Crypts of London: Past and Present

Crypts of London: Past and Present

by Malcom Johnson


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A fascinating voyage of discovery under London's churches

After the devastation of 1666, the Church of England in the City of London was given 51 new buildings, in addition to the 24 that had survived the Great Fire. During the next 100 years others were built in the cities of London and Westminster, most with a crypt as spacious as the church above. This book relates the amazing stories of these spaces, revealing an often surprising side to life—and death—inside the churches of historic London. The story of these crypts really began when, against the wishes of architects such as Wren and Vanbrugh, the clergy, churchwardens, and vestries decided to earn some money by interring wealthy parishioners in their crypts. By 1800 there were 79 church crypts in London, filled with the last remains of Londoners both illustrious and ordinary. Interments in inner London ended in the 1850s: since then, 52 crypts have been cleared, and five partly cleared, resulting in the gruesome business of moving human remains. Today, many crypts have a new life as chapels, restaurants, medical centers, and museums. With rare illustrations throughout, this fascinating study reveals the incredible history hidden beneath the churches of the city.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781860776724
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 02/01/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Malcolm Johnson is a retired priest and the author of St Martin-in–the-Fields.

Read an Excerpt

Crypts of London

By Malcolm Johnson

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Malcolm Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5662-8



The two cities of London and Westminster stank in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Thames, full of sewage, flowed past streets covered in human and animal filth. Smoke from chimneys made the air more putrid. The word 'effluvium', a noxious exhalation affecting the sense of smell, appears regularly in the early nineteenth century when a few Londoners began to suspect that there might be a link between disease, destitution and foul smells. One of these was the smell of death, almost unknown in Britain today, since corpses are embalmed soon after death. Such a smell inevitably led back to the Anglican burial places of the two cities, which were either crypts full of rotting coffins or graveyards, where bones were dug up after twenty or more years. Worshippers knew that beneath their feet as they walked into church or sat in their pews lay the decomposing bodies of their forebears, but, unlike in France, no one proposed changes until the 1830s.

In the early eighteenth century the City of London possessed seventy churches with crypts, thirty-one of which no longer survive. Westminster has had twenty-five churches with crypts since 1666, and only six have been demolished or leased after the human remains have been removed. Rarely do the published histories of these buildings mention these undercrofts. Two exceptions are Westminster Abbey, whose tombs are described in chapter 4, and St Paul's Cathedral, whose crypt is described in chapter 5 (this relies heavily on a recent scholarly book). Obviously it is possible to visit the churches that have survived and establish precise details of their crypt; where it is not possible to enter, burial registers can give details of size and layout. For the churches that have not survived, the best descriptions of their undercrofts are often found in the faculties that authorised their destruction, and in vestry minutes recording the process of emptying the human remains and transferring them to a cemetery. Written accounts are rare, because few people visited these dark, dismal places apart from the sexton. However, an account by Frank Buckland of the undercroft at St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1859 has survived, and is contained in chapter 2. Two churches over the borders of the two cities – Christ Church Spitalfields and St Luke Old Street – are included because both have had the contents of their crypt removed, and thus provide valuable information. St Clement King Square is described because the incumbent has allowed me access.

Before proceeding it is necessary to clarify matters of terminology. Dr Julian Litten, a leading authority on funeral fashions and furnishings, describes a vault as 'The eternal bedchamber'. His The English Way of Death is a good starting point for anyone interested in this topic, covering as it does burial customs over a long period. A burial vault, he says, is a subterranean chamber of stone or brick capable of housing a minimum of two coffins side by side and with an internal height of at least 5 ½ft. Anything narrower is best understood as a brick-lined grave. A crypt is a semi-subterranean copy of the floor plan of the building. The bays below a church's side aisles were often private freehold vaults, partitioned, whereas under the nave was one large space for parish or public interments. Clerical corpses were usually placed under the chancel in open or closed vaults. Family brick graves or single brick graves covered with a ledger stone differed only slightly from vaults, and the incumbent decided where they should be – perhaps under a particular pew. Earth graves were often unmarked. The vaults could not be emptied or sold, so if a family moved away the space became unproductive; but in the City all this changed when the Great Fire destroyed many churches, and in the rebuilding programme vaults were cleared. The new crypts were open plan and space was easily available, although private vaults were soon located behind grilles in the bays around the walls. When a death occurred, families could ask the sexton to find where their forebears lay, so that they might be interred there too. Rarely did mourners enter a crypt, because the committal was said at its door or in church.

Until 1666 only the royal family and the aristocracy were interred in vaults, usually beneath a cathedral. Medieval monarchs were laid in tomb chests above ground, but Henry VII built a chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey with chambers underneath, in which the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns still lie.

