Tower Hamlets in London

History of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

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.

Old London Cemeteries

6 thoughts on “History of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park”

  1. Hi Interesting to read about cemetery.Lots of my family burried there .My grandfather n all his family including my dad born n lived in Blackthorn st n fern st. I have never been there as i live in north of scotland but am interested to find out more about history of family .Grandfathers name was Henry William Lewis n grandmothers maiden name was Honney n i believe they lived next door to each other in Blackthorn st .My grandfather died at 48 in 1908 but i believe some of my relatives stayed around that area up to 1970 .Love to find out more .Thanks

  2. I’ve been trying to find a map of the park which shows where the Grade 2 listed memorials are, any notable people and which bits were private & which public. no-one seems to have done this.

    1. There was a leaflet by David? Bowdler just after the memorials were listed. They are, with the exception of the Westwood monument, in the section of the cemetery immediately inside the main gate. Mainly Georgian designs, They are No, 1239 Ellen Wisken – notably crossed arrows cast iron railings, No 0524 John Smith – Neo-Classical – woman & urn on plinth, No. 0194 George & Sarah Morris – tapering sarcophagus on console feet, cast iron railings, No. 1903 Llewellyn family – notably Dr Rees Ralph Llewellyn, who performed the psot-mortum on Mary Nicholls, first victim of Jack the Ripper, No. 0062 Samuel Weddell – another chest sarcophagus notably with plaque recording the upkeep of the grave – the ultimate cause of the cemetery company going bust – maintaining all of these graves with no money coming in to do so, & No. 1733 Daniel Morton – Neo-Classical with refliefs of grieving woman beside sarcophagus. Westwood is the main Gothic monument in the cemetery park – if you Chestnut Glade – the open space next to these graves as you continue down the main path, you will see it poking above the vegetation, otherwise take the second left and it is at the crossroad with the next north-south path. Probably designed by an architect called Moxon, we would love to restore it.

  3. So glad that I found this! My ancestors were born in Bethnal Green and Mile End Old Town (moved to Canada in 1870) so any history of the East End is of interest. Some of their ancestors are buried at Tower Hamlets. Still looking for the rest of the family tree from St. Giles Cripplegate and Christ Church Spitalfields eastwards.


      Very interesting, a good friend of mine is researching the history of this cemetery I would welcome any emails regarding the research that you have done so far.

      Thank You,

      Dr David Nightingale

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