City of London cemetery secrets revealed where murder victims are buried

Gary Burks has the remains of half-a-million people buried in his ‘front garden’—with another 800 added every year to his 200 landscaped acres.

They include murderers and their victims such as two women butchered by Jack the Ripper in 1888.

Gary lives in a three-bed detached house looking onto the massive City of London burial grounds at Manor Park, the place you’re likely to end up in if you live in east London or the City.

At 48, he is the boss of Europe’s biggest municipal cemetery, the superintendent with a staff of 65 who manage the 200 landscaped acres 365 days a year. His 1920s house goes with the territory.

But Gary had a modest start when he first arrived on a cold January morning in 1985, soon put to work digging graves.

“I turned to digging graves because it was financially viable,” he recalls.

“Just how deep you dig depends on how many coffins are eventually to go into the grave.

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“A family plot might take up to five, so we go down 10ft for the first interment.

“Other family burials following are placed on top, with a layer of 6in of earth between coffins.”

Gary dug graves for six years before being promoted to assistant contracts manager in 1993, then taking over as cemetery manager in 1997 when his predecessor retired.

But 12 years on, he landed the top job as superintendent responsible for the whole site, including the crematorium beneath the main chapel. “We don’t take bodies out of the coffin,” Gary tells you. “The coffins are cremated with the deceased as part of the process.

“The cremator is 1,049 degrees hot—if you tried placing a body in it you’d get very badly burned.”

Gary is responsible for 2,600 cremations a year, as well as 800 burials.

A £3 million renovation has just been completed at the burial grounds that were first opened in 1856 when all the church graveyards in the City of London were finally closed.

The last piece to be spruced up was the original Edwardian crematorium which had been closed nearly 40 years, now used as a chapel.

The listed building needed desperate renovation, with its leaky roof and run-down, weathered brickwork. The cast iron chimney had to be taken down carefully for urgent repair and restoration, then put back up.

The crematorium was added in 1907, built in the style of the medieval Guildhall in the City. It was the first municipal crematorium in Britain, which carried out 95,000 cremations over seven decades.

But the restoration hasn’t cost east London’s hard-pressed council tax payers a penny.

The money came from the wealth of the City, one of the world’s richest square miles of commerce and trade.

The City Corporation’s environment chairman John Tomlinson explains: “Local authorities have big problems with government cuts and are not flushed with cash.

“But only six per cent of our income is from council tax, with just 11,000 households in the Square Mile—94 per cent comes from business tax and revenues from our investments and property.”

But there isn’t much space left for burials, perhaps another 25 years after 157 years of continuous internments.

So the corporation has a Grave Recycling scheme where old plots are reclaimed for new burials. Legally they have to wait 70 years after the last interment and have to try contacting the family for permission.

The corporation adopted recycling in 2003 and has since reclaimed 1,800 graves.

The Grade I-listed cemetery has infamous links to east London’s violent past. Two of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel victims were interred in 1888, Mary Ann Nichols in September and Catharine Edowes in October—fresh flowers are laid at both graves regularly.

But the cemetery also has a strong connection to one of the most notorious murders of the first half of the 20th century, which happened less a mile away.

Percy Thompson, who was 32, was walking along Wanstead Park Road on his way home with his 29-year-old wife Edith from a night at a theatre in October, 1922, when an assailant jumped out of the bushes, grappled him to the ground and stabbed him to death.

Percy was buried at the cemetery in a plot owned by Edith’s family.

Edith told police she recognised the attacker—their former lodger, a 20-year-old seaman named Freddy Bywaters, who was soon arrested.

But detectives discovered Baywaters had a bundle of 60 letters from Edith, passionately declaring her love for him and her “desire to be free of Percy”.

Edith was subsequently arrested and her letters were produced as evidence when the two went on trial at the Old Bailey for murder.

She had written of having ground a glass light bulb to shards and feeding it to Percy mixed in his mashed potato and feeding him poison, but nothing worked and she had implored Freddy to “do something desperate”.

Bywaters never believed Edith and told the court she had a vivid imagination fuelled by novels she read.

The jury was unconvinced. Both were hanged at 9am on January 9, 1923, Thompson in Holloway, Bywaters at Pentonville.

Percy’s family had him exhumed from Edith’s family plot when she was found guilty of his murder and re-interred elsewhere in the vast cemetery.

Holloway prison was rebuilt half-a-century later and the bodies of all the executed women were exhumed.

Edith was re-interred at Brookwood in Surrey. Her grave remained unmarked for 20 years until a memorial was erected in 1993 and formally consecrated by the vicar of St Barnabas in Manor Park, the church where she had married Percy Thompson in 1916.

Her sister Avis Graydon, who had previously dated Freddy Bywaters in the 1920s, left a will when she died in 1977 for mass to be said for the Graydon family every January 9, the anniversary of the hanging, which has taken place at St Barnabas for the past 20 years.

The cemetery has since received a request that Edith be exhumed from Brookwood and “brought home” to Manor Park to be re-interred in the Graydon family plot.

Her remains could one day join the half-million already filling cemetery boss Gary Burks’s ‘front garden’.

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