Sunday, 28 February 2021

If you see a hearse go by; the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, E12


If you see a hearse go by, you know one day you are going to die
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
They wrap you in a big white sheet, then bury you down six feet deep
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
They put you in a wooden box, and cover you up with mud and rocks
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they go in thin, they come out stout
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!
Your skull caves in, your belly bloats out, your brains come trickling down your snout
Ha ha! He he! How happy we will be!

Anon

After 9 months of staying at home, interacting with anyone outside my household via a laptop screen, wearing a face-mask whenever I was likely to be close enough to another human being for them to breath on me and singing ‘happy birthday’ to myself on the 20 occasions a day I wash my hands, all my efforts were in vain as at Christmas SARS-CoV-2 caught up with me anyway and I finally succumbed to Covid 19. By the 10th February I hadn’t been out of the house for almost six weeks and was desperate to escape for a few hours. It had been snowing for a few days, not particularly heavily but enough to cover the ground with a thin layer.  Because there was a biting north-easterly wind the temperature felt sub-zero but the sun was out and close to the ground and away from the wind chill factor the temperature was above zero and the snow was beginning to thaw. I was keen to get some cemetery photos in the snow but as always I had left it a little too late. Still the bright winter sun was pleasant even if my fingers felt threatened by frostbite. 


It is a 40-minute walk from my front door to the City of London cemetery in Aldersbrook Road. I was just a few streets away from home when I came across a horse drawn hearse being readied for a funeral.  It was pristine white, with gleaming etched glass windows, drawn by a pair of lightly dappled greys with white manes and tails and ostrich plumes on their heads. The carriage driver was busying himself checking everything was in order before the undertakers brought out the coffin. I used to work half a mile from the cemetery in Manor Park and horse drawn funerals were a reasonably common sight but I’ve never seen a white carriage before. If there is a horse drawn funeral in the east end the undertaker is likely to be T Cribb & Sons, carriage masters, whose head office is in Beckton. When I checked their website, it did look like this was one of theirs; “White horse-drawn hearses pulled by either black or grey horses are very rare; they are most popular with the younger generation or those with religious faiths” it said. The firm specialises in restored Victorian carriages – their pride and joy is the only original Shillibeer mourning coach still in use in the UK.  The white coach didn’t look Victorian and it certainly didn’t look restored. It looked suspiciously new in fact. A little investigation soon revealed that white horse-drawn hearses are not rare at all – undertakers all over the country now offer their clients the use of exactly the same model. A few more google searches and I find out that the “coffin carriage is designed and manufactured by DST Exports” whose official factory address is Dakala Road , Near Sheesh Mahal, Opposite Government Fish Ponds, Patiala 147001, Punjab, India. On their website they say that Royal Look White funeral carriages “are especially for our Foreigner clients to give a warm last goodbye to their loved ones. A horse-drawn hearse carriage can be a more traditional tribute to your loved one, adding a real sense of occasion to the funeral. This is White Western look funeral carriage. These carriages are totally handmade and very strong for long life.” Price only on application unfortunately so I don’t know how much they cost. 



The City of London cemetery opened for business in June 1856 but was only consecrated in November 1857 because the Bishop of London was unwilling to conduct the ceremony until all of the 108 wrangling parishes in the City had reached agreement. The following month an anonymous correspondent of the London City Press went to visit the cemetery, publishing his account of the day out in the 2nd January edition of the paper;

We took advantage of one of the sunny December days to steal quietly into the Ilford Cemetery, and look, leisurely around upon the place where the majority of the City people will take their final rest. The slanting, and amber-tinted rays of the sun fell softly on the broad spaces of green turf, and the wrens, and thrushes, and robins, warbled among the branches, with no sound, save that of our own footsteps, to mar their melodies or disturb them in performance their requiems. Contrasted with the clean City pavements, that always seem to be warmed by the rapid and unceasing tread of hurrying feet, these green slopes and broad gravel walks, -untenanted by either the living or the dead, for, save ourselves and the birds, we saw not a single human being there, —contrasted most strangely, and we could not help reverting, in idea, to the future, when hundreds of stone memorials will dot the ground, and in place of the broad, unruffled carpet of turf, the ground will be heaved up into pillows, suggestive of the many who have sunk to rest there, while labour will find its daily task in the melancholy work of gravedigging.



