Bunhill Fields

This article is about the former Nonconformist burial ground. For the nearby Quaker burial ground, see Quaker Gardens, Islington.
Bunhill Fields

Monuments in Bunhill Fields burial ground
Established 1665
Location London Borough of Islington
Country England
Type Public (closed)
Owned by City of London Corporation
Size 1.6 hectares (4.0 acres)
Number of graves 120,000

Bunhill Fields is a former burial ground in the London Borough of Islington, north of the City of London, now managed as a public garden by the City of London Corporation. It is about 1.6 hectares (4.0 acres) in extent,[1] although historically it was much larger.

It was in use as a burial ground from 1665 until 1854, by which date approximately 123,000 interments were estimated to have taken place. Over 2,000 monuments remain.[2] It was particularly favoured by Nonconformists, and contains the graves of many notable people, including John Bunyan (died 1688), author of The Pilgrim's Progress; Daniel Defoe (died 1731), author of Robinson Crusoe; William Blake (died 1827), artist, poet, and mystic; Susanna Wesley (died 1742), known as the "Mother of Methodism" through her education of sons John and Charles; Thomas Bayes (died 1761), statistician and philosopher; and Isaac Watts (died 1748), the "Father of English Hymnody".

Nearby was a separate Quaker burial ground, sometimes also known by the name Bunhill Fields, which was in use from 1661 to 1855. George Fox (died 1691), one of the founders of the Quaker movement, was among those buried here. Its remains are also now a public garden, Quaker Gardens, managed by the London Borough of Islington.

Historical background

Plan of the present Bunhill Fields public gardens (east at the top). Areas in green are fenced, and contain most of the surviving monuments. Areas in yellow and white have been largely cleared of monuments, and are fully accessible to the public.

Bunhill Fields was part of the Manor of Finsbury (originally Fensbury), which has its origins as the prebend of Halliwell and Finsbury, belonging to St Paul's Cathedral and established in 1104. In 1315 the prebendary manor was granted by Robert Baldock to the Mayor and commonalty of London. This act enabled more general public access to a large area of fen or moor stretching from the City of London's boundary (London Wall), to the village of Hoxton.

In 1498 part of the otherwise unenclosed landscape was set aside to form a large field for military exercises of archers and others. This part of the manor still bears the name "Artillery Ground".

Next to this lies Bunhill Fields. The name derives from "Bone Hill", which is possibly a reference to the district having been used for occasional burials from at least Saxon times, but more probably derives from the use of the fields as a place of deposit for human bones – amounting to over 1,000 cartloads – brought from St Paul's charnel house in 1549 when that building was demolished.[3] The dried bones were deposited on the moor and capped with a thin layer of soil. This built up a hill across the otherwise damp, flat fens, such that three windmills could safely be erected in a spot that came to be known as Windmill Hill.

Opening as a burial ground

Monument of Dame Mary Page (died 1729). The inscription reads in part: "In 67 months she was tap'd [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation."

In keeping with this tradition, in 1665 the City of London Corporation decided to use some of the fen as a common burial ground for the interment of bodies of inhabitants who had died of the plague and could not be accommodated in the churchyards. Although enclosing walls for the burial ground were completed, Church of England officials never consecrated the ground or used it for burials. A Mr Tindal took over the lease.

He allowed extramural burials in its unconsecrated soil, which became popular with Nonconformists – those Protestant Christians who practised their faith outside the Church of England: unlike Anglican parish churchyards, the burial ground was open for interment to anyone who could afford the fees. It appears on Rocque's Map of London of 1746, and elsewhere, as "Tindal's Burying Ground".

An inscription at the eastern entrance gate to the burial ground reads: "This church-yard was inclosed with a brick wall at the sole charges of the City of London, in the mayoralty of Sir John Lawrence, Knt., Anno Domini 1665; and afterwards the gates thereof were built and finished in the mayoralty of Sir Thomas Bloudworth, Knt., Anno Domini, 1666." The present gates and inscription date from 1868, but the wording follows that of an original 17th-century inscription at the western entrance, now lost.[2]

The earliest recorded monumental inscription was that to "Grace, daughter of T. Cloudesly, of Leeds. February 1666".[4] The earliest surviving monument is believed to be the headstone to Theophilus Gale: the inscription reads "Theophilus Gale MA / Born 1628 / Died 1678".[5]

In 1769 an Act of Parliament gave the City of London Corporation the right to continue to lease the ground from the prebendal estate for 99 years. The City authorities continued to let the ground to their tenant as a burial ground; in 1781 the Corporation decided to take over management of the burial ground.

So many historically important Protestant Nonconformists chose this as their place of interment that the 19th-century poet and writer Robert Southey characterised Bunhill Fields as "the Campo Santo of the Dissenters." This term was also later applied to its "daughter" cemetery established at Abney Park in Stoke Newington.

