance was built on Aldersbrook Road along with lodges and houses for the staff.  The last features to be constructed in the impressive layout of the cemetery were the catacombs, built in their own valley and intended to be a centrepiece of the overall design. The draining of the lake had created a natural amphitheatre and Haywood utilised this to create the catacombs. They were not a commercial success though as the initial enthusiasm for catacombs which had led to their construction in most of the new garden cemeteries had worn off by the time City of London opened in 1856. They became more important as a landscape feature and a promenading spot than as a place of burial and were never more than half filled.  

Although the cemetery opened for business in June 1856 consecration was delayed until November of the following year as the Bishop of London was unwilling to go through with the ceremony unless all 108 parishes were in agreement (Archdeacon Hale had clearly got to him). Many of the parish priests were concerned at the potential loss of income but it soon became obvious that most of their flock didn’t care if the cemetery were consecrated or not and were quite happy to be buried there regardless. The clergy bowed to the inevitable and on Monday 16 November 1857 the consecration ceremony took place with all due pomp and circumstance as The Evening Standard described the following day:

Yesterday the new cemetery at Little Ilford, which has just been completed by the burial board of the City of London, was consecrated with the usual ceremonials by the Lord Bishop of London…. At about eleven o'clock in the morning the Lord Mayor, accompanied by a large proportion of the aldermen and common councilmen, arrived at the ground, and, in company with the committee of the burial board, received the Bishop of London on his arrival, a little before twelve; soon after which the procession, consisting of the committee of the burial board and the choristers of St. Paul's; the chaplain of the cemetery, followed by the Lord Mayor and corporation of the City; the Bishop of London, accompanied by his chaplain, chancellor, registrar, and the clergy of the City of London, moved forward from the gate through the grounds to the church. Those composing the procession having taken their places in the church, morning prayers were read by the appointed chaplain of the cemetery, the Rev. Mr. Taylor, the first and second lessons being taken from, the 23d chapter of Genesis and the 19th chapter of St. John. During the service the 39th and 90th Psalms were chanted by the choir. At the conclusion of the service the commission of the burial board was read by the registrar, when the Lord Mayor presented the authorisation of the corporation for the consecration to the bishop, after which the authorisation was read aloud, and subsequently signed by the bishop. The procession again formed, and proceeded out of the church in the same order, and passed through the ground to be consecrated, the choir chanting the 16th and 49th Psalms. The procession then again returned to the church, when the chairman of the burial board presented the deed of conveyance to the bishop, who then offered up the final prayer. The procession again formed outside the church, when three verses of the 39th Psalm were chanted by the choir.

To show there were no hard feelings the Bishop delivered one of his better sermons:

The service having concluded, the Lord Bishop of London came forward and said, that on an occasion such as had brought them together he did not think they ought to separate without considering well the impressive and important ceremonial which they had assisted at. They had been assisting at the consecration of a metropolitan mausoleum, or city of the dead, as much as the busy throng which they had but recently left was a city of the living. The condition of man would indeed be dangerous in the extreme if it were not that God is continually giving him warning that the state of security in which he reposes cannot last for ever. In assisting at the consecration of this city of the dead they were irresistibly reminded that the great and busy throng which filled the streets of London must in a few years become its inhabitants. It had been an ancient and a holy custom to bury the dead within and in the immediate vicinity of the churches, in order that the survivors might in times of prayer be reminded of the uncertainty of their condition. This it had recently been considered necessary for the health of the public to discontinue, but at the same time it was thought right to embellish the cemeteries wherever they were placed, in order to induce people to take their recreation in them, that a true sense of their mortal condition might at least occasionally be brought to their minds. A slight collation was provided by the corporation for those present, which was under the admirable superintendence of Messrs. Staples.