The man from the City of London Press would still be able to find his way around the cemetery, the general plan of the place hasn’t changed much in 163 years. Two crematoriums have been added, one in 1901 and a new, modern, more efficient, and, it has to be said, ugly cremation facility was added in the 1970’s. His estimate of ‘hundreds’ of stone memorials turns out to be a slight understatement and there are now more than 150,000 graves, most of them being some sort of stone marker. Almost all graves contain more than one body and it is estimated that they have around 600,000 occupants. As the cemetery was used extensively in the late 19th by the City parishes for the mass reburials of human remains from emptied crypts, cleared churchyards and demolished churches some authorities estimate that in total almost a million people have been buried here. And that total grows daily, particularly at the moment; it is a relatively busy cemetery at the best of times and it is not unusual to see funerals taking place. I spent a couple of hours there and was surprised to see separate funerals using both the Anglican and non-denominational chapels and both old and new crematoriums. I counted six funerals while I was inside and there was another cortege pulling up at the main gates as I was leaving. Only Covid could account for so many burials and cremations. I have no idea whether I was there on a particularly busy afternoon or whether the cemetery is like this every day as it goes about the business of quietly disposing of the victims of the pandemic in East London.  

Away from the bustle of the city and the daily preoccupation with the getting and spending of money our anonymous correspondent from the London City Press found the in deserted cemetery found himself brooding on mortality. In the empty catacombs he encountered only one occupant, the ironically named Mrs Hasluck whose luck had apparently deserted her that year;   

Walking down to the catacombs, we were startled out of our loneliness by the loud and mysterious reverberation of footsteps, which increased as we progressed, and which we presently discovered to be the result of the semi-circular form of the structure and its embankments, producing one of the most distinct and impressive echoes I ever remember to have heard, and fitting the mind for the strange lesson of life's fleetness which those numerous unoccupied compartments suggests. Who amongst the busy throng, now pushing aside the swinging doors of banking houses, now debating in Corporation or Vestry, now driving hard bargains in the market, and now squaring up the accounts of the past year, will be entombed within those narrow cells before 1858 shall close? There is but one name there yet—it is that of Mrs. Hasluck: it will not be so long. Death knows no rest; Time knows no pause; and the halest and the hopefullest among us, may, at this moment, have at least one foot placed on the threshold of eternity! God, in His mercy, hides the future from us, and every successive minute of our lives is veiled in impenetrable obscurity!

Memento mori are no longer in fashion but, if you see a hearse go by…



Saturday, 20 February 2021

To Hell with Habeas Corpus!; Dr Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905), Barkingside



It’s a funny place to be buried, in the middle of a housing estate. It is true that Dr Barnardo has been here since 1905 and most of the houses are of relatively recent construction but it was still an unusual location when the good doctor first picked it out as final resting place. Instead of a cemetery or a churchyard he chose to be buried in the grounds of his Home for Girls in Mossford Green on the south-eastern edge of the site, in between two of the village greens and overlooked by cottage homes. Some of the original buildings on the site have been demolished and what is left has been converted into apartments.  The Barnardo’s charity could not resist the fund making opportunities afforded by untouched greensward and new houses and apartment blocks have sprung up on former playing fields. And so Dr Barnardo now lies among the living and the statue of Charity at the top of his memorial can look over the garden walls of the houses that hem her in on all sides.  Historic England say;

The monument is in the form of an exedra - a Greek term for an outdoor seat, which came to define a semi-circular recess in classical architecture. In ancient Greek architecture, exedra could incorporate bronze statuary and a stone bench, and were located in sacred places. The monument to Dr Barnardo follows the ancient tradition and comprises a bronze female figure on a granite plinth with tall granite quadrant walls, incorporating benches, on a stepped base. The figure represents Charity and has her arms around two children. On the face of the plinth is a high-relief bronze panel depicting an almost life-size group of three girls. Above is a portrait of Dr Barnardo in an aedicule, framed by foliage, ribbons, and the words 'IN MEMORY OF / 1843 DR BARNARDO 1905'. At the peak of the foliage is a heraldic lion and a crown, inspired by the crest on a ring worn by Barnardo in his lifetime.


