Heard of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park? Dig into the history of a small-but-mighty member of London’s Magnificent Seven.
Eager London x London readers will know that we’ve got a thing about cemeteries. Say what you will about that but we think London’s resting places are pretty magical, if a bit eerie. Think of them as beautiful havens of peace in this massive city, not to mention interesting historical sites with plenty to discover.
You may have been to Highgate. You might even have checked out Nunhead. But have you been to the East End’s smaller cemetery, Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park? It’s not as flashy and famous as its Magnificent Seven siblings, but it’s still one of our low-key faves.
Why Visit Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park?
For a good look at one of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries. Though it is not the biggest (that would be Kensal Green), and even though it lacks the many famous names that Highgate claims, there is still plenty of nature to explore away from the crowds of the big city.
Being a cemetery makes Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park a very peaceful place – so long as hanging around the sleeping dead doesn’t freak you out that is…
The History of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
London’s Magnificent Seven
The history of Tower Hamlets Cemetery begins back in the early 1800s. The industrial revolution is bringing multitudes of people into London to work in factories and the city is undergoing a transformation never before seen in human history.
Needless to say this raises new problems and poses new challenges to city planners. One such (rather grizzly) problem was what to do with all the dead.
By the start of the Victorian era in 1837, London’s dead were too numerous to be stuffed into the small urban churchyards that supported pre-industrial London. These churchyards were becoming overcrowded, the dead overflowing, rotting in built-up urban spaces, decaying into the water table. Disease was rife.
As a solution the Victorians proposed the building of seven vast cemeteries on the outskirts of London that could hold plenty of graves and be safely away from the urban population. These became known as the Magnificent Seven. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is one of them. The other six are:
- Abney Park Cemetery
- Highgate Cemetery
- Kensal Green Cemetery
- Nunhead Cemetery
- Brompton Cemetery
- West Norwood Cemetery (surely an article to come on this soon…)
Tower Hamlets Cemetery
Tower Hamlets Cemetery opened in 1841 under the lengthy name of The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery, which is probably why the locals preferred to refer to it as Bow Cemetery.
The people that ran the cemetery and paid for it to be opened were a board of eleven big wigs that had fingers in the big industrial pies of the day: ship building, corn shipping and many other things that involved the word ship as both a noun and a verb. One of them was also the Lord Mayor of the City of London.
Work began immediately. The 27 acres they bought was consecrated by the Bishop of London on the morning of the 4th of September 1841, and by the afternoon the first burial was complete. By 1889 the cemetery housed just shy of 250,000 dead.
Of those dead, up to 80% are said to have been public burials – burials that were paid for by the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Company in the case that the deceased were too poor to buy a plot themselves.
The reality of these burials is a far cry from the peace you might want from your final resting place. In places multiple people, unrelated, were buried in the same graves in a matter of weeks. Rumours have it that some of the graves run deep underground, sometimes containing as many as 30 or 40 bodies.
Gone, and Also Forgotten
As you can probably tell, the folks in charge of running this place weren’t doing a great job. By the 1890s the cemetery was said to be ‘in a state of neglect’.
This was how it would remain up until Tower Hamlets Council took the cemetery over in 1986. As with most of London the cemetery was not without taking a beating during The War, a beating that is still visible on the graves in the north-west corner of the cemetery, near the Soanes Centre.
The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
The cemetery had its last burial in 1966. In the present day, and like many of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, Tower Hamlets Cemetery is more of a nature reserve than a place to bury the dead – partly why we now stick the word ‘park’ on the end of its name.
It’s not a wide open green space, and you probably shouldn’t BBQ or kick a football around, but it does offer some very nice spaces to get away from the heave and rush of the city.
The stewards of this fine park are The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park who are supported by thousands of volunteers every year running everything from guided tours to conservation training programmes and even birthday parties.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park: Practical Information
Address: Southern Grove, London E3 4PX
Opening Times: Open 24/7