SURROUNDED BY A tall and fern clad wall, the garden's three entrances can be a bit difficult to find. The grounds run west-east between Handel Street and Heathcote Street. Walk for a few minutes off to the northeast of Russell Square and you are there.
ONE OF THE FIRST GRAVEYARDS AWAY FROM A CHURCH
St George’s Gardens was one of the first London burial grounds to be established away from a church. Originally split in two parts, both surrounded and divided by a tall stone wall. The land was acquired in the year 1713 when Anne was queen of the Kingdom of Great Britain and beyond.
At the time it was just a plot surrounded by open fields. The northern section was to serve as a graveyard for the parish of the St George the Martyr church in Queen Square, Holborn – and the southern section for the parish of the St George's church in Bloomsbury (see links below). Both churches were designed by the famous architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661 - 1736).
TOO FAR FROM TOWN
To begin with, the parishionars were reluctant to bury their relatives so far from town. This, however, changed when the lay religious writer and nonjuror, Robert Nelson, was the first to be buried there in 1715. By 1725 there were around twenty burials a month.
The monuments and chest tombs still standing, and the smaller headstones lined along the garden wall, represent the many hundreds of men, women and children buried here over more than a century.
By the early 1800s the burial ground was in a very bad state and by 1855 the overcrowding was such that it finally closed.
For thirty years the grounds lay overgrown and peaceful, like a sleeping beauty. But as part of a pioneering movement aimed at making the many overgrown urban graveyards of London into 'open air sitting rooms' for the poor, St George's Gardens reopened as a public garden on 1 July 1884.
William Holmes who designed the renovated gardens united the two burial plots and gave it a typically Victorian air, with meandering paths and lawns.
The formal opening was conducted by the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, The Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lorne.
HUNG, DRAWN AND QUARTERED
After the battle at Culloden in 1746 - part of the Jacobite Risings - the graveyard received the mangled remains of several Jacobites who had been hanged, drawn and quartered according to the gruesome execution methods of the day.
Among the victims was James Dawson who was engaged to be married on the day of his execution. The terrible sentence had scarcely been carried out before his sweetheart fell back in the arms of a friend, exclaiming, "My dear, I follow thee. Lord Jesus, receive our souls together," and immediately expired.
The executed Jacobites known to be buried here are Thomas Siddal, James Dawson, Thomas F Deacon, John Borwick, Thomas David Morgan, Andrew Blydes, Thomas Chadwick and George Fletcher.
THE EVIL WORK OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
From the Newgate Calendar of 1777 we can read the following morbid tale from St George's past:
John Holmes and Peter Williams:
Publicly whipped, by the Sentence of the Middlesex Court of Quarter Sessions, for December, 1777, for stealing Dead Bodies
THE sum of all our long list of thieves, and their different deceptions and modes of plunder, surely were those detested monsters of depravity who broke into the sacred deposit of the dead and robbed the graves of the bodies of our departed fellow-creatures, for the sole purpose of selling them to surgeons for dissection.
The impious robbers were vulgarly called, in London, "Resurrection Men," but rather should have been called "Sacrilegious Robbers of our Holy Church," not even confining the unnatural crime to men alone. The gentler sex were connected in this horrid traffic, whose business it was to strip off the shroud, or whatever garments in which the body might have been wrapped, and sell them, while the men, through the darkness of night, dragged the naked bodies to be anatomised.
When Hunter, the famous anatomist, was in full practice, he had a surgical theatre behind his house, in Windmill Street, where he gave lectures to a very numerous class of pupils. To this place such numbers of dead bodies were brought during the winter season that the mob rose several times, and were upon the point of pulling down his house. He had a well dug in the back part of his premises, wherein was thrown the putrid flesh, and with it alkalines, in order to hasten the consumption thereof.
Numberless were the instances of dead bodies seized to be carried to the surgeons. Hackney-coachmen, for an extra fare, and porters with hampers, were often employed by these resurrection men for this purpose.
A monthly publication, in March, 1776, says: "The remains of more than twenty bodies were discovered in a shed in Tottenham Court Road, supposed to have been deposited there by traders to the surgeons; of whom there is one, it is said, in the borough, who makes an open profession of dealing in dead bodies, and is well known by the name of 'The Resurrectionist.' "
Still more shocking was it to be told that men who were paid for protecting the sacred deposit of the mortal remains of their fellow-parishioners were often confederates with those carcass stealers, as the present case will demonstrate.
Holmes, the principal villain in this case, was grave-digger of St George's, Bloomsbury; Williams was his assistant, and a woman, named Esther Donaldson, an accomplice. They were all indicted for stealing the dead body of Mrs Jane Sainsbury, who departed this life on the 9th of October, then last past, and the corpse was interred in the burying-ground of St George's on the Monday following. They were detected before they could secure their booty; and the widower determined, however unpleasant, to prosecute them. In order to their conviction he had to undergo the mental pain of viewing and identifying the remains of his wife!
The gravedigger and his deputy were convicted on the fullest evidence; and it was regretted that it did not reach the woman, though no doubt remained of her equal guilt. She therefore was released, but Holmes and Williams were sentenced to six months' imprisonment, and to be whipped twice on their bare backs, from the end of Kingsgate Street, Holborn, to Diot Street, St Giles's, being half-a-mile, and which was inflicted with the severity due to so detestable an offence, through crowds of exulting spectators."
Sources: Friends of St George's Gardens website, Photos copyright - Friends of St George's Gardens, Wikipedia.org, The Newgate Calendar 1777