St George’s Gardens, Bloomsbury
Bloomsbury is well known for its elegant squares and green spaces, but St George’s Gardens is a little less explored…
Nestled behind The Foundling Museum, this former burial ground is packed with history.
When considering a sharp rise in London’s population growth, we tend to think of the 19th century, but overcrowding has been a problem for London as far back as the 17th century.
The Great Fire of London – which destroyed 80% of the City in 1666 – pushed development beyond the City walls onwards and in 1713 this oddly shaped patch of land was purchased.
St George’s Gardens
It was planed as an off-site, joint burial ground for St George-the-Martyr, Holborn and St George’s Bloomsbury.
Originally the land was divided in two, one side for each of the churches. This can be seen clearly in the map below;
Image credit: layersoflondon.org / John Rocque 1746
Today a path of stones suggests the former wall through the middle of the gardens.
Like many London burial grounds it was closed due to overcrowding in 1885. As there were laws about building on consecrated burial grounds, it was transformed into a public garden.
It opened as one larger garden sometime between 1884 and 1889.
The wonderful statue above is from 1898 by John Broad. It depicts Euterpe, one of the nine muses from Classical Greece who specialised in lyric poetry. This was formerly on the facade of the Apollo Inn at Tottenham Court Road but, when demolished in 1961, it was moved here.
The first person buried here was a man called Robert Nelson who died in 1715. A Royal Society fellow, Nelson later became a nonjuror – someone who refused to swear an oath in support of the new monarchs King William III and Queen Mary II.
As a member of these non-conformist Christians he made a deliberate choice to be buried in this more unusual location. Initially the public weren’t keen on being buried so far from churches, really on the edge of London at that point.
Hoping that it would help others ‘to overcome the aversion that has been discovered to its use’. As an influential church figure his plan worked and more burials arrived. The grounds became known locally as Nelson’s Burial Ground – a fine legacy!
Another large memorial is this chest tomb towards the centre of the garden.
It commemorates Anna Gibson (1659-1727), the sixth and – supposedly – favourite daughter of Richard Cromwell and granddaughter to Oliver Cromwell.
But not all the burials here are marked so lavishly.
Eliza Fenning (1792–1815) was a cook, charged with murdering her employer’s son and daughter-in-law. The dumpling’s she’d provided were found to contain arsenic. This sounds damning, but arsenic was used across Georgian Society and Eliza claimed she had also become sick from eating the same dumplings.
Image Credit: georgianera.wordpress.com where you can also read more about her story.
Despite continually professing her innocence, and overwhelming public support, she was found guilty and hanged on 26 July 1815. After her funeral in St George the Martyr, a procession of 10,000 supposedly accompanied her coffin to the gardens. Unfortunately there is no memorial that I could find to her in the gardens.
Lastly, you can find a memorial plaque to Zachary Macaulay;
Macaulay is buried in the gardens but his exact whereabouts are unknown. Aged 16, Macaulay went to live in Jamaica, working on a sugar plantation and was shocked by the treatment of enslaved workers, eventually leaving aged 24.
He became a staunch anti-slavery activist and in 1790 helped set up a home for emancipated slaves in Sierra Leone. Although well-meaning, the experimental colony was a disaster. The colony included former African slaves who were loyal to the British during the American Revolutionary War and poor Black Londoners whom the authorities wanted to removed from England’s streets.
No one was familiar with the land and unreliable supplies, revolts, poor agriculture and plain ignorance lead to many deaths and some even throwing in their lot and joining slave traders.
So look out for St George’s Gardens when you’re next in Bloomsbury, it’s a wonderful – and historic spot – to enjoy in the sunshine.
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