Posted by: Didapper PJ13 FEB 2013
When the fire alarm goes off at the Lambeth headquarters of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, visitors and staff must leave the building and assemble in a little park a short way along Lambeth High Street.
This recreation ground has a long history, mainly as a cemetery. In 1703 the small graveyard surrounding the church of St-Mary-at-Lambeth — across Lambeth Road from the Society — had become so overcrowded that the Archbishop of Canterbury bought a plot of land for £120 and gave to it the church as an extra burial space.
The new burial ground was later targeted by grave-robbers. In 1817, The Times newspaper reported: “. . . the burial ground of Lambeth has for a considerable time past been the scene of transactions of the most daring and horrible description. The depositories of the dead have been nightly invaded, and the feelings of surviving relatives exceedingly harrowed, by the depredations upon their deceased friends of that callous gang of wretches known by the name of Body Snatchers, whose industry in their disgusting trade has been particularly exercised in the new burial ground at Lambeth.”
In 1825 a watch-house was erected to deter grave-robbers. It was also used for holding the drunk and disorderly. The building is long gone, but a large stone marks its site.
Shortly afterwards, the burial ground began filling rapidly because of the cholera epidemics of the mid-19th century, including an outbreak in 1832–33 that caused some 4,000–7,000 deaths across London.
An 1853 ban on further burials in London’s churchyards led to the Lambeth graveyard’s neglect and decay. In 1880 the parish council decided to turn it into a public garden, and the headstones were moved against the walls.
As the Society’s visitors and staff wait for the all-clear to return to their meetings and desks, they can scrutinise the few inscriptions that remain legible.