Friday, 15 July 2022

Master Masons and Rear Admirals, Indian Chiefs and Housebreakers, Armed Robbers and Odd Fellows, All Welcome at St John's Burial Ground, Horseferry Road, SW1

ST. JOHN'S BURYING GROUND, Westminster, is very spacious and overcrowded; the churchwardens have been obliged to give up a part of the ground, for the interment of the poor, which had formerly been set apart, for the more fortunate. The soil here is very damp, and, at a shallow depth, the water flows in abundantly; the depth of the graves varies from four to eight feet.

George A. Walker Gatherings from Graveyards (1839)

So populous was the parish of St Margaret in Westminster that it was divided in 1727 by the creation of the new parish of St John the Evangelist. The church has an unusual design of four towers and is known as Queen Anne’s footstool as legend has it that when the architect Thomas Archer asked her majesty how she would like the church to look, the petulant queen, keen no doubt to get rid of the tiresome old architect and get back to romping with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, kicked over the stool she was resting her heels on and told him “Like that…” It didn’t appeal to Dickens; in Our Mutual Friend, he describes it as "appearing to be some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic on its back with its legs in the air", which makes it sound more Gothic than Baroque. Roque’s map of 1746 shows that the church had quite an extensive churchyard, Mrs Basil Holmes in London’s Burial Grounds (1896) says that it “used to extend, at the beginning of the century, for some distance on the south side of the church, but was thrown into the road. Now all that remains is a very small bare enclosure, not ¼ acre in size, railed in round the church.” Even at its most extensive the churchyard was not big enough to provide enough burial spaces for the teeming parish it served. The vestry acquired additional land for a burial ground on what was then Market Street but is now the lower end of Horseferry Road. The new ground was consecrated by Dr Joseph Wilcocks, Dean of Westminster, on 29 July 1731 but soon had its own capacity issues.  One ten-year period saw 5,126 graves dug and the parish was soon reduced to desperate remedies to try and create more space for interments including adding additional earth on no less than three occasions and raising burial fees to prevent "low fees attracting interments from other parishes." Despite being extended in 1823 it was closed in 1853 by the Government on the grounds of having become a great public nuisance. 

In 1880 a committee of local ratepayers was appointed to look at converting the disused burial ground into a public garden in order to bring an end a row with the vestry about a proposal to build a mortuary on the site. When Horseferry Road was widened the strip across the front was surrendered without protest but a public mortuary was too much for the ratepayers. Luckily the Duke of Westminster stepped in and “most liberally offered the parish the freehold of a site in a retired position more suitable for the purpose, at the back of the Penitentiary, and within a short distance of the burial ground.” The vestry accepted the site offered by the Duke at the back of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon prison and allowed the burial ground to be repurposed as a garden. The headstones and chest tombs were cleared away, lawns and flower beds were laid and in 1885 the new garden was opened by the Duke. A decade later Mrs Basil Holmes commented approvingly “it is neatly kept by the vestry, and much frequented.” It still is. The lay out is pretty much as it was back in the 1880’s, a shelter in the centre has been replaced by a fountain but otherwise it is neat and well kept by the council. When I was there small children raced around the fountain on bicycles and a boy in his early teens languidly pushed himself around the boringly flat terrain on a skateboard. Dog walkers exercised their canine companions whilst smokers sat on benches puffing away contentedly. It was the early evening so they all looked like local residents; there wasn’t an office worker in sight (they were all around the corner packing out the Marquis of Granby on Romney Street). It is not obvious that the garden was once a burial ground and that there must be 20 or 30,000 people mouldering away beneath the manicured lawns and the paving slabs. The paving looks suspiciously like chopped up old headstones; at the sides of the park there definitely are old headstones being used as paving slabs, the inscription on one reads “In memory of Benjamin, John and Sally the infant children of William and Mary Ginger of this parish, Also of Mary their daughter wife of the Revd. William Hughes who died 6th April 1799 aged 33 years.”  Ledger stones are set up against the walls of the neighbouring buildings. “I think the best way of disposing of tombstones is by putting them against the walls,” wrote Mrs Basil Holmes, “in St. John’s Garden, Horseferry Road, they are cemented into an even row against the wall, and look as if they would last for ever.” Personally, I wish they had just left them where they stood. Thank God only half of Bunhill Fields was cleared to create a large lawn and the rest was left to let us see what these tiny crowded grave yards looked like. When I think of the destruction wrought by the Midland Rail Company, Baroness Burdett Coutts and the vestry of St Pancras on Old St Pancras and St Giles burial grounds I could weep.  Apart from the ledger stones cemented into the walls and the headstones being utilised as paving there are just two tombs left in St John’s, an anonymous chest tomb surrounded by black metal railings and the grade II listed memorial to Christopher Cass. 

J.E. Smith in St John the Evangelist, Westminster: parochial memorials (1892) says “On the east side of the ground stands an unsightly monument in granite, clumsily inscribed in huge letters to the memory of “Chr"- Cass, Master Mason to His Maj.'s Ordnance.  Died Apl.  21, 1734.  Aged 58."  He was employed on the construction of St.  John’s Church, and on several of the other churches built by Queen Anne’s Commission. He was also one of the original vestrymen appointed by the Commission.” The Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851 has further details of Christopher Cass and says that he was a “conspicuously successful master mason whose team worked in London, Cambridge and at a number of large country houses.” They add;

He died in London and was buried in the cemetery of St John, Westminster, under a heavy granite monument inscribed ‘Chr. Cass, master-mason to his Maj. Ordnance. Dy’d Ap. 21, 1734’. In a report to the RIBA ‘On the Mechanical Processes of Sculpture’ Charles Harriott Smith suggested that this monument was one of the earliest works in England to be executed in granite, and that ‘its mouldings, though such as would now be considered rude in form and execution, were highly esteemed in his (Mr. Smith’s) boyhood’ (Builder,1851, 215). In his will Cass originally expressed a wish to be buried in a vault beneath the portico of St Martin-in-the-Fields, but he substituted St John’s burial-ground in a codicil. To Edward Strong II, ‘my friend and benefactor’, he left £50, declaring that he owed him what ‘I and my family, under the good providence of God, have’. He named Andrews Jelfe his executor, and bequeathed him 100 guineas. Thomas Gayfere received £20 and ‘all his wearing apparel, linen and woollen of all kind’.

Cass’s widow survived him and died in 1742. Andrews Jelfe, writing in that year to William Dixon, tells him that ‘Mrs. Cass was buried last week. She had left all her part to Mr. Bright, a young lawyer, who married her daughter’.

The gardens with the Cass Memorial from Mrs Basil Holmes London's Burial Grounds (1896)

There is a large damaged and weathered ledger stone cemented to the north wall which carries the name of Admiral Ommanney and his wife Martha. A visitor to the gardens on 30 June 1923 reported the full inscription to Notes and QueriesHere lieth the Remains of Rear Admiral Cornthwaite Ommanney who died the 26th day of March 1801 aetat 65. Also the Remains of Martha Ommanney his widow who died on this 18th day of March March 1813 aetat 65. Likewise Edmund Woods Ommanney their grandson, son of Henry Manaton and Ann died 19th May, 1813, aged 2 years... On 27 March 1937 another correspondent noted that “one of the most interesting of the memorials was badly broken in moving it, involving the loss of part of the inscription to Rear-Admiral Cornthwaite Ommanney (died 1801). Fortunately this inscription had already been placed on record in ' N. and Q.' of June 30, 1923.”  Rear-Admiral Cornthwaite Ommanney was born in 1736 in Portsea, Hampshire. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Royal Navy on 22 August 1758 and promoted to commander in 1765. He commanded the HMS Zephyr, Otter, Panther and the Tartyr and saw active service in Newfoundland and in New York in 1776 participating in the campaign to recapture the city from the rebels. He became a superannuated rear-admiral in 1794 and died on 26 March 1801, ‘sincerely lamented by all his acquaintance’.

Both Holmes and Smith mention that the burial ground supposedly contains the remains of an Indian Chief. This story turns out to be true. The burial took place just two years after the grounds were opened. I found the following in the Newcastle Courant of Saturday 10 August 1734:

On Friday last dy'd of the Small-Pox, at his Apartments in the Little Ambrey, Westminster, one of the Indian Chiefs, Brother to the Queen, who was lately brought over by James Oglethorpe, Esq; The particular Manner of burying him in the Burial Ground of St. John the Evangelist in the Horseferry Road, according to the Custom of the Kings and Inhabitants of the Karakee Creeks, was as follows, viz. the Deceased being sewed up in two Blankets with one Deal Board under and another over him, and tied down with a Cord, was placed upon a Bier, and carried to the Place of Interment, and laid in the Earth without any Ceremony, his Cloaths, a Quantity of Glass Beads, and some Pieces of Silver, were thrown into the Grave, it being the Indian Custom to bury all their Effects with 'em.

