The Jarvis Tombs: A Visit To Tower Hamlets Cemetery
The cemeteries of London contain a number of my Jarvis ancestors.
The church of St Anne's Limehouse is the burial place of two of my great great great grandfathers - William Jarvis (1878-1842) and Thomas Vaughan (1796-1852). It is also the burial place of Jessie Vaughan, daughter of Thomas Vaughan, who would have been my great aunt. She died aged 7.
At All Saints Church in Poplar, my great great great grandmother Elizabeth Jarvis (1790-1859) is buried. It is also where my great uncle Charles Benjamin Jarvis is buried - he was only three years old when he died.
But today, we're going to delve into the Jarvis link to Tower Hamlets Cemetery.
My great great grandfather Charles Robert Owen Jarvis had three sisters and one brother. And it just so happens that all three of those sisters - Martha Jarvis, Mary Ann Jarvis and Sarah Ann Jarvis are all buried within 100 feet of each other in Tower Hamlets Cemetery.
As the churchyards of London filled up with the dead in the mid 19th century, a decision was made to create seven large for-profit cemeteries that would ring the capital and provide for the burials of an ever-increasing population. The most famous of these cemeteries is Highbury Cemetery which is a fabulous place to visit and take a tour. However, one of the lesser known of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries is Tower Hamlets cemetery which sits a short walk from Mile End tube station in Stepney.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park opened in 1841 and closed for burials in 1966. By 1889, more than 247,000 people had been interred there, but it was not as well managed or looked after as the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries. By 1895 it was considered to be in a state of neglect, and if you walk around it today, you will find a veritable forest littered with tombstones. There were two categories of grave in Tower Hamlets Cemetery - public and private.
Public graves were owned by the cemetery company and were used to bury those whose family could not afford a plot of their own. Several persons, entirely unrelated to one another, could be buried in the same plot within the space of a few weeks, in fact some plots were 40 feet deep and contained 10 bodies. Private graves were an entirely different matter - you had full control over who could be buried in it.
The story of Charles Robert Owen Jarvis’s sisters is an interesting story in its own right, so before we look at their burial, let’s take a quick look at the story of his sisters,
Mary Ann Jarvis was his first sister, born in 1823. She married Benjamin Jermin, a carpenter, in 1842 and remained for much of her married life in Poplar and Limehouse before moving with her husband to Northfleet in Kent once he retired. Mary Ann Jermin clearly loved and yearned for children of her own but it was not to be - she never delivered a child. So she made up for the sadness of not having her own children by looking after the children of her sister and her brother in law. In the census of 1851, she is looking after her sister Martha’s seven year old daughter Mary Ann. In 1861, she is looking after a 17 year old girl named Mary whom she claims is her daughter but is most likely to be Martha's daughter again, or perhaps her brother-in-law's daughter. In 1861 she's also looking after her nephew William Meyrick and her niece Mary Babbage.
Charles’ second sister was Martha Jarvis, born in 1825, she married a boat builder named Thomas Babbage at the age of 17 in 1842 and had ten children. Charles and his new wife and young children actually lived with Martha during the early years of his marriage.
Charles’ third sister was Sarah Ann Jarvis, born in 1829. She became a shirt maker in Poplar before marrying William David Meyrick on Christmas Day of 1852. The witnesses at their wedding were Mary Ann Jermin and her husband Benjamin - the first evidence of the closeness of the relationship between the sisters. Sarah Ann Meyrick went on to have five children.
So let’s get back to Tower Hamlets Cemetery. On March 20th 1874, Benjamin Jermin purchased a private plot in square 47 of Tower Hamlets Cemetery for 4 pounds and 4 shillings, naming himself, his wife Mary Ann, his wife’s sister Sarah Ann Meyrick and her husband William as the people who would occupy it. As you can see, the Jermin’s and the Meyrick’s were very close in life, and would remain so in death.
Benjamin Jermin’s private plot wouldn’t be needed for 13 years, but of the three sisters and their husbands, it was Martha Babbage who was first to die on 22 November 1874. Martha is buried in an unmarked public grave in square 50 of Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Her funeral was attended by her sisters and her brother Charles, who had recently returned from his expedition in Africa.
Today plot square 50 is a totally overgrown forest, shaded from most direct sunlight by enormous trees. Apart from the paths that wend their way through it, it is impossible to walk around it without getting stung by nettles - the nest two pictures illustrate it. I have no idea of the exact location of Martha Babbage’s remains, but she is in an area that is far enough away from the road that you cannot imagine that you’re actually in the East End of London.
Thirteen years after Martha Babbage’s death, Benjamin Jermin, Mary Ann’s husband died at the age of 68 on 12 December 1887. They had been married for 45 years. At the time of his death, he was retired and living in Northfleet Kent, so his body was brought back to London for burial. He was buried in the plot that he had purchased - number 6608 in square 47 of Tower Hamlets Cemetery on December 17th 1887. I doubt that my great great grandfather Charles Robert Owen Jarvis was present for this funeral, as he was sick in bed in Middlesbrough - he would die himself of pericarditis the week after, on Christmas Day 1887.
