Bunhill Fields Burial Ground

Detail from John Bunyan's tomb, Bunhill Fields

It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but the area that Bunhill Fields Burial Ground occupies was once located on a moor that stretched between the London Wall and the ‘village’ of Hoxton. How times change. Today the crowded graves abut modern apartments and offices, while traffic from City Road is a constant presence, despite the surprisingly tranquil atmosphere the site somehow still manages to maintain. Burial grounds have in fact been a fixture – in various forms – in this district since Saxon times.

Bunhill Fields’ name derives from ‘Bone Hill’, possibly in reference to a period during the mid-16th century when literally cartloads of bones were brought here to free up space in St Paul’s charnel house and vault. Another influx took place in 1665 when plague victims were interred here by the City of London – it was at this point that the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground was officially established. As the ground was never consecrated, it became popular with nonconformists and is the last resting place of many famous dissenters, including William Blake and John Bunyan. As such, many of the graves are more plain and simple in design than you generally see in many of London’s older cemeteries.

Wesley’s Chapel (which has its own small burial ground, much of which is hidden away at the rear of the complex) can be found to the East just across City Road, while the old Quaker Burial Ground is across Bunhill Row to the west, forming a significant zone for London’s nonconformists. Not much is left of the Quaker Burial Ground – now Quaker Gardens – which suffered massive bomb damage during the Second World War. The 1881 Quaker Meeting House is still in use though, and is now the only remaining structure from the Bunhill Memorial Buildings (it can be found on Quaker Court).

Bunhill Fields itself was also badly hit during the Blitz, which ultimately led to the new landscaping of the site in the 1960s by Peter Shepheard and an extensive restoration of the remaining memorials. This saw the graves in the southern area fenced off and a large, green open space created in the northern section. The cemetery itself had been closed to new interments back in 1854 – it was declared to be well and truly ‘full’ after receiving something in the order of 123,000 burials. The Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington was to become the next cemetery of choice for nonconformist citizens.

In 1867 an Act of Parliament preserved Bunhill Fields “as an open space” for the public’s use, which is still very much its function today. When the Londonphile first stumbled across Bunhill it was a sunny afternoon and the seats were filled with local workers on their lunch break. When I returned to take these photographs children from a local school were using the lawn as a playing field. You can learn more about Bunhill on £5 City Guides tours that are held on Wednesdays at 12.30pm between April and October. Bunhill Fields itself is currently open at the following times, and access to the fenced-off areas can be arranged via an attendant between 1 and 3pm Monday-Friday:

October to March: weekdays 7.30am – 4.00pm, weekends & bank holidays 9.30am – 4.00pm.
April to September: weekdays 7.30am – 7pm, weekends & bank holidays 9.30am -7pm.

City of London’s Bunhill Fields page

City Guides’ Bunhill Fields walking tour


The Old Operating Theatre Museum

I’m willing to wager that the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is the only museum in the world that you enter via a 32-step spiral staircase designed for bell-ringers, and which features a main attraction that was hidden for almost a century in the roof of a church. Two things are for certain: what you will be seeing here is Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre and one of London’s most unusual museums.

The operating theatre was built in the garret of St Thomas’ Church, itself constructed in 1703 by Thomas Cartwright, and was attached (both literally and figuratively) to St Thomas’ Hospital. The theatre was created in 1822 – before the advent of anaethetics and antiseptic surgery – and contained tiered viewing areas for students of surgery to watch and learn. It was closed in 1862 when the hospital moved to Lambeth and was promptly forgotten about until researcher Raymond Russell rediscovered it in 1956 via a mention in the hospital archives. It’s rather horrifying to learn that prior to its creation, operations were carried out on patients in the ward directly next to the garret  – yes, in their own beds (although this was in fact common in the era, and more wealthy people had their surgeries conducted at home).

