St John the Baptist Churchyard

St John the Baptist Churchyard is close to two busy main roads and seems austere from the road. A low wall surrounds the church. But if you walk through the gate and into the churchyard stretching out along Well Hall Road and it is easy to imagine you are in the countryside. 

Brief history of the church

The Domesday Book did not record churches but there is a record of the manor and so it is likely that there has been a church on the site for at least 1,000 years. Sir John Shaw rebuilt the church in the late 17th century. The architect Sir Arthur W Blomfield rebuilt the church again in 1871-75. His Grade II listed building is today’s church.

St John the Baptist from Eltham Hill Road
St John the Baptist from Eltham Hill Road
St John the Baptist Churchyard in Eltham
St John the Baptist from the churchyard

The churchyard

The graveyard is densely overgrown. Surveys report purple knapweed, yellow greater celandine, ox-eye daisies, meadow buttercups, feverfew and grasses such as oat-grass and vernal grass. The gravestones tilt or disappear into the grass. Moss and lichens cover many of the graves.

The churchyard in early June
The churchyard in early June

A large old yew tree stands in one corner of the churchyard and a line of mature lime, oak and sycamore trees shields the churchyard from Well Hall Road.

Old yew tree in St John the Baptist churchyard
Old yew tree in one corner
The line of mature lime, sycamore and oak trees along Well Hall Road in St John the Baptist churchyard
The line of mature lime, sycamore and oak trees along Well Hall Road

A wall runs down the west side of the churchyard, and beyond that is another churchyard. The OS map of 1870 shows this extension to the churchyard was glebe land. And the vicarage stood on the site of today’s Tesco Express on the main road.

The wall dividing the churchyard
The wall dividing the churchyard

Graves

There are several interesting graves in the churchyard. Yemmerrawanyea Kebbarah[2] was a young aborigine of the Eora nation who was brought to England with Woollarawarra Bennelong in 1793 by Arthur Philip, the first Governor of New South Wales. The young man soon fell ill. He moved out to Eltham to be in cleaner country air but died. He was buried at the church in 1794.[1]The gravestone leans against the church wall facing Well Hall Road.

Tombstone at St John the Baptist churchyard

A plaque to Thomas Doggett who founded the Thames Watermen’s annual race, the Doggetts Coat and Badge Race in 1715, is on the outer south wall of the church. Col J T North of Avery Hill has a red granite memorial. Sir William James of Eltham Park Place has a large box tomb and Severndroog Castle is his other memorial. And William Blenkiron, the race horse breeder, is also buried in the churchyard.

There are 21 CWGC graves in the churchyard from both world wars but most are invisible, buried under brambles and long grass. A small memorial stone to men who died in the South African war of 1899-1902 rests against the outer wall on Well Hall Road.


St John the Baptist Churchyard in Eltham is another of the surprising sites in the borough of Greenwich if you take the time to step off the path and walk round the corner.

[1] The two Aborigines in London: http://thelondondead.blogspot.com/2021/03/one-of-two-natives-of-botany-bay-is.html

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