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A Brief History Of London Crypts

by Malcolm Johnson

Celebrating the publication of his new book Crypts of London by History Press, Malcolm Johnson - formerly Rector of St Botolph’s, Aldgate, where he ran a homeless shelter in the crypt – offers this brief history of London crypts.

At St Clement, King Sq

After the Great Fire of 1666, it was decided not to replace thirty-two out of those churches destroyed in the Square Mile, yet St Paul’s Cathedral and fifty-one churches were rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and others, and almost all of these new buildings were given a crypt of the same extent as the ground floor. This was also true for churches in Westminster and those on the edges of the City such as in Spitalfields, Shoreditch and St Clement, King’s Sq.

What were these spaces intended for? Charity schools? Storage? Meeting rooms? There was no chance of any of these, because the clergy and their vestries soon realised that good money was to be made by charging wealthy parishioners to stack coffins containing their dead family members under the church.

In doing so, they went against the advice and opinions of both architects and others, who doubted the wisdom of burying the dead among the living. In 1552, Bishop Hugh Latimer thought it “an unwholesome thing to bury within the city,” considering that “it is the occasion of great sickness and disease.” Mainly for architectural reasons, Wren and Vanbrugh were also opposed to burial in or close to a church, although when Wren was interred beneath St Paul’s when he died.

In my research, I found that in the eighteenth century most parishes received around seven per cent of their income from interments, although at St James Garlickhythe the average was nearly twenty-seven per cent. All five Westminster parishes had a high burial income by the end of the eighteenth century – around thirty-five per cent of the wardens’ income at St Martin-in-the-Fields and twenty-five per cent at St James Piccadilly.

After the Reformation, burial within a church was seen as a mark of social distinction – the nobility regarding it as their right – but by the mid-seventeenth century the professional classes were also seeing it as a sign of a successful career. Over the next century, doctors, solicitors, high-ranking soldiers and ‘gentlefolk’ frequently left instructions in their wills for intra-mural burial, although some cautioned prudence and economy in arranging it, because fees could be high. Coffins of the clergy were placed in the vault below the altar and the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields allowed Nell Gwyn to be interred in his space there.

Why were families willing to pay large sums for a crypt burial when churchyard fees were much cheaper? Some hoped for an ‘eternal bedchamber’ because they knew that bodies in the churchyard would be dug up after thirty or so years and the bones placed in a charnel house when the space was needed for new burials. Others hoped the congregation worshipping above the crypt would continue to pray for them and many more were apprehensive that body-snatchers might plunder the churchyard. Yet, in crypts, bodies were sometimes tipped out of their coffins so that the lead could be sold together with the metal handles.

Rarely do published histories of our churches mention these undercrofts. Obviously it is possible to visit those churches that have survived and establish precise details of their crypts – where it is not possible to enter, burial registers can give details of size and layout. For the churches that have not survived, the best descriptions of their crypts are often found in the faculties which authorised their destruction, and in the Vestry minutes recording the process of emptying the remains and transferring them to a cemetery. Written accounts are rare, because few people visited these dark, dismal places apart from the sexton.

The lucrative burial income ended abruptly in 1852 when sanitation legislation forbade further interments in crypts and churchyards. Joint-stock cemeteries such as Kensal Green were opened to receive London’s dead and the clergy lost the links with parishioners although they were still financially recompensed, even if the vestries and sextons lost their burial dues. The removal of human remains from crypts began for a variety of reasons – such as demolition of the building, its sale to raise funds or road widening.  If the building remained and a new use for the crypt was found, then an appeal for funds was made, such as at St Bride Fleet St in the nineteen-fifties when its museum was equipped from gifts of nearby publishing firms. Other churches have attracted grants from the Lottery fund, statutory bodies, charitable foundations, businesses and individual donors.

The first crypt to be cleared of human remains for use other than storage was in 1915 when the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Dick Sheppard, set up a canteen to welcome men returning from the Front. Two learned reports of the Council for British Archaeology describe the clearance of coffins and remains from the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields in 1984/5. Nearly one thousand bodies were carefully examined and researched. Interment in a crypt obviously preserves a corpse and coffin longer than if it was buried in a churchyard but the state of preservation of those in coffins in Spitalfields’crypt varied from virtually complete, including skin, hair and internal organs to a just sediment of crystal debris being all that remained of the bones. When lead was used, as it was in this crypt after 1813, this preserved the cadaver longer, but if air or water was allowed to penetrate then decomposition was much quicker.

Where were coffins and remains from crypts taken? A minority went to the East London Cemetery, Plaistow, or to the Great Northern London (now New Southgate) Cemetery. Some relatives were allowed to transfer the coffin of a family member to a burial ground of their choice, but most went to Brookwood or the City of London Cemetery, Ilford.

Some two thousand two hundred acres of land owned by Lord Onslow on Woking Common at Brookwood were purchased by the newly-formed London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company. Despite opposition, Royal Assent was given to the London Necropolis Bill on 30th June 1852, but the first funeral was not held until 13th November 1854. Soon afterwards, several Westminster parishes, including St Anne Soho, St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Margaret Westminster, reserved plots there. Coffins and mourners were transported by special trains from a private terminus near Waterloo to the cemetery’s two stations, one for Anglicans and one for others. The Bishop of London was apprehensive that the coffin of ‘some profligate spendthrift’ might be in the same compartment as a respectable member of the Church. A notice in the station refreshment room at Brookwood reads ‘Spirits served here.’

The City of London Cemetery, used by nearly all the City parishes, opened in 1856 and is approximately eight miles north-east of the City. Since then, over forty City parishes have removed their crypt remains to Ilford, which is today one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the country.

Today, around half of London’s crypts have been emptied. Some, such as that of St Martin-in-the-Fields house a restaurant, bookshop and meeting rooms which contribute a very large sum to the Parish Church Council. Others are chapels and columbaria, yet others are museums while – sadly – two which were once homeless centres are now empty. Those with coffins still in place await a use – as at St Clement, King Sq, where David Hoffman took the photographs which accompany this article.

Coffin plates from Holy Trinity, Minories – now demolished

At St Clement, King Sq

The entrance to the family vault of Mr Thomas Gall of King Sq

Crypts of London by Malcolm Johnson is published by the History Press

Photographs copyright © David Hoffman

You may also like to take a look at

Malcolm Johnson at St Botolph’s

David Hoffman at St Botolph’s



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