In Bunhill Fields

November 3, 2018 3 Comments

This week we paid a visit to a place that’s been on my wish list for many years: Bunhill Fields. Some might think it a perverse pilgrimage, because Bunhill Fields isn’t not a rural glade or open park, but an old burial ground – the origin of ‘Bunhill’ is thought to be ‘bone hill’ – one that was closed as long ago as 1854 but still contains over 120,000 bodies crowded together.

You need to seek out Bunhill Fields. It’s off the beaten track behind Old Street, on the boundary between Islington and the City of London. Nowadays it’s cared for by that embodiment of wealth and power, the Corporation of the City of London. There’s some irony in that, because the inhabitants of Bunhill Fields could hardly be less ‘establishment’. They’re all, in one way or another, dissenters – religious nonconformists, barred from burial in churchyards, deists or atheists, or other kinds of rebel. Among them are some very well-known names, in literature, religion, philosophy and other fields. They remind you how much the cultures of Britain owe to people who ‘kicked against the pricks’.

The most famous burials are those of William and Catherine Blake (his parents are also here). A simple vertical stone was erected long after their deaths, in 1927. This year the Friends of William Blake set a horizontal slab into the ground not far away, on what is now confirmed as the site of William’s original grave as a result of some ingenious research by Carol and Luis Garrido. It was unveiled in August this year by the Blake Society’s President, Philip Pullman, and carries an inscribed quotation from Blake’s long poem Jerusalem:

I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in to Heaven’s gate,
Built into Jerusalems wall.

(Blake, always careless of convention, avoided the apostrophe in ‘Jerusalems’.)

Close to the 1927 Blake stone is a very different monument, an obelisk to Daniel Defoe, ‘author of Robinson Crusoe’. This long post-dates Defoe’s death in 1731 – it was set up in 1870. Its stolid grandiloquence hardly reflects his life, which was insecure and rackety, or his status in society. Defoe was many things – trader, journalist, agitator, novelist, guidebook writer, spy – but was never really accepted by the ruling classes as one of them, and died in poverty.

Not far away from Blake and Defoe is a monument to John Bunyan, author of The pilgrim’s progress and a victim of the religious intolerance that followed the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Bunyan, who died in 1688, also ended up with a much more ornate tomb than he would probably have expected or wished – a large baroque chest, elaborately reconstructed in 1862 and topped with a new recumbent effigy of the writer. One side has a relief sculpture of Christian, bowed under a heavy pack and leaning on his staff.


All three writers, Blake, Defoe and Bunyan, were outsiders, consciously working against the grain of the dominant power and culture of their times. All excited suspicion and opposition. All had trouble with the law as a result of their beliefs. Bunyan spent twelve years in Bedford Gaol for preaching outside a parish church; Defoe was imprisoned for writing in support of nonconformity; while living at Felpham in 1803-4 Blake was charged with uttering seditious and treasonable remarks (‘Damn the King. The soldiers are all slaves’) after a quarrel with a drunken soldier, John Schofield. (Blake began writing Jerusalem on his return to London in 1804 and included an image of Schofield, labelled ‘Skofeld’, in his text, burning in the fires of hell and chained by ‘mind-forg’d manacles’.)

Thomas Bayes

Many other notable nonconformists lie in Bunhill Fields, including members of the Wesley family and the hymn writer Isaac Watts, several pioneering thinkers, including Thomas Newcomen, the steam engine designer, and Thomas Bayes, inventor of the science of probability, and political radicals like Thomas Hardy, the founder of the London Corresponding Society.

Richard Price’s tomb

There are also several leading Welsh people. The best known is a friend of Thomas Bayes, Richard Price. Price, born in Llangeinor in 1723, moved to London and became minister of the Newington Green meeting house. He was a political radical and supported the American and French revolutions, but is best remembered for his books on moral philosophy and his original work on actuarial science. He and his wife Sarah share a large chest tomb, not unlike Bunyan’s, at the east end of Bunhill Fields.

Vavasor Powell (1617-70), a Puritan who yet supported the Royalist cause in the Civil War, was arrested on many occasions and after 1660 spent several spells in prison. John Evans (?1680-1730) was a congregationalist minister in Wrexham before moving to London as an assistant to Daniel Williams, founder of Dr Williams’s Library and himself a native of Wrexham. His published sermons were influential and he collected much material towards a comprehensive history of nonconformity in Britain. William Jones (1762-1846) was born in Gresford and in London became a Baptist writer, editor and bookseller. And Abraham Rees, born in Llanbrynmair in 1743, was also a minister in London, who between 1802 and 1820 published The cyclopaedia; or, universal dictionary of arts, sciences and literature.  This huge work, in 45 volumes and with around 100 contributors, summarised current knowledge, especially on science and technology, and attracted suspicion from reactionary reviewers for its allegedly subversive content.

Much of the graveyard is fenced off and inaccessible except when guided tours take place in the spring and summer, but the west end is kept as a quiet natural reserve, tended by volunteers. I wandered in and talked to one of them, a woman with an obvious love for the place and its unconventional residents. A busy public path dissects the Fields from west to east. I wonder whether many of the City workers passing quickly along it, eyes fixed to smartphones, ever stop and give a thought to the illustrious dissenting dead in either side?

We left Bunhill Fields for our next destination, Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square. I’d not done my homework well enough, and as we left we missed the remains of another historic graveyard, the Quaker Gardens, just across Bunhill Row. Not much remains of the original site – it was damaged by bombs during the Second World War – but there you can see a plain stone marking the burial place of the founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox.


Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Liz Thomas says:

    Really enjoy your blog – thank you.

    I agree that Bunhill Fields is amazing. Right by where we used to live, so walked through it, and marvelled at its residents regularly.

    I think the position of the City of London Corporation is a bit more interesting than you suggest. The Corporation was traditionally anti-establishment, in the sense that it refused to bow to the crown. It’s no surprise that this is where the dissenters took refuge. In naming the blocks of the Barbican, many of their names were proudly used by the Corporation, including Bunyan, Defoe and Blake – and Cromwell.

    This FT article is quite good: The City of London’s strange history

  2. Paul Jeorrett says:

    This is a very special place. I only managed to get there for the first time a few years ago mainly because of George Fox and the Quaker connections. I ran out of time and only had a few moments to visit the Wesleyan Chapel and Museum across the road and need to return there when I have more time. Well worth a visit if you haven’t been.

Leave a Reply