Survey of London Monograph 6, St Dunstan's Church, Stepney. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1905.
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CHAPTER IV. THE CHURCHYARD AND ITS MONUMENTS.
The large churchyard of St. Dunstan's owes its size (about 7 acres) to the great outbreaks of plague 1625-6 & 1665-6, which necessitated additions to the ground. The vestry minutes about these dates refer very frequently to the extensions, outlay, etc., and instructions given to the sexton as to burials not to be within a certain distance of the Church. So great was the number of burials, that by license granted by the Bishop on January 24, 1625-6, at the request of the Vicar, the Parish Clerk was empowered to bury parishioners, because there was more work than the Curate could do. In that year 3960 burials took place, and in 1665-6,—6580; and so greatly was the parish—then principally inhabited by seafaring men—depopulated, that it is recorded in "The Life of Lord Clarendon" that "there seemed an impossibility to procure seamen to fit out the fleet" (Lewis, Topographical Dict., 1849). There are many mentions of the plague at Stepney in Defoe (Edit. Bell & Co. 1891). He says, that besides the Church-yard there were other burying-grounds in the parish—at Spitalfields, Petticoat Lane, & where St. Paul's, Shadwell, & St. John's, Wapping stand. Also that most of the cases came from Spitalfields on the borders of Shoreditch. That it was very difficult to keep exact account of the number of burials. "Especially, if it be true, that the parish of Stepney had within the year 116 sextons, grave-diggers, and their assistants, that is to say bearers, bellmen and drivers of carts for carrying off the dead bodies.
"Indeed the work was not of a nature to allow them leisure to take an exact tale of the dead bodies, which were all laid together into a pit, in the dark, which pit no man could come nigh but at the utmost peril.
"I observed often that in the parishes of Whitechapel, Aldgate, and Stepney there were 5, 6, and 700 a week in the Bills, whereas in the opinion of those who lived in the City there died sometimes 2000 a week in these parishes, and I saw it under the hand of one that made as strict an examination as he could, that there really died of the plague 100,000 people in that one year (1665-6) whereas the Bills only showed 68,590." (fn. 1) (page 72).
At times the churchyard appears to have been the resort of the idle and dissolute, for by a minute of 27 June 1655, it was ordered that" A Breviate of all Acts and Ordinances of Parliament that concerne the due observation of the Lords daye bee drawne vpp published and sett vpp in seuerall convenient places in and about the church to the end that all idle and disorderly persons whoe walke vpp & downe on the lords daye or lyers on the ground in the churchyard may bee tymely forewarned.
By the minutes of Nov. 27, 1683, it is evident that the backs of houses at that time abutted upon the churchyard, for "Whereas by back dores of Publick houses into the Church yard Potts and Bottles are indecently shewen, And people from thence get into the Churchyard from Tipling to prevent being taken, It is therefore ordered by the Vestry that no Publick house shall hereafter be suffered to have any dore in the Church yard or shall expose their Potts or Bottles or Painted Posts or Boards into the Churchyard and that notice thereof be given to the respective Inhabitants accordingly."
19th October, 1854. At a special meeting of the Vestry held as above, it was explained that, by an Order in Council, Stepney churchyard would be closed for burials on the 24th of October 1854, but upon the piece of ground adjoining being consecrated, burials would be permitted therein until October 1856.
The churchyard was, in March 1886, handed over to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. Again in 1890 this Association resigned its charge to the London County Council, who now conduct the area as a public garden, but only under authority of the Rector.
Stepney was frequently visited by Samuel Pepys the diarist, the Trinity House, of which he was twice Master, being then situated in the parish. (fn. 2) Under date 3 June 1667, he writes: "Thence down by water to Deptford, it being Trinity Monday, when the Master is chosen, and thence, finding them all at Church, and thinking they had dined, as usual at Stepney, I turned back, having a good book in my hand, the life of Cardinal Wolsey, wrote by his own servant, and to Ratcliffe, and so walked to Stepney, & spending time in the churchyard, looking over the gravestones, expecting when the company would come by."
