Gravehunting in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

I’ve not updated this blog in some time and the main reason for this is my NHS day job and that pandemic business being a bit time consuming and energy-sapping – not to mention the difficulty of getting to faraway graveyards and archives during a lockdown.

In August last year I moved from Walthamstow to Bow and started volunteering at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, near my new home. Tower Hamlets Cemetery opened in 1841 and was then a pristine garden cemetery with sweeping views down to the Thames. Neglect and wartime bombing led to the closure of the cemetery in 1966. The Greater London Council embarked on a plan to clear the graves and turn the cemetery into another boring park, but at the last moment, after local opposition, the plans were stopped. The cemetery fell further into disrepair until the 1990s when it was lovingly restored to its former glory by the charity Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.

The cemetery is the resting place of 350,000ish people and amongst them are a fair number of my relatives on my mother’s side, most importantly my 4th great grandparents, David and Ann Amelia Allen. David wasn’t quite as rich as the likes of Charlie Brown and Joseph Westwood (occupants of some of the park’s grandest graves) but he was nonetheless a rather well off man. Born in 1817 in Worlingworth, Suffolk, David moved to Grundy Street, Poplar, and married Ann Amelia Wallis, who was born locally. David has a different occupation (shoemaker, cowkeeper, carman, builder) on every census until his retirement, and also a growing number of children (twelve). Totally unsubstantiated family gossip and speculation has it that David came into a lot of money through association with the stonemasons some time around the 1870s – certainly, by the time of his death, he owned a catalogue of properties around Bow, Poplar and Canning Town and his sons George and William had set up an equally lucrative building business in the emerging seaside resort of Southend on Sea. I guess if they were alive today they’ve be responsible for the boxy identikit new builds that are springing up all over the area.

David Allen, pictured at his grandson’s wedding. Photo from my 3c2r, also called David Allen.

The other occupants of David’s grave are his first wife, Ann Amelia, who died in 1883, but not his younger second wife, Maria Wooldridge, who outlived him, and his daughter, Anne Maria. Anne Maria was just twenty-seven when she died of tuberculosis and was married to a local publican, James Samuel Peyton. Two months after Anne Maria died, James Peyton married her younger sister, Eliza Sarah Allen, and went on to have seven children with her. Oh, I would like to know what the rest of the family thought about that. (James and Eliza are not buried at Tower Hamlets. If I were Anne Maria I would be very pleased about that.)

I knew long before I moved to Bow that David’s grave was somewhere in the cemetery park but after spending several hours narrowly avoiding breaking my ankle attempting to find it, I reached the conclusion that it must have been one of the casualties of the clearance. There seemed to be so few graves still standing in that part of the cemetery that it was inevitable. Disheartened and covered with nettle stings and bramble scratches, I didn’t even bother trying to look for the more distant and less rich Allens that could be lurking elsewhere in the park. This was a “grave” mistake (sorry) though because the first rule of genealogy is never give up. The truth is out there, and so was the gravestone. It just wasn’t quite where I thought it was.

Over a year later, and I was assisting (or possibly hindering with poor map reading and general waffle) at a volunteering session aiming to identify and catalogue the cemetery’s most precious and notable graves. While my fellow volunteers crowded round an ornate grave covered with fascinating information, my eyes were drawn to a plainer one behind it with that familiar name, David Allen. It wasn’t the grave I had been searching for, but it was an immediately identifiable relative – his son, my 3rd great granduncle David Amos Allen. I interrupted the others to enthuse about my find and tried not to be too disappointed that this grave did nothing to make it on to the precious and notable list. I hoped my family ghosts would not feel too hurt at missing out.

David Amos was the oldest child of David and Ann Amelia (and the brother of husband sharing sisters Anne Maria and Eliza Sarah). Like his father, he was a man of many trades including cowkeeper, cheesemonger, farm bailiff and dairy producer (I am a vegan so I do not approve of all this cheese and milk in the family!) He moved from Bow to Walthamstow around 1901, which, oddly enough was where I was living before I moved to Bow. I had even scoured the local cemetery to see if he was buried there, but of course, found nothing.

Simply stumbling (literally) on David Amos’s grave, so clear, well preserved and obvious inspired me to have one last shot at locating David and Ann’s grave. I asked Claire, the heritage manager, for a map of the square where they were buried and scuttled off to take another look before it got dark and the ghosts came out. It’s amazing how much difference a map, even a barely legible century old map which you’re not sure if you have upside down makes. I could see that I had made two fatal assumptions in my previous search. One, that the big empty area where I thought the grave had been had been cleared – in fact, it was an area of public graves, many of which never had headstones in the first place. I knew my ancestors were in a private grave. Two, that the “squares” corresponded to groups of graves and not merely an arbitrary line like squares on a regular map. I found a row of graves perpendicular to the one I’d examined before, and suddenly, there it was. Three rows back and behind a tree but as clear as day. Anne Maria Poyton. Ann Amelia Allen. David Allen. They’d been waiting for me.

I always wonder when I find a family grave: when was the last time someone visited you? Who was it? Did my other ancestors stand on this spot as I do now and talk to you? Did you ever think that over a hundred years later your great great great great granddaughter would be clearing nettles and brambles from your final resting place?

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