The Obscure Dead of the Docklands

The Campus of the Dead Column:

Have a sense of morbid curiosity and a thirst for all things spooky and dead (without being a necrophiliac of course)? Then The Campus of the Dead Column is perfect for your tastes. Join historian and Columnist Hugo Cheema-Grubb, in his forays through graveyards and morges, as he writes a love letter to that eternal companion of civilisation, death.

 The Germans dropped around a hundred tons of explosives on London during the Second World War. Memorials to the victims of the bombing are still being built today, like the new “Stairway to Heaven” above Bethnal Green tube station. Many buildings were also destroyed in the bombings, from the patchwork of architectural styles around Liverpool Street Station to the odd geography of Mile End Park, German air raids left a indelible mark on the city. The East End, being a major industrial area within London, was hit particularly hard and the effects can be seen in the relative paucity of historic buildings in Tower Hamlets. One relic of the bombing that receives less attention than the memorials is the east’s many orphan graveyards. Consecrated ground is normally found surrounding places of worship. But, the bombs destroyed churches and synagogues, alongside the warehouses and factories, leaving graveyards separated from their places of worship and remembrance.


The Dissenting Dead


East London has always proven a home for radical thought, as a cheap and immigrant-populated area of the city. This is no less true of radical religious thought, and many ‘dissenters’ lived and died around QMUL, disagreeing with the established Catholic and Anglican churches. Deep in the sleepy borough of Wapping, amid cobbled streets and historic riverside pubs, there lies St John’s Churchyard. As one would expect, the burial ground used to be attached to St John’s Church, until German bombs demolished the church building. They also shattered the greater part of the graves; now the graveyard is more like a residential square than a cemetery. Only the odd stone disturbs the neat grass, and only a small plaque on the wall describes its previous purpose. St John’s was the burial place of Thomas Rainsborough, who was a famous dissident four hundred years ago at the time of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. He was a talented activist and orator who argued for the rights of common people at a time, when that idea was a novelty in England. He was also a Fifth Monarchist; a member of a millenarian cult, its members believing that a prophecy had predicted the imminent end of the World. His funeral was large and the procession was followed by many people, although the bombing has made it impossible to work out exactly where this famous man was buried.


German bombs left St John’s Churchyard bereft of its church, but the area around QMUL has a number of dissenters’ graveyards that were never directly attached to a church at all. Dissenters were often refused the right to burial in Anglican graveyards, being heretics, and so they buried their dead in small plots wherever they could find them. Where White Horse Road meets Matlock Street there are the few surviving graves of the congregation of Stepney Meeting House, a dissenters’ church organised in 1644 by one Henry Burton. For his blasphemy Burton’s books were banned and his ears cut off, so deeply that the mutilators cut his temporal artery. The Meeting House which he helped found was the first Puritan church in the East End. It went on to build almshouses for poor women, to live in, and a charity school, both near to the graveyard. All associated buildings were destroyed in the blitz – the church, school and almshouses, suffering a direct hit from a high-explosive bomb. They have all since been built over. Now the graveyard is the sole memorial to the Stepney Meeting House and its congregation.


“Rolled Sound in Earth’s Diurnal Course”


Perhaps, the most strikingly neglected cemetery in the area around QMUL is Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, a huge graveyard just to the south of Mile End Station. It’s a spooky and atmospheric place during the day, with a veritable forest erupting through the graves, and terrifyingly quiet and dark at night. It was one of the “Magnificent Seven”, graveyards around London built during the Victorian period to accommodate the endless dead of the new industrial city. It was very popular and those who could not afford their own graves were buried in “public” graves, which could be forty feet deep and contain more than thirty people on top of one another. Famous residents abound, including Will Crooks, the first Labour Mayor of London, John Buckley, who was one of the first to receive the Victoria Cross, and several of the victims of the Bethnal Green tube disaster mentioned at the beginning of this article. The original cemetery contained 350,000 bodies, most of them in the mass ‘public’ graves. Allowances were made for Anglican and Dissenter funeral services, both of whom had separate chapels on the site that could be used for ceremonies. 


Unfortunately, they are no longer with us. The cemetery was hit five times by air raids, significantly damaging the chapels and leaving shrapnel marks on several graves. More damaging, however, was the 1960s council plan to clear the entire site and turn it into a green space. They were thankfully stymied by local protest, with the cemetery walls and several grave markers are now Grade II listed. Before the council were stopped, they had tragically destroyed both of the chapels, completing the German’s job for them, in addition to clearing all the graves from a small section to the north of the graveyard. I recommend visiting Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on Halloween Night. The big gates are locked after sundown, but there are pedestrian gates at the top and bottom that remain open. There’s nothing spookier than rows of tombstones between the trees in the moonlight. Just don’t get lost; the smaller paths inside are difficult to follow in the dark, and you won’t want to spend all night among the graves.


The Pillars of the Upright


If you walk up the Bancroft Road, you eventually come to a small Jewish cemetery without any sign, label or name. QM has plenty of historic Jewish graveyards in its vicinity. Everyone has seen the Novo and most students are aware the older Velho cemetery lies behind the computer science building, next to Drapers. More obscure is the Alderney Road Ashkenazi Cemetery, which is inaccessible behind a high brick wall, topped with broken glass. But the Bancroft Road Cemetery is different from the others. Its origins are obscure and its history has left the graves largely illegible. More confusingly still, a large population of stray cats roam amongst the graves. It has taken a reasonable amount of research to uncover who is buried in it and why it has been left in its current state.


The Western Synagogue was a large Ashkenazi congregation that met in Denmark Court along the Strand. They were founded in 1761, one of the earliest Ashkenazi synagogues in London. In the 1810s there was a theological dispute amongst the members of the synagogue and a certain group split off to form a second synagogue, called the Amudae Yesharim, or the Pillars of the Upright. This breakaway synagogue bought its own graveyard on Bancroft Road and it is this congregation who are buried in it. Unfortunately, the cost of grave maintenance with a dwindling congregation led to their bankruptcy. They were readmitted to the Western Synagogue in 1907. The Western Synagogue refused to accept responsibility for the upkeep of the graveyard, and so it passed into the hands of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who are now responsible for upkeep.


Unfortunately, this is all the detail we can access about the cemetery. Most of the graves were blown to pieces by the Germans, leaving only a handful legible today. Yet it is not really the bombing of the graveyard that has fully erased its history. The records of the Amudae Yesharim, their beliefs and the dispute that led to their separation and rejoining of the Western Synagogue were all in the archives of said Western Synagogue. In 1941, during the Blitz, the Germans destroyed the Western Synagogue building itself, killing 27 people who were sheltering in the basement. The Western Synagogue relocated to the building of the Central Synagogue, which was destroyed six months later, and finally to Grotrian Hall in Wigmore Street, where a German incendiary bomb incinerated that and with it what little remained of their archives. It is now impossible to determine who exactly was buried in the graveyard and what they believed, save from the few fragments of the gravestones that we can still read.


The Blitz was a deeply unpleasant and scarring time for London and other cities around Britain, but perhaps this article has highlighted impacts that would not otherwise have been obvious. Next time you see a graveyard without a place of worship, think about why it might have been placed there and who might be buried in it. Without investigation and remembrance it is easy to act as Tower Hamlets Council did and forget, lose or destroy these fascinating and sad memorials to the historic dead.

CUB’s Hugo Cheema-Grubb is a QM historian, whose interest is piqued by those spaces where people pass from our world into another. Hugo has a knack for elegantly prising apart the mysteries, intricacies and politics surrounding death. Further adding to his accomplished repertoire, Hugo is the president of the Debate Society and current captain of the QMBL Fencing team.

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