"Since I am talking of Death, and have mentioned an Epitaph, I must tell you Sir, that I have made discovery of a churchyard in which I believe you might spend an afternoon with great pleasure to yourself, and to the publick. It belongs to the Church of Stebon-heath, commonly called Stepney. Whether or no it be that the people of that parish have a particular genius for an epitaph, or that there be some poet among them who undertakes that work by the great, I can't tell; but there are more remarkable inscriptions in that place than in any other I have met with; and I may say, without vanity, that there is not a Gentleman in England better read in tombstones than myself, my studies having laid very much in churchyards. I shall beg leave to send you a couple of epitaphs, for a sample of those I have just now mentioned. They are written in a different manner: the first being in the diffused and luxuriant, the second in the close contracted stile. The first has much of the simple and pathetick; the second is something light, but nervous. The first is thus:
Here Thomas Sapper (fn. 3) lyes interr'd, Ah why!
Born in New England, did in London dye;
Was the third son of eight, begot upon
His mother Martha, by his father John.
Much favoured by his Prince he 'gan to be,
But nipt by Death at th' age of twenty three
Fatal to him was that we small pox name,
By which his mother and two brethren came
Also to breathe their last nine years before,
And now have left their Father to deplore
The loss of all his children, with his wife
Who was the joy and comfort of his life.
There are many other interesting and curious epitaphs mentioned in the several books (Strype's Stow, Maitland, &c.) but it may be stated that all, without exception, are now partly or wholly undecipherable, and many are missing; though the Burial Registers, in most cases, confirm their original existence.
At the S. side of the west entrance has been erected a cross, made from the scorched beams of the roof in the fire of 1901, with the following inscription: "In memory of the fire, October 12, 1901." The platform upon which this cross rests is used as a pulpit on summer evenings.
CAPT. WILLIAM SHARPE (date obliterated). A broken slab embedded in the ground. Arms: a fess bet. in chief 2 cross crosslets fitchée, and in base a mullet. Crest: a pheon reversed. The carving is much worn.
TO THE MEMORY OF CAPT. HENRY MUDD, WHO DIED 2ND JUNE, 1692: THIS TOMB WAS REBUILT AT THE SOLE EXPENSE OF THE CORPORATION OF TRINITY HOUSE OF DEPTFORD STROND IN THE YEAR 1776, AS A GRATEFUL TESTIMONY OF HIS BENEFACTIONS TO THAT CHARITY FOR DECAY'D SEAMEN, THEIR WIDOWS AND FAMILIES. (fn. 4) RESTORED 1876.
JANE & ISAAC LEFEVRE 179-, 1812. Tall altar tomb, surrounded by iron railings. Arms: per chevron sa. & gu., a chevronel bet. in chief 3 trefoils slipped, one and two, and in base an orb surmounted by a cross patée, impaling vert 3 stags trippant. Crest: a trefoil slipped.
WILLIAM HEATH (date obliterated). Large slab, on ground. Arms: per chevron embattled, in chief 2 mullets of 6 points, in base a heathcock, impaling 3 two-pronged dung forks. Crest: a cock's head, wattled and combed.
MRS. MARY WESTERBEANE (date obliterated), JOSIAH (1792) and ANN WALLIS, 1803. Large altar tomb. Arms: 3 birds close, impaling a wolf rampant, in chief a covered cup bet. 2 mullets of six points. Crest: a bird rousant.
Here lye interr'd the bodies of Capt. Thomas Chevers who departed this life Nov. 18th 1675, aged 44 years. And of Ann Chevers his Wife, who departed this Life Novr. 14 1675, aged 34 years. And of John Chevers their son who departed this Life Nov. 13th 1675 aged 5 days.
Reader, consider well how poor a span
And how uncertain is the life of Man:
Here lye the Husband, Wife, & Child, by Death
All three in five days time deprived of Breath.
