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.
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.
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.