James Oglethorpe was a soldier, a Member of Parliament and the founder of the colony of Georgia. He paid a visit to England in 1734/35 bringing with him a delegation of Creek Indians and their chief Tomochichi, who had been invited by the Georgia trustees to be present during the formal ratification of their treaty with Oglethorpe.   An oil painting by William Verelst, now in the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, shows Oglethorpe presenting the Yamacraw Indians to the Georgia Trustees on July 3, 1734. Perhaps the man who was buried in St John’s was amongst the group depicted in the painting. If so he was dead and buried just five weeks later.

Other interesting funerals which took place at the burial ground included Charles Cartwright who had been executed at Hertford for a robbery (in which no one died – punishments were harsh in the early nineteenth century). It was reported in the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of 18 August 1824: 

Monday, Cartwright, who had been executed at Hertford, for the robbery at Mr. Gordon’s, was buried in St. John’s Burial Ground, Westminster, with “Gypsy Nan," for the Chief Mourner. The deceased was not much above 19 years of age; who the Chief Mourner was may be imagined. An immense crowd followed the corpse, consisting of an appalling assemblage of those who are not held in too much esteem by the world’s law; however, the Queens Square Police Officers, &c were on the ground, and all went off very orderly.

And then there was James Lawns, a burglar, reported in the Morning Post of 02 August 1832:

DEATH OF A NOTORIOUS HOUSEBREAKER - On Saturday last, at an early hour in the morning, James Lawns, a noted "cracksman" in Westminster, well known to the police, was attacked with the cholera in the streets. He was taken home to his lodgings in Union-court, Orchard-street, and was attended by several medical gentlemen but without success. Lawn has frequently been in custody, and, for the last few years, is supposed to have been concerned either directly, or indirectly, in the greater part of the burglaries which have been committed in the metropolis. On his death being made known, his companions in crime raised a subscription to bury him, and on Monday afternoon the funeral took place. A fellow named Ned Nix, was the chief mourner; and the corpse was followed to St. John's burial ground, Westminster, for interment, by upwards of 500 of the most notorious thieves and vagabonds in the metropolis, many of whom shed tears.

On 23 September 1823 the Morning Advertiser reported the funeral of Henry Davy, Odd Fellow (who lived in a Pineapple, but not under the sea):

Funeral of an Odd Fellow. —On Sunday afternoon a crowd of parsons assembled in Pine Apple-court, and Castle-lane, Westminster, to witness the funeral procession of Henry Davy, an Odd Fellow. About four o’clock the avenues leading to the spot where the corpse lay were blocked up with spectators, and considerable curiosity was excited in the neighbourhood by the novel appearance of those belonging to the St. Luke’s, St. Peter’s, and St. James’s, arriving, wearing their several orders, insignias of office, and carrying the banners of the respective Lodges; in the former the deceased was a brother, six whom supported the pall. The procession moved slowly through the principal streets, towards St. John’s Church, a band of music playing at intervals sacred tunes with the drum muffled. On arrival of the corpse at St. John’s New Burial Ground, Horseferry Road, the coffin was lowered into the grave, and the funeral service read, after which the band stood forward and played the Evening Hymn; on its conclusion the earth was thrown in, and the remains covered. A vast concourse of persons collected, and the novelty of the sight was much noticed. The procession returned in the same order, and soon after dispersed.

And finally George Edmonds, military bandsman, the best performer on the French horn in Europe, reported in the Perthshire Courier of 19 September 1823;

On Thursday afternoon, at four o’clock, was interred in St John's burial ground, Westminster, the mortal remains George Edmonds, one the band the Coldstream, or Second Regiment of Foot Guards, with grand military honours, far surpassing anything of the kind witnessed in Westminster for several years. The deceased was considered to be the best performer the French horn or bugle in Europe, had the honour of being privately introduced, and having played for the King, all the Royal Family, and most of the distinguished Nobility and Gentry, and had frequently attended private parties, till his fame had spread all over the kingdom.


  1. Another excellent piece: thank you David. The Cass mnument is really important in the history of cemetery memorials as marking the arrival of granite. How wise of Cass to have inscription cut so deep...

    1. Thank you! It shouldn't really surprise us that Cass the master mason had a good idea how deeply to cut his lettering to ensure it stayed legible. I don't know what JE Smith was thinking when he described the lettering as 'clumsy'.