As may be seen, the Old Burial Ground in the middle of the village is undergoing restoration. The Burial Ground was created by Edward Alleyn as a logical step towards the foundation of his College of God's Gift. It would become a facility which would benefit the small community of Dulwich, then a hamlet situated within the Parish of St Giles, Camberwell. As with the Chapel, Alleyn extended its use beyond that of the requirements of the College itself. This saved the inhabitants the inconvenience of travelling the two miles to St Giles in observing the rites of passage (baptism, marriage and burial).
The College fell within the diocese of Winchester which at the time of the Consecration was vacant and it seems that Alleyn applied to the Archbishop of Canterbury to conduct the service.
A record of the Consecration states that the "Honourable Edward Alleyn appeared before his Grace and stated that it was his intention by the grace of God and the King's license, to convert his residence into a college for the poor, and which residence, being two miles from the parish church at Camberwell, he was unable, without danger and difficulty, especially in rainy weather and in winter, to repair with his family to the said church either conveniently or at the proper time to attend divine service and that near to the said house within the hamlet was a certain spot enclosed with walls, destined for a cemetery or burial place for those who die at the said house or within the hamlet etc. " The Archbishop acceded to Alleyn's request to perform the service.
The Burial Ground was consecrated on the same day as Christ's Chapel; between 9am-12noon Sunday 1st September 1616 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot (1562-1633). The Consecration was attended by Edmund Bowyer, Thomas Grimes, William Gresham, Thomas Hunt, Jeremiah Turner, with soldiers and many others.
George Abbot, as a follower of John Calvin would have been hostile to any trace of Roman Catholicism in Alleyn's new building. It is therefore certain that the Chapel when it was consecrated that day would present an entirely different aspect to what it would become under Abbot's successor, William Laud, who was accused of favouring some Catholic aspects of ritual and decoration. For example, there would have been no stained glass, paintings, altar rails or images within.
The siting of the Burial Ground at what was then the northern extremity of the hamlet might have been done for a number of reasons. Although it was usual to place a cemetery next to a church, in Dulwich's case, more than a church was to be established. There would be a schoolhouse, a picture gallery, a hall, and accommodation for the poor scholars, the poor brothers and sisters, the Fellows and the Master and Warden. Alleyn may therefore have decided that the space adjacent to the future College would be better served by using it as a school playground, kitchen garden, stables and place for outbuildings. He might also have considered the presence of a cemetery next to his almshouse and school would be insensitive.
The party moved from the newly dedicated Christ's Chapel, down the village street to the spot designated as the cemetery where the Archbishop consecrated the piece of ground "adjoining the royal road leading from the village of Camberwell to a certain residence lately built by Edward Alleyn in the village or hamlet of Dulwich eentirely enclosed with walls, measuring in width from east to west, eighty-six feet of thereabouts, and in length north to south one hundred and fifty feet or thereabouts".
The consent of the Master of the College would always be required for burials and fees were set. In 1740 the charges were 'all under 6 years of age 2/-, and all above 7/6. After paying the Minister 2/6 and the Sexton 2/- the remainder of the fees were applied to purchase books "for ye Publick Library of ye College"
In 1760 the charge for a flat stone placed over a grave was set at 30/-, and a like sum for head and feet stones. Of this amount, 17/- went to the Master, 10/6 to the preacher and 2/6 to the gardener.
The most notable burials must surely be the thirty-five Dulwich victims (out of a total of forty-two) of the Great Plague of 1665 who were buried in unmarked graves. The death rate in Dulwich was the same as the City with about 1 in 6 of the population falling victim of the disease. One wonders if the entrance roads to Dulwich were barricaded by residents armed with pikes in a futile effort to keep the disease at bay, as depicted in the illustration of Thomas Dekker's account of an earlier plague in 1625.
Also interred were Old Bridget, Queen of the Norwood Gipsies, buried in 1768, and Samuel Matthew 'the hermit of Dulwich' who was murdered in his cave in Dulwich Woods in 1802. Richard Shaw, the owner of a splendid house named Casino who was solicitor to Warren Hastings during the latter's long trial in Westminster Hall occupies the largest tomb. There is also the Shroeder family tomb (ancestors of the former German Chancellor, whose family visited a few years ago), the last being buried was Louisa Shroeder in 1868 by special permission as the burial ground was declared full in 1858.
It is likely that several thousand persons were buried there between 1616-1858. It had been already enlarged and was again full but there was an added problem with water flowing down Court Lane and flooding freshly dug graves. Surface drainage down Court Lane is probably the cause of the present damage to some of the graves which have slipped and cracked. In WWII the railings on the east side were removed and not replaced until the 1990's following the vandalism of some graves. English Heritage contributed towards the cost of replacing and restoring the railings and the walls. Twelve of the tombs are Grade 11 listed, as well as the fine wrought-iron gates.
The Old Burial Ground is an Amenity Area under The Dulwich Estate's Scheme of Management. Some of the tombs are now in need of restoration and this work, which includes specialist repair of stonework, re-pointing of brickwork and repair/redecoration of some of the metal railings, has started recently, with completion expected in summer 2006.