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.


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