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Palmer Cemetery - Kensington Burial Ground
by Ian Charlton

Fishtown residents have been laid to rest in Palmer Cemetery, or the Kensington Burial Ground, since before the American Revolution. This is because Anthony Palmer, a wealthy merchant, the president of Pennsylvania Provincial Council from 1747-1748, and the founder of Kensington, desired that his land "from the Delaware River on the south to Front Street in the north, and from Hanover Street (now Columbia Ave.) to York Street," have a burial ground in which all neighborhood residents could obtain free plots. Today the cemetery is bounded by the intersections of Palmer and Belgrade streets to the south and Memphis Street and Montgomery Avenue to the north.

The Lenni Lenape tribe had inhabited the land, which they called "Kachamensi" (the European settlers changed this to Shackamaxon), until Swedish farmers bought it in the 17th century. Lasse Cock was the Swede who patented the Shackamaxon Tract in 1664, and in 1681, Thomas Fairman, William Penn's deputy surveyor bought his property from the Swedish farmer. He built the Fairman Mansion near the historic Treaty Elm, on the space that would eventually become Penn Treaty Park. In 1729, Palmer purchased 191.5 acres from a descendent of Thomas Fairman. According to local historian Ken Milano, Palmer subdivided the 191.5 acres surrounding the mansion into lots "to develop his town of Kensington...and selling to shipbuilders, who were eager for waterfront property." While the burial ground was originally set for Palmer's family, by 1749 his daughter carried out his wish to have it made a public cemetery for all the residents of Kensington (Old or East Kensington was not yet referred to as Fishtown since Kensington's westward expansion occurred mostly in the 19th century).

The different major ethnicities-English, German, Irish, and Polish-that resided in the neighborhood over the past 250 years are clustered into different sections of the grounds, as burial patterns at the cemetery have reflected the changing ethnic makeup of the neighborhood. From the beginning, Palmer desired a school to be built at the cemetery, where both German and English would be taught-evidence of the high numbers of German Palatines living in Kensington at the time. These German immigrants eventually commingled with the British fisherman also living in the neighborhood. More recently, though space is scarce (bodies must be cremated before being buried there and lots thought to be vacant have to be double-checked), neighborhood residents are still buried at Palmer cemetery. The one requirement is still that one must live or own property in the neighborhood to have a free plot. Famous Fishtowners like John Hewson, revolutionary war hero and the first calico printer in the colonies and Emmanuel Eyre, shipbuilder for the Continental Army, as well as soldiers of the past two and a half centuries of war, members of the famous Cramp family, and ordinary people who have resided in Fishtown over that time span are buried together at Palmer Cemetery.


 

History of Kensington
 

 

Map of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania highlighting Kensington District prior to the Act of Consolidation, 1854

Anthony Palmer originally laid out "Kensington" as town in the 1730s. Palmer, a merchant from Barbados, had come to colonial Pennsylvania about 1704, invested in land, while continuing his mercantile business interests. He eventually turned to politics and was invited to join the Pennsylvania Council, which he did by 1710. When the local innkeeper Worthington put up the old Fairman Mansion for sale in 1729, Palmer purchased the mansion house and the surrounding 191½ acres and began laying out his town of Kensington, selling lots to a number of shipbuilders in nearby Philadelphia, who were looking to expand, or enlarge their businesses. The town of Kensington started around this shipbuilding industry. Kensington was named for the residence of the monarch in England, Kensington Palace. The early street names of Kensington also bore this out as they mimicked the titles of the crown; King Street (now Beach), Queen Street (now Richmond), Prince Street (now Girard Avenue) and Duke Street (now Thompson), etc. Due to his political longevity, Palmer eventually became the acting Governor of Pennsylvania in 1748-49, due to the absence of the governor who went back to England for health reasons. It was during Palmer's brief reign as acting governor that Kensington, for one day, was the working capital of the colony" the Council met there because Palmer, being old and infirm, was not able to travel into Philadelphia. Anthony Palmer died in May, 1749 and was laid to rest in Christ Church Burial Ground. The original "District of Kensington" consisting of little less then 200 acres, later became better known as "Fishtown", mainly because of the local shad fishing industry along the Delaware River, and the ship building industry up and down the waterfront.

By 1820, Kensington started to become a manufacturing center and with it began to acquire men of wealth, who petitioned the state to become a self-governing district within Philadelphia County, as at the time it was a part of the Northern Liberties Township. It was granted self rule, and incorporated on March 6, 1820. For 34 years, Kensington was a self-governing district within the County of Philadelphia. In 1854, Kensington joined with the other towns, boroughs, and districts of Philadelphia County and consolidated with the City of Philadelphia. This was said to have been necessary due to utility and policing reasons (Kensington had been the scene of the start of the Anti-Irish Catholic Riots that occurred in Philadelphia County in May & July 1844).

Over the years the town of Kensington (including Fishtown) expanded and became quite successful and quite well known as the heart of Philadelphia's industrial heyday. When Philadelphians referred to things being "Made in Philadelphia", most of what they referred to was manufactured in Kensington. There was another saying that "If you can't get it at K & A (Kensington & Allegheny Avenues) you can't get." Kensington was the place where a number of notable industries were founded such as William Cramp Shipyard, John B. Stetson Hat Company, Schoenhut Toy Factory, Bromley Mills, and Disston’s Keystone Saw Works, amongst numerous other businesses. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, Kensington at one time had 35,000 textile jobs alone.

VIEW FROM PALMER STREET

VIEW OF PALMER CEMETERY & ELM TREE POST 88

CEMETERY LOOKING TOWARDS MONTGOMERY AVENUE

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