by Bob Davenport
For nearly thirty years I’ve lived in East Finchley about ten minutes away from London’s biggest cemetery: St Pancras & Islington Cemetery, as it used often to be called, though in fact it is two separate cemeteries, St Pancras Cemetery and Islington Cemetery, managed since 2004 by Islington & Camden Cemetery Services.
About twenty years ago I was helping out with my local community newspaper, The Archer, when it was sent some photographs of the cemetery and I volunteered to write a piece about it, which developed into a year-long series on a number of the people – some famous, some not – buried either there or in the other local cemetery, then St Marylebone, now East Finchley Cemetery. I wasn’t writing from a position of knowledge, and am not now, but since then I’ve often thought that I would like to find out more about the culture that shaped the cemetery and about those who are buried there. That’s what I’m trying to do now, and this blog is intended to share what I find, with I hope only a little recycling of my Archer pieces.
As for the cemetery itself, it dates from the mid nineteenth century. The churchyards and private burial grounds of central London had by then long been a scandal, being so full that bones could often be seen poking through the ground. Private cemeteries, such as Kensal Green, had been built away from the centre, but were too expensive for most people. In 1852, however, the Metropolitan Burial Act allowed public money to be spent on providing cemeteries, and St Pancras Cemetery was the first result of this. Designed by the firm of Barnett & Birch, it opened in 1854 on 88 acres of Horse Shoe Farm on Finchley Common. In 1877 another 94 acres were added alongside and became Islington Cemetery – the result being the largest cemetery in London. For further information on it, see here.
• Chris Brooks, Mortal Remains: The History and Present State of the Victorian and Edwardian Cemeteries (Exeter: Wheaton, in association with the Victorian Society, 1989)
• James Stevens Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000)
• Hugh Meller and Brian Parsons, London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide and Gazeteer (4th edn, Stroud: The History Press, 2008)
• John Morley, Death, Heaven and the Victorians (London: Studio Vista, 1971)