Time Travel Explorer Blog

'Thank God for the quiet grave'

by Peter Watts 3. February 2011 10:00

So far on this blog we have concentrated on the ways in which old maps allow us to see the ways in which London has changed, but now let us consider how it can sometimes stay the same, for centuries. And where better to start than a graveyard, the ‘quiet grave’ spoken of by Keats in the blog title.

St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury, close to the Foundling Museum, was once the burial grounds of two churches - St George-the-Martyr in Queen Square and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George, Bloomsbury. These days they are a peaceful and well-tended spot, containing little of note other than a Chapel of Rest, a statue that used to belong to the Apollo Theatre on Tottenham Court Road and – for fans of Iain Sinclair – a decent-sized obelisk in one corner. The burial grounds were said to have been laid out by Hawksmoor, and he is also believed to have designed the monument for Robert Nelson, who was the first man buried here in 1715.

Then, St George’s Gardens were a spot on the very edge of the city and these were the first London burial grounds to be laid out at a distance from their church. As can be seen in the map of 1746, they were in the middle of fields north of London with barely a building in the sight. The two burial grounds lie at an angle, adjacent to each other – and today a series of stones down the centre shows how the cemetery was once divided into two parts, one for each of the two churches that shared the space.

Fifty years later, in 1799, strikingly little had changed and the burial ground was still adrift amid the fields of soon-to-be London.

Skip forward to 1830, though, and we are looking at a different picture. Bloomsbury was now very much in evidence, with streets surrounding the burial grounds on all side. Still, though, they retain their distinctive shape and were almost certainly still in use - most central London burial grounds were only closed in 1850 when the Burial Act led to the construction of the giant cemeteries at Nunhead, Kensal Green and elsewhere. It's believed St George's carried on burying the dead of London until 1855. 

After closing, many burial grounds were simply built over, but St George's survived. Here it is in 1862, almost completely unchanged.

In 1885 it was converted into a park, but most of the graves and memorials were left intact. And here it is today, a serene scene of familiar constancy for almost 300 years, while London has changed all around it. People often find graveyards to be a peaceful retreat from the modern world, and this could be one of the reasons why.