For the members of the Improvement Committee of the Commissioners of Sewers the annual inspection of the Cemetery proved to be a popular event (certainly more popular than the annual inspection of drains and sewers would have been) involving as it did a leisurely drive down to Little Ilford along the Mile End and Romford Roads in the company of the incumbents and churchwardens of many of the city parishes. July was the month chosen for the inspection and the inspection party generally left the Guildhall at 1.00pm in six open carriages. The party would arrive at the cemetery sometime after two and would be met at the main gate by the Superintendent, Mr. Stacey, Mr. Haywood, the Engineer to the Commissioners of Sewers, the Reverend J. F. Taylor, the Chaplain of the cemetery, and the Reverend Mr. Hibbitt, the Rector of Little Ilford. The Committee would inspect the books and the cemetery plans in the lodge and would then visit the chapels and catacombs and then do a round of the cemetery grounds. Having found everything in the most perfect order and having worked up quite an appetite during their drive down and perambulation of the grounds the entire party would be driven to the Castle Hotel in Woodford where a five-course dinner would be served. (see London City Press - Saturday 14 July 1866). 

In January 1900 the Corporation was presented with a bill to build a crematorium at the cemetery. The idea was controversial and the aldermen instinctively backed away from such a radical proposal. The following year the idea was debated again this time the Sanitary Committee were charged with considering and reporting on the most suitable sight to potentially construct a crematorium within the grounds of the cemetery and to submit plans and estimates for the work. It took until October 1903 for the Corporation to pluck up enough courage to pass the plan and agree to the building of the first municipal crematorium in the country at a cost of £7000. The crematorium was completed the following year (costs having, of course, gone over budget) and in December 1904 the Essex Newsman was able to report that “the Home Office has approved the scale of fees which the City Corporation has prepared in connection with the new crematorium the City of London Cemetery, Ilford, recently erected at a cost of nearly £10,000. The cost of cremation has been reduced to four guineas, which fee includes an urn for the reception of the cinerary remains. These will be kept for twelve months, and if not claimed and removed they will be buried in a portion of the cemetery which been set apart for the purpose.” The cost of cremation was later reduced even further to £3 16s 6d and the cremation services offered by the cemetery heavily advertised in the local press; an indication perhaps that take up of the service was not as brisk as the corporation would have liked. 

Ironically overcrowding of burial space has once again become an issue, this time in the ‘new’ cemetery. The Guardian reported in September 2000:

Something is stirring amid the reverential quiet of the City of London cemetery at Manor Park, the country's largest burial ground. Hushed tones and respectful silences may be the usual mode of behaviour, but Ian Hussein, director of the city's cemeteries, can barely contain his frustration. A suspicion he has been harbouring for years is rapidly becoming a crisis, but he believes few in power are listening to his warning: we are running out of space to bury the dead.

Mr Hussein was keen for the Government to change the law to allow existing graves to be reused:
Since the 1970s they have been permitted to reclaim plots after between 50 and 100 years, and to exploit any grave spaces within them that were never used. But archaic laws - dating from an era when grave robbing was rife - mean they are banned from disturbing any bones below. This renders impossible their preferred solution, "lift and deepen", in which an old grave is reopened, the remains removed and reburied more deeply, leaving space above for the newly deceased. It is already an accepted practice in much of Europe. "You can disturb human remains in this country for any reason you care to name - housing development, shopping complexes, road widening, you name it," said Mr Hussein, whose organisation has for years been buying back plots it is banned from redigging. "But the one thing the government will not allow is for graves to be disturbed for the purposes of creating more graves." Nor, he adds, should talk of a crisis be lightly dismissed. "Death is, after all, one subject which affects everyone in the end."

The law was changed. You can now purchase a used grave in the City of London Cemetery and be buried on top of the old occupant. If the monument on the grave is not of historic significance or does not occupy a key position in the cemetery landscape you are allowed to reuse it, turning it around and inscribing the new deceased’s details on the unused face of the grave stone. If the monument is historically significant or occupies a key position in the landscape you may add a small plaque to the existing details.

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