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.
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.
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.