Hampstead Parish Churchyard tells stories of those who matter

A restoration project on the churchyard reveals an interesting history

Tombstones mark a life lived; they show birth and death dates, professions, loved ones. In old graveyards the tombstone may provide the only record of a person’s life. The various slabs, chest tombs and plaques are stone. But they are still fragile. Wind, rain, pollution – even bird droppings – all take their toll. Lose them, and you may lose a life.

Camden Council and Hampstead Parish Church are working to restore and conserve the churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead. The Heritage Lottery Fund granted �324,500 in July 2009 for the project, called Life and Death in Hampstead.

The churchyard is at the end of Church Row, a handsome Georgian street, off Heath Street. It’s divided into two main areas: the old churchyard, which was closed to new burials in 1878; and on the other side of Church Row, the churchyard extension, opened in 1812.

Several grand yew trees spread a protective shade over the old churchyard. The trees and their fallen needles, the sloping ground and the brick boundary wall create a still, secluded space in the middle of Hampstead. The tombstones and chests are scattered at random around the yard. At least one slab lies flat across a path.

With its graves set out on a grid pattern on a long incline, the extension is much more open and orderly than the old churchyard. There are fewer aged trees. In the north east corner is a columbarium – a covered porch with a wall of memorial plaques.

For centuries, people have been buried here. In 986 King Ethelred gave Hampstead to the Benedictine monks of Westminster. The first evidence of a church on the site dates from 1312 and burial registers began in 1560. Many of the tombstones are from the Georgian era, roughly 1714–1830. The oldest surviving grave is John Rixton’s of 1658, in the church floor.

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You get a concise sketch of a person’s life by reading tombstones and memorial plaques. Some tell how the departed came to be that way. A Richard Mallard died in 1804 when he “met his Fate by bathing in the Middle Pond on Hampstead Heath”. One plaque has the person’s name, birth and death year, and simply: “Beloved”. Another reads: “In cracking form”, while comedian George Carney and his wife Dorothy’s gravestone says curiously: “Buckling and Skung”.

At different points, people have made an inventory of the graves, including in 1796 and 1881. The most recent was completed in the mid-1980s, resulting in the book Buried in Hampstead. English Heritage has also listed 20 graves in the churchyard, including John Constable’s and John Harrison’s.

At the bottom of the old churchyard by the wall is the tomb of landscape painter Constable (1776–1837). For many years he lived in Hampstead and painted the area, including Hampstead Heath.

Very near the church is the tomb of Harrison (1693–1776), who invented the marine chronometer to measure longitude, enabling much safer navigation at sea.

Hampstead has a reputation as a literary community, which is reflected in its dead. Art editor of the Strand Magazine, William Boot who died in 1918, is buried in the churchyard. So is E.V. Knox (1881–1971), editor of Punch.

Eliza Acton (1799–1859) died in Keats Grove and is buried in the churchyard extension. She wrote Modern Cookery, one of the first cookbooks aimed at a household audience, and was the first to list ingredients in her recipes. Delia Smith said Acton is “the best writer of recipes in the English language”.

The grave of Scottish poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762–1851), who wrote Plays on the Passions, is in the old churchyard.

Sir Walter Besant (1836–1901) wrote socially progressive books that helped establish the People’s Palace in East London to provide education for its residents. His is one of the listed graves.

The most famous contemporary literary resident of the cemetery is comedian Peter Cook (1937–1995) whose ashes are interred here. He lived in Perrin’s Walk, the next street over from Church Row. Stephen Fry said of Cook: “He was funny in an almost supernatural way.”

But perhaps the most poignant of the graves are not those of the rich or famous, but rather those who lived humble lives. A few of those buried here include Andrew Burck (1790–1861), a baker; John Lyford (1752–1811), a pub landlord; and Susanna Mumford (1733–1800), a nurse.

It is for these people – not just for the well-known, who will be remembered in other ways – that we must preserve the stones and plaques and every one of the numbers and letters inscribed upon them. Their stories may have no other telling.