Postcards from London: Walking on the dead of Whitechapel.

With a passion for Family History, I spend a considerable amount of time in graveyards and cemeteries. Many friends with similar interests are often perplexed to hear of burial grounds where it is proposed to  ‘lawn over’ or reuse graves. This challenges deeply held beliefs in many cultures about burials, mainly to do with dignity and respect. Although we have a number of really old and now closed graveyards in Ireland (that double as quite unique wildlife and natural habitats), we sometimes have burial grounds uncovered during development. We also have ‘reconfigured’ gravesites such as those at Ireland’s best-known necropolis, Glasnevin in Dublin. They refer to some of these as ‘gone over graves’, where a plot, already occupied, comes up for sale.

The was a recent exhumation of over 60,000 remains in St James’s Park in Camden to make way for London’s new High-Speed Rail System – See here.  The recreational park under which they have rested for almost 150 years boasted a tennis court as part of the amenity. In all probability, we must be walking and playing on the graves of the millions of dead who inhabited the earth for aeons before us. Yet we don’t often come face to face with this reality. I did, on a recent trip to London.


It is always great to return to the east end area of London, where I worked once upon a time. The Whitechapel Road runs into Aldgate, one of the historic entrances to the City of London. This is Jack the Ripper territory and although most of the little lanes and the smog are long gone, one’s step does quicken when walking through this area after dark! On the night of my arrival, I made my way from the underground station to the apartment of my friend, taking a shortcut through a graveyard. It was a little disconcerting to see groups of young lads in behind a tomb, presumably trading or partaking of something illicit, so I sped along. I returned the following morning to see what had become of this graveyard as it had changed quite a bit from the place I remembered.


Altab Ali Park – spot the tomb!

Formerly known as St Mary’s Park, this is now Altab Ali Park with an interesting history. It occupies a very historic site on the Whitechapel Road, itself following the line of the ancient Roman road between London and Colchester.


Entrance to Altab Ali Park

The church that stood here has had many iterations.

The first was a chapel of ease, built between 1250 and 1286. Constructed using a white chalk rubble, the area becoming known as Whitechapel, a name that has been in use since 1344.

Wrecked by a storm, it was rebuilt in 1362, thanks in no small measure to a Papal Bull negotiated by the absentee rector  – Sir David Gower, then a Canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin – that promised remission of sins for pilgrims who parted with their money on visiting the church.

Known as St. Mary Matfelon, it stood until 1763 when it was demolished and replaced by a red brick church.


St. Mary Matfelon 19th century  (Image  London Illustrated News)

It was found to be structurally unsound in the later part of the 19th century and was reconstructed between 1875 and 1878.


St. Mary’s c. 1878 (Image Wikimedia Commons) Note the Drinking Fountain!

Unfortunately, it was then destroyed by fire just a few years later in 1880.

Whitechapel_St._Mary's_Church_after_the_fire_1880 (1)

After the fire (Image Wikimedia Commons)

It was rebuilt again in 1882 and stood here into the 20th century until Seriously damaged by bombing on December 29, 1940.  When the remains were struck by lightning in 1952 it was finally demolished shortly afterwards.


The bombed shell of St Mary’s (Image Wikimedia Commons)

The site was used as park thereafter. During an archaeological dig by the Museum of London in 2012, remains of the original buildings were found and the park was reviatlized . It now includes a raised walkway outlining the footprint of the earlier churches, with some sections of the original masonry on view.


The path follows an outline of  one of the original churches



Fragments of the original structures alongside the paved area marking the footprint of the church.

The area is now grassed over, but what of the burials that took place here down the ages?  Unlike St James Park mentioned above, there were no reinternments. The graveyard is the last resting place for some notable men, such as Richard Brandon, the alleged executioner of King Charles 1, who died in 1649, and Sir John Cass, the educational philanthropist who died in 1718. There was a rather gruesome discovery in the church belfry in 1863 when 11 coffins and skulls of many children were discovered during repair works. It was surmised that the coffins may have been dropped through the belfry roof by families unable to afford the cost of a grave, but wanting the remains to repose in a Christian site.  In the following year, there was a further gruesome discovery when a ‘pile of bones’ was discovered in one corner of the graveyard. Newspaper reports stated that there were at least 18 bodies and that they were ‘shockingly mutilated’. Nothing seems to have come of the investigations into this and the conclusion was that these remains had been stored in a bone house.

