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Bunhill Fields

Deceased Online is very pleased to announce that 71,100 of the records for renowned City of London cemetery, Bunhill Fields, are now online

Thanks to our partnership with the UK National Archives at Kew, we have digitised their entire collection of Bunhill burial records which covers 1704 to 1854. The collection includes some of Britain's most celebrated nonconformists, such as literary giants Daniel Defoe (1660-1731),  the hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and the poet William Blake (1757-1827). In this post, I look at the history of the cemetery up to 1800.

Bunhill Fields is one of the oldest nonconformist cemeteries in London, dating from 1665 in the reign of King Charles II. The current Grade I listed graveyard lies between the bustling City Road and Bunhill Row, but was originally part of the much larger Quaker Gardens. This land was the first freehold property owned by Quakers in England.

Across the City Road from the burial ground is Wesley's House, the museum of Methodism, and the still active Wesley's Chapel. Built by Methodism's founding father, John Wesley, as his London base in 1778, the Chapel stands not far from the grave of John and Charles' mother, Susanna Wesley (1669–1742). John is buried in the grounds of the house.


Widely seen as the foremost influence on her sons' religious practice and beliefs, Susanna Wesley is celebrated as the "Mother of Methodism". Born Susanna Annesley in 1669, she was the daughter of a dissenting Minister but converted to the Church of England when she was 13. At 19, Susanna married the Rev. Samuel Wesley. He soon received a living at Epworth in Lincolnshire, where th e family spent most of their time. The couple had a difficult relationship, with Samuel leaving Susanna and their children for more than a year. 

Together they had nineteen children, of whom only ten survived. All were tutored by their mother in Classics, methodical discipline as well as religious observance. The Sunday afternoon house group she designed for the children became so popular that 200 people would crowd into the rectory kitchen to attend. Her son, John, is buried not far from her in a small plot behind his former home.

The burial entry for "Mrs Wesley", August 1742

Isaac Watts (1674-1742)
Just six years later Bunhill saw the burial of another key religious figure of the 18th century, Isaac Watts (1674–1748). Best known for his hymns, "Joy To The World", "O God, Our Help in Ages Past", and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", many of which were based on the words of biblical psalms, Isaac was also an educationalist and poet. Unlike Susanna Wesley, Isaac Watts was a committed nonconformist throughout his life. As he was not an Anglican, he was forbidden from being educated at Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, in 1696, he moved from Southampton to Stoke Newington in London, where he attended its Dissenting Academy. Watts became minister of Mark Lane Independent church in the City of London in 1702. He died at the Hartopp family home in Abney Park, Stoke Newington in November 1748, aged 74. 

Isaac Watts was buried in Bunhill Fields, where his stone chest tomb was renewed by the Hartopp family in 1808. This tomb is now Grade II listed.

The tomb of Isaac Watts in Bunhill Burial Ground

Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731)
Perhaps the most exciting of all the Bunhill residents is the spy, journalist, pamphleteer, merchant and literary master, Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731). Like Isaac Watts, Defoe (born Foe) was a dissenter who lived in Stoke Newington. He is widely celebrated as Stoke Newington's famous son, with a road, pub and school all named after him. Also like Watts, Defoe had planned to become a dissenting minister, however on leaving education he decided to enter the world of trade. His mercantile activities enabled him to travel across Europe and display his wit in coffee houses, but brought him little wealth. He regularly fell into bankruptcy.

Whilst on his travels, Defoe was asked to spy for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Harley, into anti-union (the 1707 Anglo-Scottish union) agitation in Edinburgh. One contemporary wrote of him, that he was, "a Spy amongst us, but not known to be such, otherways the Mob of Edinburgh had pulled him to pieces".

More successful as a writer, Defoe initially began his career with controversial political pamphlets that drew on his dissenting beliefs. In the early 18th century, this was a risky venture and Defoe's political opponents had him imprisoned in 1713. In his late 50s, Defoe turned to the safer life of fiction writing. He was a prolific writer, creating more than 500 pamphlets and books.

Much about Defoe's life remains mysterious. What is known mostly comes through his writings, despite the fact that he is known to have used at least 198 pen names. This writing includes early political pamphlets and later his popular novels, Roxana (1724), Moll Flanders (1722), and Robinson Crusoe (1719), which some regard as the first true novel in the English language. 

In 1684 Defoe married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a London merchant, with whom he had eight children.

After Defoe died in April 1731, he was buried "in a single grave" under the name "Mr Dabow" - allegedly a misspelling by the grave digger (see http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/m/moll-flanders/daniel-defoe-biography).

Entry for Daniel Defoe written as "Mr Dabow" in the Burial Register of Bunhill Fields
As Daniel Defoe's literary star rose in the 19th century, a subscription fund was formed to raise money for a memorial. In 1870, a grand obelisk carved from Sicilian marble was erected over his grave and now towers over its surrounding headstones in Bunhill Fields.
Grade II listed obelisk in memory of Daniel Defoe in Bunhill Fields

Other notable individuals buried between 1704 and 1800 who are found in the new Deceased Online collection include:

  • Joshua Bayes (1671–1746), English cleric
  • Thomas Bayes (1702–1761), mathematician, clergyman, and friend of Richard Price
  • John Bellers, (1654–1725), political and educational theorist and writer.
  • William Blackburn (1750–1790), architect and surveyor
  • Thomas Fowell Buxton (1758–1795), anti-slavery philanthropist
  • James Foster (1697–1753), Baptist minister and author of Essay on Fundamentals, one of the first non-conformist texts.
  • John Gill (1697–1771), author of the Exposition of the Bible and the Body of Divinity
  • Joseph Hart (1712–1768), hymn writer and Calvinist minister in London
  • Paul Henry Maty (1744–1787) British Museum librarian.
  • Dame Mary Page (1672–1728), wife of Sir Gregory Page, 1st Baronet
  • Richard Price (1723–1791), founder of life insurance principles
  • George Whitehead (1636–1723), Quaker leader and author of memoir, The Christian Progress of George Whitehead
Next week I shall be looking further into the records in this collection 1800-1854 and exploring the life, work and death of the great poet and mystic, William Blake. 

If you have found an ancestor in this collection or are a great fan of one of the many celebrated individuals buried here, please do let us know via our Facebook and Twitter pages, or leave a comment in the box below.

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