The Forgotten Necropolis

The Treasures of Bath Abbey Cemetery

Lucy Rutherford


  Bath Abbey Cemetery beneath a dusting of snow  
The cemetery chapel seen from the east. In the foreground is
the stone cross which marks the grave of Revd Sydney Boyd,
Rector of Bath Abbey 1901-38. 

Bath Abbey Cemetery at Lyncombe Vale, not far from the city centre, is situated in one of the most beautiful locations in Bath. Entered by high gates on the main road, it slopes sharply up towards a lawn in front of the chapel, from where there are magnificent views across Widcombe to the city beyond. The chapel which is Anglo-Norman in style, forms the focal point of the cemetery. Although the building was originally intended to have two cloister wings on either side, this plan was never carried out; a fact which may account for its somewhat squat appearance. Ninety catacombs were built underneath the chapel, the steps which lead to the underground entrance are still visible today.

The cemetery was built in 1844 in response to an acute shortage of burial space which Bath, in common with all of Britain’s towns and cities, was experiencing. The then rector of Bath Abbey, William Brodrick, commissioned one of the most significant landscape architects of the day to design an out-of-town cemetery, following the example of large cemeteries such as Kensal Green in London. John Claudius Loudon (1783-1844) was a talented and energetic Scotsman, the author of numerous books including The Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1831), The Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture (1832), and founder of the influential Gardener’s Magazine. In 1843 he had published On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries (see Recommended Reading, below), a collection of earlier articles which crystallised his innovative ideas on cemetery building and management.

As the last of only three cemeteries designed by Loudon (the other two were at Southampton and Cambridge), Bath Abbey cemetery has a national significance, and this alone was sufficient to ensure its inclusion in 1996 in the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England. It is, however, significant for another reason. It is also a superb example of the principles of the Garden Cemetery Movement (see Recommended Reading). Loudon was a passionate exponent of this philosophy which believed that cemeteries should be beautiful, well-maintained and accessible green spaces which could act as places of recreation. The Abbey cemetery must surely rank as an unparalleled example of this principle at work.

  Cemetery map
  A plan of Bath Abbey cemetery as laid out in 1844, held by Bath Abbey archives. The plan is signed by the architect, George Manners.
  Monument in the style of a classical temple
  One of many fine neo-classical monuments and one of the earliest in the cemetery, this one commemorates Charles Pratt who was buried here in May 1844.

Locally, the cemetery is one of the most important out of a large number of 19th century cemeteries in Bath. The chapel was designed and built by George Manners, who, in the 1830s carried out an extensive restoration of the Abbey, and as Surveyor of Works for the Bath Corporation, built a large proportion of the buildings which can still be seen in Bath today. Many of the tombs are splendid examples of the work of Samuel Rogers and his sons, a family of Abbey vergers who took advantage of the opportunities provided by the new cemetery to establish a successful monumental stonemasonry business. The most notable burial was probably that of the eccentric novelist and fine art collector William Beckford, who was buried in a large granite tomb in front of the chapel in 1844. There is also a rare example of a Crimean War Memorial, dedicated in 1856.

In its early years the Abbey cemetery was a fashionable and profitable enterprise which, according to Brodrick’s return for the 1851 Ecclesiastical Census, was bringing in an annual income of £500 within seven years of opening. In common with most Victorian cemeteries, however, profits inevitably declined as burial space was used up and cremations grew in popularity. Following the second world war, the Abbey cemetery faced a period of sustained decline. Church working parties attempted to carry on the necessary maintenance during the 1970s and ’80s, but these were unable to stem the growing tide of brambles and weeds. After the sale of the cemetery lodge in the 1960s there was no longer a permanent caretaker, leading to regular episodes of vandalism and the theft of gardening equipment, and the chapel itself became increasingly unsound. In 1995 the cemetery was formally closed and responsibility for its maintenance transferred to the then Bath City Council, in accordance with the provisions of the Local Government Act (1972).

This did not prove to be the end of the cemetery’s problems. In the years since its closure there have inevitably been difficulties in establishing an allocation of responsibility for maintenance. This has recently been clarified: the local authority (Bath and North-East Somerset at the time of writing) is responsible for the grounds, walls, and the trees, while the Abbey remains responsible for the chapel.

Gravestones present perhaps the greatest difficulty. Their maintenance is the responsibility of the families who own the plots, but in practice very few continue to do this. Fortunately, the cemetery has so far avoided the threat of gravestones being laid flat in order to make them safe, but many monuments are in very poor condition, and the costs involved in restoring them are prohibitive. In 1992, for example, the city council spent nearly £9,000 on the repair of just two tombs. At the same time, the Abbey cemetery is only one of a number of cemeteries in the city for which the local authority is responsible. Although over the years it has put considerable resources into repairing the chapel and entrance gates, it is not difficult to see why only the most basic maintenance, such as cutting back the undergrowth and brambles which takes place twice a year, is possible.

