Walking down the hectic, traffic-filled Moorgate, a major road that slices through the City of London, you could easily be forgiven for not noticing the courtyard entrance leading to a collection of 18th Century buildings. The buildings are both a fine example of Georgian architecture and the centre of a major Protestant religion. Over the road from here, you might notice gravestones behind metal railings, without ever guessing that this burial site of nonconformists, radicals and dissenters is home to some very famous names.
Here, tucked away just outside of the old City of London walls, is ‘The Mother Church of World Methodism’, the chapel of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. Built in 1778, this is where Wesley lived until his death in 1791. With an emphasis on personal salvation, helping the poor and a missionary zeal which saw it spread throughout the British Empire and the United States, Methodism has around 80 million adherents today. Although many saw the Methodists as fanatics, Wesley asked his followers to live their lives by a simple, if seemingly unattainable, code:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
- John Wesley
Methodism was an important social driver in Britain throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, closely associated with progressive social and political movements. There were strong connections with the anti-slavery movement, but Wesley’s followers also played a major role in the development of trade unions and the Labour Party. In addition they campaign against the societal effects of alcohol and gambling, particularly amongst the poor.
Wesley’s Chapel is an intimate and unassuming place, the day I was there it was empty. In the basement of the building is a museum telling the story of the Methodist movement. Behind the chapel is a garden where Wesley is buried. It’s a bit unfortunate that an office building of unrivalled ugliness has been built directly behind the garden, otherwise it would be much more pleasant.
The cemetery across the road, a burial site enclosed in the 1660s, is the charming and peaceful Bunhill Fields. The name ‘Bunhill’ is probably derived from ‘Bone Hill’, and has been a burial site for over a thousand years. Today, it’s an oasis of calm and tranquility in the heart of the City. When the cemetery closed to new burials in 1854, it is thought that around 123,000 people had been interred within it’s four hectares. So many Protestant nonconformists were buried here that the poet Robert Southey referred to it as the ‘Campo Santo of the Dissenters’, after the famous Italian cemetery in Pisa.
Bunhill Fields is the final resting place of some of Britain’s most famous radicals and dissenters. This includes household names such as the poet William Blake, author of Songs of Innocence and Experience and the hymn Jerusalem; Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe; and John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. While these names live on thanks to their writings, others buried here are long forgotten, yet many made significant contributions to the world.
George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, is buried here. So to, Sir Foxwell Buxton, owner of East London’s Truman brewery, and the man who took up the reigns of the anti-slavery movement in Parliament after William Wilberforce retired in 1825. Although the slave trade had been abolished in 1807, Buxton campaigned to end the practice of slavery itself. He was successful in having slavery abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Thomas Newcomen, Baptist lay preacher and inventor of the Newcomen steam engine for pumping water out of mines, is another of a glittering array.
It is an atmospheric place, and is also where Wesley’s mother, Susanna, is buried. Known as the Mother of Methodism, she has the remarkable distinction of giving birth to nineteen children. Perhaps the oddest grave is that of Dame Mary Page, wife of Sir Gregory Page, a Member of Parliament and director of the East India Company. She was buried here in 1728, and her giant marble tomb has an inscription describing her final illness. It goes into rather too much detail:
In 67 months she was tapp’d 60 times, had taken away 240 gallons of water, without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.
After spending a pleasant time wandering the cemetery, which is now a public gardens, it was time to retire to an East London institution: the nearby Eagle pub. The Eagle is famous for being mentioned in the nursery rhyme Pop! Goes the Weasel.
Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
The Eagle is an old pub which was rebuilt as a dance hall in the 1820s, before being turned back into a pub. Although the meaning of the rhyme isn’t fully understood, the reference to the money could mean the need to pawn your coat (‘stoat and weasel’ in Cockney slang) to pay for a night in The Eagle. Given the price of beer in London, it wouldn’t surprise me if that tradition continues to this day.