Today it is a haven for stressed workers, eager to escape from the frantic pace of City life, but Bunhill Fields Cemetery, just off City Road, is also one London's most hallowed burial grounds, containing the tombs of some of England's greatest writers. It has now been afforded the highest level of recognition as a historic landscape, with a Grade I entry on the national Register of Parks and Gardens. In addition, some 75 individual tombs have been individually listed today (22 February 2011) by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, on the advice of English Heritage.
Tombs of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake Listed on Advice of English Heritage
Its registration at Grade I puts Bunhill, the pre-eminent graveyard for Nonconformists in England, in the top 10% of England's 106 registered cemeteries, and makes it part of an elite group of seven grade l registered cemeteries in London. The new listings include those of John Bunyan (Grade ll*), author of Pilgrim's Progress, Daniel Defoe (Grade ll*), author of Robinson Crusoe, and the visionary poet and artist William Blake (Grade ll), whose works include Songs of Innocence and Experience and whose poem Jerusalem became the popular hymn.
David Garrard of English Heritage said: "The Victorian gate piers to Bunhill Fields Burial Ground record the history of this remarkable cemetery and the names of some of the luminaries buried here, quoting verbatim the inscription on the original piers recorded in 1720. Bunhill Fields has long fascinated historians and romantics alike and is considered the terra sancta of English Nonconformity. With its distinctive atmosphere and impressive monuments the cemetery offers both solace and beauty in the middle of our busy city. Few places nationally document religious history as vividly or with such poignancy as Bunhill Fields and we welcome the Minister's endorsement of our advice to list the 75 individual tombs."
Bunhill Fields was established in the 1660s, with its current boundaries fixed in the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike the churchyards of the City, it was not associated with any Anglican place of worship, and thus became London's principal Nonconformist cemetery. Around 123,000 burials took place in this 4-acre plot before it was closed and laid out as a public garden in 1869. In the southern enclosures there are over two thousand surviving monuments, the oldest being that to theologian Theophilus Gale, who died in 1678. Most are fairly plain, as befitting their Nonconformist associations, although a few display extravagant Baroque sculpture or grandiose Neoclassical forms. Many of the inscriptions and decorative carvings are distorted or illegible, but the antiquarian's loss is the aesthete's gain, for the organic patterns of weathering and decay have a strange beauty of their own. In places the prevailing south-west wind and rain have cleaned parts of the soot-covered stone, creating a striking chiaroscuro effect. Straight and winding paths run through the headstones and tombs, which are cramped together in rows. Here, perhaps uniquely, one can get a sense of the densely-thronged urban burial grounds, commonplace in Georgian England, that so shocked Victorian public health reformers.
The most recent major phase in the history of Bunhill Fields took place in the 1960s, when the northern part of the ground was cleared following bomb damage in the Second World War (Vera Brittain recorded it as the location of an anti-aircraft gun). In 1964-5, the Fields were re-landscaped by Sir Peter Shepheard, one of the foremost landscape architects of the period. A broadwalk, in brick and reused York stone paving, focused attention on the 'celebrity' tombs, and a lawn and flower beds were introduced. Parts of the Victorian garden were retained, including the eastern and western boundary gates and railings. Today the cemetery is managed as a public open space by the City of London and sits within the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground and Finsbury Square Conservation Area, which is managed by Islington Council.
Other tombs of special interest in the cemetery that have been afforded grade ll* listed status alongside those of Bunyan and Defoe include those of:
- Henry Hunter: a large and prominent obelisk monument of 1801, made of artificial Coade stone to a fine Neoclassical design, commemorating a noted Presbyterian minister and translator
- Dame Mary Page: a huge marble chest tomb of 1728, forming a landmark in the centre of the burial ground; its inscription details Dame Mary's fortitude in the face of an agonising illness: 'In 67 months she was tapp'd 60 times, had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation'
- Joseph Denison: a towering stone monument of 1806 in Greek Revival style, commemorating a Yorkshire-born banker who rose from humble origins to become one of England's wealthiest commoners
- Thomas and Hannah Miller: an early 18th century headstone in opulent Baroque style, completely covered with carvings of skulls, cherubs and drapery
- Sarah and John Wheatly: a beautifully-crafted slate headstone of 1790, which bears fine relief carving and lettering as well as its original mason's signature.
Sue Ireland, Director of Open Spaces at the City of London said: "Bunhill Fields is an area of huge cultural importance within the historic City of London - the last resting place of some of England's eminent literary Non-Conformists and has been managed as a public open space since 1867 - and I am delighted that its cultural value has been recognised with its Grade l entry on the Register of Parks and Gardens"
The Register of Parks and Gardens is a list of designed landscapes that are identified as being nationally significant. There are currently over 1,600 sites included on the Register, of which the majority are awarded a Grade II status. Around 27% are awarded a Grade II* status, and a further 9% are classified as Grade I.
Since 1950 the entirety of Bunhill Fields cemetery, including the tombs, boundary walls, gates and railings, has been treated as a single Grade II listed structure. This single designation was in contrast to nearly all other listed cemeteries, where the different elements enjoy individual identification.
Local development plans resulted in English Heritage reviewing this blanket designation and recommending that the cemetery be added to the Register of Parks and Gardens at Grade I, and that 75 of its approximately 1600 tombs be individually listed.
The boundary walls, railings and gates have also been individually listed at grade II.