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Tower Hamlets Cemetery was one of the seven commercial cemeteries established by Act of Parliament between 1837 and 1841; in 1850 the Act through which the General Board of Health provided cemeteries was repealed in favour of local burial boards. The ground that was acquired by the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Company for its new cemetery was formerly open fields. It was created to cater for the dead of the parishes of St Dunstan's Stepney (q.v.) and St Leonard Bromley-by-Bow, and was consecrated in September 1841 by the Bishop of London. John Claudius Loudon described the cemetery in 1843 as 'laid out and planted with ornamental trees and shrubs, and . . With a view to picturesque effect', in other words guided by principles he set out in his publication 'On the laying out, planting and managing of cemeteries' (1843). He advocated an approach combining the functional with the aesthetic: a grid pattern for ease of locating and maintaining graves, planting of evergreen trees planted as single specimens, so as to avoid problems of dropping leaves and obstructing the space for burials.
According to a report in the London Illustrated News of March 1849 Tower Hamlets Cemetery was 'judiciously and effectively laid out', 'enclosed by high walls and ornamental railings', its drainage 'effected by means of an artesian well, to a depth of 210 feet, and tributary drains running through the land in various directions.' Drawings of the original layout show serpentine paths, and the first edition OS map of 1865 shows its layout of tree-planting, with a lodge in the north-west corner and two mortuary chapels designed by Wyatt and Brandon, which were 'greatly admired for their purity of style and propriety of arrangement' (London Illustrated News). The cemetery was laid out in a grid of squares of equal size except where the boundaries of the cemetery rendered the square smaller, each square containing a number of private and or public burial plots. The roads and drainage were overhauled in 1884, but the cemetery appears to have been neglected soon after this and to have 'become overgrown, making a dense green enclave in the East End'. By 1889 over 247,000 burials had taken place, many in common graves. Mrs Basil Holmes described it in 1896 as 'a regular ocean of tombstones, many of which are lying about, apparently uncared for and unclaimed; in fact, most of the graves, except those at the edges of the walks, look utterly neglected, and parts of the ground are very untidy'.
Many of the memorials, the chapels and lodges were damaged by bombing in World War II, and the derelict buildings were eventually demolished in 1968/9. The cemetery had been purchased by the GLC in 1966 with the intention of creating a public 'open space' and accordingly the ground was closed to burials and parts of the cemetery freed from the effects of consecration. Limited clearing and conversion took place, although there was considerable local opposition to proposals for the removal of trees and tombstones, and local residents campaigned for action to remedy the decay of the fabric of the cemetery. In 1986, on the demise of the GLC, Tower Hamlets Council took over responsibility of the cemetery; in 1989 it came under Poplar Neighbourhood, which set up a Cemetery Working Party to protect and enhance the character of the cemetery. In 1990 it was designated a cemetery park .However, the neglect of the cemetery has encouraged great ecological diversity and over 100 species of birds have been recorded as well as Pipistrelle bats, rare butterflies and foxes.
The red-brick entrance lodge dates from c.1950-55 and on the site of the original lodge a 1-storey pre-fab building has been built that houses the Soanes Centre, the Cemetery Park Environmental Studies Centre, an educational project with a small wildlife area with ponds, which is run by Setpoint London East. This is also the meeting place for The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, which was formed in 1990 and now has responsibility for the daily maintenance of the cemetery, with conservation work undertaken by its volunteers. In 2014 a grant of £50,000 was awarded by the City Bridge Trust enabling the Friends to appoint a co-ordinator for its environmental education work and to promote the cemetery park as an educational and recreational resource.
Among those buried here are paupers, ordinary families as well as important local dignitaries. They include politician Will Crooks (1852-1921), Trade Unionist, MP for Poplar and Woolwich, and a member of the LCC, whose tomb has the words 'He lived and died a Servant of the People'. Near the Environmental Studies Centre is the War Memorial to victims of both world wars that was erected c.1950.
Candidate for listing: 21 June 1841 Act; volumes of plans c. 1840s at Greater London Record Office; Chris Brooks, Mortal remains; Mrs Basil Holmes, The London Burial Grounds, London 1896; J C Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening ed. By Jane Loudon, London 1878; Melanie Simo 'Loudon and the Landscape', London 1988; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons, 'London Cemeteries, An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer', 4th edition (The History Press, 2008); Bancroft Library, Clippings; Andrew Crowe, 'The Parks and Woodlands of London' (Fourth Estate, 1987)