After the Reformation, burial within a church was seen as a mark of social distinction. The nobility regarded it as their right, but by the mid-seventeenth century the professional classes were also seeing it as a sign of a successful career. Over the next century doctors, solicitors, high-ranking soldiers and 'gentlefolk' frequently left instructions in their wills for intramural burial, although some cautioned prudence and economy in arranging it because fees could be high. By law, according to the Revd William Watson, an eighteenth-century canonist, the incumbent alone decided who should be interred in the crypt:

Because the Soil and Freehold of the Church is in the Parson alone, and that the Church is not, as the Churchyard is, a common Burial-place for all the Parishioners, the Church-wardens, or Ordinary himself, cannot grant Licence of Burying to any Person within the Church but only the Rector, or Incumbent thereof ... yet the Church-wardens by Custom may have a Fee for every Burial within the Church, by reason the parish is at the Charge of repairing the Floor.

Precise figures of intramural interments are hard to establish, because rarely are they recorded separately by the parish clerk. In the eighteenth century the percentage of burials in church varied from 3 per cent in the poor parish of St Botolph Bishopsgate to around 60 per cent in the wealthy parishes of St Margaret Pattens and St Stephen Walbrook. An examination of parochial records in the two cities suggest that an average for intramural interments was between 5 and 8 per cent.

Burial fees represented a high proportion of parish income. According to my research, until 1700 the City of London parishes could receive between 7 and 20 per cent of their non-poor rate annual income from burial dues. In the eighteenth century most received around 7 per cent of their income from interments, although at St James Garlickhythe the average was 26.9. By contrast, all the five Westminster parishes had a high burial income at the end of the eighteenth century: it was around 35 per cent of the wardens' income at St Martin-in-the-Fields and 25 per cent at St James Piccadilly. It thus made a significant contribution to the parish economy.

The cataclysmic Great Fire of 1666 had a profound impact on burial provision in the City of London: eighty-six churches were destroyed along with St Paul's Cathedral (where the congregation of St Faith, who met in the crypt's Jesus chapel, also lost their place of worship). Of these churches thirty-two were not rebuilt, although twenty-four in the east or north-east of the City were not affected. Crypts were destroyed with their buildings, so the space available for intramural burial declined.

During the next thirty years Wren, together with Robert Hooke, Peter Mills and Edward Jerman, designed and built St Paul's Cathedral and fifty-one replacement churches. Most of Wren's churches had vaults beneath them, and nearly all had burial grounds, which were well used because the population of the Square Mile was still large. Most of the sites of churches that were not rebuilt were now used as burial grounds.

During the next 150 years fourteen of these churches were rebuilt, either to enlarge them or because of dilapidation; all except St James, Duke's Place, had a crypt as spacious as the church above. In Westminster the five churches in existence in 1600 all had undercrofts, and three of these retained them when rebuilt. Crypts were also given to the twenty additional churches built in Westminster before 1852. The clergy, churchwardens and vestries decided to use these spaces to earn money by interring wealthy parishioners in them, instead of using the space for other purposes. In doing so, however, they went against the advice and opinions of both architects and others. Some had always doubted the wisdom of burying the dead among the living. In 1552 Bishop Hugh Latimer thought it 'an unwholesome thing to bury within the city', considering that 'it is the occasion of great sickness and disease'. Mainly for architectural reasons Wren was also opposed to burial in or close to the church, and his first designs for the rebuilding of the City contained no churchyards. Some years later he wrote to the commissioners responsible for building fifty new churches:

I would wish that all burials in churches might be disallowed, which is not only unwholesome, but the pavements can never be kept even, nor pews upright: If the Churchyard be close upon the Church, this also is inconvenient, because the Ground being continually raised by the Graves, occasions in Time, a Descent by Steps into the Church, which renders it damp ... It will be enquired, where then shall be Burials? I answer, in Cemeteries seated in the Outskirts of the Town ... they will bound the excessive growth of the City with a graceful Border, which is now encircled with Scavengers Dung-stalls. The Cemeteries should be half a Mile, or more, distant from the Church, the Charge need be little or no more than usual; the Service may be first performed in the Church.

Sir John Vanbrugh agreed with Wren, and suggested that suburban walled cemeteries should be opened. When submitting his designs for fifty new churches in 1710, he described burial in churches as 'A Custome in which there is something so very barbarous in itself besides the many ill consequences that attend it; that one cannot enough wonder how it ever has prevail'd amongst the civiliz'd part of mankind ...'

Although in 1711 the second New Churches in London and Westminster Act had stated that 'No Burial shall, at any Time hereafter, be in or under any of the Churches by this Act intended to be erected', this applied only to the fifty new churches that were to be built, so other churches continued to use their crypts to earn money. Moreover, only three vestries obeyed the commissioners (those of St George Hanover Square, St George Bloomsbury and St John Smith Square). It soon became obvious that the ban on intramural burial was unenforceable, because the dues derived from interments were an important source of income for incumbents and their vestries.

Crypts could, however, have been put to other uses. After 1666 they might have been used for charity schools or perhaps rented to local merchants for storage. This would have been nothing new, because the crypt of the pre-fire St Mary-le-Bow had been leased for cellar storage, as had part of the crypt of All Hallows the Less. In 1612 the authorities of All Hallows, Honey Lane had re-possessed their vaults from a neighbour, and beneath St Mary Colechurch were shops and part of the Mitre Tavern. In these cases coffins had to be placed between the floor of the church and the roof of the vaults.

