Burial and Reburial
The gardens surrounding the church are the remains of two graveyards: that of
St Pancras, and an extension to the churchyard of St Giles in the Fields.
The graveyard was closed to burials in 1854, having been the parish burial place for many centuries, and the gardens were opened in 1877. The Borough of St Pancras undertook the work of moving headstones and leveling the ground.
During the 1850s and 1860s there was much concern about the state of the churchyard, intensified by the plans of the Midland Railway Company to acquire it in its entirety for a goods station or to cut through to facilitate their route to the new St Pancras Station. Despite the opening of the new parish church in 1822, it continued to be used for burials until 1854. Between 1827 and 1847 there had been 26,676 interments, and the last took place in 1854. A local resident wrote to The Times in 1850 complaining that “More than 25 corpses… have been deposited every week for the last 20 years in an already overcrowded space; and at this very time they are burying in it at nearly twice that rate… teeth, bones, fragments of coffin wood are seen lying in large quantities around these pits”.
In 1862, Gough reported that the floor needed to be taken up and concreted over “so as to prevent gases of an injurious description from the bodies escaping into the church to the annoyance and prejudice of the congregation”. Even allowing for the fact that intramural burials continued for a number of years after the 1848 restoration, it is surprising that this was necessary, for the problem was not new: people had long before complained “of the bad air in the church, which caused people to leave during the service, affected with headache, dizziness and sickness… the air was thick, heavy and unpleasant to the smell, reminding one of those charnel houses in which are dead men’s bones.”
During the excavations for the extension and the tower, which went down about 10 feet, the trenches filled “with a dark-coloured, filthy, stinking water’ and the clay was ‘so saturated with decomposition as to be horribly foetid”. Ordinary labourers had to be replaced by seasoned gravediggers for the work.
In the course of opening up the route into St Pancras Station, the Midland Railway Company removed between 10,000 and 15,000 bodies, not without a little controversy, and the young Thomas Hardy was responsible for overseeing some of the work. Their choice lay “between a churchyard and some gas-works, and it was easy to predict which would be taken”, complained The Builder. The burial grounds were taken over by the Vestry of St Pancras as a public park in 1871, and enlarged in 1891 with contributions from the Midland Railway.