History of London Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

Medieval Burial Grounds and Plague Pits

During medieval times, most people were buried in parish churchyards wrapped in sheets or shrouds – not in coffins. Eventually, the ground was reopened and re-used after the bones of previous deceased were removed.

In times of plague, however, separate plague pits were dug to deal with the high number of bodies that needed to be buried quickly. One of the earliest plague pits was created in 1348 at Charterhouse Square for victims of the Black Death, so named because the skin of victims turned black.

London’s first cemetery, New Ground, was established in 1569 on land belonging to the Bethlem Hospital. It was available to parishes who needed extra burial space, not only for plague victims, and continued to be used until 1720.

During the Great Plague of 1665, plague pits were also dug within several churchyards, for example at St Brides Fleet StreetSt Botolph Aldgate and St Dunstans in the East, Lower Thames Street, which were quickly expanded to accommodate the high number of bodies. Plague victims were also buried in St Pauls churchyard.

Most parish churches within the City were destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, leaving only their churchyards remaining. Following the fire, the sites where the churches stood were used to extend the original churchyards, giving more space for burials.

Few of these extended churchyards exist today – many have been demolished to make way for buildings. However, you can see a remaining example at St Laurence Pountney in the City.

Seventeenth century Burial Grounds

During the seventeenth century, London’s parish churchyards became overcrowded.

The dead started to be buried in communal graves, shallow graves, even in pits under the floorboards of churches. Eventually the parishes, alarmed at the growing health risks, established burial grounds away from the churches and on the edge of London’s built-up areas.

These burial grounds remained in use until the 1850’s and several still exist today, including Bunhill Fields (for dissenters), Postman’s ParkSt Andrew’s GardensSt George’s Gardens and St Olave’s burial ground.

Church Vaults

Most churches built during and prior to the eighteenth century had vaults beneath them. This was largely for two reasons.

Firstly, space in the churchyards was in very short supply, and secondly, they provided much needed funds for the parish. However, they also posed a health risk and in the 1850’s, no further burials were permitted in churches and vaults without special permission.

Churches open to the public and with vaults include St Sepulchre NewgateTemple ChurchSt Giles Cripplegate and of course St Pauls Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral.

Victorian Cemeteries

The out-of-town burial grounds and the church vaults in turn became overcrowded, and this was linked to a series of cholera epidemics in the early 1800’s.

In 1832, Parliament finally acted and several private companies were authorised to establish cemeteries on the outskirts of London.

The first of these new Victorian-era cemeteries, known as the Magnificent Seven, was the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, in 1833. Taking Pere-Lachaise as its model, it contains Greek Revival chapels and grand tombs and monuments.

Other Victorian cemeteries included the South Metropolitan cemetery at Norwood (1837), All Saints at Nunhead (1840) and the very impressive St James’s at Highgate (1839). All except Tower Hamlets still exist today and can be visited. read more about them here.

In 1852, the Burial Act was passed and churchyards were closed to further burials.