7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 12 months ago
7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Tower Hamlets Cemetery is unlike its Magnificent Seven brethren. Despite being set up by some of the wealthiest men of the Victorian era, it's not crawling with celebrity and extravagance like Highgate or Kensal Green. Tower Hamlets Cemetery instead functioned as a burial ground for London's working classes. It quickly filled and ceased as a functioning cemetery in 1966, but still remains a cemetery park. Here are some of its secrets:

Photo: psyxjaw

Partially removed

The first thing to note about the cemetery is that it was nearly entirely cleared in 1967 by the Greater London Council (GLC), which had bought and closed it a year earlier. The plan was to clear nearly all the graves to make way for a brand new park. Considering that the cemetery was the resting place for many local residents' not-at-all-distant relatives, the plans were not welcomed by all. The protests and GLC's difficulty funding the project eventually caused its cessation, but not before 0.7 acres had been cleared for the intended park.

Not just for locals

This cemetery was not just a resting place for the local working class. A high proportion of those laid to rest here were sailors who drowned at sea. They were buried in Tower Hamlets because the Docklands were so local. 29 people were buried here in 1871, when the wooden pleasure steamer Princess Alice collided with an iron collier called Bywell Castle. Like much of the cemetery, most of the victims lie in unmarked public graves.

Photo: Duncan George

Memorial made out of Blitz debris

One of the reasons Tower Hamlets Cemetery was in such a rough state in the middle of the 20th century was the Blitz. The Luftwaffe heavily targeted the nearby Docklands, and the cemetery suffered collateral damage. In 1952 a memorial was erected to those who died in the air raids, made out of bricks taken from bombed properties.

Photo: Gábor Hernádi

Three policemen in one grave

Frugality is in the nature of this cemetery, as most of its inhabitants didn't have enough money to pay for elaborate burials or even their own personal plot. A curious example can be found in one grave which holds three policemen. All the men worked at Leman Street Police Station in Limehouse. They did not, as you might expect, die together.

The men didn't even die within a close period of time of each other, nor did they all die in the line of service, so there is little explanation for the grave sharing. PC Richard Barber died when chasing a suspect across rooftops and falling through a skylight. PC William Pasher met his end when he drowned on holiday in Margate. PC Ernest Thompson was killed in 1900, when he was trying to break up a scuffle and was stabbed in the neck for his troubles.

Bloody Sunday martyr

The first ever Bloody Sunday occurred in 1887, in the form of a march against coercion and unemployment in Ireland. Things quickly turned violent between police and protesters and a young legal clerk named Alfred Linnell was run down by a police horse, dying of his injuries two weeks later. Linnell's funeral marked another rallying point for the Irish movement. A procession started in Soho with thousands attending, but many weren't up for the six mile trudge to Tower Hamlets, especially not in the rain. By the time they reached the cemetery, the final internment was only attended by comparatively few.

Thames Ironworks FC

Humble beginnings for local football club

One of the cemetery's most noticeable memorials is Joseph Westwood's. A 30ft high towering spire, it stands out among the masses of unmarked graves. Joseph Westwood ran Joseph Westwood and Co, a shipbuilding company. The company evolved into Thames Iron Works, and some of the employees put together a work football team. Thames Ironworks FC later evolved into West Ham United FC. The club still has the nicknames 'The Irons' and 'The Hammers' referencing its roots in the East End's shipbuilding docks.

No, not Snoopy

They dubbed Charlie Brown, 'the uncrowned king of Limehouse', and he was buried in the cemetery on his death in 1920. His death predates Charles M. Schulz's character's birth by about 13 years and the funeral was said to be the largest the East End had ever seen. He ran The Railway Tavern by West India Docks and was well known for the eclectic collection of antiques and oddities he'd acquired as payment for drink by sailors. Listen to a song about him below:

Last Updated 15 November 2016