During the eighteenth century the vaults of St John Smith Square, Westminster, were let to various tenants, but despite the temptation of increasing their income, the churchwardens refused their incumbent's request to allow interments there. Early in the nineteenth century the vestry of St George Hanover Square also leased their vaults, which had never been used for interments, to a local wine merchant to lay down wine, but this was terminated after a while because the bishop objected.

Until the 1830s most people in England were buried in their local church or churchyard – 'God's acre'. Each knew their place in death as in life, with the wealthy coffined in the vaults below the building and everyone else buried in the churchyard – the poor, the unbaptised and social outcasts usually in the northern part, and the better-off in the sunny southern portion. Small city graveyards might not be able to make such distinctions, but their crypts were reserved for those who could pay substantial fees. Outside 'The mingled relics of the parish poor' were jumbled namelessly together, possibly in pits, and pauper burial was feared by all. No member of the Established Church was refused burial; it was their right to be interred in their parish church or churchyard, although the unbaptised or those who had taken their own life had no such right. There is no record of a City church turning away plague victims in 1665, although pits rather than individual graves were used, the largest of which was in Aldgate, where 1,114 corpses were interred.

In the early nineteenth century growing concern about the capital's poor sanitary conditions and the need to improve burial provision coincided with the opening of new cemeteries beyond the City boundaries. Ten of the first thirteen successful cemetery companies in England were opened by nonconformists, who objected to the established Church's privileges in burial provision. A few privately owned burial grounds already existed in the metropolis, mainly used by dissenters, such as Bunhill Fields, a short distance north of the City.

The first joint-stock cemetery in London was established at Kensal Green. George Carden, a London barrister and philanthropist, had visited Paris in 1821 and been impressed by the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, which had opened in 1804. On his return he invited influential friends to consider whether the Parisian model might be copied. By 1830 he had assembled a provisional committee chaired by Andrew Spottiswoode, MP for Colchester, which resolved that 'The present condition of the places of interment within the Metropolis' was 'offensive to public decency and injurious to public health' and 'afforded no security against the frequent removal of the dead'. This was an important consideration, because the trade in cadavers was lucrative: the demands for dissection were increasing. The General Cemetery Company was established, and in May 1830 a petition for a new cemetery was presented to the House of Commons by Spottiswoode, who mumbled so badly that at first members thought that a new road was being proposed. Land was purchased at Kensal Green in December 1831, and after negotiations with Blomfield, Bishop of London, about clergy fees, he consecrated it on 24 January 1833. Over the next twelve years a further seven joint-stock cemeteries opened, forming 'a jet necklace around the throat of London'. They offered families a freehold tenancy for their deceased members that churches could not – unless interment was in a crypt.

The vestries responded in different ways to these challenges. Jealous of their rights but loath to authorise any expenditure, they needed to be encouraged by legislation to make changes. Fortunately another key player was now the local secular state: the minutes of the City Corporation, for example, show that on 23 September 1847 the City of London Court of Common Council 'carried by acclamation' a motion asking Parliament 'to prohibit interment of the dead in the churches and churchyards of the City and other large towns'. Notably absent from the discussion until then was the government, whose members considered that this was the concern of local vestries. Now they were forced to take action.

The government was influenced by two important reports – a Report from the Select Committee on Improvement of The Health of Towns together with the Minutes of Evidence. Effect of Interment of Bodies in Towns (1842), and Edwin Chadwick's Supplementary Report on the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns (1843). Chadwick was one of the men who most influenced Parliament and public opinion concerning sanitation and the undesirability of burials in urban areas. Formerly Jeremy Bentham's literary secretary and playing a decisive role in Poor Law, policing and factory legislation, by the late 1830s he developed from his experience what he called 'The sanitary idea'. At Bentham's house in Queen Square, Chadwick met doctors, political economists and lawyers, who informed and helped his work on public health. Not only do the two reports illuminate the contemporary culture of interments in London, but the minuted evidence given by clergy, undertakers and others is detailed and important, making it evident that legislation was necessary.

Vestry minutes show the frustrations felt by congregations at the delays in setting up alternative burial arrangements, but only two vestries decided to open their own cemeteries. In 1854 St George Hanover Square Burial Board purchased 12 acres in Hanwell, and in the same year the St Marylebone Board founded the St Marylebone Cemetery, with 47 acres in East End Road. Why did others refuse to make what would almost certainly be a good investment? The response of St Anne Soho's vestry was typical: 'it would be a very great expense to buy a piece of land and build two chapels as required by law and maintain it'. Instead several vestries decided to buy land at Brookwood.


Excerpted from Crypts of London by Malcolm Johnson. Copyright © 2013 Malcolm Johnson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Foreword by the Bishop of London,
List of Illustrations,
1 Introduction,
2 Worship and Service,
3 Museums and Research,
4 Westminster Abbey,
5 St Paul's Cathedral,
6 City of London – Central,
7 City of London – East,
8 City of London – North,
9 City of London – West and South,
10 Other City of London Crypts (Cleared),
11 Other City of London Crypts (Uncleared),
12 North Westminster,
13 Central Westminster,
14 South Westminster,
Maps and Tables,

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