Battle for Bunhill Fields: Thousands sign petition against development overlooking historic graveyard

Niall McDevitt by Blake's grave

Niall McDevitt by Blake's grave - Credit: Archant

Thousands have joined forces to oppose the construction of tower blocks overlooking the historic Bunhill Fields graveyard off City Road.

Niall McDevitt by the gravestones of William Blake (R) and Daniel Defoe (L)

Niall McDevitt by the gravestones of William Blake (R) and Daniel Defoe (L) - Credit: Archant

A petition by neighbours and conservationists had collected nearly 3,000 signatures in just a few days as the Gazette went to press. It was started by poet and tour guide Niall McDevitt last week.

“Unfortunately I only found out about the development when it was too late and the plans had already been approved,” Mr McDevitt told the Gazette.

“I immediately thought I had to do something. I set up the petition so that people could at least register their opposition to the plan.”

The development – which includes two 10 and 11-storey blocks – was controversially approved by London Mayor Boris Johnson earlier this month after he “called in” the application – leaving Islington Council powerless to stop it, which it had hoped to do.

Jet-Marie Payne, who has ancestors buried in the graveyard, is opposing the development

Jet-Marie Payne, who has ancestors buried in the graveyard, is opposing the development - Credit: Archant

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Conservationists say the development, which reaches a height of 43 metres, would “bully” the graveyard and “overwhelm” the Grade 1 registered park – the final resting place of artist and poet William Blake and writer Daniel Defoe.

Mr McDevitt has also written an open letter to the Mayor in which he urges him to reconsider his decision.

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“In the short term the noise and disruption will be a blight on this oasis of tranquillity,” he wrote.

“In the long term, the 11 and 10-storey blocks will make Bunhill Fields colder and darker, oppressing the open space and ruining the skyline.”

A document showing that Jet-Marie Payne's ancestors were buried at Bunhill Fields

A document showing that Jet-Marie Payne's ancestors were buried at Bunhill Fields - Credit: Archant

He continued: “You say there is a ‘critical need’ for office space, but most people would say there is a critical need for a place with as rich a heritage as Bunhill Fields not to be disimproved by having ugly and unfriendly developments going up around it.

“Offices are everywhere in London: non-conformist graveyards are extremely rare in comparison. Bunhill Fields is also a public park, a vital one in as congested and toxic an area as that by the Old Street roundabout and City Road.”

Jet–Marie Payne, 31, a regular visitor to the cemetery, whose ancestors were buried there in the late 18th century, is one of the many people who have added their name to the petition.

Although there is no longer a headstone to mark their resting place after the graveyard was bombed during the Second World War, Ms Payne has a handwritten document saying that her ancestors – whose surname is Fyffe – were buried there.

“My ancestors were from Scotland so they were probably buried [in the non-conformist cemetery] because they were Quakers or Presbyterians,” she told the Gazette.

“I know they are from generations and generations ago but I still feel a connection to these people and for me going to visit the graveyard is a similar experience to visiting the grave of someone I have known.

“A few years ago I had a brain tumour and to be able to sit on the grass above where my ancestors were buried meant a lot to me.

“It was quite a spiritual experience for me and it would be horrible to think if I wanted to go there again the atmosphere would be changed because of the development.”

A spokesman for the Mayor of London said: “London is growing at a record rate and it is of utmost importance new workspace is identified for the 861,000 new jobs that will be created over the next 20 years.

“Having visited this site personally, the Mayor is confident the scheme will rejuvenate an inefficient and unattractive office building into a development that will crucially deliver genuinely affordable workspace at less than market rent for local start-up businesses, whilst also preserving the character and historic importance of adjoining Bunhill Fields burial ground and conservation area.”

Although the application has now been approved, Mr McDevitt is hoping to get many more signatures, with the aim of obtaining a judicial review.

“I’m hoping to get at least 120,000 – that’s one ancestor for each of the people buried there,” he said.

To view the petition click here.

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