As I walk’d through the wilderness of this world,
I lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn:
& I laid me down in that place to sleep:
And as I slept I dreamed a Dream(1)
Bunhill Fields’ green space is the last resting place for some 120,000 bodies. The area was used in the mid-sixteenth century to deposit bones from the overflowing charnel house of St. Paul’s; the bones were just dumped and covered with a layer of soil. So many were brought here that the elevation was enough to give windmills a good position above the otherwise flat fen landscape. In 1665, the year the plague raged through London, the City authorities decided to use the ground as a common burial ground for the victims of the disease, but it was most likely never used for that purpose. From the seventeenth century onwards it became the burial ground for dissenters and some well-known names can still be seen on some of the stones or tombs, such as William Blake (1757–1827), John Bunyan (1628-1688), Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles of Methodist fame (1669-1742), Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Daniel Defoe (1661-1731). So many nonconformists choose this as their place of burial, that Robert Southey named Bunhill Fields “the Campo Santo of the Dissenters”.(2)
The last burial took place in 1854, but it took more than ten years before the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground Act was passed (1867) which gave the City of London the right to maintain the site as an open space. Following damage done in WWII, the park was shaped in the 1960s with a lawn on the northern side and the memorials in regimental rows on the southern side, many of them just plain headstones with the texts no longer legible.
In 1867, as part of the effort to have the ground declared a designated open space, the Bunhill Fields Committee published a report to which was annexed a list of the still legible headstones, reprinted from a volume published in 1717 (see here for the e-book).
Most of the inscriptions run along familiar lines, ‘so and so was buried here on the [day] of [month] in the [year] in his/her [age] year’, but some go well beyond that. One of them runs into a whole biography:
Here lyeth the Body of FRANCIS SMITH,
Bookseller, who in his youth was settled in a separate
Congregation, where he sustained, between the Years
of 1659 & 1688, great Persecution by imprisonments,
Exile, and large Fines laid on Ministers and Meeting-
Houses, and for printing and promoting Petitions
for calling of a Parliament, with several things
against Popery, and after near 40 Imprisonments, he
was fined 500l. for printing and selling the Speech
of a Noble Peer, and Three times Corporal Punish-
ment. For the said Fine, he was 5 Years Prisoner in
the King’s-Bench: His hard Duress there, utterly
impaired his health. He dyed House-keeper in the
Custom-House, December the 22d, 1691.
This sound really grim, but then Francis Smith was a rather controversial figure. He became known as ‘Elephant’ Smith, because his bookshop had the shop sign “Elephant and Castle”, from 1659 to be found “without Temple-Bar”, from 1673 in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange and from 1688 in Pope’s Head Alley”. He was a committed Baptist who also acted as a Baptist Minister and published all sorts of dissenting and radical publications which led him into trouble on numerous occasions, if not into prison. He was one of John Bunyan’s principal publishers in the 1660s and 1670s, for instance for Sighs from Hell of which he brought out several editions.
Smith was often accused and taken into custody for publishing seditious material, either of a religious or a political nature, but he was also frequently acquitted by a sympathetic Whig jury. Nevertheless, as the epitaph states, he had to spend several shorter or longer periods in jail. In 1681, he was linked to the printing of Stephen College’s ballad A Ra-Ree Show which was one of the pieces of evidence against the author in a trial for ‘treasonable talk and actions’. College was found guilty and executed. Smith fled the country and his business was continued by his wife Eleanor and their children. In March 1684 he returned to England and was immediately arrested and fined £500. He was unable to raise the money and thrown into jail once more until January 1688, when he was pardoned by the King. After the Glorious Revolution, he petitioned King William and was given the job of watchman in the port of London which he kept until his death in 1691.(3)
(1) J. Bunyan, A Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678. First lines.
(2) Robert Southey, Common-place Book, vol. 3 (1850), p. 161, no. 405.
(3) Beth Lynch, ‘Smith, Francis (d. 1691)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39672, accessed 10 Nov 2012]
More information on location, opening times, etc. for Bunhill Fields can be found here.