St George's Gardens: Green Space For The Poor
The obelisk in St Georges Gardens dates from 1729. Photo courtesy of SPS1955 WikiMedia
Euterpe the Muse of Instrumental Music, Terracotta, 1898, in St George's Gardens. Originally one of nine statues decorating the facade of the Apollo Inn in Tottenham Court Road. Photo courtesy of Stu's Images WikiMedia
BY DIANNA SCARROTT
30 September 2023
The UK is said to be one of the most nature-depleted places in the world, where the poorer you are the less green stuff you see [Guardian, 23 Sept] and the ‘Fields in Trust’ charity’s website tells me that over 6 million people in Britain don’t have a park or green space within a ten-minute walk from home, with a substantial worsening predicted over the coming decade.
So we’re very lucky in Bloomsbury to have so many green spaces to enjoy. They may not be very big, but they’re very special. The Association of Bloomsbury Squares and Gardens lists sixteen. During the Covid lockdown, I’d walk through three or four of them every day and see hundreds of people doing the same. Camden Council’s Parks and Gardens team reported record use.
Each space has its own character and attractions, but one is especially distinctive, telling us a lot about Bloomsbury’s past as well as being green. It was once a graveyard, serving two churches – St George the Martyr in Queen Square and St George’s Bloomsbury in Bloomsbury Way. As London expanded, graveyards beside churches filled up and new graveyards were opened in what was then open country. High walls were built to keep out body snatchers, but it wasn’t a coincidence that there was an anatomy school next door. Burials in St George’s Gardens started in 1714, and continued until 1855 when there was no space left.
The graveyard was a ruin until 1884. Bloomsbury’s squares at that time were open only to their rich residents. So social reformers campaigned to have graveyards made into public parks, which would become ‘outdoor sitting rooms’ for the poor. Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust was one of the leaders of this green space movement. So that’s how St George’s Gardens came about.
They survived for a long time in well-kept state but became very run down in the 1990s, at which point Camden Council sought lottery funding to revive a group of the borough’s historic parks. In the case of St George’s Gardens they were actively encouraged by a newly-formed Friends group.
The restored Gardens reopened in 2001 and the Friends group is still going strong. A committee meets monthly, and each year puts on a programme of events - this year, a family summer party in June, a concert in August, a nature walk and lecture in September. October will see a presentation about one of the graveyard’s occupants, Mrs Julia Glover, an actress who died in 1850. In November, a historian and heritage expert, Dr Roger Bowdler, will lead a walk round the gravestones and in December there will be carol singing for charity.
There’s a lot going on. The quietness of the Gardens, well away from traffic noise, makes them a perfect venue for entertainment – weather permitting, of course!
So look out for announcements about Friends events in the notice boards at each entrance to the Gardens. And think about joining the Friends and getting onto their mailing list. It only costs £10 a year for a family membership or £5 as a concession. Drop off a subscription at the Marchmont Street Community Centre – address it to FoSGG and include your name, address and – most importantly – your email address.
And don’t miss Mrs Glover on Saturday October 21 in the Gardens at 3pm, as part of this year’s Bloomsbury Festival. It’s free!
HOW TO GET THERE
You can enter St George’s Gardens from Handel Street to the West, from Heathcote Street to the East or from Sidmouth Street to the North. The main entrance is in Handel Street, beside the Chapel of Rest. The nearest underground stations are Russell Square, King’s Cross-St Pancras or Euston.
Acquired in 1713 as a burial ground for St George's Bloomsbury and St George the Martyr, when it was still in open country. Opened in 1714, it was one of the first London burial grounds detached from a parish church. Made into a garden in the 1880s following a campaign, in which Octavia Hill was involved, to preserve it as an open space for the poorer inhabitants of the area. The gardens, as a whole, are Grade II* listed.
SOME NOTABLE NAMES OF GRAVEYARD OCCUPANTS
Eliza was a cook aged 22, hanged in 1815 for attempting to poison her employers with arsenic. On the scaffold, she said: “Before the just and almighty God, and by the faith of the holy sacrament I have taken, I am innocent of the offence with which I am charged.” There was huge public sympathy for her. Thousands were in her funeral procession – the biggest funeral these Gardens ever saw.
After the rebellion of 1745, a group of Jacobites was hanged, drawn and quartered on Kennington Common and then buried in the Gardens (apart from their commanding officer, Colonel Francis Townely, who was buried in St Pancras churchyard). In 2014 the 1745 Association put in place a memorial which is visited by Association members each year in April. The memorial is on the north side of the Gardens.
Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838)
Zachary was a statistician, one of the founders of University College London and of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, an antislavery activist, and governor of Sierra Leone, the British colony for freed slaves. He is buried in the Gardens but the exact location is not known.
Robert Nelson (1665-1714)
Robert was a rich religious pamphleteer, who chose to be buried in the new burial ground rather than at St George’s, Bloomsbury. His tomb, within railings and with a large urn on top, is on the south side of the Gardens. John Timbs, historian (1801-1875) commented: “People like to be buried in company, and in good company.”
William Nicholson (1753-1815) – a Georgian polymath at the heart of science, literature and commerce
William was buried in St George’s Gardens, Bloomsbury on 23 May 1815, just two days after his death at home in Charlotte Street. A veritable polymath, his interests were scientific, literary and commercial and his friends and acquaintances read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the late eighteenth century.