This is essentially a museum of two main spaces: the operating theatre and the herb garret, where medicinal herbs were prepared. The herb garret is wonderfully atmospheric; the timber-framed attic is full of old bottles and jars and the delightful smell of herbs. From an olfactory point of view, this part of the museum reminds me of the magical Dennis Severs’ House somewhat. And in case you’re concerned that the museum may be a little too gruesome for you – I think you will cope. While there are indeed organs in jars and some scarily-named surgical implements on display (scarificators! amputation saws! decapitating hook! Smellie’s perforator &c), I have a fairly low tolerance for the more gruesome side of life and was just fine.

If you visit on a Saturday at 2pm you can see a demonstration of speed surgery (maybe not for the fainthearted this), while on Sundays at the same time a talk on the museum’s history and medical heritage is held. The museum is conveniently located just around the corner from London Bridge Station, and is open every day from 10.30am-5pm; adults are £6, concessions £5. And for the record, no the patients were not dragged up the spiral staircase, but simply brought through from the ward which abutted the operating theatre.


The unknown plaque

This little post is a homage of sorts to London Remembers and Open Plaques – who document all of the plaques and memorials in the capital (and across the country in the case of Open Plaques). I’m sure there is an some old adage about it being best to be honest when you don’t know something – which is exactly what this plaque does. I stumbled across it in my own neighbourhood of Surrey Quays – and it has the grace to admit that it does not know what function the small, brick building (dated 1902) to which it is attached had.

However, as the plaque itself notes, the area was formerly part of the large Surrey Docks complex that once covered much of Rotherhithe in an interconnected maze of docks, so it probably had some related function. Given that it also advises that in the year of its construction the nearby Greenland Dock was doubled in length, it was presumably connected to that dock in particular. Described as a ‘yard office’, possibly it was just for storage, or a checkpoint at the junction of the two streets (although of course many of the streets are new). In the same area (but close to the Thames) another building of a similar size has been identified as a gauge house, where the gauge for measuring the Thames’ tide was housed. Feel free to hazard a guess as to this mysterious structure…

If you’d like to visit the plaque in person, you can find it on the corner of Rope Street and Sweden Gate, near the Surrey Docks Watersports Centre (the postcode for which is SE16 7SX).



Wilton’s Music Hall

No one does faded grandeur quite like Wilton’s – not just England’s, but the world’s oldest surviving music hall. Its peeling columns, ‘barley sugar’ cast iron pillars and old Indian frieze create an unforgettable atmosphere. Like all special places it’s best seen for yourself. But although the effect is somehow glorious, this isn’t just shabby chic decor – much of the decay is real. Wilton’s has been seeking support and funding for years for much-needed renovations, and has finally just had some success on this front – so this is a story with a happy ending.

The story starts in 1858, when John Wilton had the hall constructed along the back gardens of the terraced houses that form the front area of Wilton’s. A tavern was previously found on the site – and said to be very popular with sailors from around the globe. It was often referred to as the Mahogany Bar due to its fixtures. The bar was retained as the main entrance to the original music hall, and today the name is used for the gloriously cosy drinking establishment you can still patronise at Wilton’s.

Wilton’s great initial success as a music hall was not deterred by a major fire in 1877, and it was rebuilt the following year. Music hall luminaries such as Arthur Lloyd and Champagne Charlie trod the boards here, while its patrons could chose between the ladies of the night waiting at the top of the stairs and the more respectable seats downstairs, suitable for wives and girlfriends. Supper tables were also available, as was a promenade area for standing patrons. Entertainment was of the variety show type, including dancers, magicians, burlesque, comic and a wide range of musical talent.

But the popularity of the music hall genre eventually waned and new fire regulations in 1880s were the final death knell for the hall. Ironically, it was the Methodists who ended up saving Wilton’s. They turned the music hall into a mission hall – and because its almost chapel-like interior suited them perfectly, they simply left it like it was and preached amongst it…and the rest is history. The building also provided shelter for locals during the Blitz and was a rag sorting depot for a time. Today it numbers among its patrons the rather unusual combination of Prince Charles and David Suchet (a.k.a. Poirot).

