Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Ancient Monuments Society (CEM 86)

  1.  I should begin by making it quite clear that the Society takes its name from "ancient monuments" in the sense of historic structures rather than "monuments" in the sense of memorials. Even so, we have a close interest in memorials in cemeteries, churchyards and churches, but express that interest in the context of the study of historic buildings as a whole. The Ancient Monuments Society was founded in 1924 in Manchester and covers historic buildings of all ages and all types in all parts of the United Kingdom. We are a statutory consultee on applications for the demolition of listed buildings in whole or part (including the occasional monument) in England and in Wales.

  2.  We take the Committee's use of the word "cemeteries" as being conscious in its wish to differentiate from "churchyards" and we therefore pass only limited comment on these. Between them they provide the country's single greatest legacy of vernacular art of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, they are an invaluable source for local history and local identity, they provide the context of some of the country's greatest places of worship and, it has to be said that in most cases, they are well cared for. There are glaring and distressing exceptions but most Anglican Chancellors now enforce the tenets of "The Churchyard Handbook" which is conservationist in its approach and expressly rules out the vandalistic clearances which disgraced the 1960s and 1970s. Even where churches and chapels fall out of use and are converted to secular function, planning authorities and/or the ecclesiastical authorities will normally insist on the retention of headstones and other monuments. There are, however, very real problems occasioned by the sheer size of some churchyards, confusion over ownership of the monuments themselves which in theory belong to the "heirs at law" of the deceased, and the sheer costs of repair—many 18th century chest tombs require dismantling, the removal of cramps and re-erection once they become unstable. Churchyards out of use are the responsibility of the local authority in England and the Community Council in Wales. However, there are examples of such public bodies which do not live up to their responsibilities in this respect. Recently Durham City Council wilfully destroyed a large number of monuments in closed churchyards in the city centre in order to remove supposedly dangerous elements in a way that was so brutal that the local press reported it as the work of vandals unknown (until the local authority admitted responsibility).

  3.  The Sub-committee has given certain agenda items. I am afraid time does not allow anything other than superficial comments on each, but I trust nevertheless that these thoughts will be of use:

  (a)  "The environmental, historical and cultural significance of cemeteries for local communities". The significance of cemeteries in historic, conservation, ecological, visual and aesthetic terms is enormous. An unrivalled account of the richness of the legacy and the problems that it faces is embodied in "Mortal Remains, The History and Present State of the Victorian and Edwardian Cemetery" edited by Dr Chris Brooks and published by Wheaton in association with the Victorian Society from whom I understand copies can be obtained. This came out in 1989 and clearly some of its observations are out of date, but most of its insights remain true.

  4.  The great cemeteries of the United Kingdom provide some of the most intense poetic and melancholy experiences that visitors can undergo. This is particularly true of the great Necropolis at Glasgow, the ring of 19th century cemeteries skirting London, as at Highgate, Nunhead, Kensal Green and, further out, at Brookwood near Woking. The significance "for local communities" is such that many of the greatest examples have been championed by societies and trusts formed locally. Perhaps the leading body in this respect is the "Friends of Highgate Cemetery" but there is also York Cemetery Trust which took over that city's great Neo-Classical Cemetery in 1988, the Friends of the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich, the equivalent body for Undercliffe in Bradford, and the more recent group formed in respect of Arno's Vale in Bristol. As the enclosed extracts from "Mortal Remains" show, there was a distressing spate of demolition of chapels and flattening of monuments in the 1960s, 1970s and indeed even in the 1980s. The threat continues and there have been a number of applications in recent years to demolish or make controlled ruins out of listed cemetery chapels. One of the greatest examples in the North-West, the Flaybrick Cemetery Chapels at Birkenhead, are now little more than a ruin despite their Grade II* listing.

  It is worth remembering too that cemeteries were set up not just to bury the dead but to stir the Muses among the living. The great Victorian architectural writer, John Claudius Loudon in his influential book "On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries" of 1843 trumpeted what in fact was the universally accepted viewpoint that churchyards and cemeteries "properly designed, laid out, ornamented with tombs, planted with trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants . . . would improve the morals and taste of society at large. They would serve as historical records and become a school of instruction in architecture, sculpture, landscape gardening, arboreal culture and botany". Nearly all the cemeteries were planned with tree lined avenues along which the public, and not just mourners, were expected to walk. The same appreciation of the multi-layered importance of cemeteries is manifested today among those who value them not just as repositories of works of art in the form of the monuments but "green lungs" in densely built inner city areas, with much wildlife actively encouraged. "Mortal Remains" examines the importance of cemeteries through the study and conservation of flora, trees, insects and birds. Highgate Cemetery remains North London's largest haven for the urban fox.

