Service has been somewhat slow (it’s our busy time, after all), and here we finally are at Moorgate, which turns out to be an hotbed of Non-conformism, which looking at the postcode, and despite the place proclaiming itself as being part of the City of London, it is in fact outside the city walls, and it is its position in relation to the walls that is significant, as we shall see shortly, but first, let us look that the station to which we have come.
As well as being a Circle, Hammersmith & Metropolitan (all following the same route at this point) and Northern line station, and part of the first expansion after the initial route, between Paddington & Farringdon, by the Metropolitan railway in 1865, Moorgate is also a mainline station leaving the city (but not at weekends). The station itself is unremarkable, and completely refurnished in the 60s, making it even less remarkable, except as a reasonable example of brutalist architecture.
The station’s one rather brutal claim to fame is being one of the largest Underground train disasters (the largest after the Kings Cross fire in 1987). At the time it was the greatest loss of civilian life in peace time, the total death toll numbering 43, with a further 74 injured. To this day there is no certainty as to why the driver did not apply breaks until the last possible moment, and why he did not slow down when going through the Northern Line part of the station, then colliding with a dead end. When his body was found, his hand was on the brake, and he had made no attempt to defend himself. A memori
al to those who died was unveiled this year.
Coming out of Moorgate, we find ourselves in a confusing, bustling part of London (alright, what parts aren’t), with much work taking place behind hoardings, which makes navigation somewhat tricky. Our first port of call is Wesley’s Chapel.
You are probably all desperately wondering why it is that the proximity of the city walls. Well I’ll tell you. As I’m sure you all know, the point of city walls is to make a demarcation of a boundary, and to mark in a very real sense, who is “in” and who is not. Well, up until the 19th century, non-conformists were most definitely not in, and so had to have their places of worship (and their cemeteries) outside of the city. So it is we have our two sites for today: Wesley’s Chapel & Bunhill Fields. But they are so very close to the city walls, I hear you cry. How is this possible? Well, what they are is a very long way away from the pre-19th century parish church, which was Islington, which is away to the north. And you tended to find that it was at the points in a parish furthest away from the parish church (bearing in mind these were vast parishes) that non-conformity tended to flourish. And despite Moorfields’ proximity to the city walls, they were a barrier, which could not be crossed.
The site has two great historical connections: it was where a temporary shanty town was set up following the fire of London, and where some of the worst excesses of the Gordon Riots took place.
Anyway, all of this is by the by. Wesley.
Wesley’s initial base in London had been the Foundery, but it was replaced by a much more substantial building 200 yards up the road, which is what we see today. Technically speaking, the chapel is a complex, which includes the chapel proper, where John Wesley is buried, along with 6 of his preachers, his sister and his biographer. There is also Wesley’s house, a fine Georgian building, corresponding with the chapel, as well as the museum of Methodism. It proves a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists, as befits the mother church of the Methodists. Here is a Virtual Tour, if you like that sort of thing (which I suppose is what this sort of thing is too). What is interesting is that although it is a non-conformist chapel, the number of influential and “establishment” figures which have give towards its embellishment is quite remarkable: Dance was the architect, who at that time was surveyor to the city of London; George III gave the pillars (formerly ships’ masts) for supporting the structure, though these are now replaced with something more substantial. And in latter years Margaret Thatcher gave the communion rails. All of this is something of a testament, one can’t help feel, to Wesley’s personality and considerable abilities.
Moving on, we come to Bunhill Fields, a cemetery for non-conformist (primarily Protestant) persons, unwilling to be buried in graveyards of the established church. In practice, anyone who could pay the fees was more than welcome to be buried there. And until its closure as a cemetery in 1854, there were roughly 120,000 burials there, including such luminaries (lights of the world in their several generations) as John Bunyan and William Blake.
The site’s connection with the dead (this is turning into a very morbid post: death on the tube, bodies in the Methodist chapel, and now a graveyard!) goes back as far as the 1400s. Bunhill is a corruption of Bone Hill, It being a bone depository: in the 16th century St. Paul’s Cathedral had a clear out of it’s charnel house to make room for more. The dried bones were simply deposited on the moor and capped with a thin layer of soil, leading to such topographical elevation of the otherwise damp, flat fens, that three windmills could safely be erected in a spot that came to be known as Windmill Hill.
This tradition of Bunhill being the dead centre of town continued when the corporation of the city of London decided to open a cemetery on the sight for the bodies of plague victims. The ground was never consecrated, and the lease of the site was taken on by one Mr Tindall, a man who clearly understood the importance of never being out of a job. In 1781, the corporation resumed care of the site. The site closed in 1854, however Abney Park cemetery was opened at about that time, and took over the special job of Bunhill Fields. After some uncertainty, the cemetery became a public park, and may be enjoyed by all and sundry.