Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Dr Chris Brooks, National Chair, The Victorian Society (CEM 121)


  1.  The cemetery buildings created during the great period of British cemetery design—from the 1820s to the early decades of the twentieth century—make a richly varied, distinctive, and often distinguished contribution to the country's historic architecture.

  2.  Cemeteries required a unique combination of building types. Many had an imposing entrance, often in the form of an arch, with associated lodges containing the cemetery registry, administrative offices, various provisions for the staff who maintained the grounds, and, not infrequently, living accommodation for the cemetery superintendent and his family. Substantial perimeter walls or railings demarcated the cemetery as distinct and special space, reserved from its surroundings. Chapels were built within the grounds specifically designed to provide a seemly and appropriate architectural setting for burial services. The first cemeteries had a single chapel, but, as cemeteries began to be used by the established church as well as dissenters, it became standard to provide two chapels, one for Anglicans and one for Nonconformists. The great municipal cemeteries laid out after the Burial Acts of the 1850s often increased this number, with separate provision made for Roman Catholics and Jews. In addition to such structures, a number of major cemeteries, particularly in the early part of the period, included substantial catacomb ranges.

  3.  The provision of cemetery chapels gave rise to a new building type, a composite structure in which two symmetrical chapels, set either parallel to one another or end to end, are linked by a porte-coche"re that is often surmounted by a tower and spire. There are numerous variants, with a double or triple porte-coche"re or with the porte-cochere linked to the chapels by an open arcade or a glazed and traceried corridor. An alternative type of composite treatment was a T-plan, with one chapel occupying the vertical element of the T and the other the horizontal, often with a cemetery office between the two.

  4.  The design of cemetery buildings covered the whole range of nineteenth-century historicist styles. In the early, privately-funded cemeteries of the late 1820s and 1830s the style usually adopted was that of the Greek Revival, very much the language of late Georgian civic improvement: good examples survive in Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, York and—most impressive of all—London's Kensal Green. The funerary architecture of Egypt also provided an associatively appropriate starting point for revival: there are Egyptian or Graeco-Egyptian cemetery buildings in Leeds, Sheffield and London's Abney Park and Egyptian was famously adopted for the catacomb range in Highgate Cemetery.

  Renaissance styles also made an occasional appearance: the finest example is Brompton Cemetery in London, begun in 1840. The first use of Gothic dates from the mid-1830s at London's West Norwood Cemetery, where only the entrance arch now survives from the original complement of structures, and Gothic has a place in the stylistic eclecticism of the buildings erected for Highgate, Abney Park and Nunhead. However, larger changes in architectural culture, particularly the identification of Gothic and medieval style with Christian belief, ensured the eventual triumph of Gothic as the most fitting mode for cemeteries. When the 1850s Burial Acts brought about the great High Victorian cemetery-building campaign, medievalist styles—Norman, Early English, Decorated, Perpendicular—were universally adopted: for metropolitan cemeteries like the City of London or St Pancras and Islington; for municipal cemeteries in industrial cities like Birmingham and Liverpool; for the new cemeteries laid out in cathedral cities like Exeter; and for the small rural cemeteries on the edge of country towns from Cornwall to Cumbria. Gothic continued dominant until the early twentieth century, though architectural developments in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods were registered in the design of cemetery buildings, and there were occasional stylistic alternatives: the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement is evident in Great Yarmouth's Caister Cemetery and Birmingham's Handsworth; the impact of the English Vernacular Revival is apparent at Hendon, and the Queen Anne Revival in the design of the lodges at Tring; an eclectic Jacobean style was adopted for Willesden. The emergence of cremation in the first years of the twentieth century produced the Italianate buildings of Golders Green, a style repeated in the crematorium added to St Marylebone Cemetery in the 1930s. But most crematorium architecture has been bland or utilitarian, a solitary exception being Ruislip Cemetery in Middlesex, a genuine product of Modernism built in the late 1950s.

