[PB, Jan 2014: Most of what follows derives from research by EJB in Tower Hamlets Library in the 1980s.]
See the record of 1378 William Nicholson, 13th Light Dragoons, who was buried in Grave No. 1985 in the Victoria Park Cemetery on the 1st of April 1876.
"A Balaclava Hero"
"The funeral of the late William Nicholson, formerly of the 13th Light Dragoons and one of the "Six Hundred," who died recently was buried on Saturday. He was interred in Victoria Park Cemetery, a large number of former comrades being present at the obsequies. The coffin was borne by four Inspectors of the Charing Cross Railway Station where the deceased was employed. The pall was carried by four of the Balaclava Banquet Committee — viz., Messrs. Woodham, Bird, Lethbridge and Cousins.
Mr. Nicholson leaves a wife and eight children — six of whom are very young — totally unprovided for. Five guineas has been forwarded to the widow out of the balance in hand from the recent Banquet. Mr. Grimstead, the Station master at Charing Cross, is collecting subscriptions."
William Nicholson must have been one of the last people to be buried here, when it was already notorious for lack of space, a hectic burial schedule, and the dreadful conditions into which it had deteriorated. It was situated in a poor part of London, and a high proportion of burials were of people who had died in workhouses, hospitals and prisons.
The Cemetery records from its opening in 1845 until its closure in 1876 are now in the Public Record Office. It was later cleared and made into public gardens (Meath Gardens). There is no indication from the cemetery records as to whether a stone was erected to Nicholson or not, there being merely an alphabetical list of names, addresses, ages, and the number of the grave in which interred.
[PB, January 2014: the London Metropolitan Archives hold:
"a plan showing the position of graves in Victoria Park Cemetery 1891 and lists of names and dates of death taken from tombstones 1893 (O/190/001-002). This cemetery was established in Bethnal Green in 1845, but never consecrated. Some years after its closure it became a park known as Meath Gardens in 1894. The National Archives holds the burial registers of Victoria Park Cemetery for 1853-1876" [Information Leaflet 5: Cemetery Records].
Presumably EJB was not aware of this plan, and hence had not consulted it.
Some of the burial registers have now been transcribed by the East of London Family History Society and are available online, but not [in 2014] the one in which William Nicholson's burial is recorded. ]
The Hackney Express, 15th of February 1952, reprinted an article on the opening of Meath Gardens from an earlier newspaper:
"Opening of Meath Gardens
On Friday July 20th 1894, His Highness the Duke of York paid a visit to Bethnal Green in order to open the new park which has been laid out on the site of the Victoria Park Cemetery and has been named the Meath Gardens by the London County Council in honour of the Association's Chairman.
The grounds, some 11 acres in extent, have been closed for burials since 1876. The Earl of Meath revealed that at one tine there were 449 disused burial-grounds in London, but now there were only 172, the Public Gardens Association having been instrumental in laying out 80, on which they had spent £40,000. The Duke of York, having been requested to transfer the Meath Gardens to the London County Council, handed over the Key of the Park Gate to Sir John Hutton, Chairman of the LCC, and declared the garden and park open to the public."
From an unknown printed source:
"Victoria Park Cemetery now the Meath Gardens. The Victoria Park Cemetery was opened in 1846 by Mr. C.C. Butler, M.P. for the Tower Hamlets Division (to which at that time Bethnal Green belonged) and comprises about 9 acres [sic] in extent. Round about 1876 there was some agitation about the number of burials said to have taken place there (thought to be over 300,000).
It was used from its beginning for the burial of Huguenot children, and according to Mrs. B. Holmes's book, "Burial Grounds of London," people went on being buried there until about 1885. She says that "it was a dreary neglected-looking place, the soil being of heavy damp clay, and large lumps were lying about all over the place.
At a burial there in 1884 the clerk took a handful of soil from his pocket to throw upon the coffin. [?]
At all events, it slowly deteriorated until it became an eyesore, ultimately being laid out as a public garden and recreation ground by the Metropolitan Gardens in 1894 at a cost of £3,000, at the same time naming it as the Meath Gardens, after the well-known chairman, Lord Meath."
[July 1984] There is only one tombstone actually left standing in the park and some half-a-dozen standing against one of the boundary walls. The present gate is the original one to the cemetery. It is still standing. (See photograph in the 13th Hussar file).
The following is taken from a Council-sponsored publication which printed a series of articles in the 1960s entitled "Our Fascinating Borough":
"To Meath Gardens, originally known as the Victoria Park Cemetery, belongs a peculiar history. Situated a little to the south of Roman Road, and near Usk Street, Bethnal Green, the ground, 9 acres in extent, was purchased in 1840 for a building project from Mr. W.W. Gretton, by Charles Salisbury Butler, who, from 1852 to 1868, represented the Tower Hamlets Division (to which at that time Bethnal Green belonged) in the House of Commons.
Butler was induced to abandon his plans to use the land for building when a company offered to take over the ground for the purpose of a cemetery, the purchase price being defrayed by annual instalments. The company was duly incorporated about 1845; Butler sold, and basked in the fond expectation of a steady income, In that, he was to be sadly disappointed.