Does anyone really remember Dr Barnardo anymore? In my childhood he was still a revered hero, one of those secular saints whose hagiographies were staples of improving literature for children; the man who saved countless urchins from the terrors of the East End streets at the tail end of the nineteenth century. In 1969 when Brooke Bond issued a set of 50 picture cards of Famous People 1896-1969 (one card with every packet of tea) Victorian philanthropists, missionaries and do-gooders featured heavily in Asa Briggs’ selection of the country’s most famous individuals of the previous century – Lord Shaftesbury, William Booth, David Livingstone, Florence Nightingale as well as Thomas John Barnardo.  As a child I thought the Barnardo card was rather sinister; Barnardo looked like he could be the twin brother of Dr Crippen or John Christie and where was he ushering those three children to through the foggy gaslit streets of East London?  


Thomas John Barnardo was born in Dublin in 1845, reputedly with Sephardic blood in the family on his father’s side, though his mother was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and the young Barnardo grew up as a strict Protestant, staunch to the point of zealotry.  At the age of 21 he moved to London planning to become a missionary in China. He enrolled in the London Hospital as a missionary medical student in 1867 but he never completed his studies or made his way to China. Instead he discovered the exotic East End and a population so godless and degraded that travelling half way across the world to China seemed superfluous. He began open air preaching on the streets of Stepney and Poplar and he began teaching at the Ernest Street Ragged School. Energetic and domineering he set up his own Ragged School in a stable and then acquired two cottages in Stepney Causeway which became known as the East End Juvenile Mission for the care of friendless and destitute children. He soon added another school in some old warehouses in Copperfield Road and acquired a magazine called the Children’s Treasury. When he wasn’t saving children, he was stopping East Enders from drinking. In 1872 Barnardo erected a large mission tent right in front of the Edinburgh Castle, a gin palace and music hall on Rhodeswell Road. Crowds of up to 2000 gathered nightly to hear the charismatic reformed drunkard Joshua Poole and his wife Mary inveigh against the evils of drinking. Business at the Edinburgh Castle suffered badly as a result of having two thousand temperance reformers camped out on its doorstep and within a few months the landlord threw in the towel and put his lease up for sale. The only person interested in acquiring the lease of a moribund public house was Dr Barnardo; he purchased it and after a refitting relaunched the ‘citadel of Satan’ (as he liked to refer to the Castle) as the British Workman’s Coffee Palace.  



The Barkingside Home for Girls was founded in 1873 when Barnardo married Syrie Louise Elmslie and the couple were given a 15-year lease of a 60-acre site in Mossford Green in Barkingside as a wedding present. It became the headquarters of ever-expanding philanthropic empire and, for a while the Barnardo’s home before they moved to a house called the Cedars in Hackney and finally to Surbiton.  His ambition, evangelical zeal and the strain of keeping his charities solvent sometimes made Barnardo less than patient with anyone who opposed his plans or stood in his way. He found himself facing increasing criticism, often from within the world of philanthropy. A pamphlet published by the Doctor’s critics, called Dr Barnardo’s Homes: Startling revelations made multiple allegations including that the homes were badly managed and the children cruelly treated, that the Doctor’s stories of rescues were grossly exaggerated, and the photographs he published were faked and that Barnardo had no claim to the title of ‘Doctor’. George Reynolds, an evangelical Baptist minister, denounced Barnardo's staging of the before and after photographs of the children which were used as fund raising materials alleging that Barnardo "tears their clothes, so as to make them appear worse than they really are. A lad named Fletcher is taken with a shoeblack's box upon his back, although he never was a shoeblack." Rather than sue his detractors for libel Barnardo opted to seek arbitration under an Order of Court. The judgement was largely in Barnardo’s favour but it was clear that Barnardo did indeed stage his rescue pictures and that he had no right to use the title Doctor having no medical qualifications.



The fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) alleges that Barnardo made 88 appearances in court as a defendant – looking at contemporary newspaper accounts this number seems a little exaggerated but may be true given his insistence on appealing any cases he lost.  In October 1880 the resoundingly titled Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales reported on an allegation of cruelty against the Doctor, “A quiet-looking lad of apparently 16 or 17 years of age, applied to Mr. Saunders at the Thames Police Court on Monday, for a summons against Dr. Barnardo for cruelly beating him. Applicant stated that he had for some time been an inmate of Dr. Barnardo's Home for Boys at Stepney Causeway, and had been made a sergeant amongst the lads in consequence of his good conduct. On Sunday night the applicant and some other lads stopped out after the evening service until 8.30. For this he was taken before Dr. Barnardo that (Monday) afternoon, and the doctor wanted to beat him over the hand with a large walking-stick. Applicant refused to submit to this, as it was his first offence. On this the doctor called in some men- five or six of them-and they caught hold of applicant and stripped him, and then Dr. Barnardo himself gave applicant a severe birching, hurting and bruising him very much.” At this point in the case the ‘a person’ who was apparently the manager of the Home stepped forward and explained to Mr Saunders that the lad was an apprentice at the Home who indeed been put in a position of trust but who then incited the other lads in the home into acts of rebellion against the Doctor’s regime. He admitted that the Doctor had wanted to give the lad some ‘banders’ for insubordination but as he had refused to accept this punishment there had been no choice but to birch him. Mr Saunders said that in that case there seemed to a matter to inquire into and granted the boy a summons. No sooner had the boy left the court then Barnardo burst “into court, and applied for a warrant against some lads, amongst whom was the one that had applied for the summons, for assaulting some other boys and for rebellious conduct at the home. One of the lads who had been assaulted being, it was stated, very ill through the way in which he had been knocked about.” The nonplussed magistrate declined to grant the warrants and instead “requested Inspector Lecocq, of the H division, to go down to the home and see the lads.”. I am unable to trace the outcome of Inspector Lecocq’s investigations. 


Eight years later in another illuminating case Barnardo was summonsed for assaulting “Eliza Whitbread and her sister [Dora] on the early morning of Tuesday week”. Eliza’s father was a Mr. Frederick Whitbread who had had a livestock yard at the railway arches at Stepney Causeway for forty years.  The access to his premises ran over land taken over by Barnardo’s Home for Boys and the livestock dealer soon found himself coming into conflict with the Doctor. Negotiations between the two parties foundered and the uncompromising philanthropist decided the matter by erecting an iron gate to prevent exit or entry to Whitbread’s premises on a Monday night in July. The following morning Whitbread discovered himself locked into his own premises and retaliated by getting his men to remove the gate. Eliza came out to find her father lying upon the gate, surrounded by Barnardo supporters who were trying to lever the gate back into an upright position using a crowbar. According to the Weekly Dispatch (29 July 1888) “she walked forward and took her father's arm. The men continued to raise the witness and her father till someone called out "Shame!" The witness begged her father to go and get legal advice, and he went away. Her sister then came out, and both of them were jeered at by Dr. Barnardo's boys. The witness and her sister were then joined by some of their own people. Dr. Barnardo had more than one hundred boys in uniform there, sixty dock labourers. and all the boys from his labour home. Having regaled them with bread and cheese, Dr. Barnardo said, “Clear these people off!" The people did not move. Dr. Barnardo then rushed at the witness and gave her a blow in the chest, knocking her back into a man's arms. An inspector, who was there, then came to the witness, and said, "Now, you are hurt, won't you go.” She replied that she must remain until her father came, when Dr. Barnardo again ordered the labourers to clear them off. They did not do so, when the defendant rushed at her a second time and pushed her. The boys then swept her away, and she afterwards went into her home. I She still felt ill from the effects of the blow, and she had a swelling in her breast.” The case was eventually dropped. 