  5.  Providing appropriate building solutions for the needs of cemeteries was a central concern for the Victorian architectural profession, particularly between the 1830s and 1870s. A number of major architects designed cemeteries: Sir William Tite, architect of the Royal Exchange, designed West Norwood Cemetery; the office of Sir George Gilbert Scott, designer of the Albert Memorial, was responsible for the buildings of Camberwell and Ludlow cemeteries; Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Natural History Museum, designed the lodge and chapels of the Lancashire's Ince-in-Makerfield Cemetery; the major Arts and Crafts practitioner, W H Bidlake, was the architect of Handsworth; Sir Ernest George, leading late Victorian and Edwardian country house architect, designed the crematorium buildings of Golders Green. Many cemetery buildings were also designed by men with major regional practices: John Foster of Liverpool was the architect of St James's Cemetery in the city; Newcastle General Cemetery was the work of John Dobson, responsible for so much of the city's civic architecture in the 1820s and 1830s; Charles Underwood of Bristol designed Arno's Vale Cemetery there; E F Law of Northampton was responsible for the design of Wellingborough Cemetery; Exeter Higher Cemetery was designed by one of the leading West Country ecclesiastical architects, Edward Ashworth. Because the Burial Acts of the 1850s led to such extensive cemetery-building throughout Britain, there were also a number of architectural firms who developed an expertise and thus a specialism in their design. Most remarkable, perhaps, was the firm of James Pigott Pritchett jnr, which, in the 1850s and 1860s, built cemeteries in Northumberland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, East Anglia and London. Other firms tended to operate on a regional basis: John Barnett and W C Birch in London, T D Barry in Liverpool and south Lancashire, Pearson Bellamy and J Spence Hardy in the east Midlands, W F Poulton and W H Woodman in southern England. The range of architects involved in cemetery design—national figures, regional practitioners, specialist firms—is indicative of the architectural importance of cemeteries in the period; and is characteristic of other major nineteenth-century building types, such as churches, schools and hospitals.

  6.  The architectural importance of historic cemeteries is not restricted to its buildings. The nineteenth-century culture of commemoration resulted in the creation of grand tombs and architecturally-inspired monuments on an unparalleled scale. All substantial nineteenth-century cemeteries contain—or at least contained—tombs of architectural significance, and almost every cemetery of the period, no matter how small, contains—or contained—monuments displaying architectural and craft qualities of a high order. The range is enormous, from individual chest-tombs to family mausolea in the grand manner, and, like the cemetery buildings themselves, it embraces all the nineteenth-century historicist styles. The greatest concentrations are in the London cemeteries: Kensal Green, Highgate, West Norwood, Brompton, Abney Park among the privately-established cemeteries of the 1830s and 1840s; City of London, Hampstead, St Pancras and Islington, St Marylebone, among others of the Burial Board cemeteries. But there are also collections of great importance in historic cemeteries outside the capital: at Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, at Arno's Vale in Bristol, at Key Hill in Birmingham, at Church Cemetery in Nottingham, at Undercliffe in Bradford, at the General Cemetery in Newcastle—to name only a selection. A very high proportion of leading Victorian architects designed monuments—of all sorts and sizes—for cemeteries. West Norwood, to take one of the best examples, has tombs by Thomas Allom, Edward Middleton Barry, George and Peto, George Godwin, John Oldrid Scott, George Edmund Street, William Tite and Alfred Waterhouse. The work of leading sculptors is also found along with that of the architects. Kensal Green, for instance, has—or had, before vandalism took its toll—sculpture and statuary by William Behnes, Joseph Durham, John Robert, Foley, John Graham Lough, Matthew Noble, Edward Physick and Robert William Sievier—to mention only the better known artists. Scarcely less impressive were some of the commissions carried out by commercial firms of monumental masons: Kensal Green has ambitious combinations of architecture and sculpture by the local workshops of J S Farley and F M Lander. Finally—in what can only be the barest indication of the quality and variety that is to be found—there are cemeteries that contain family mausolea on the scale of private chapels, some of them indeed even functioning as such: particularly dramatic examples include the Beer mausoleum at Highgate by John Oldrid Scott, West Norwood's Ralli mortuary chapel, the Glenesk chapel at St Marylebone designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield and C F Hansom's Eyre mortuary chapel at Perrymead Roman Catholic Cemetery in Bath.

