The Hardy Tree – a London literary landmark finally falls.

New Year’s Day 2023 – a sad sight as the Hardy Tree is gone forever. ©Carole Tyrrell

When in Late December 2022, an ash tree finally fell down in Old St Pancras churchyard in central London, it made headlines around the world. For not only was it one of London’s famous cemetery landmarks, as was Highgate’s famous Cedar of Lebanon, but it was also a place of literary pilgrimage.

This was the Hardy tree, its base surrounded by headstones, some of which had become part of it as it had grown.  The legend was that Thomas Hardy, the novelist, when employed as an architectural assistant, had begun to pack headstones around the trunk. These were the stones that had been cleared to make way for the expansion of the Midland railway in the mid 1860’s.  Jon Snow in ‘The Great Trees of London, 2010 explained:

‘In the 1860’s the writer Thomas Hardy, was apprenticed to an architect, Arthur Blomfield, in Covent Garden.  The building of the Midland Railway had disrupted many of the graves in nearby churchyards.  Hardy was tasked with making an inventory and reburying them. He stacked the headstones around a convenient ash tree. (in St Pancras churchyard).’

At least this is the romantic myth.

The information board by the Hardy Tree. ©Carole Tyrrell

I am indebted to the blog ‘The London Dead’ for its research into the Hardy Tree which explored the legend.  The truth is that there is no evidence that Hardy had anything to do with it.  In fact, the tree wasn’t even there at the time.  It may have self seeded and was less than 100 years old.  In 1926 a photo was published in ‘Wonderful London’ edited by St John Adcock which shows ‘a rockery of headstones’ but without a tree.  So, the tree appears to have been much later.

The London Dead also quoted from a book on Hardy apparently written by his widow, Emily entitled ‘The Early Years of Thomas Hardy’.  In the 1860’s he was employed as an architectural assistant to Arthur Blomfield in Covent Garden.  In this she says that:

‘Hardy was not responsible for overseeing the exhumations.  This was the Clerk of Works role.  Hardy was instructed to drop by Blomfield in the evening to keep an eye on the Clerk of Works and make sure that all was proceeding in an appropriately seemly manner.  He was to report back to  Blomfield if it was not.’

There had been rumours of bodies being exhumed and bags ‘that rattled’ being sold onto bone mills from one city churchyard instead of being reinterred. Blomfield did not want this to happen at Old St Pancras. So Hardy was to visit at uncertain hours to check on the Clerk and Hardy’s manager was also to drop in at uncertain times during the week to check on Hardy and the Clerks. The plan was successful and Hardy attended during 5-6pm as well as at other hours.

The plan succeeded excellently, and throughout the late autumn and early winter (of probably the year 1865 or thereabouts) Hardy attended at the churchyard – each evening between five and six, as well as sometimes at other hours. There after nightfall, within a high hoarding that could not be overlooked, and by the light of flare-lamps, the exhumation went on continuously of the coffins that had been uncovered during the day, new coffins being provided for those that came apart in lifting, and for loose skeletons, and those that held together being carried to the new ground on a board merely: Hardy supervising these mournful processions when present, with what thoughts may be imagined, and Blomfield sometimes meeting him there. In one coffin that fell apart was a skeleton and two skulls. He used to tell that when, after some fifteen years of separation, he met Arthur Blomfield again and their friendship was fully renewed, among the latter’s first words were: ‘Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St Pancras?’

Thomas Hardy (1840-19280 Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

In 2019, I visited the churchyard and was informed by the tour guide that the Hardy Tree was almost certainly going to fall.  It was infected with a fungus and a protective, temporary fence had been erected around it with a gap in the hedge for visitors to look through.  Iain Sinclair in, ‘Lights Out For the Territory’ described the headstones clustered around it as being:

‘like a school of grey fins circling the massive trunk feeding on the secretions of the dead.’

The tree’s final few years were being managed although it had been disturbed by recent storms at the time. It was an impressive sight with the tall ash tree or Fraximus Excelsior to give it the full Latin name, reaching for the sky.

A view of the Hardy Tree in 2019 with the church in the background. ©Carole Tyrrell
Closer view of the Hardy Tree from 2019 in which you can see how the stones and the tree had grown together. ©Carole Tyrrell

I visited the cemetery on New Year’s Day 2023 and the tree did look forlorn as it lay there. A visitor had placed a cut rose on top of a headstone in sympathy and tribute.  If you look closely at the base of the tree, headstones that had grown into it and had been uprooted with its fall can be seen. 

New Year’s Day 2023 and if you look at the end of the trunk you can see that the tree took some of the headstones embedded in it down with it. ©Carole Tyrrell

©Carole Tyrrell

Although the Hardy Tree seems to have ultimately been an urban myth; it is a tale of London and the great changes that the Industrial Revolution brought.  Someone collected the headstones so that the final record of their lives were not lost or broken up and forgotten.   It’s a record of the endless cycle of change and renewal of the capital as, chameleon like, it sheds its skin and becomes something else.  The tree was also part of literary London as Mary Wollstonecroft is buried in Old St Pancras.

But who knows?  Another tree may self seed itself and the Hardy Tree will be reborn again.

Dedicated to Jeane Trend-Hill, taphophile, Londoner and photographer who would have been the first on the scene with her camera. RIP.

©Text and photographs Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading

The London Dead: The Myth of the Hardy Tree; Old St. Pancras Churchyard

The Guardian view on the death of the Hardy Tree: a legend uprooted | Editorial | The Guardian

The Hardy Tree, a Beloved Fixture of a London Cemetery, Topples Over – The New York Times (

Thomas Hardy: Gravestone-encircled tree falls in Camden – BBC News


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.