Most of Barnardo’s court appearances were related to writs of habeas corpus granted to parents who were fighting to have their children returned to them after allowing them to enter one of Barnardo’s homes. Some of these court battles were sectarian in nature with the parents being funded and supported by Roman Catholic organisations who wanted to remove children with catholic backgrounds from the evangelical Protestant religious fervour of Barnardo’s Homes and place them in a more suitable Catholic Home. In 1892 for example Mary Ford was granted a writ of Habeas Corpus for Barnardo to produce her 12-year-old son Harry Gossage. The boy had been found homeless and destitute in Folkestone by a police constable and surrendered to Barnardo’s home. Barnardo alleged that the boy’s dead father was a Welsh Methodist and that his mother, who was Catholic, “was a person of drunken habits” who constantly neglected him. Dr Barnardo said that he could not produce the boy because he had been placed into the care of a Mr William Norton who had emigrated with him to Canada. Having lost his case at the Queens Bench Barnardo appealed to the House of Lords who gave him three months to comply with the writ. It was generally a feature of Barnardo’s defence to these actions that the mothers were women of low moral character and the children were no longer in the country. The 1890 case of Mrs McHugh who was seeking the return of her 11 year old son  John James Jones demonstrated just how far Barnardo was prepared to go to intimidate his opponets and how low he was prepared to stop in order to blacken their character in the courts. Mrs McHugh had lived for twenty years with the boy’s father but after he had abandoned the family she had been forced to place him into Barnardo’s care. She had later changed her mind and tried to retrieve him in order to place him in a Catholic school. Barnardo refused to give him up and when she threatened him with legal action he wrote her a letter “in which he said that if the mother persisted in her claim for the child he should make an investigation into her past life and bring all the matters which he discovered before the court.” Mrs McHugh persisted in her suit and when the case before the Queen’s Bench refused, Barnardo alleged that she was “of drunken, dissolute habits, and had used the boy cruelly”.  He had used private detectives to follow her and to find damaging revelations about her private life. The South Wales Daily News (5 November 1890) reported that Lord Coleridge, the Lord Chief Justice, “observed that in support of Dr. Barnardo's case many witnesses were examined—detectives he called them who resorted to a system of shadowing the unhappy woman, peeping through keyholes and listening at chinks of doors, with the result that the charges against the woman completely broke down. The boy had also been interviewed in private by their lordships, and absolutely denied that his mother treated him cruelly. It was clear he was well cared for, and willing to remain under Dr Barnardo's care, but after the scandalous attack which Dr Barnardo had made on the character of the mother it was evident he was not fit to have the custody of the boy.” In another case involving a child called Martha Ann Tye, Barnardo failed to produce the girl when the writ for Habeas Corpus was served and told the court that she had been given over to a French-Canadian woman called Madame Romand. A furious High Court Judge told “Dr. Barnardo he had not taken sufficient steps to restore the child. Writing mild letters of the kind he did to a woman like Madame Romand, who stated she would defy the Court, Dr. Barnardo, and all England! (laughter)—was not the way to get the child restored to the mother. There was no answer to the writ, and if necessary Dr. Barnardo must go abroad and seek out the child and restore it to the mother.” (Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press 20 July 1889).  Needless to say he did not go abroad and Martha Ann Tye remained separated from the mother who wanted her back. 