A wide yet discerning range of entertainment is now on offer, including music, theatre, cinema and comedy. And where else but Wilton’s would you attend a magic show – as the Londonphile did in December – only to discover that Marc Almond was popping by to sing several Christmas songs? It is also a popular venue for filming, and recently played host to the latest instalment in the Sherlock Holmes franchise – although keen eyes will notice that the filmmakers ‘added’ an extra floor to the hall. But Wilton’s is worth a visit in its own right. And you can always just pop by the Mahogany Bar for a drink (it’s open most weeknights – check the website) – the ornate bar itself is a left-over donated after the Sherlock filming. And on Monday nights at 6pm you can learn more about Wilton’s history and architecture on a guided tour for just £6, which I highly recommend.

And so to that happy ending. After years of courting funding and support, Wilton’s recently received £700,000 from the SITA Trust for restorations. This funding means phase 1 of the Capital Project for crucial work on the auditorium can be completed and, importantly, stands Wilton’s in better stead when applying for further money for phases 2 and 3. Another £2.2 million is still required, so pop by, have a drink for charity and check out the glorious surrounds of this magical music hall. After all, Poirot can’t be wrong!


The first red telephone boxes

K2 wooden prototype

Next time you drop past the Royal Academy for an exhibition (or perhaps while you are waiting in vain for Hockney tickets) spare more than a cursory glance at the two red telephone boxes in the entranceway, for these are the original red telephone boxes. The wooden box on the western side (shown above and right) is actually Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1924 winning entry in a competition held by the General Post Office to design a new phone box. The one on the eastern side (seen below) is one of the first cast iron boxes to be created from this design. This style became known as K2 – Kiosk No. 2 (K1 was concrete and originally painted cream, although they have often been re-painted red since).

K2 cast iron first run original

Apparently Scott – an architect perhaps best known as the designer of the equally iconic Battersea Power Station – originally envisioned that his design would be silver and made from steel, but the bright red colour was thought to be most visible, particularly in emergencies. And the rest is history…Scott was also asked to design a cheaper version for the rest of the country, which became the K3. Like many of the old red telephone kiosks, the ones outside the Royal Academy are now listed buildings – and both are still fully operational today. So yes, you can still drop by and put in a call from the first red telephone box…

Vintage postcards: Crystal Palace

So to the second instalment of the Londonphile’s vintage postcard series. This dramatic postcard depicts the events of the night of 30th November 1936 when the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire. Designed by Joseph Paxton, and made from plate glass and cast iron, this massive greenhouse-esque structure was the former home of the the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park.

At the completion of the Exhibition there was a quite heated debate about what to do with the Palace. Eventually it was decided that it would be relocated and rebuilt on a much larger scale, and to a significantly different design, in Sydenham Hill – a plan that ultimately cost £1,300,000 (that’s £96.5 million in today’s terms). This new version opened in 1854 and was host to numerous concerts, fireworks displays, cat shows and the like.

Sadly, despite the efforts of 89 fire engines and 381 firefighters the Palace was lost to the nation in a matter of hours on that fateful night in 1936. Thousands of people, including Winston Churchill, flocked to Sydenham to watch the massive conflagration, while others gathered on higher ground, such as Hampstead Heath, for a view. The glow from the flames was said to be visible from as far away as Brighton and across eight counties.

The two giant water towers – designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to cater for the massive amount of water that the Palace required for its extensive water features – were the only buildings left standing (you can see one at the back of the picture). Brunel had been called in for a re-design after the original towers collapsed under the weight of the water. However, even these were later demolished during the Second World War as it was thought that German aircraft might use them as landmarks. The final sting in the tail was that the entire structure was horrifically under-insured for the sum of just £110,000.

This post serves as a preview of sorts, as I will visit the old Crystal Palace site later in the year and write a more lengthy piece on this fascinating building, its story and what remains today.

