The first written record of the land that became Bunhill Fields is in 1104. With Smithfield & Moorfields, it was one of the three great fields belonging to the Manor of Finsbury. Before this time, part of Bunhill Fields had been a Saxon burial ground.
By 1315, a much larger (23 acres) Bunhill Fields than we see today was leased to the City of London. The term field implies open land—land not used for the cultivation of crops—but for the grazing of animals, the tenting of cloth (that is to say, the bleaching of linen in the sun), archery practice, & so on—any activity that required space. An anonymous seventeenth-century ballad, “Robin Hood and queen Katherine”, tells of an archery contest at Bunhill Fields:
The king is into Finsbury field
Marching in battle-ray,
And after follows bold Robin Hood,
And all his yeomen gay.
In 1498, as the musket replaced the longbow, eleven acres of Bunhill were taken & made into an artillery ground. The Honourable Artillery Company still occupies the land it was granted in the 15th century.
Though ownership of Bunhill Fields passed to the Dean & Chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral from 1514 to 1867, it continued to be leased & managed by the Corporation of London. The Corporation in turn sublet the field. This pattern of lease, sub-lease, & even sub-sub-lease was customary with Corporation land & persists to this day. It was known for a time as “Tyndall’s burial ground” since Tindall or Tyndall subleased the land & managed the cemetery on behalf of the City Corporation.
Any hollows in the field were used as a refuse tip—hence the name Bunhill, which was originally Bone Hill meaning a dumping ground for rags & bones, including animal bones from the Smithfield shambles. The name Bone Hill became literally true in 1549 when more than one thousand cartloads of human bones from the Charnel House in St. Paul’s Churchyard were dumped on Bunhill Fields. Before that date, dead Londoners had been buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard just long enough for the flesh to rot away, after which the bones were dug up & placed in the Charnel House “to await the resurrection of the dead”. By 1549, this had come to be regarded as a Popish practice, permanent interment became more usual, the Charnel House pulled down, & the bones accumulated over hundreds of years dumped in a great hill on Bunhill Fields. Bunhill became Golgotha, the place of the skull. What happened to these bones? We don’t know. Were they ploughed in as fertiliser: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead”, or used in industrial processes?
London was spreading beyond its ancient City boundary; Bunhill Row was already built up when Stow compiled his Survey of London in 1598. John Milton was a resident of a house (long demolished) in Bunhill Row from the time of his third marriage to Elizabeth Minshull in 1662 until his death in 1674. It was there that he wrote Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, & Samson Agonistes.
“In the middle of the Christmas Holy-Days”, in 1664, Dr. Nathaniel Hodges “was called to a young man in a Fever, who after two days course of alexiterial medicines, had two Risings about the bigness of a Nutmeg broke out, one on each Thigh”. These black soft swellings were soon to become familiar as “plague tokens” & almost certain signs of death. Dr. Hodges’ patient recovered, but within 18 months, nearly 100,000 others were to die of plague in London.
During the second week of April 1665, 398 were officially admitted to have died of plague. May & June were unusually warm months & plague spread rapidly. Soon graveyards were filled. With layers of bodies only inches beneath the earth, the air stank with the smell of death. The authorities ordered that huge holes should be dug in vacant patches of earth, lined with quicklime, for mass graves or plague-pits.
By the middle of July more than 1000 were dying each week. In the first week of August the death roll increased to 2020. During the third week of September 1665, 8,297 were officially admitted to have died from plague; Dr. Hodges calculated that a truer figure would be 12,000 & the French Ambassador reported to Paris that in his opinion the total was 14,000.
Overuse of the New Churchyard of St. Paul’s in 1665 produced a new crisis. The “noisome stench arising from the great number of dead” buried there, together with the plea from many parishes that their own churchyards were now full, forced the Mayor & Aldermen to seek new accommodation. On 6 September they deputed Sir John Robinson, Alderman, to treat with the City’s tenant of Finsbury Fields, to the north of the city, to obtain a piece of ground for burial “during this present visitation”. Their intention was that it be “speedily set out & prepared for a burial place”, & Robinson must have acted fairly quickly, since the site (“the new burial pace in Bunhill Fields”) had been walled by 19 October, though the gates were not finished until 1666 when the plague was over. There is some confusion over whether the ground was used for plague burials; many writers follow the statement in Maitland’s History of London that it was “not … made use of on that occasion”.
Suddenly the casualties declined. In the last week of September 1665, 4929 died. By the same week in November, the total was down to 900. On Christmas morning Samuel Pepys was surprised to see a wedding in progress. Life was slowly returning to normal, though a heavy, sweet smell of putrefaction still hung over London. It was proposed that the graves should be covered with thousands of tons of lime, but this would have taken weeks to dig out from the chalk pits in Kent & bring to London by barges or carts. Nothing was done, & the smell drifted away as the bodies decayed. On 1 February 1666 King Charles felt it safe to return to St. James’s to the peal of church bells.
