Visiting a cemetery may not seem like a whole load of fun, but if you find yourself near Mile End then you should take a detour to the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. The site was once one of the largest cemeteries in London, but it is now an impressive woodlands nature reserve.
You may just recognise the park when you get there, as it is a popular film and TV location, appearing recently in episodes of popular TV series such as Whitechapel and Luther.
The history of Tower Hamlets Cemetery
Historically, Londoners tended to be buried in their local churchyards, close to their homes. By Victorian times, this practice was causing a lot of problems. Local churches were struggling for burial space as the city’s population increased and churchyards all over the capital were becoming overcrowded. This also caused some serious health issues. The bodies buried in local churchyards could potentially cause outbreaks of diseases and, in some areas, they contaminated local water supplies.
In the early 1800s, the government decided that things had to change and that larger burial sites were needed away from overpopulated areas. It created an Act of Parliament that allowed companies to buy land for purpose-built cemeteries that would be situated outside the City of London area. There was more space there and fewer opportunities for issues with diseases and water. By 1841, London had plans to create seven large cemeteries. Known as the “Magnificent Seven”, the most famous of these sites is probably Highgate Cemetery.
The cemetery at Tower Hamlets was run by the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Company. The company purchased nearly 30 acres of land in the local area for multi-denominational burials. It also left some land free on the site for public burials. This option was often taken at the time as people could not always afford to pay for an expensive plot of their own. If they opted for a public burial, they were interred in a grave that was shared by other bodies. By 1889, this cemetery, often called Bow Cemetery by locals, had already seen nearly a quarter of a million burials.
East End History
Unlike Highgate Cemetery which seems full of world-famous people, the well-known people who were buried at this site tend to have local East End connections. These include the surgeon who autopsied the first victim of Jack the Ripper, some people who died in the Bethnal Green Disaster during the Second World War and the engineer who worked on the lighthouses at Trinity House.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery was bombed five times in the Second World War and suffered some bomb damage. You can still see damage caused by shrapnel on some memorials on the site. By 1966, the Greater London Council, or GLC, bought the site and it closed down as a cemetery. It was given permission to turn into a public park by an Act of Parliament.
By 1986, the site was owned by the local borough council. It turned the site into a designated local nature reserve in 2000. It is also now a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation and a conservation area. The cemetery walls are Grade II listed, as are a few of the memorials within the cemetery area.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park today
The cemetery site now extends to 31 acres and is held to be the most urban stretch of semi-wild woodland in all of London. It is home to an extensive range of broadleaved trees and plants and to many different birds, insects, butterflies and bats, many of which you will not see anywhere else in London. If you are lucky, you will spot some rare or endangered animals or plants as you wander through the park.
The nature reserve does not just contain the cemetery site, but also now incorporates the Scrapyard Meadow and the Ackroyd Drive Greenlink that connects the park to Mile End Park. The Scrapyard Meadow gets its name from the way that the land was used before it was cleaned up and added to the park. There are five wildlife ponds that are home to an interesting range of invertebrates on the site and various wildflower glades.
The Tower Hamlets site is mainly run by volunteers. If you fancy donating some time, it runs a weekly volunteer day. You can just drop in and see if there is anything you can help with. You can also hook up with a variety of guided walks and grave research events. Guided walks tend to take place on the third Sunday in the month. There is also a Wildlife Watch Club for kids. This meets once a month and involves kids in a variety of activities so that they can learn more about wildlife at first hand. The club is for kids aged from 8-14 years old.