The Freud Museum

Ever wondered exactly what Sigmund Freud’s famous psychoanalytic couch really looked like? Well you can see the real thing at the Freud Museum in Hampstead. This red-brick Queen Anne style building was home to Freud and family after they fled Austria in 1938. Fortunately, all of their furniture and some of Freud’s books made it over as well, so that they could re-create their home – and Freud’s study – here in London.

Freud’s extensive collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental antiques – almost 2,000 items are rather artfully displayed in his study – is also worth seeing. Freud’s daughter Anna, herself a renowned child psychoanalyst, inherited the house on her father’s death and it was her wish that it would eventually become a museum in his honour. The room dedicated to her life and work contains a cute anecdote about local children being shown the statue of Freud located on the corner of nearby Fitzjohn’s Avenue, and expressing concerns that he must find it cold being outside all the time…

And just for the record, the famous couch is covered in a colourful Iranian rug and chenille cushions – Freud would sit out of sight of his patients in the green tub chair placed behind the headrest. It was a gift from an appreciative patient and also made its way over with the rest of the household effects from Austria. Although it’s said to be comfortable it is not long, so patients would not actually fully recline on it.

The lovely garden dates from Freud’s time, and includes some of his favourite blooms. Freud is said to have taken great delight in watching the changing scenes in the garden, having only had a courtyard apartment in Vienna. His architect son, Ernst Freud, re-designed the study area so that it commanded a view of the garden through the French windows – and it is here that Freud spent his last days. He died on 23rd September 1939.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the museum is slightly outside of central London – it’s only in zone two and easily accessible from both Finchley Road and Swiss Cottage tube stations. They also hold a series of art exhibitions, conferences and other events, so check their website to see what else is on that you may like to attend. Don’t miss the video room showing archival footage of the Freud family. The Freud Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday 12.00-17.00, admission is £6 or £3 for concessions.


Thames archaeology walks

Not content with being a river that has inspired artists and writers and other creative types across the ages, the Thames is also an amazing archaeological site – when the tide rolls back and allows its treasures to be revealed. In fact, at low tide it becomes London’s longest open-air archaeological site. As I am also a huge Thames-phile, doing a Thames archaeology walk has been on my to-do list for some time now, so last weekend I took the opportunity to go on the Thames Discovery Programme’s Rotherhithe Winter Walk.

Elliott Wragg led us on this ramble from Rotherhithe to Bermondsey – an area that was long associated with ships and ship building. And sure enough, we were immediately able to locate a number of nautical remnants, such as anchors, rudders, and ship timbers that have been re-used to form a slipway. Sadly, due to rapidly increasing erosion more and more of these items are being revealed – good for archaeology, not such a good portent for the environment.

Elliott also taught us how to ‘read’ the various areas along the river bed. When you look closely you realise that certain areas have a preponderance of say, glass, where there would have once been a glass foundry (or maybe just a pub!), or pieces of old leather and shoes where a shoe factory was based. You can also find a large number of bricks along the foreshore in this area that are actually the remains of bomb damage from the Second World War, when the dock areas were heavily hit.

Thames Discovery also have a Putney Winter Walk coming up on Saturday 11th February, which will explore the Putney foreshore (free but donations welcome). If a spot of mudlarking (i.e. hunting for treasures along the river bed) takes your fancy, you may prefer the Thames Explorer Trust’s Millennium Bridge Walks (suitable for families and £8 for adults, £5 children), where the hunt is on for pipes and pottery (dates are currently scheduled for March and April). Alternatively, London Walks run Thames Beachcombing sessions (also guided by an archaeologist), on weekends when the tide permits (dates are currently scheduled up until the end of April, places are £8).

The Thames foreshore was almost deserted apart from our group on this fine (but admittedly rather crisp!) winter morning. In the nineteenth century the Thames was London’s premiere playground, with people piling onto boats for cruises and parties. I think it’s time we re-claimed the Thames, so come summer let the river become your own walking trail, beach  – and archaeological site. In the meantime, there are always these walks to consider:

Putney Winter Walk:

Millennium Bridge Walks:

London Walks Thames Beachcombing: