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London's Spa Fields

Deceased Online has just uploaded around 114,000 burial records from Spa Fields in the modern London borough of Islington

Spa Fields today, with the Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer in the background
Spa Fields Burial Ground became notorious in the 19th century for its overcrowded and insanitary conditions. Located in the parish of St James, Clerkenwell, the grave yard was not far from the ever-increasing City of London. Spa Fields was known also as Clerkenwell Fields and Ducking-pond Fields in the late 18th century, hinting at a dark side to what was then a summer evening resort for north Londoners. What would become a cemetery was a ducking pond in the rural grounds of a Spa Fields public house. It was here in 1683 that six children were drowned while playing on the ice. In his History of Clerkenwell (1865) William J. Pinks wrote that visitors, "came hither to witness the rude sports that were in vogue a century ago, such as duck-hunting, prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and others of an equally demoralising character." Another name for the area was Pipe Fields, named for the wooden pipes of the great New River Company that brought drinking water to the people of London.

Islington 1805
The Spa Fields locality is known for its nonconformist Chapel. This has led to some confusion among family historians who believed the burial ground to be nonconformist. In fact, Spa Fields is not the chapel's burial ground as it was privately owned. The creator of the Chapel, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, is buried further east in the nonconformist burial ground of Bunhill Fields. Her record can be found in the Bunhill collection on the Deceased Online database. Both the Spa Fields and Bunhill collections are digitised from original registers held in series RG4 at The National Archives at Kew.

Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791)
Before being taken over by the Countess as Northampton Chapel, the building on Exmouth Street, built in 1770, was a public entertainment establishment named the "Pantheon". When this venture collapsed, the house and gardens were sold to a private company. The house re-opened as a chapel of the parish church of St James, Clerkenwell and was soon afterwards sold to the Countess of Huntingdon who turned it into a Dissenting chapel in 1777.

Shortly after this, a group of private speculators leased two acres of ground from behind the chapel from the local landowner, the Marquis of Northampton. The speculators turned this into a general cemetery. The small ground lay in an area of Georgian London that was growing at a rapid rate. Originally designed to hold 2,722 adult bodies, the cemetery was soon taking in 1,500 bodies a year. Since it was not in the speculators' financial interests to stop the burials, by the mid-19th century the ground had descended into a smelly, disease-ridden demesne.

In 1842, it was discovered that at night, bodies were being exhumed and coffins burned. A report in The York Herald, and General Advertiser of Saturday 5th April 1845 describes with a tone of horror one family's upsetting discovery:

A highly respectable family residing in - purchased
a double family grave in Spa-fields burying-ground.
This grave was marked by a head and a foot stone. The
grave was opened some time since, for the reception of a 
deceased member of the family. A tier of eight or ten
coffins was found projecting in every direction, and 
filling up half this double grave. The coffins and bodies
of adults and children were remorselessly cut through,
and upwards of five hundredweight of coffin-wood taken
out of the grave and burnt. The original occupant of 
this family grave, - , was "doubled up" and thrust into
the mud, &c, at the bottom of the grave, out of which
upwards of forty pailfuls of a most sickening compound
were baled. His coffin was taken to the bone-house,
 the fire being alight at the time. The "manager" has
frequently been on the watch through the wicket of
the large gates of the ground, and, as soon
as the mourners have made their appearance with the 
deceased, he has shouted to the grave-diggers, "Make
haste - they're coming:" earth has been quickly thrown
over the floor of the grave, the body deposited, and 
within half an hour - even before the funeral service was 
concluded - the coffin has been covered by the water.

The article continues at some length, detailing accusations from neighbours of the burying ground about its "nauseous fumes" and "the constant dread of being burnt out" by the regular fires in the bone-house. A petition was organized by George A. Walker, M.D., of the Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns, which resulted in the culprits being summoned before Clerkenwell Police Court. Eventually, the "disgusting and loathsome practices" were outlawed.

London Metropolitan Archives, on the left, is situated opposite Spa Fields, to the right.
Today, the burial ground is a park managed by Islington Council. Visitors to London Metropolitan Archives, just across the the road, often walk through the park or eat lunch there in good weather. As seen in the photograph at the top of the page, Spa Fields still lies in the shadow of its neighboring building. The Dissenters Chapel was demolished and replaced in 1888 with the church of Our Most Holy Redeemer Clerkenwell, an Anglican parish church in the Diocese of London, whose entrance can be found by passing through Spa Fields Walk into bustling Exmouth Market.