Things went wrong, the definite annual instalments became indefinite annual promises, and in 1853 Butler - who, for an M.P., appears to have been remarkably gullible in his business sense - was obliged to resume possession.
If he had entertained optimistic hopes of reverting to his original scheme of building on the site they were rudely shattered. For interments had taken place, a chapel had been erected; a cemetery it was, and a cemetery it must remain. Butler was now the owner of some elegant but financially unrewarding gravestones, and a collection of equally unprofitable bodies - with the promise of more to come from the far from salubrious neighbourhood.
An attempt by Butler to improve his income by raising the fees for Sunday burials resulted in his defeat in the General Election of 1868 when he stood for the new Borough of Hackney. The working-class electors, incensed at Butler's effrontery, were not slow to show their displeasure. Hearses and mock funerals were prominent amongst the paraphernalia which served to brighten the campaign of that election:
"The "Hour" newspaper of 1876 states that funerals at the burial ground were taking place at the rate of 200 per week, which was equal to one-seventh of the whole of the burials in the Metropolis ("The Last Act", by William Tegg, 1876). But Millicent Rose, in her book, 'The East End of London', mentions an estimate during earlier years of a hundred on an average day, and one hundred and thirty on Sundays.
The "Hour" was also very severe upon the methods employed at the cemetery, and the Editor, rightly indignant at such a burial place being surrounded by a cluster of narrow streets, a railway and workshops, suggested that the ground ought to have been closed long before.
As to the total number buried there, the writer says: "We shall be within the mark if we say that more than 300,000 bodies are buried in this small piece of ground, situated in a close and poor neighbourhood."
As to how they were buried, the following is illuminating. 'A small building on the right hand side of the entrance gates is used as a chapel, where the "Desk Service" of the Church of England is read for a fee of two shillings by somebody in a surplice, who probably does not affect the "courteous epithet of Reverend whilst living, nor will be honoured by its being inscribed on his tombstone when dead."' It seems evident that cheap labour was used to ensure a profit. (The burial fee of two shillings was reduced to 1/6d. on Sundays, resulting in a traffic jam of lined up hearses whose drivers were passing the time of waiting their turn by drinking in the local hostelry.)
The death of Mr. Butler left his trustees with an exasperating dilemma. On the one hand there was the land of the closed cemetery - worth, said the knowledgeable, £40,000 as building lots. On the other hand there was a £43/10/- annual rent to meet. Yet build the trustees could not. The Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884 effectively made certain they would not.
For some time they strove to maintain the site in good order; then neglect was followed by the usual consequences. The place deteriorated into a dilapidated deplorable condition. It became a stamping ground of the worst elements of the district - loafers and roughs, gamblers, razor-boys. They defaced gravestones, pulled down walls and railings, fought gang wars and generally became the running sore of the neighbourhood.
In 1885, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, with the blessing of the Revd. G.B.M. Butler, the son of the former owner of the disused cemetery, volunteered to lay out the ground for popular recreation provided the Bethnal Green Vestry would undertake its maintenance and the defraying of the rent. The Vestry, lacking the necessary funds, was regretfully obliged to decline the offer. So matters rested until the appointment of the newly-formed London County Council revived interest in the proposal to rehabilitate the cemetery, now in an appalling and insanitary condition.
That the Council were favourably disposed towards the project was made clear in 1890. The matter had been under consideration by that body for some months; it considered the simple conditions concerning upkeep and payment of the ground rent were very reasonable.
Moreover, the Council declared that they "had found the land in a most disgraceful state, and it was a standing danger to the health of the community surrounding it; it was therefore very urgently necessary from a sanitary point of view that the land should be placed in proper order."
In these circumstances only a little local interest and pressure were needed to induce the Council to take over the land.
Therefore, at the request of James Branch, then a member of the London County Council and Chairman of the North-Eastern Parks Committee of the organisation, a conference of duly accredited representatives of the various local bodies and institutions was called to consider the proposal. Over 50 persons attended the meeting, held in July 1890, at St. Simon Zelotes School, near the disused burial ground.
Amongst those attending was Daniel Smither, who chose to regard the conference as a public meeting and took with him a number of his supporters. This section of the gathering at once began to make things warm for the promoters of the conference, and finally the unruly conduct having driven many representative men from the room, Smither moved "That further consideration of the question - to open Victoria Park Cemetery as a recreation ground - stand adjourned." a proposal which was carried by 21 to 19.
Fortunately the London County Council, recognising both the needs of the community and the character of the opposition at the meeting, paid no heed to this result.
In the meantime the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association was again proceeding in the matter, and was actively at work in an effort to raise the money necessary for laying out the ground as a pleasance.
Donations were made by people from all walks of life. The Duke of Bedford gave £500, an anonymous donor gave £1,000, "In memoriam Sidney Gilchrist Thomas", and various smaller sums were received.
By January 1881, the Association were able triumphantly to approach the London County Council with an offer to proceed with the conversion, if that body would meet the cost of upkeep and rent.
The offer was accepted with alacrity, but two years dragged on whilst the lawyers amused themselves with the various legal complexities, and enriched themselves; then in March 1893, work commenced.