Dr Barnardo died at the age of sixty at his home, St Leonard's Lodge in Surbiton, on 19 September 1905 after suffering a series of Angina attacks. His body lay in state in the old gin palace, the Edinburgh Castle, for three days from Sunday 24 September until the morning of his funeral on Wednesday 27 September. From Limehouse his funeral procession proceeded with great pomp and ceremony to Liverpool Street Station where a special train was waiting to take him to Barkingside;

DR BARNARDO. Impressive Funeral Ceremony. The funeral of Dr Barnardo took place today amid manifestations of general grief. Outside the Edinburgh Castle, where the body has been lying in state since Sunday, a huge crowd assembled, and were largely representative of the people whom the great philanthropist mostly benefited- The funeral cortege was formed at the Edinburgh Castle. The magnificent wreaths were first carried to the hearse, and the coffin followed, reposing on it being three beautiful wreaths, one of red roses from Mrs Barnardo, one of white roses from the deceased's children, and the other of forget-me-nots from the only grandchild. The imposing procession formed at half-post twelve. It was headed by the band of the Stepney Boys' Home, who played the "Dead March " in "Saul" as the remains left. The procession then moved in solemn silence through the streets. The sight was very touching, and brought tears to many eyes. There were 1800 of the boys and old boys from the various homes established by the deceased, and a large number of boy emigrants who are shortly proceeding to Canada. PATHETIC INCIDENT. One very pathetic spectacle was that where the cripples from the various homes were drawn up pay their last respects to their benefactor. Personal friends were the pallbearers, and these were accompanied by Mrs Barnardo and other members of the family and Lord Brassey, the president of the Barnardo Homes. The coffin was conveyed by special train from Liverpool Street Station to Barkingside, Ilford. The procession was there re-formed, and the remains were carried to the Girls' Village Home, where a service was conducted by the Bishop of Barking. The body will there lie in state until after Sunday. (Dundee Evening Telegraph - 27 September 1905)

It may have been his final resting place but Dr Barnardo had a final excursion to make before he settled down to eternity in Barkingside. On the 4th October, just a few days after the funeral, he was discretely conveyed to Woking to be cremated. His cremains were taken back to Barkingside and buried where his memorial now stands.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

'The Resort of Thieves and Harlots'; Victoria Park Cemetery, Bethnal Green



All Victorian commercial cemeteries were based on the unsound economic premise of selling a finite resource (grave spaces) whilst accepting indefinite responsibility for the upkeep of the cemetery. In the short-term cemeteries did a brisk business selling grave plots in perpetuity but once space began to run short, sales declined precipitously and income no longer covered the costs of running the business. In response cemetery companies would ruthlessly cut costs, no longer maintaining their burial grounds and allowing them to become run down and overgrown but even so most of them eventually went bust. The Victoria Park Cemetery Company compounded the difficulties caused by a flawed business model by undercutting the prices of their rivals to generate sales; they went bankrupt just 8 years after the cemetery opened.   

The 12 acres of the cemetery were originally part of a much bigger parcel of land by Charles Salisbury Butler in 1840. Butler, who became Liberal MP for Tower Hamlets in 1852, came from a well to do family of Hackney landowners and his Bethnal Green purchase was intended to be sold as plots for speculative building in was then the outskirts of east London. The building plots didn’t sell as briskly as expected and in 1845 he leased the undeveloped eastern portion of the land to the Victoria Park Cemetery Company who walled off their 12 acres, erected a gothic gate (which still stands) and built two chapels. Both chapels were designed by Arthur Ashpitel, a Hackney born architect who was friendly with the artist David Roberts and travelled to Rome with him, who designed the ornament cast on Big Ben and who built churches, almshouses, schools and pubs, almost exclusively in the predominant gothic revival style.


