Hill of bones

Bunhill Fields, City Road gate
Bunhill Fields, City Road gate

I visited the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground this morning. Near the Old Street roundabout in City Road, the burial ground is sandwiched between the latter road and Bunhill Row. Its main alley is a popular pedestrian path, especially during the evening rush hour.

Serried Rows of graves
Serried Rows of graves

Although never consecrated, the site had long been used for the disposal of human bones (hence its name, which derives from “Bone Hill”) and from the middle of the 17th century, it became a graveyard for Nonconformists. By the time it was closed to burials in 1854, it contained some 123,000 graves. Views such as the above give credence to that figure.

Preserved as an open space
Preserved as an open space

Beside the tightly packed graveyard is this open area with benches which must be quite pleasant in summer. In 1867, an Act of Parliament preserved Bunhill Fields as an “Open Space” to be enjoyed by the public. It was subsequently redesigned to that effect.

Gravestone of William Blake and his wife
Gravestone of William Blake and his wife

A number of famous people are buried here, though in some cases the exact location of their graves is in doubt, apparently. While most graves are confined within iron railings, a few are free-standing, like the above.

Tomb of John Bunyan
Tomb of John Bunyan

In a paved area, we find the tomb of the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan. The tomb was restored in 1862, which accounts for its relatively good condition, though the effigy is rather eroded.

Obelisk in memory of Daniel Defoe
Obelisk in memory of Daniel Defoe

I found the above memorial rather eye-catching among the ground burials and box-shaped tombs. I think there was only one other like it in the entire graveyard. It commemorates the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and what intrigued me about it was that it had been paid for by children. The inscription on the side explains:

Daniel Defoe's monument funded by children
Daniel Defoe’s monument funded by children

I can’t help thinking that if someone proposed such a project today it would arouse considerable criticism. Note also the unusual spelling of the writer’s surname.

Space for wildlife
Space for wildlife

Bunhill Fields inevitably attracts pigeons and whenever I stopped to take a photo, a crowd of them came to join me, hoping I was about to distribute food. Along with the pigeons, though, there were other creatures and I even heard a woodpecker drilling away high in the branches of the ancient trees. If you look carefully at the above picture, you might see a bird-feeder hanging in the nearest tree.

Besides those of writers, other famous names occur on the stones, many of which are now illegible. Titles and honorifics abound and as usual, women often seem to survive their husbands, acquiring in the process the – to us – strange designation of “relict”.

Friendship unto the grave
Friendship unto the grave

And what do we make of this intriguing inscription? At first sight, it seems to be a testimony to friendship carried faithfully unto the grave and as such is quite moving. Then we see this phrase: “early allied in blood to the illustrious house of Percy”.

Possibly, this refers to the so called “Kings of the North”, the Percy (or Perci) family, powerful in the Middle Ages. But what does “early allied in blood” mean? The word “blood” implies family descent but why, then, “early allied”, as if to say that she became a relative of the Percy clan only after birth? I do not know and must leave it for the present as a paradox.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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8 Responses to Hill of bones

  1. Ancient Brit says:

    Interesting. It’s had me spending a couple of hours scouting around (shame I don’t have my Ancestry.com membership any more).

    My parents retired to Percy Road, Ramsgate and I never thought much of the name until you mentioned it 🙂

    I’m assuming the Lindseys are Theophilus Lindsey (founder of Unitarianism) and his wife Hannah, which would explain the odd term “worship” used to describe Elizabeth’s attitude towards her friends.

    What seems a little odd is that I think Elizabeth died in 1800 while Theophilus died in 1808. I wonder how she got to be buried with her friends before they died…

    • SilverTiger says:

      As I posted the photo I realized I should have photographed it all around, at least for reference. However, I do recall that there is another burial recorded on another face, so it seems that this tomb was intended for – or at least pressed into – multiple use. Possibly, the Lindseys bought it while still hale and hearty and invited their friend to join them therein in due course, only for her to predecease them.

      In that case they may also have modified or composed the inscription in the photo, perhaps proud that someone “allied” to nobility should share their tomb.

  2. Reluctant Blogger says:

    It looks a fascinating place: so many famous people buried in one location.

    We are right next door to an old non-denom churchyard (The Rosary) and I often wander about there of an afternoon. It is a beautiful place, with interesting headstones but also an abundance of wild life and ancient trees. It is kind of centring I find to wander around there – if I have a worry it tends to put it in perspective.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Graveyards are so often portrayed as sinister places, dank and gloomy, but I have many times found them pleasant places, calm and reposeful.

      In many cases, because of the decline in religious adherence (hurrah!), the church whose graveyard it is has closed down and even disappeared and the graveyard has been taken over by the local council and transformed tastefully into a “public space”. These spaces, I find, are welcome additions to the numbers of parks and gardens.

      Some councils stack the tombstones against the perimeter wall or remove them entirely but where they remain, there are often interesting details to observe, perhaps constituting little stories of past lives and relationships or referring to the impact of historical events on the lives of ordinary individuals.

      • Ancient Brit says:

        It strikes me that a photographic record of all of the surviving stones/tombs would be a valuable research resource, although if there are 128,000+ of them it might take a while to image them all.

        I wonder whether there’s an organisation or university department that would have grant money available to make a remunerated project out of it?

        • SilverTiger says:

          The notice boards at the entrances to Bunhill inform us that certain records have been kept by two institutions, the Public Records Office and the Guildhall Library. This data is probably not 100% complete but would no doubt answer a lot of questions.

          Photographing the tomb stones could be useful but many of them are already eroded to the point of being illegible. Even stone, especially the easily worked stone commonly used for gravestones, provides a far from permanent record.

          I think the most one can do is to make sure one records all available detail of any stone or tomb one finds interesting as otherwise, one will afterwards regret not doing so, as happened to me!

        • Ancient Brit says:

          Blame my deteriorating eyesight for replacing 123,000 with 128,000 (I know I do :))

          The main reason for pondering whether a photographic record might be created is that IME official records tend to be minimalist and reflect the personal prejudices of the recorders of the time; accuracy seems to take a back seat.

          For example, the inscription you photographed for Daniel Defoe seems to hint that the person who commissioned it might have had a beef about Defoe’s last name. Until I looked him up, I hadn’t been aware that Defoe was not his true name. Would the official record show De-foe or Defoe, I wonder? (It’s the creative writer in me looking for a storyline :))

  3. SilverTiger says:

    Three and eight do look very similar and it’s easy to confuse them at a quick glance.

    There is no doubt a Defoe specialist (or several) somewhere who knows all about the Defoe/De-Foe dichotomy. Maybe there’s a note about it online.

    Records are usually taken for specific purposes and only record the details related to that purpose and therefore may not be complete in the sense of recording everything it is possible to know about the case.

    Photographing every tombstone in the round may make a better job of gathering information but I expect there would still be details not captured. Thinking about it shows how careful archaeologists have to be because they destroy the site as they investigate it and it is therefore not possible to repeat the investigation.

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