Continuing (rather belatedly – I’ve been busy with retail) the exploration of a small area of the East End of London by foot and buggy – we lose our way, but are guided onward by the pinnacles of an extraordinary church, and discover more about the philanthropic efforts of Victorian Londoners.
On our way back from St Paul’s, Shadwell, I was arrested by a name embedded in the side of a block of flats:
This could not, I thought, be a coincidence. I whipped out my camera, and was so busy wondering about the connection between Shadwell and the great Swedish botanist, explorer, museum administrator and cataloguer that I missed the turn up King David Lane which would have taken us back home again.
Since the Object of Worship was apparently content to be wheeled along a bit further, I continued on down the Highway until another right turn, which brought us out past the swimming baths and into St George’s Gardens, which surround Hawksmoor’s extraordinary church of St George’s in the East.
The most striking object there is the memorial to the Raine family, left in place inside iron railings (did they survive the drive for scrap metal during the Second World War, or are they replacements?)
when almost all the other gravestones were removed to the edges of the churchyard – the dead, rather than the poor, to the wall. This bad picture (the light being in the wrong direction), just about gives an idea.
There are many informative notices around the ex-churchyard which explain how the former burial ground was transformed into a public garden and ‘green lung’ for the area. And moreover – yet again confirming my theory that everything is connected to everything else – I happened across some specific detail about the churchyard garden movement during my stint in the botany archives the very next day.
As well as the list of public gardens in London, including those created from former churchyards, William Robinson’s The Garden (an 1885 issue) also suggests the various ‘plants that will live in London’ – extremely useful guidance for gardeners and philanthropists trying to make things grow in the capital’s polluted air, though the cautionary ‘of sorts’ after many species suggests that a bit of trial and error might be necessary.
The Lord Brabazon in question later became the twelfth earl of Meath, and there is a very lively account of him in the ODNB, along with an image of the splendid portrait by Orpen now in the National Portrait Gallery. Born in 1841, he was originally destined for the diplomatic service, but upon his marriage to the daughter of the duke of Lauderdale, his in-laws apparently objected strongly to his being posted to the impossibly distant and unhealthy capital of Greece, and so he stepped back from a promising career, and devoted himself to promoting the interests of British (and especially London) working people instead.
In his autobiography, Brabazon says: ‘… my wife and I had to decide how we would spend the future years which might be left to us, and we determined that we would devote ourselves … to the consideration of social problems and the relief of human suffering’. It was, according to this account, Lady Brabazon who took the initiative with regard to public open spaces: ‘Hoxton Churchyard was laid out in 1881 at my wife’s expense as a garden, and opened to the public.’ Soon afterwards, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association was founded by Brabazon, who became its chairman, with the impressive result to be seen in Robinson’s report.
In 1883, Lady Brabazon noted in her diary that she had been reading The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, and it determined her to devote £2,000 a year (reduced when her income fell during the First World War to £1,000) to mission work in London. She also supported the work of the Kyrle Society, founded in 1875 by Miranda Hill (the less famous but equally philanthropic sister of Octavia) to bring art and music within the reach of the poor; and was involved in buying, improving and leasing out (at affordable rent) homes for the London poor – which suggests that she knew and imitated Octavia Hill’s pioneering initiatives in housing.
St George’s garden was opened to the public in 1875. In 1904, the old mortuary was converted into a nature study museum (an offshoot of the Whitechapel Museum), but, sadly, after being closed ‘for the duration’ during the Second World War, it was never reopened and is now a crumbling ruin, with a ‘bug hotel’ hopefully attached to the wall. Plans are afoot for a restoration …
The garden also contains the parish war memorial,
and one of the city’s famous old mulberry trees. I could have spent much longer trying to decipher the inscriptions on the gravestones against the wall, but my lovely companion wanted lunch, so we headed home again.
But when I had a moment to look it up, I discovered (thanks again to the invaluable Gentle Author) that Solander Gardens was so called because it was built in the area (formerly Prince’s Square, later Swedenborg Square) where the Swedish Lutheran church at which Solander had worshipped stood, until its congregation moved ‘up West’ in 1911. Solander and Swedenborg were both buried in the churchyard: the former was moved to the Swedish section of Brookwood cemetery in Woking in 1913, and the latter to the cathedral of Uppsala in Sweden, where he rests near Linnaeus. The church itself was abandoned to dereliction,
and demolished, along with the beautiful square in which it stood, in the late 1960s, as a ‘slum clearance’ initiative. I suppose the name of an uninspired-looking block of flats is better than no memorial at all of a whole historic district swept away in the name of progress.
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