The new cemetery quickly ran into financial problems. Although demand for burial spaces was high in the over populated and unhealthy East End of London the inhabitants were also the poorest Londoners and could not afford the high prices being charged in places like Kensal Green, Highgate and Norwood. To make matters worse the much larger Tower Hamlets Cemetery had been open for business since 1841, was barely a mile away and was already selling cut price burial plots to the East Enders. The Victoria Park Cemetery Company adopted a policy of never knowingly being undersold. Whatever the price was at Tower Hamlets Cemetery, they would sell cheaper. A freehold family grave that would have space for at least six burials went for £1 1 shilling.  The cost of a burial was a mere 10 shillings for an adult (with no charge for the ground) 5 shillings for a child and 1 and 6 for the still-born.  In a bid to attract business from the penny-pinching parish vestries responsible for burying paupers prices were cut even further. On 26 October 1849 the London Daily News reported on a meeting of the vestry of St George the Martyr in Southwark. Mr Day the vestry clerk read the report of a committee appointed to arrangements for the burial of the parish paupers following a Board of Health order to close the overcrowded Lock burial ground in Tabard Street and the parish churchyard. The report was brief and was mainly concerned with the charges made by cemetery companies for burial in common graves. The Nunhead Cemetery Company charged £1 for adults and 12 shillings for children, Norwood 17 shillings and 6 pence for adult paupers and 11 shillings for other poor persons, including children, the Tower Hamlets Company were a mere 9 shillings for adults but the Victoria Park Cemetery undercut the lot; adults 7 shillings, children under 10, 5 shillings and children under 5, 3 shillings.  Unsurprisingly the vestry “upon this information the committee had unanimously resolved that it was desirable to accept the terms offered by the Victoria Park Cemetery Company, for the burial of the poor persons who might die in the parish; and they desired, in the event of the guardians of the poor adopting the same place of interment for adult paupers, to co-operate with them in making such arrangements as might best conduce to the decent and economical burial of the dead.”  

A grainy shot of the cemetery in its heyday from 'The London Burial Grounds' by Mrs Basil Holmes (1896)

The finances suffered a further blow in 1848 when it was discovered that one of the cemetery clerks, Walter Stuart Tonge, had been embezzling money from the burial fees. He was charged at Worship Street police court in October. According to Bells Weekly Messenger (14 October) “the prisoner has been employed to receive monies for the opening of graves. The utmost trust was reposed in him, a handsome residence was provided for him, and he was allowed a liberal salary. It was the duty of the prisoner to pay in to the company’s solicitor, from time to time, the amount he had received, and his conduct in this respect was apparently unimpeachable. At length certain discrepancies were discovered, which resulted in his being given into custody.” The magistrate was told that it was believed that he had stolen money from around half of the 900 burial fees he had received. The Company finally went bankrupt in 1853 but was bought out by one of the directors who continued to manage it much as before. With everything run on the cheap the cemetery was badly organised and the subject of constant complaints. On 02 January 1856 The Morning Advertiser reported on a meeting of the St. Pancras Board of Directors of the Poor held at the vestry hall in Camden Town. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss whether the parish should buy an omnibus from a Mr Bennicke to be used to convey poor parishioners to the new St. Pancras Cemetery at Finchley. When it was mentioned that Mr Bennicke’s omnibus was currently used to transport relatives to and from Victoria Park Cemetery the board of directors allowed themselves to be distracted by Mr Glazier’s vivid descriptions of the horrors perpetrated at Bethnal Green;

Victoria Park Cemetery, where the most disgraceful scenes and desecration of the dead were perpetrated every Sunday. In consequence of the cheapness and the facility of conveyance, sometimes as many as 130 bodies were interred on Sunday, and they were taken down in carts, cabs, coaches, vans, and every description of vehicle; and the interments were also conducted in an equally disgraceful manner. The bodies were piled one upon another in graves which would hold 30 each, like egg boxes, and with but little earth to cover them. This was the mode of conducting funerals at the cheap East end cemeteries to the prejudice of the respectably conducted parochial cemeteries like St. Pancras. He thought the Government ought to interpose to put a stop to such proceedings. 

A few months later, on 21 April The Times also reported on the calamitous condition of the cemetery;

The practices pursued at the Victoria Park Cemetery are really revolting. Mr. Holland visited this loathsome place one Sunday afternoon and "witnessed scenes of a very painful nature." He saw 30 or 40 coffins thrust into graves, and all were left uncovered while he stayed; the graves were very near each other, and the bustle was continuous and distressing. One quarter of the cemetery appears to be a mass of putrefying corruption, consisting of several thousand carcases, contained in coffins immediately contiguous in the same graves, and separated from those in the adjoining graves by a few inches of soil only, which are heaped up on each other partly below, partly above the natural level of the ground, and covered only by a few feet of open gravel. The quantity of putrid gas given off by such a mass of corruption must be far greater than the soil can absorb or decompose. Unfortunately, the Victoria Park Cemetery is exempted by act of Parliament from any order in Council to close it up. The proprietor, Mr. C. S. Butler, M.P. for the Tower Hamlets, has taken steps to remedy some of the evils pointed out by the inspectors, but the cemetery should, no doubt, be closely watched, as Mr. Holland recommends. The result of a subsequent visit (on the 3rd of March) is as yet undecided.


A bereaved father who signed himself H.R. wrote to the Clerkenwell News in September 1869 to “complain of a gross scandal of the management of Victoria Park Cemetery”;

I beg to call your attention to what I consider a cruel and shameful imposition. Having lost a dear child, I paid all the fees demanded to have it buried in Victoria Park Cemetery. When I and other mourners reached the cemetery, we saw the coffin placed on level ground. I asked the gravedigger if he called that burying. I was told he could not alter it, as he had to obey orders. Hurtful as it was to my feelings, I still insisted on having my child buried. My undertaker, seeing that I was persevering in the matter, took to me to the cemetery office, where I was told if I was not satisfied, I might have the child buried in a grave where I could see it covered. This I saw done; but I should like to know what is done with all those coffins left on level ground?

Charles Salisbury Butler MP had become defacto owner of the cemetery when the freehold reverted to him in 1853 when the first cemetery company failed. Despite the bad publicity he seems to have done little to ameliorate conditions in the burial ground. When he died in 1870 he was living between his Hackney Mansion Cazenoves House in Upper Clapton, and 48 Prince’s Gate, Hyde Park a building that is now the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. The cemetery continued to decline and it was finally closed in 1876 with almost 300,000 people interred, at bargain prices, in its 12 crowded acres.  The cemetery’s closure did not stop the complaints however. Here is the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette of 20 April 1887;

The present condition of the Victoria Park Cemetery, in the populous district of Bethnal Green, is a scandal which calls for public inquiry and condemnation. Walls have been demolished, and the headstones and mounds of thousands of graves broken down and removed, the whole extent of four or five acres having been reduced to barren and unseemly wreck and ruin. The mortuary chapel, in which the services of the dead were performed, has been literally pulled to pieces. One end is entirely demolished, the side walls partially torn down, the floor removed, and many of the heavy beams which supported it have disappeared. The iron railings round the tombs have been everywhere carried away. Monuments have been overturned, and even the kind and loving memorials of Colonist to his parents lie partly strewn about. Some of the graves have been broken open, and children have cast bricks onto the coffins. The place is reputed at night the resort of thieves and harlots; and a more disgraceful abuse of consecrated ground and a more horrifying contempt and neglect of the reverent sentiments with which the memory of the departed is in all civilised countries regarded it is impossible conceive. No burials seem to have taken place since 1872, and for fifteen years it would appear that neither care nor regard has been paid to the decent maintenance of this extensive ground. How different has been the conduct of the Vicar of Paddington in converting the disused churchyard there into a beautiful garden, with the headstones laid tenderly upon the verdant grass, and the whole area bright with flowers. Surely some better use may yet be made of this desecrated estate, which now disgraces the Metropolis.

In 1891 Charles Butler’s son the Revd. John Banks Meek Butler of Sussex conveyed 11½ acres of the cemetery to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and after demolition of the chapels and the removal of thousands of headstones the cemetery was reborn as a park in 1894. The Duke of York opened the renamed Meath Gardens (named after Lord Meath who was  chairman of the Gardens Association) on Friday 20 September in front of a large crowd before setting off to visit the Home and Hospital for Jewish Incurables, in Victoria Park Road.  There is little trace of the 300,000 people buried beneath the turf of the park, only a handful of headstones remain (I found two but they may be more) dotted around inconspicuously and a small bronze plaque to Bripumyarramin, aka as King Cole, the native Australian cricketer who died at Guys Hospital on 24 June 1864 and was buried here.