However, within months the Great Fire was to prove as damaging in terms of property as plague had been in terms of human life. A little before two o’clock on the night of 2 September 1666 a workman in Farriner’s baking house smelt smoke & aroused the household. The baker, his wife & child hurried over the rooftops to safety, but their maid, too timid to follow, was burned to death. Helped by a strong wind, the flames spread quickly. The parish constable & watchmen arrived & called out the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who thought it not worth his attention & went back to bed, grumpily observing, “Pish! A woman might piss it out!” Later that morning Samuel Pepys found that 300 houses, half London Bridge & several churches had disappeared. By 4 September half the City had gone. Nearly 400 acres had been burned within the City walls & 63 acres outside them; 87 churches had been destroyed, together with 44 livery halls & 13,200 houses, but miraculously only nine lives had been lost. Homeless Londoners camped out in Bunhill Fields after the Great Fire while their homes were rebuilt.
The Act of Uniformity of 1663 established the Church of England as the national church. Its significance is that it also established a distinct category of Christian believers who wished to remain outside the national church—these became known as nonconformists or dissenters. If not used for the burial of plague victims, Bunhill Fields developed rapidly as a cemetery popular with nonconformist believers.
Bunhill Fields burying-ground has been called the Campo Santo of English dissent—the burial place of men & women who were committed above all to freedom of conscience in religion but who may well have disagreed amongst themselves on points of doctrine (Isaac Watts would have very little in common with Richard Price). Some of the most notable people from British history—especially British Nonconformist church history—are buried & commemorated here.
You will still find people who claim that it is unconsecrated ground. But if actual evidence of consecration has been hard to find, it’s worth noting that Tindall & his successors employed an Anglican clergyman for persons who wanted a Church of England funeral. Susannah, mother of Charles & John Wesley & seventeen other children, was buried here in 1742. Charles Wesley would never have countenanced his Non-Juring mother being laid to rest in unconsecrated ground. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is himself buried in Wesley’s Chapel across the City Road. Her other famous son, Charles, a prolific writer of hymns, remained within the Church of England & is buried in his parish church of St Pancras. If Bunhill Fields was to develop a reputation as specifically a Dissenters’ burial ground, that is because it had no attached parish with an interfering vicar. Bunhill Fields was used by nonconformists who were here able to bury their dead without the use of the Book of Common Prayer. Or by nonbelievers such as Joseph Ritson, who was laid to rest with no religious service at all.
John Bunyan’s tomb of 1689 is possibly the most elaborate in Bunhill Fields, carrying not only an effigy of the man himself, but also bas-reliefs of scenes inspired by his great Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. However, all is not as it seems, because the effigy & reliefs were only added to the tomb in 1862 while the tomb was being restored. The Earl of Shaftesbury was in charge of the project, & the money for the work was raised by public subscription.
By 1700, Bunhill was already full of bodies & the burying-ground was allotted more land but. 120,000 bodies are buried here & 2,500 monuments survive. Another 6,000 are buried behind Wesley’s Chapel just across City Road. In the Quaker burial ground to the west of Bunhill Row, lies George Fox (1691), with some 20,000 other Friends.
A striking obelisk erected in 1870 as a result of an appeal to boys & girls by the weekly newspaper, the Christian World, commemorates the burial in Bunhill fields in 1731 of Daniel Defoe, the prolific author of Robinson Crusoe & much else. Though himself of a dissenting family, & sharing that persuasion, his satirical work The Shortest Way with Dissenters was taken over-literally by some dissenters, casing them outrage, & of course those on the establishment side of the divide also took umbrage; arrested & tried, Daniel was sent to the pillory, & later prison.
Buried in Bunhill Fields in 1748, Dr Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific hymn writers in the English language as well as being one of the first. Before Watts’ time, people sang psalms in churches rather than hymns, & many of Watts’ hymns are paraphrases of one or more psalms. Other themes can be discerned in his hymnody, particularly his understanding that God was very much on the side of the Nonconformists—an attitude exemplified by his well-known hymn, “Our God, our help in ages past.” A very different Nonconformist minister, Thomas Bayes, was buried here in 1761. Bayes is immortalized in a fundamental proposition in probability, called Bayes Rule, after him. Also buried in Bunhill Fields is Bayes’s friend Richard Price.