In common with other graveyards in London, St Mary’s became very overcrowded and by the mid 19th-century burials ceased. The Gentleman’s Magazine noted in December 1850 that “St Mary is setting an excellent example to the Metropolitan parishes whose churchyards will soon be closed under the Internments Act. It was planted with trees and shrubs as it was a known fact that trees absorb and convert noxious gasses given off by the process of decomposition of the body.

The graveyard has now been cleared of headstones which have been ‘tidied’ to the perimeter.

The tomb of the Maddock Family, timber merchants, who lived here in the early 19th century is a prominent feature of the park and serves as a ‘hangout’ for socializing youths.


The Maddock Chest Tomb

And so, St Mary’s has now become Altab Ali Park, a strange name for a landmark in London. It was renamed in memory of a 25-year-old Bengali textile worker who was murdered by three teenage racists on May 4, 1978, as he made his way home from work. At that time racial tensions were running high especially in London’s east end, which had attracted a lot of Pakistani immigrants. The thugs who murdered him, spurred on by the vicious racism of the National Front, said they did it because he ‘was a Paki’.  From the tragedy has come some good- the park is the first public space to be named for an immigrant and every year in May the Altab Ali Commemoration takes place in this historic place.


20570E81-39FB-4C71-8922-3E3CB0FD17E7.jpegIn one corner of the park is the Shahid Minar, representing a mother protecting her children with the red sun behind. The Shahid Minar is also referred to as Martyr’s Monument. It has deep cultural and historical significance for Bengalis as it commemorates five Bengali students shot dead on 21 February 1952 in a demonstration in support of the right to use the Bengali language within Pakistan.

Altab Ali Park has had an interesting history down the centuries. Scores of individuals pass through here each hour, most of them unaware of what lies beneath their feet.

Set into the exterior wall by the entrance is my most favourite feature of all. It is the drinking fountain which has witnessed many changes. Although relocated, I love that it is seen almost exactly as it is today, in the image of the church of St Mary’s c.1878 above.



The Pink Marble Drinking Fountain dates from 1860. A good resting place for a bicycle.

Sources/Further Reading

The history of this site is contained on information boards at the perimeter.

British Newspaper Archives







Filed under Ireland, My Travels

10 responses to “Postcards from London: Walking on the dead of Whitechapel.

  1. Fascinating how the city embraced the dead. I love visiting old cemeteries too but this was a different visit. Excellent post!

  2. Fantastic story Angela. I thoroughly enjoyed learning of the site’s changing history over time. As much as we want to see ancestral graveyards and cemeteries, I’m not averse to what they’ve done here, and especially moving the stones to the perimeter….I guess I’m a pragmatist. I’d also love to be able to connect that John Cass to Peter’s earliest known ancestor, but so far, no joy.

    • It’s a rare place for sure. I don’t think the majority of the people walking through it have any notion of what it was. There was a John Cass Foundation School on my walking route to work each morning, just by Aldgate. And some of the artwork in the Altab Ali Park was created by students of his Art Foundation which I think is nearby on the Whitechapel Road. Amazing to think that hundreds of years after his death his endowment is still helping people. A connection to such a family would be rather nice for Peter!

  3. Very nice post, well researched and presented SV. I love old cemeteries too, but I’d always like more detail or interpretation. And generally it’s amazing how much history – bodies, artefacts etc. rests beneath the ground we walk on. As others one day will walk over us :-O

    • Thank you and glad you liked it. We are not good at having details of old graveyards here at home. Have no plans to be walked on personally as I hope to be cast as dust in the wind over the sea! 😀

  4. Thanks for such an interesting post! Old cemeteries are fascinating to me. In Pennsylvania, some of my relatives are buried in a cemetery that went bankrupt. Amazing.

    • Thank you and glad you enjoyed the read. What happens to the departed if a cemetery goes bankrupt? They are wonderful places to visit and to have quiet time! Thank you so much for dropping by!

  5. I’m also intrigued by old cemeteries.. and hate to see them changed, but am also pragmatic and realise needs change, so long as they do save the headstones and honour those passed. My anger is directed at those places that want to resell the same sites and while saying they won’t destroy the gravestones, seem to have an inexplicable number of accidents resulting in ‘oops’ moments..
    A lovely story as always…
    I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
    Thank you, Chris

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