Tag Archives: London

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

In Rememberance

In 2014, on the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War 1 I went to see the fantastic poppy installation at the Tower of London. The imagery was very powerful and has remained with me ever since. It took a considerable length of time to see all 888,246 of these poppies, each one representing a life lost. The sheer scale of it, the blood-redness of it made a huge impression on me and anyone who saw it.

One of the poppies from that installation has been framed and hangs in my home. 

In memory of those who never came home from that awful conflict, especially those from my own parish of Mevagh in County Donegal and the countless others who suffered horrendous injuries from which they never recovered.


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The original post can be seen here Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red



Filed under Ireland, Irish at War, Irish History

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

I have just returned from a short trip to London, England,where we  lived for almost two decades before returning to Ireland. London is a city that I love and I look forward to each return visit. This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War which has been commemorated in the most astonishing way at the historic Tower of London.


The ‘Weeping Window’ the source of the wave of poppies that will fill the moat

Some decades ago, when I worked  in the banking area in the City of London, summer lunchtime would be spent sitting on the grass looking down at the Tower and enjoying the sunshine. We happily munched on our ham and mustard  or cheese and pickle sandwiches while enjoying the historic view and discussing the gruesome executions that took place just yards from where we dined! The Tower itself dates back to the 11th century, and is one of London’s most visited tourist attractions, housing the Crown Jewels, and protected by the colourful Beefeater Guards and those fearsome Ravens!

My visit this week was very poignant as I revisited the area I know so well, for the entire scene has been transformed to mark the centenary of the First World War. Ceramic Artist Paul Cummins has created  888,246 poppies and stage designer Tom Piper planned the layout of this art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Beautifully conceived with a flow of poppies coming from a ‘weeping window’ on the tower, and it has been slowly spreading in a wave, a river of  poppies. Planting of the poppies(on wire stems) by volunteers began in July and has continued each day since then. At 11 am on 11 November the last poppy will be planted.
888,246 is the number of British army  fatalities in World War 1. Tens of thousands of Irish men volunteered (we did not have conscription in Ireland) to serve in this army, for we were then part of Britain and tens of thousands of Irish men died.  Up to 40,000 (the exact number is not definitively known) of these poppies represent Irish men – my countrymen – fathers, brothers, sons, cousins, uncles, nephews, who never came home from that war. They were from every County in Ireland from Donegal to Cork, from Dublin to Galway, from Sligo to Waterford to Kerry. Fathers, brothers, sons, cousins, uncles, nephews who died horrible deaths in muck filled trenches – often blown to bits, blasted to smithereens, dismembered, disembowelled, decapitated; many lay screaming in their last agony, many lay crying for their mothers or their wives in excruciating pain as the life drained from them; many gasped for air as their mustard gassed lungs turned into acid that burned them alive on the inside; many lay in mud filled trenches,with limbs missing and slowly bled to death, perhaps buried under dead comrades; many were vaporized and no trace of them was ever found.
For each of these, and those from whatever country that populated the British Military forces Scotland, England,Wales,Ireland, India,New Zealand, Australia, Canada and more,- whether obliterated  or who died a slow tortuous death – a poppy has been planted in the great moat of this iconic palace.
4 million people will visit to see them and yesterday I was one of them.  An astonishing number of people wept as they realized that each one represents a human being. The silence from such a vast crowd was very surprising.
These are the snaps of my visit in both daylight and after dark. I add my silence to theirs.


Filed under Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish at War, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History

Postcards from London, England – Remembrance Week

On a visit to London this week, I took the opportunity to pop along to Westminster to take a look at the Cenotaph which is a focus of Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Britain. The London Cenotaph is in Whitehall,a wide street that houses many headquarters of government departments, and links the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) and Trafalgar Square. The Cenotaph was erected in memory of the fallen of World War 1, but has since been engraved with the dates of  both WW1 and WW2. It is however used to commemorate the fallen in all wars and it is here that they are remembered on the 2nd Sunday of November each year. Millions watch the poignant ceremony on television as Big Ben tolls the 11th hour, beginning the minute’s silence which is followed by the  sounding of the Last Post.

The wreaths make a colourful display that is retained for a number of weeks.

Just a short distance down the road at Westminster Abbey there  is the Field of Remembrance memorial garden, organized by the British Legion. First begun in 1928, the lawn is marked out in  250 – 300 plots, where poppy crosses are planted in memory of regiments and  armed services associations. The Field of Remembrance is located in front of Westminster Abbey and alongside St Margaret’s Church which is right beside the Abbey.

A list of the plots is provided

A list of the plots is provided

I think that it is hardly possible to look at the vast numbers of crosses planted here in each plot and not deplore the waste of  – mostly young – human life. In particular it is hard to look at the plots of regiments involved in recent and ongoing conflicts where there are often photographs of laughing, smiling  handsome young men,whose only presence on earth is now denoted by a small wooden cross. Regardless of feelings about the rights and wrongs of particular conflicts, I am left with a sense of appalling waste of life and deprivation of families and communities that each cross represents.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget. – Siegfried Sasoon ( 1919) 


Filed under Irish at War