Our first awareness of the Blake family’s link to Bunhill Fields occurs in 1784. Blake’s father, James, was buried in Bunhill Fields on 4 July. In 1787, his youngest brother, Robert, died in Blake’s arms at 28 Poland Street & was buried near his father in Bunhill Fields on February 11. By 1792, Blake’s mother Catherine died & was buried near her husband & son on September 9. James Parker, Blake’s former business partner in the printshop in Broad Street, was buried in Bunhill Fields in 1805. And on 2 March 1827, Blake’s eldest brother James died & was buried in Bunhill Fields, near his parents & youngest brother.
Beginning in 1824, Blake began to suffer from the symptoms (once thought to be gallstones), which eventually caused his death on August 12, 1827. The latest study, by Lane & Viscomi, suggests that Blake, in fact, died of an industrial disease—cirrhosis of the liver & bile duct brought on by copper poisoning. A little before his death, Mrs. Blake asked where he would be buried, & whether a dissenting minister or a clergyman of the Church of England should read the service. To which he answered, that as far as his own feelings were concerned, she might bury him “where she pleased.” But that as “father, mother, aunt, and brother were buried in Bunhill Row, perhaps it would be better to lie there. As to service, he should wish for that of the Church of England”.
William Blake died on 12 August 1827at Fountain Court, Strand, & was buried at Bunhill Fields on Friday 17 August. He lay in a grave which cost nineteen shillings, & was buried nine feet under the earth & gravel; already beneath him lay the remains of Margaret Jones, Rees Thomas & Edward Sherwood while, over the next few weeks, another four bodies (Mary Hilton, James Greenfield, Magdalen Collin, Rose Davies) would be placed above him. Registers at the Guildhall Library & at National Archives show Blake’s Grave is 77 East & West, & between 32 & 33 North & South. The funeral cost £10 18s 0d & the burial 19s 0d. There was 2 shillings worth of lime in the coffin. John Linnell paid for the funeral, or at least lent Catherine the money. He got a good deal because the undertaker (Benjamin Palmer) was his wife’s uncle. The deal coffin covered in black baize measured 5 ft 9 inches in length. Blake was buried the day before what would have been William & Catherine’s 45th wedding anniversary.
Blake’s widow, Catherine Sophia died 18 October 1831 at Charlton Street, Fitzroy Square, & was buried on 20 October. On the day of her death, she was as calm & as cheerful as her husband had been—repeating texts of Scripture & calling continually to her William, as if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him, & would not be long now. She was also buried in Bunhill Fields, but not in a grave near her husband. Mrs. Blake’s Grave is 7 East & West, & between 31 & 32 North & South. There is no memorial on the spot to Mrs. Blake, but the tombstone of James Hiley is close to her grave. 1841 saw the death of Blake’s sister, Catherine Elizabeth Blake. Only recently has G. E. Bentley established that she was buried at All Souls, Marylebone, on 9 March 1841.
After the Burials Act of 1852, on December 29, 1853, by an Order in Council, Bunhill Cemetery was closed for burials, the final burial, of a 15-year old girl, took place in January 1854. In the years before closure, some sixteen hundred burials took place each year. In 1827, indeed, the overcrowding had not reached its subsequent portentous dimensions. But only a few years later, in 1831-32, when resurrection work was so active, a nightly guard of two watchmen had to be set on foot, & was continued till the closing of the ground. By Act of Parliament in 1867 the Corporation of London undertook to preserve Bunhill Fields burial ground & maintain it for the use of the public. Improvements were made on the cemetery on October 24, 1869, & it was reopened for visitors. Iron railings & gates had already been added to the cemetery in 1867. A spiked gate at the north-east corner had been put up to deter body snatchers.
On August 12th, 1927, the centenary of Blake’s Death, The Blake Society, which was founded by Thomas Wright in 1912, placed a Memorial Stone to mark the spot where he lies in Bunhill Fields; & an address was given in the presence of an enormous gathering that had flocked thither to do homage to the memory of the famous poet-painter. That same year a memorial was placed in St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose “high dome” witnessed the charity service in “Holy Thursday”, one of his Songs of Innocence. That was an Establishment event where 500 invited guests attended the unveiling of a portrait relief in the crypt. The unveiling of the memorial in Bunhill Fields, organised by Thomas Wright, was the people’s event—over 2,000 people crammed into Bunhill Fields. There were also celebrations in Wesley’s chapel across the way.
In 1965, part of Bunhill Fields was cleared to create public open space in an area sadly lacking in amenities of that sort. The Blake memorial was moved from its headstone position over Blake’s grave & arbitrarily re-erected as a cenotaph near the Defoe obelisk.
In 2005, English Heritage placed Bunhill Fields on its “buildings at risk” register.
Written in March 2008 by Keri Davies, to whom further information (and corrections to this text) should be sent.
Last modified 28/03/2008 22:35.