The Child dies first, the Mother on the Morrow
Follows, and then the Father dies with Sorrow.
A Cæsar falls by many wounds; well may
Two stabs at heart the stoutest Captain slay.
REV. MATTHEW MEAD, 1699. Large altar tomb, enclosed within iron railings. The Rev. M. Mead was one of the founders and early ministers of Stepney Meeting. (fn. 5)
To ye Memory of ye Honble. Sr. J no. Leake Kt. Rear Admrl. of Gt. Brittain Admrl. & Commander in Chief of her late Majty. Queen Anne's fleet & one of ye Lords Commissioners of ye Admiralty. Departd this life ye 21 of August 1720 Ætat 64 yrs. 1 m. 17 d. Who Anno 1689 in ye Dartmouth by engaging Kilmore Castle relieved ye city of Londonderry in Ireland also Anno 1702 with a Squadn. at Newfoundland he took and destroy'd 51 sail of French together with all their Settlements. Anno 1704 he forced the van of ye French fleet at ye Malaga engagemt, reld. Gibraltar twice burning and taking 13 sail of French Men of War likewise. Anno 1706 reld. Barcelona ye Present Empr. of Germany besieged therein by Phillip of Spain and took 90 sail of Corn Ships ye same year taking ye Cities of Carthagena and Alicant with ye Islands of Ivica, Majorca, Sardina & Minorca.
There are also inscriptions on this tomb in memory of Dame Christian Leake (1709), wife of Sir John; Mary Hills, her mother (1703); and Captain Stephen Martin Leake, brother-in-law and heir of Sir John Leake, 1736.
JOHN SHAKESPEAR, 1775, and family. A large coped altar tomb. Arms: on a bend a tilting spear. Crest: a falcon, wings addorsed, inverted, holding a tilting spear in bend. "The same coat of arms appears on the Shakespeare monument in the Church at Stratford-on-Avon, where, with the tinctures added, it reads, Or, on a bend sa. a tilting spear of the field." (J. T. Page.)
RICHARD PHILLIPS (date obliterated). Large flat slab, crest and arms much defaced, but probably as follows: Arms : 3 hawks (or falcons) belled, impaling a chevron bet. 3 herons (or storks), a canton or, a lion rampant.
ABRAHAM ROBARTS, 1761, and family. Large altar tomb, enclosed by iron railings. Arms : 3 cross bows, a label for difference, on an escutcheon of pretence, a chevron gouttée bet. 3 birds close, for Wildey. Crest: a stag lodged regardant.
SUSANNA ELL, 1643. Monument in churchyard on north side of church. The inscription is worth recording; there is one almost exactly the same in memory to one Lockyer, a pill manufacturer, whose tomb is in the north transept of St. Saviour's Cathedral, Southwark:
To say an Ell lies here, ev'n that alone
Were epitaph enough, no Brass, no Stone,
No glorious Tomb, no Monumental Hearse
No gilded Trophy, or lamp laboured Verse
Can dignifie her Grave, or set it forth
Like the immortal fame of her own Worth.
Then Reader, fix not here, but quit this room And fly to Abraham's bosom, there's her tomb: There rests her soul, and for her other Parts They are imbalmed, & lodg'd in good mens' hearts A braver monument of stone & lime No Art can raise, for this shall outlast Time.
This Roger Crabb, described in the pamphlet "The English Hermit, or Wonder of the Age," served in the Parliamentary Army; he gave all his estate to the poor, only retaining a cottage at Ickenham, and lived on dock leaves, mallows, and grass.
To say, an Angel here interred doth lye
May be thought strange, for Angels never dye.
Indeed some fell from Heaven to Hell,
Are lost, and rise no more.
This only fell by death to earth
Not lost, but gone before.
Her dust lodged here, her soul, perfect in grace 'Mongst saints and Angels now hath took its place.