Monuments in Bunhill Fields

Closure as a burial ground

Act of 1867 for the Preservation of Bunhill fields as an Open Space

In 1852 the Burial Act was passed which enabled burial grounds to be closed once they became full. An Order for Closure for Bunhill Fields was made in December 1853, and the final burial (that of Elizabeth Howell Oliver) took place on 5 January 1854. Occasional interments continued to be permitted in existing vaults or graves: the final burial of this kind is believed to have been that of a Mrs Gabriel of Brixton in February 1860.[6] By this date approximately 123,000 interments had taken place in the burial ground.[7]

Two decades before, a group of City Nonconformists led by George Collison secured a site for a new landscaped alternative, at part of Abney Park in Stoke Newington. This was named Abney Park Cemetery and opened in 1840. All parts were available for the burial of any person, regardless of religious creed. Abney Park Cemetery was the only Victorian garden cemetery in Britain with "no invidious dividing lines" and a unique nondenominational chapel, designed by William Hosking.

Community garden

Following closure of the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, its future was uncertain as its lessee, the City of London Corporation, was close to expiry of its lease, scheduled for Christmas 1867. To prevent the land from being developed at expiry of the lease, the Corporation formed the Special Bunhill Fields Burial Ground Committee in 1865, which became formally known as the Bunhill Fields Preservation Committee.

Appointed by the Corporation, the committee consisted on twelve advisors under the chairmanship of Charles Reed, FSA (son of the Congregational philanthropist Dr Andrew Reed). Charles Reed later rose to prominence as the first MP for Hackney and Chairman of the first School Board for London before being knighted. Along with his interest in making Bunhill Fields into a parkland landscape, he was similarly interested in the wider educational and public benefits of Abney Park Cemetery, of which he was a prominent director.

Following the committee's work, the City of London Corporation obtained an Act of Parliament, the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground Act 1867,[1] "for the Preservation of Bunhill Fields Burial Ground ... as an open space". The legislation enabled the corporation to continue to maintain the site when the freehold reverted to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, provided it was laid out as a public open space with seating, gardens, and some of its most worthy monuments were restored. The improvements, which included the laying out of walks and paths, cost an estimated £3,500. The new park was opened by the Lord Mayor, James Clarke Lawrence, on 14 October 1869.[6]

The burial ground was severely damaged by German bombing during World War II. It is also believed to have been the location of an anti-aircraft gun during the Blitz.[2] In the 1950s, after some debate, the decision was taken to clear the northern third of the site of most of its monuments and open it as a public garden with open access, while preserving and protecting the remainder of the site behind railings. Legislation in 1960 transferred the freehold to the City of London Corporation, which continues to maintain the grounds. The work of landscaping was undertaken by the architect and landscape architect Peter Shepheard in 1964–65.[2][8]

In February 2012, Occupy London opened a site in the northwestern corner of Bunhill Fields to replace their Bank of Ideas at Sun Street.

The view north along the broadwalk. John Bunyan's monument is in the foreground, with memorials to Daniel Defoe (obelisk, left) and Willam Blake (headstone, right) in the background.

Bunyan, Defoe and Blake

The three best-known monuments are those to the literary and artistic figures, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake. They have long been sites of cultural pilgrimage: Isabella Holmes stated in 1896 that the "most frequented paths" in the burial ground were those leading to the monuments of Bunyan and Defoe.[9] Following the landscaping of 1964–65, all three monuments now stand in a paved north-south "broadwalk" in the middle of the burial ground, outside the railed-off areas, cleared of other monuments, and accessible to visitors. Bunyan's monument is at the broadwalk's southern end, and those to Defoe and Blake (along with a headstone for the lesser-known Joseph Swain, d. 1796) at its northern end. In their present form, all three monuments post-date the closure of the burial ground, and Blake's is not on the site of his grave.

The monument to the Strudwick family and John Bunyan in its original form: an engraving of 1849
John Bunyan's monument

John Bunyan

John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, died in August 1688. He was initially buried in the "Baptist Corner" at the back of the burial ground, on the understanding that his remains would be moved into the family vault of his friend John Strudwick when that was next opened for a burial. There is no certain evidence as to when (or even if) this was done: the probability, however, is that it occurred when Strudwick himself died in 1695, and certainly Bunyan's name was inscribed on the side of the monument.[10] The Strudwick monument took the form of a large Baroque stone chest. By the 19th century, this had fallen into decay, but in the period following the closure of the burial ground a public appeal for its restoration was launched under the presidency of the Earl of Shaftesbury. This work was completed in May 1862, and comprised a complete reconstruction of the monument, undertaken by the sculptor Edgar George Papworth senior (1809–66).[11] Although Papworth retained the basic form of the tomb-chest, he added a recumbent effigy of Bunyan to the top of it, and two relief panels to its sides depicting scenes from Pilgrim's Progress. The monument was further restored in 1928 (the tercentenary of Bunyan's birth), and again after World War II (following serious wartime damage to the effigy's face).[12]

