Finding London Ancestors’ Death Records- Spar Field Burial Ground

I mentioned in a former blog that I have been researching my London ancestors in recent months and found most of them were not buried in churchyards, but in the many private burial grounds scattered throughout London.

One branch of my family was buried in the Spar Fields Burial Ground at Islington. I found putting together a history of this burial ground has helped to not only understand the history of this family but has given me clues, where to search for other records to move my research on.

The Spar Field Burial Ground

Originally part of the fen and moorlands at Clerkenwell Fields, Islington, the area has an interesting history. It is the termination point of the New River which was built to bring fresh drinking water to the city in the early 17th Century.

The New River is an artificial waterway opened in 1613 to supply fresh drinking water to London. Water was taken from the River Lee in Hertfordshire and supplemented from springs and wells along its course to Clerkenwell, Islington, (near where Sadler Wells Theatre is today).

The design and construction of the New River were first proposed in 1602 by Edmund Colhurst and he was able to obtain a charter from King James I in 1604 to begin the construction. After surveying the route and excavating the first two miles of canal, Colhurst found himself in financial difficulties. There was some delay before the work was carried on by Sir Hugh Myddleton, and the project was completed in 1613 with a grand official opening ceremony on 29th September. The King himself invested heavily in the project as the river crossed the King’s estate of Theobalds Park in Hertfordshire. In order to give the project a firmer financial and legal structure, the New River Company was incorporated in 1619 by Royal Charter. With the involvement of Sir John Backhouse, the Company’s first reservoir was built on his land at Islington.

There was a great expense and engineering challenges with the project as it relied on gravity to allow the water to flow. The project also faced opposition from many landowners who were concerned that it would reduce their land value because of flooding and the creation of marshy areas that would trap stock. However, with the strong support of the King, the project was completed.

In the countryside, the canal was above ground,  with sections being carried across valleys in wooden aqueducts lined with lead, supported by brick piers. Improvements in canal construction in the 18th Century led to many of these sections being replaced by clay banked canals. In some areas, the New River went through underground tunnels.

New laws were passed making it an offense to throw rubbish or carrion into the river, while anyone washing clothes, planting sallow, willow, or elm trees within five yards of the canal would incur the ‘King’s displeasure’.

Part of the canal tunnel emptied into a reservoir on Sir John Backhouse’s estate and it wasn’t long before it attracted much birdlife and in fact, it soon became known for the summer sport of duck-hunting.

A public entertainment house called the Pantheon was erected nearby in Exmouth Street, for the popular sports of bull-baiting and prizefighting.

By the early 18th Century the New River Company had become a significant landowner in the Clerkenwell and Islington area and had laid out streets and squares which took their name from people and other associations with the Company. They are still there today as is the New River.

Spar Fields Cemetery and Enviroments

This area of Georgian London was growing at a rapid rate and all the churchyards were full, and the Bunhill Burial Ground was some distance away.

The house and gardens of the Pantheon were sold to the New River Company and were closed.

It was re-opened as a chapel of the ever-growing parish of St James, Clerkenwell. When the new St James Burial Ground opened this chapel was sold to the Countess of Huntingdon, who turned it into a Dissenting Chapel in 1779.

Shortly afterward a group of private speculators led by the Marquess of Northampton leased two acres of the gardens behind the chapel for a cemetery.

Originally this private cemetery was designed to hold approximately three thousand bodies, but the call for burial space in London was great, and it wasn’t long before the Spar Field Burial Ground was taking more than a thousand bodies a year. Since it was not in the financial interest of the speculators to stop the burials, it soon became notorious for its overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Many of the early burial services were held in the Countess of Huntingdon Chapel.

Lady Selina Shirley, the second daughter of Washington Shirley, the 2nd Earl Ferrers, was born on 24 August 1707 in Leicestershire. She married Theophilus Hastings, 9th Earl of Huntingdon on 3 June 1728. In 1739 she joined the first Methodist Society in London and then in 1746, after the death of her husband she became involved in the Calvinistic movement with John Wesley and George Whitfield. Under the influence of these two men, she founded sixty-four chapels throughout England including several in London, one being at Spar Field, Clerkenwell.

This chapel was demolished in the late 19th Century and the Church of our Most Holy Redeemer was built on the site in 1888. This church is still there today near the London Metropolitan Archives. The cemetery has been converted to a park.

Spar Fields Today

I found several members of my family had their burial service in the Countess of Huntingdon Chapel and were buried in the nearby Spar Field Burial Ground.

The burial registers of Spar Fields Chapel of the Countess of Huntingdon Connexion are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. They have been digitized and can be found online through the websites of The Genealogist, Findmypast, and Deceased Online. There are some 114,000 records in cramped and ink splattered handwriting but well worth the search to find the final resting place of one’s ancestors and related families in this part of London.

Good ancestor hunting to you all.

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Finding London Ancestors’ Death Records – Bunhill Fields Burial Ground

Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time researching our ancestors who were connected in some way with London. Some migrated there from the counties for economic reasons, but some others made that vast city their home for several generations. I have had many fascinating hours as I traced these ancestors through all kinds of records from ‘the cradle to the grave.’

As family historians, we look for clues for three events in an ancestors life– birth, marriage, and death. Not everyone married, but everyone was born and died.