The narrow Spa Fields Walk
Did your ancestors have any connection the Spa Fields Burial Ground? Were they buried there or did they live nearby? Do let us know in the Comments Box below, or on our Facebook and Twitter pages!

Sources:
The York Herald, and General Advertiser (York, England), Saturday, April 05, 1845; pg. 7; Issue 3782. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.
http://catsmeatshop.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/spa-fields-burial-ground.html
http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45101&strquery=spa+fields


































Comments

  1. my 5th great grandfather Edward Galliers was buried in 1795

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  2. Thanks for sharing that with us, June.

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  3. My 4 x great grandfather Cornelius Chambers was buried there in 1813.

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  4. Thank you for letting us know, Jenny.

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  5. Cathie Humphries (Australia)
    I believe my G-G-grandfather's brother George James ASHWOOD was buried Spa Fields cemetery on 25 January 1829 aged 3.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's great, Cathie. Do you know what work he did in the area?

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  6. My 6th great-grandfather John Lister, a cabinet maker from St james Clerkenwell, was buried here on February 28th 1813 aged 78.

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    Replies
    1. Very interesting. He was working at a pivotal time in the history of English cabinet making. Thanks for letting us know!

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  7. My 3rd Great Aunt Eleanor Finn was buried there on 8 Feb 1807. She was 3 years old

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  8. Deb Arney (Australia) My g-g-g-grandfather's eldest son, Thomas Arney, was buried there on 2 Aug 1840, he was only 10 months old. My g-g-g-grandfather, George, was a wire drawer, a profession that no longer exists.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for sharing, Deb. Fascinating to read of the old occupations.

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  9. My great grand father's sister Laura Pardey was buried there 4th November 1836. She was 3 years old.

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  10. My ancestors Henry and Mary Ann Penfold moved from Hamilton Row to Bowling Green Lane in 1816 and then in 1818 went into nearby Clerkenwell Work House - after their stay there their prospects appear to have improved. Henry was a baker and I've wondered if the 'year without summer 1816' was responsible for the family's problems ie failure of the grain crop due to low temperatures and excessive precipitation - and consequent lack of baking jobs!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your insightful comments, Nedd. The effects of the failure of the grain crop may have led to the fall in Henry's circumstances. This shows how important it is in family history to read the social and economic history of the world in which your ancestors lived.

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  11. My 3rd Great Grandmother Mary O'Donnell was buried there 1st Nov 1840. She was from St Giles and was only 38. My 2nd Great Grandmother Ellen Finnesy was born only 3 years earlier. What a hellish life it must have been...

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  12. Thank you for letting us know. Quality of life in St Giles during this period was notoriously poor. Very sad that your 3x great grandmother died at such a young age.

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  13. Caroline Gwillim nee Broomer daughter of Billers Broomer. born 1769 Christened 1st October 1769 St Andrews, Holborn Married Thomas Gwillim 17 November 1787 in St Andrews Holborn Middx. They had three children Thomas Gwillim 1789. Thomas Broomer Gwillim 1795 - 1797. Henry Broomer Gwillim 1807 - 1895. She was buried 10th October in Spa Fields Burial Ground 1833.

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  14. Victor Gwillim
    Caroline Gwillim died 1833 sixth generation.

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    Replies
    1. That's amazing! I don't know if there are more than 6 generations of one family elsewhere in the burial ground. Thank you for sharing this.

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  15. My Great, great, great grandfather, one James King was buried there 10 May 1813 in piece/plot 4321. Thanks for the info.

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    Replies
    1. Wonderful! Thank you for letting us know.

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  16. Is John Thomas Smith engraver buried there?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jennifer, have you checked the database at www.deceasedonline.com? Is this your ancestor?

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  17. My 4th Great-Grandmother, Mary Bennet, was buried in Spa Fields on 3rd April 1786.

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    Replies
    1. Glad you have found your ancestor. Thank you for letting us know.

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  18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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