Monument to Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, died in April 1731 and was buried in Bunhill Fields: his wife, Mary, died in December 1732 and was laid to rest beside him. His daughter-in-law was also buried in the same grave. Defoe died in poverty, and the grave was marked with a simple headstone. In the winter of 1857/8 – at a time when the burial ground was closed and neglected – the grave was struck by lightning and the headstone broken. In 1869, James Clarke, editor of the Christian World children's newspaper, launched an appeal for subscriptions to place a more suitable memorial on the grave. He encouraged his readers to make donations of sixpence each; and to stimulate enthusiasm opened two lists, one for boys and one for girls, to encourage a spirit of competition between them. Many adults also made donations. In the end, some 1,700 subscriptions raised a total of about £200. A design for a marble obelisk (or "Cleopatric pillar") was commissioned from C.C. Creeke; and the sculptor Samuel Horner of Bournemouth was commissioned to execute it. In late 1869, when the foundations were being dug, skeletons were disinterred, and there was an unseemly rush for souvenirs by the crowd of onlookers: the police had to be called before calm was restored. The monument was unveiled at a ceremony attended by three of Defoe's great-granddaughters on 16 September 1870.[13][14]

Monument to William and Catherine Sophia Blake

William Blake

William Blake – painter, poet, printmaker and visionary – died in August 1827 and was buried in the northern part of the burial ground. His wife, Catherine Sophia, died in October 1831 and was buried in a separate grave on the south side. By the 20th century, his grave was in disrepair, and in 1927, for the centenary of his death and at a time when his reputation was on the rise, a new headstone was commissioned. It commemorated both William and Catherine, and so, as it was not on the site of Catherine's grave, the inscription was phrased as "Near by lie the remains of ...". When Bunhill Fields was relandscaped in the 1960s, Blake's grave lay in the area that was to be cleared of monuments. The headstone was therefore moved approximately 20 metres to its present location, next to the monument to Daniel Defoe. It was also rotated through 90°, so that it now faces south rather than west.[15] Joseph Swain's headstone was added to the grouping at the same time, although that faces west.[2] In 2006–7, members of the group The Friends of William Blake rediscovered the original site of the grave, and made plans to place a permanent memorial there.[16][17] Flowers, coins and other tokens are regularly left by visitors to Blake's headstone.

Tomb of John Rippon (died 1836)


The Bunhill Fields burial ground registers, running from 1713 to 1854, are now held at The National Archives at Kew.[18] Other records, including interment order books dating from 1789 to 1854, and a record of the inscriptions as they were in 1869, are held at London Metropolitan Archives.

The College of Arms holds six volumes of inscriptions transcribed by the Baptist minister John Rippon in the early 19th century, copied while "laying on his side". Rippon himself was buried at Bunhill Fields in 1836.[19]

Notable graves

Monument to members of the Bayes and Cotton families, including Joshua Bayes (died 1746) and his son Thomas Bayes (died 1761)
Monument to the radical reformer Thomas Hardy (died 1832), designed by J.W. Papworth
Tomb of the Unitarians Theophilus Lindsey (died 1808), Elizabeth Rayner (died 1800) and Thomas Belsham (died 1829)
Monument to David Nasmith (died 1839), founder of the City Mission Movement
Tomb of Richard Price (died 1791), moral philosopher and nonconformist preacher, and his wife Sarah (died 1786)
Headstone to Thomas Rosewell (died 1692), nonconformist minister. The original inscription was in Latin, but was replaced with this English version in the 20th century.
Headstone for William Shrubsole (died 1806), musician and composer, with John Benjamin Tolkien (died 1819) and Mary Tolkien (died 1837)
Tomb of Isaac Watts (died 1748), "Father of English Hymnody"

Notable burials include:


  1. 1 2 "Bunhill Fields Burial Ground". City of London. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Historic England. "Bunhill Fields Burial Ground (1001713)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  3. Holmes 1896, pp. 133–4.
  4. William Maitland, The History and Survey of London from its Foundation to the Present Time (London, 1756), p. 775
  5. Historic England. "Monument to Theophilus Gale, South Enclosure (1396557)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  6. 1 2 Corporation of London 1991, p. 8.
  7. Corporation of London 1991, pp. 4, 8.
  8. Corporation of London 1991, pp. 9–10.
  9. Holmes 1896, p. 135.
  10. Philip, Robert (1839). The Life, Times and Characteristics of John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim's Progress. London: Thomas Ward. pp. 578–80.
  11. Historic England. "Monument to John Bunyan, Central Broadwalk (1396491)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  12. Winslow, Ola Elizabeth (1961). John Bunyan. New York: Macmillan. pp. 201–2.
  13. Historic England. "Monument to Daniel Defoe, Central Broadwalk (1396492)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  14. Frank, Katherine (2011). Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the creation of a myth. London: Bodley Head. pp. 287–91. ISBN 9780224073097.
  15. Historic England. "Monument to William and Catherine Sophia Blake, Central Broadwalk (1396493)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  16. "Cause For Celebration: The Location of William Blake's Grave discovered!". The Friends of William Blake. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  17. "Coming up – William Blake". BBC Inside Out. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  18. "Discover Our Collections". The National Archives. Retrieved 16 June 2014. References RG 4/3985–4001.
  19. Corporation of London 1991, p. 11.

Further reading

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Coordinates: 51°31′25″N 0°05′20″W / 51.52361°N 0.08889°W / 51.52361; -0.08889

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