Plot square 47 has a clearing in the centre of it where the sun breaks through the surrounding canopy. That clearing used to be the location of a consecrated chapel but it was removed in the early 20th century. Grave number 6608 is located on one of the exits from the clearing, to the left of a path that slowly climbs up a small hill. The graves in this area are all private and they all have headstones in various states of disrepair and neglect. We’ll take a more detailed look at the plot once we’ve dealt with the other three people who were destined to be buried in the grave.
Six months after Benjamin Jermin’s death, on June 1st 1888, Sarah Ann’s husband William David Meyrick passed away in West Ham. He was interred with Benjamin Jermin on June 5th 1888. Charles’s two sisters, Mary Ann and Sarah Ann, were now widowers, and Sarah Ann immediately moved to Northfleet to live with Mary Ann. They remained together for nearly 20 years after the deaths of their husbands until Mary Ann died on December 9th 1907. Mary Ann was then interred in the same plot as her husband and brother in law, on December 13th 1907.
Sarah Ann Meyrick, the last remaining sister, died 5 years later on February 5th 1912 at the age of 83. She was buried on February 10th 1912 - the final person to be placed in plot 6608 in Tower Hamlets Cemetery.
So what has come of plot 6608 today? I have to say I was very excited to visit the grave because I wanted to finally find a physical location in London where the name of a person who was significant to the Jarvis family would be inscribed in stone. This was our discovery:
We walked into Tower Hamlets Cemetery on May 17th 2017 to find a rather overgrown but very peaceful place. In advance of my visit I had been in contact with a very helpful lady named Diane Kendall who is a trustee and friend of the cemetery. She had provided me maps and a very detailed plot plan for square 47, where the grave of Benjamin Jermin, William David Meyrick, Mary Ann Jermin and Sarah Ann Jermin is located.
It had started to lightly rain as we slowly walked past the graves near the entrance, following the map till we came to the clearing where the consecrated chapel used to be located. The rest of the cemetery is shaded by a vast number of trees, so the clearing was like finding a little oasis in a vast desert. We proceeded slightly to the left as I oriented the map so that I could relate it to the situation on the ground. Square 47 was easy to find but it took me a few minutes to understand how the numbered plot plan fit with the graves I was seeing - for the record, the burial plot map is upside down compared to the grid square map . The whole area beyond the paths was rather overgrown with nettles and spiky blackberries, so it was a little hard for me to get my bearings. We did an immediate visual search for a headstone containing the names Jermin or Meyrick, but had no luck.
We paused and realised that we needed to get a little more detailed - to map the exact grave numbers on the map to a grave numbers on the ground. However, many of the graves in this area did not have any visual indicator of their plot number, so we searched back and forth looking for a clue.
Then we found a grave number which happened to to very close to the Jermin/Meyrick grave. Walking into the undergrowth, I counted the plots sequentially until we finally came to the final resting place of two of my great aunts and uncles.
The grave next to the Jermin/Meyrick grave had been destroyed by a large tree which had knocked the headstone down, creating quite a disturbance to the graves around it - and one of those graves was the Jermin/Meyrick grave. A path that was unmarked on the cemetery map crossed the area precisely where the Jermin/Meyrick grave should have been. I don’t know when this path had been created - it was clearly not part of the graveyard plan, and was so much narrower than the real graveyard paths that it had clearly been made by visitors inadvertently creating a short cut. My guess would be that for much of the time since my forebears were buried, people have walked over their grave without any knowledge that there was even a grave there. The path had simply replaced the grave.
It seemed like my search for a physical piece of evidence of my family in London was fruitless. The neglect of the cemetery and the passage of time had simply removed any evidence of a headstone. The grave is still there, of course, but it has simply been trodden over so many times that it is now buried beneath a path. I was disappointed.
But all was not lost. My great aunts and uncles Meyrick and Jermin are buried in a truly peaceful place. It is a place where the wind whistles through the trees and the pitter-patter of rain brushes the leaves of the trees. In the summer, the tree canopy allows beams of sunlight to dot the graveyard floor. It is idylic and not at all like a graveyard, which I find rather calming. Tower Hamlets Cemetery is also a park, so those who live close by use it as a short cut. It is therefore always busy with people. During my second half hour visit, at least 10 people walked past as I sat at a nearby bench and reflected on the lives of my ancestors who are buried here.
Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I followed the narrow path that had replaced the Jermin/Meyrick grave. It takes you right to the area where Martha Babbage is buried.
There is one final relative buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery - Martha’s husband Thomas Babbage. He remarried the exotically named Maria Oakley Jacobs Suddrick three years after Martha's death, He died in mid December of 1891 and was buried in plot 951 on December 19th 1891 - one of eight burials that day. However, the original company that owned the cemetery did not keep very good records, so we do not actually know where Thomas Babbage is really located at all. We just know he is in the same cemetery as his wife; the same cemetery of his brother’s in law; the same cemetery as his sister’s in law. And I find that rather touching.
If you want to visit Tower Hamlets Cemetery, head to Mile End tube station and it is a short walk. If you wish to visit the graves of my great aunts and great uncles, that’s great - an annotated plot plan shown below should help you enormously.
If you have relatives buried in this cemetery, I’d recommend you contact the heritage department well ahead of time, as they tend to get a lot of requests and they’re a volunteer organisation. I was helped by Diane Kendall who was a wealth of knowledge - thank you Diane so much.