  7.  During the second half of the twentieth century, particularly between the 1950s and early 1980s, extensive damage was inflicted on historic cemeteries. Much of this was ostensibly in the cause of rationalisation, intended to delivery cheaper management and maintenance. Invariably, schemes of rationalisation began with the clearance of whole areas of monuments, followed by the levelling of planting and landscape features, and the demolition of buildings. In the last category, numerous chapels, no longer used for burial services, have been destroyed; lodges have also gone, catacomb ranges have been sealed, and boundary walls been dismantled. Because almost all cemeteries have been managed under the terms of the 1977 Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order, such destruction has been effectively condoned and institutionalised because the Order makes no mention of the cultural, architectural, or historical significance of cemeteries. Where deliberate destruction has not been pursued as a matter of policy, neglect has often left major cemeteries uncared for and seemingly abandoned. This has been an open invitation to theft and vandalism: as a result, important tombs have been irreparably damaged and buildings gutted. The response of cemetery authorities has frequently been demolition or, at best, crude measures to make structures like mausolea secure.

  8.  In the last 15 years the overall situation with regard to the conservation of historic cemeteries has improved considerably. The publication of a number of scholarly studies of cemeteries and of nineteenth-century commemorative culture has greatly enhanced our understanding of the importance of the whole field. English Heritage, having commissioned a theme study of cemeteries in 1994, has been able to recommend a substantial number of cemetery buildings and monuments for statutory protection. Public concern has been reflected in the creation of a number of Friends groups attached to specific historic cemeteries, and these groups have done admirable work in pressing for protection and conservation, and in raising consciousness. Environmental groups have also stressed the importance of historic cemeteries as nature resources, particularly in urban areas, and this has helped considerably towards their preservation. As a consequence of these various initiatives, wholesale clearance as an answer to the problems of managing historic cemeteries has largely been abandoned. At the same time, experience has shown that, when cemeteries are evidently being carried for, even at a relatively low level, casual vandalism reduces substantially.

  9.  Pressures on historic cemeteries remain severe, however, and they offer genuine problems of management. Where cemeteries remain in use, there are difficulties reconciling the need to continue burying with the demands of conservation; regular maintenance of historic cemetery buildings and frequently elaborate monuments is demanding in terms both of expertise and of labour; because the costs involved, the conservation of cemeteries is likely to have a low priority within the hard-pressed budgets of local authorities. Moreover, such pressures are likely to be exacerbated by the growing shortage of burial space in urban areas. Nevertheless, cemeteries constitute an extraordinary resource: uniquely they combine cultural and community history, architecture and landscape design, sculpture and craft, with wildlife habitat and natural history. This makes them exceptional, and makes they worth every effort at conservation.

  10.  Specific measures should be taken to ensure the proper management of historic cemeteries and, where necessary, to enhance statutory protection. And because the architectural aspects of cemeteries are indivisible from their other heritage and environmental qualities, such measures always need to be conceived in terms of an integrated approach.

    (i)  Legislation should be amended so that cemetery authorities have a statutory responsibility to pay due regard to the historic character of any cemetery they are managing.

    (ii)  The English Heritage programme of listing cemetery buildings and monuments needs more urgency, and should, if possible, be based upon a national survey of cemeteries to take stock of the national resource.

    (iii)  Because cemeteries are unique in their combination of the historic built environment and the natural environment they should be uniquely designated to ensure an integrated approach to their conservation and future management. To ensure this, thought should be given to the creation of a special category of conservation area, to be called a Cemetery Conservation Area.

  11.  Such formal measures can only go so far. Ultimately, the future of historic cemeteries rests with the whole community. The growth in public concern for cemeteries in recent years has already been noted: it needs to be actively encouraged and built upon. Part of the brief for managing cemeteries should be the involvement of the local community, the people for whom the unique combination of resources afforded by historic cemeteries would be of greatest benefit. There are many ways of doing this: the use of cemeteries as local study centres for schools, and in general as an educational resource; encouraging the understanding of cemeteries, for the purposes both of education and management, as sites that uniquely combine the man-made and the natural; including cemeteries in town trails and heritage walks; providing guide-books and histories; actively welcoming the participation of local interest groups in planning the future of historic cemeteries, and encouraging the formation of Friends organisations. In 2000, Lambeth Council commissioned Land Use Consultants to produce a long-term management strategy for West Norwood Cemetery: the brief was to provide for an integrated approach that would allow the continued use of the cemetery for burial, the conservation of historic structures and monuments and the conservation of wildlife habitat, and the participation of the local community. Whatever the merits of the particular plan that emerges, such initiatives are very much the way forward. They should be supported by the kinds of measures, formal and informal, outlined here.

January 20001

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