  (b)  "The Condition of Existing Cemeteries". We are not aware that there is an overall assessment of the current condition of the nation's cemeteries other than that attempted in a voluntary capacity by the Victorian Society. Some of the problems are highlighted above and they are very acute. Most cemeteries are now owned by local authorities and just as the Environment Sub-Committee found shameful neglect among the country's Urban Parks, the same is also true in certain areas in respect of cemeteries. Some local authorities have acted responsibly, as for example Sheffield City Council which bought that city's wonderfully evocative cemetery in 1979, but with others the record is not so good. Even where money is spent it is sometimes allocated largely to comply with the inflexible interpretation of Health and Safety Rules which regard any monument that is leaning (as many eventually do as the burial underneath settles) as being potentially "dangerous" and therefore a candidate for destruction. It is sometimes overlooked that many of the great Victorian necropolises were set up as private companies and as these are "buried up" they become not an asset but a liability. Some, as for example the General Cemetery Company which owns Kensal Green in North-West London, act responsibly and indeed that company has sponsored a group of local Friends and is in discussion with the National Trust about that body taking over Kensal Green once it is full up. We would strongly support the vesting of such cemeteries with the National Trust although we are very conscious that the NT would require very generous endowment before it could consider that. The only possible source for such largesse would be the National Lottery and, in particular, the Heritage Lottery Fund.

  (c)  "The Roles and Responsibility of the DETR and other Government Departments and agencies in the management and protection of cemeteries and public policy on cemeteries and crematoria". Government has and can give a lead in a number of areas.

  Firstly, the DCMS is responsible for the programme of listing. Individual monuments within cemeteries as well as cemetery chapels, lodges and boundary walls can be protected through listing, whilst local planning authorities can serve tree preservation orders to protect the best specimens. They can also, as they have done, declare the whole of cemeteries conservation areas in order to concentrate the mind on those responsible for their upkeep. Conservation area designation brings control over the lopping, topping and felling of trees more than three inches in girth. However the listing programme is extremely selective in its protection of monuments and only those of real quality are given that protection. We would welcome further direction by the DETR and other Government departments to ensure that local planning authorities and other decision makers understand the significance of 19th and 20th century cemeteries and allocate appropriate resources towards their upkeep. The Standard Spending Assessment compiled by the DETR should pay due regard to the expense which local authorities should incur in maintaining these highly sensitive areas in a presentable, appropriate and seemly way. There should also be active discouragement of any redevelopment of cemeteries except those areas of surplus land without burials where the visual quality is low and where there is no need for the provision of burial space.

  (d)  "The Funding and Economic Viability of Cemeteries including funding from National Lottery distributing bodies". Whilst English Heritage and other quangos funded from taxation can grant aid the repair of the monuments, EH having recently launched a specific campaign to fund the repair of war memorials, sizeable amounts of money are only likely to be available from the National Lottery and in particular the Heritage Lottery Fund. The HLF has displayed an open-minded attitude in helping to tackle the problem of cemeteries and has apparently indicated its willingness to consider certain of them as "Urban Parks" and therefore eligible for assistance under its programme of help for these sites, (where almost £200 million has so far been allocated). One of its first grants was to the disused cemetery chapel at Grove Cemetery, Richmond-upon-Thames in Surrey, which was taken over by a local Environment Trust to serve as a meeting and advice centre. More recently it has given money to Canterbury City Council to conserve and safeguard the ancient Jewish cemetery in that city. Our recent contact with the local group of Friends formed to champion the City Cemetery at Sheffield indicates that they intend to approach HLF with a view of substantial funding to conserve that outstanding survival. The threat facing the great Victorian, Edwardian and 20th century cemeteries constitutes a growing conservation crisis and HLF must be a key player in addressing it.

  (e)  "Other Matters". There are subsidiary crises too manifested in the current condition of cemeteries owned by non-Christian denominations. There are a number of significant abandoned or quasi-abandoned Jewish cemeteries with a particularly memorable if not especially large example at Chatham in Kent. In recent years there has been an application to redevelop a significant Jewish burial ground in the London Borough of Islington despite the fact that it contains several significant monuments, including one to Levy, founder of the Daily Telegraph, and David Mocatta, architect of, amongst other buildings, the great railway viaduct at Balcombe in Sussex and the railway station at Brighton.

  4.  I apologise to the Committee that I have set a number of hares racing rather than come up with definitive solutions. However shortage of time precludes much else and I am very conscious that we do not claim particular specialism in this area. What we do have is a great concern for, and appreciation of, the extraordinary rich legacy that the 19th and 20th centuries have left the present generation in the great cemeteries of the United Kingdom. If we can assist the Committee further in its investigation we are of course at its disposal.

Matthew Saunders

December 2000

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