The sum of about £3,000 spent on the transformation was exclusive of the cost of repairing the outer boundary railings, which was borne by the Council, who also settled the rent charges with single payment of £1,005.
On Friday, 20th July 1894, the East End of London presented a festive appearance when, with great ceremony, the newly-formed recreation ground was officially opened to the public by King George V (then H.R.H. the Duke of York) and re-named Meath Gardens by way of compliment to the Earl of Meath, the energetic chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association.
The 4th Volunteer Brigade of the Essex Regiment, with its band, formed the guard of honour, and the Parks Band of the London County Council was placed in front of the Pavilion. The walls on two sides of the ground were crowded with inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who cheered the Duke as he walked to the dais.
On being requested to transfer finally the Meath Gardens to the County Council. His Royal Highness presented the key to Sir John Hutton, Chairman of the L.C.C. and declared the grounds open to the public.
After the National Anthem, refreshments were served in a marquee erected for that purpose. A portion of the ground is reserved for children, for whom there are two outdoor play-areas. The rest of the ground is agreeably laid out with flower-beds and shrubberies...
A former scene of crime and squalor has been redeemed, and posterity is all the better for it."
[EJB, July 1984] A hundred years later, the gardens are rapidly reverting to something like what they once were. Because of grave subsidence, the whole of the grassed-over area has a very rough and uneven appearance, several buildings erected over the past few years have had to be declared unsafe for the same reason, and sheer vandalism has destroyed several of the older buildings by fire and forced the children's play-ground to close.
This was formerly Victoria Park Cemetery established in 1842, with its principal entry at the west via a C19th Gothic portal that remains as the main entrance to the park, still inscribed 'VPC 1842'; it was restored c.1990. The cemetery was closed to burials in 1876, and estimated to contain some 300,000 bodies.
The ground fell into disuse and its 'gruesome state' was later described by Lt. Col J J Sexby of the LCC Parks Department: '...with its yawning chasms, rank grass, and mutilated monuments'; 'a disgrace and a scandal'. The disused cemetery, being privately owned was exempt from legislation; entrances were 'burrowed from neighbouring back yards...resort of the loafers and roughs of the East End...came here to gamble and amuse themselves by the wanton destruction of the decaying property'.
In April 1885 the MPGA approached the son of its former proprietor for permission to lay it out as a public garden. Although he agreed to this in February 1886 he required that an arrangement be made to relieve him of maintenance and of payment of rent charges. Bethnal Green Vestry was unable to do this so the scheme was put in abeyance until the new LCC was formed and was sympathetic to the project. The MPGA then raised funds for laying out the grounds, including £500 from the former Duke of Bedford, and an anonymous gift of £1,000. All the necessary monies were raised by 1 January 1891 and work commenced in March 1893, costing £3,000 excluding the repair costs of the boundary railings.
It was one of the largest burial grounds that the MPGA landscape gardener, Fanny Wilkinson, converted into a public garden. She was assisted by 30 unemployed men and the ground proved hard to dig, the work taking a year to complete. The ground was grassed, trees were planted including Tree of Heaven, lime and London plane, and flower beds laid out as well as playgrounds and a sand-pit.
The garden was re-named Meath Gardens after the Earl of Meath, who was the Chairman of MPGA and opened on 20 July 1894 by Duke of York, the 'greater proportion laid out as garden, remainder devoted to large children's playgrounds'. The ground was extremely uneven through subsidence; there was only one tomb remaining, commemorating Constance and Lucy How, and Marian Gruner (erected in the 1860s), which was shaded by a large holly. A large playground and adjacent building were erected to the north in c.1990, and beyond the boundary are the Prospect Allotments.
A tree donated by Hillier Nurseries Ltd to the Aboriginal Cricket Association was planted on 26 June 1988, with a plaque set into the ground with the following inscription: 'In memory of King Cole, Aboriginal cricketer, who died on the 24th June 1868. Your Aboriginal dreamtime home. Wish you peace'. This is also referred to in Iain Sinclair's 'Liquid City'.
Bacon, Ordnance Atlas; M. Rose, The East End of London; Lieut. Col J J Sexby, The Municipal Parks, Gardens and Open Space of London (their History and Associations, Elliott Stock (London) 1895 (1905 edition); Elizabeth Crawford, 'Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle' (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2nd ed. 2009); Bancroft Library, Clippings.
This paper focuses on the conversion of disused burial grounds and cemeteries into gardens and playgrounds in East London from around the 1880s through to the end of the century. In addition to providing further empirical depth, especially relating to the work of philanthropic organisations such as the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, the article brings into the foreground debates regarding the importance of such spaces to the promotion of the physical and moral health of the urban poor. Of particular note here is the recognition that ideas about the virtuous properties of open, green space were central to the success of attempts at social amelioration. In addition to identifying the importance of such ideas to the discourse of urban sanitary reformers, the paper considers the significance of less virtuous spaces to it; notably here, the street. Building on Driver's work on 'moral environmentalism' and Osborne and Rose's on 'ethicohygienic space,' this paper goes on to explore the significance of habit to the establishing of what Brabazon called 'healtheries' in late-Victorian East London.