I found with research in London I could usually find a baptism through church records, but I often couldn’t find a burial record in the area where the family lived. Looking further afield in place and type of records researched was the answer.

In the 14th- 16th Centuries people continued to be buried in the churchyard adjacent to the churches or in the churches themselves. In the larger churches such as St Paul’s Cathedral, the bones were stacked in charnel houses.

In London with plagues sweeping the city came the removal of charnel houses. However many of the ancient churches graveyards were already overcrowded with burials. The rise in non-conformist religions meant if people were not of a particular parish church they were not given permission to be buried in the churchyard anyway.

This led to the rise of ‘burial grounds’ both municipal and private. These were of varying sizes and were scattered throughout the city. I found over the years our families were buried in a number of these burial grounds rather than their parish churchyard.

I always try to find out the history of a record and why it was created. This helps not only to put my ancestor in time and place but often helps me with further clues for research.

I have prepared short histories of many these burial grounds in London to help me with my family research. I hope they help others who are struggling with death and burials in London.

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Bunhill Fields: Image from londongardensonline.org.uk retrieved 8 March 2019

Bunhill Fields

Originally the area known as the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground in Islington, London was part of the Manor of Finsbury, which was outside the city walls. It was part of what was known as the ‘prebend’ of Halliwell and Findsbury, which belonged to St Paul’s Cathedral and was established in 1104. (A ‘prebend’ is a stipend or sum of money or goods granted to a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church out of its revenue. It can also refer to the land or tithe yielding this.) In Medieval times it included a large area of fen or moorland stretching from the city wall to the rural village of Hoxton. Later this land was granted to Robert Baldock. In 1315 he passed it to the Mayor and citizens of London. Remember at this time only The Crown could ‘own’ and ‘grant’ land, although you might pass the use of such land to others.

In 1498 part of this otherwise open country was enclosed for military exercises particularly archers and later for guns. It became known as the ‘Artillery Ground” by which it is still known today. It belongs to the Honourable Artillery Company whose headquarters Armoury House, overlooks the grounds.

Nearby is the Bunhill Burial Ground. The name is believed to have derived from ‘Bone Hill’ which is possibly a reference to the area having been used by the St Paul’s charnel house. This is a building where skeletal remains are stored and is often associated with large churches and cathedrals. In 1549 the charnel house was demolished and the deposited remains said to have been more than a thousand cart-loads, was moved to the fields outside London near their former estate, and were deposited on the moorlands and covered with a layer of soil. This built up a ‘hill’ across a marshy flat fen.

In keeping with such a tradition in 1665 the City of London Corporation the then ‘owners’ of part of these lands decided to use a portion as a common burial ground for those who had died of the plague and could not be buried in the London churchyards. As time went on the London churchyards were generally running out of room for further burials and Bunhill became the preferred place of burials. The Corporation enclosed the ground with a wall although the area was never consecrated for burial use. A Mr. Tindal then leased the land and he allowed, for a fee, burials of any person of any Christian faith, so it became very popular for non-conformists, including Wesleyan. It appeared on a 1746 map of London as ‘Tindall’s Burying Ground’.

In 1769 an Act of Parliament gave the city of London Corporation the right to take out a 99 years lease on the property and they decided to continue to use it as a burial ground. Although they originally leased it to Tindal, in 1781 they decided to take over the management themselves.

In 1854 the Bunhill Burial Ground was closed, by which date, it was estimated that some 123,000 burials had taken place there.

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Bunhill Fields: Image from londongardensonline.org.uk retrieved 8 March 2019

Many had headstones and vaults erected over their graves. It is believed, tens of thousands were erected.  Many of these have been lost due to the ravages of time, however, some two thousand remain today in various states of preservation. Many famous people are buried here.

The Burial Ground registers from 1713-1854 are held by the National Archives at Kew, while other records, such as Interment Order Books (1779-1854) are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. These institutions have now digitized many of their records including the Bunhill Fields Burial Records. They have made these available online through partnerships with The Genealogist and Findmypast.

By using these records I have been able to find the final resting place of many of our 18th and 19th Century London ancestors.

 

Baxter Cousins’ Day

Last Sunday was our ‘Baxter Cousin’s annual get-together at Murwillumbah, in Northern NSW. Although there were many of the regular attendees, there were a few new faces and some who had not attended for several years, due to employment commitments. Now recently retired they were happy to reconnect with their cousins in this way.

Sadly for various reasons, there were many who could not join us on this occasion. Ill health was on top of the list.

However, those who did attend remarked how much they always enjoyed these get-togethers and hoped I would continue to organize them in the future.

James and Elizabeth Baxter (nee Dixon) was this year’s ancestral couple, whose lives were researched and shared with the cousins.

A few of us chuckled about some of the children’s comments about no Ipads, TV and other gadgets. They couldn’t believe most people walked everywhere, sometimes great distances.

All were glad, even the adults, that they were not apprenticed at five to seven years of age to certain trades. Nor were they keen on the discipline expected of children in the Georgian Age in England.

We are hopeful everyone continues to be appreciative of the lives we are able to live in this Modern Age and the opportunities available to us.

Below: Original image from CafePress, retrieved from Google Images and used  4 March 2019
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The venue has already been booked for 1st March 2020 in the expectation everyone will continue to make the effort to meet yet again, to catch up on family news and share more research and information on our Baxter ancestral families.