With so many financially hard-pressed churches and local authorities struggling to maintain their Victorian cemeteries, we cannot avoid asking whether they serve any further purpose to the communities in which they are located. Loudon himself put forward four main purposes: first and most obvious was the hygienic disposal of the dead; second, the improvement of moral taste, especially within the working classes; third, to be a ‘school of instruction’ in architecture, sculpture, landscape-gardening and so on; and last, to be a historical record.

In the case of a closed cemetery the primary purpose of disposal of the dead is now almost entirely redundant, although interments occasionally take place in reserved or family plot; while Loudon’s somewhat lofty aspiration of improving the moral taste of society strikes few resonances today. With his last two objectives, however, we can perhaps begin to see a way forward for closed cemeteries.

  Neoclassical memorial incorporating an inscribed column with a rope moulding to the top surmounted by a rising Phoenix View from the cemetery with obelisk to left and city of Bath through trees in the distance
  Left: The unusual memorial to John Lambe, pay-master in the Royal Navy, buried May 1865. The beautifully carved phoenix and coiled rope refer to his former service on HMS Phoenix. Right: View to the north looking out over the city of Bath

In particular, Loudon’s emphasis on the role of cemeteries as a historical record for its local community is as relevant today as it was in the 1840s. Cemeteries, with their buildings, monuments and archives, provide what Loudon called a ‘local history and biography’. So it is not only the physical site but also the records associated with that site which need to be preserved.

Loudon was careful to specify the types of records which cemeteries should maintain and fortunately in the case of the Abbey cemetery these have all survived. The burial registers, the account books, the burial order books and the cemetery map book are heavily used by local historians. If cemeteries are to continue be used by their local communities, it is vital that all such records are preserved, since they are the key to interpreting the history of these sites. Although family historians have always used the inscriptions on monuments themselves, the written and photographic records provide so much more information – some of which can only be found in these records.

One more benign consequence of neglect is that the cemetery has become a haven for wildlife, including badgers and for some rarer forms of brambles and lichens and this aspect can sometimes be useful in drawing public or official attention to an individual site.

There is, however, a delicate balance to be maintained between the idea of preserving cemeteries as a place of recreation or as a wildlife haven, and the needs of local historians, and, it must be remembered, people visiting their own family graves. We will never be able to return to the neatly-manicured cemeteries of the 19th century but too much wildlife, and paths become difficult to navigate and gravestones inaccessible with their inscriptions obliterated by ivy and brambles. On the other hand, although gravestones must be made safe, it is simply unrealistic to expect each individual monument to be restored to its original condition. Pragmatism dictates that only the most significant should be conserved, while as much information is recorded as possible about the others.

  Chest tomb showing signs of collapsing into void below Headstones and monument completely covered by plant growth  
  Left: The tomb of Benjamin Plim Bellamy, actor and proprietor of the Assembly Rooms in Bath, buried Oct 1847. One of several tombs which have been sectioned off due to their dangerous condition. Right: Two overgrown headstones and a neoclassical monument take on the appearance of shubbery in a wild corner of the cemetery  

With improved co-operation between the Abbey and the local authority, these two (sometimes competing) needs are now being well-catered for. For the Abbey, it is the maintenance of the chapel that has proved to be the most intractable problem. After years of neglect the building is structurally weakened and costly to repair and maintain. This, plus its isolated situation has meant that it is impossible to insure the chapel for more than the cost of clearing the site if it were to be severely damaged.

A proposed solution has been to enter into negotiations with the Orthodox Church with a view to passing on the chapel for use as a place of worship. This would have clear benefits, not only by improving the maintenance of the building, but in presenting a visible presence which would act as a deterrent to vandals and help to solve the insurance difficulties.

As part of this project an application for planning permission to develop a piece of land to the west of the chapel, by building one or perhaps two houses, is being prepared. This would fund necessary work to the chapel, such as installing electricity, water and sewerage, and incidentally alleviate the isolation which currently makes the cemetery difficult to police.

Interest in cemeteries is no longer confined to members of the churches which they originally served. Now that the more practical issues are in hand, the way is clear for the Abbey cemetery to be developed as a resource for the local community and the city of Bath. Generating publicity and encouraging more visitors to the cemetery is an important part of this strategy. Two Tombstone Trail leaflets by a local historian Andrew Ellis, designed to be taken on walks around the cemetery, have been produced. An exhibition about the history of the cemetery, with material from the Abbey archives is on display in the Abbey’s Heritage Vaults museum and several lectures and tours around the cemetery and chapel have taken place in the last year. Sometimes only very simple changes are required.

The notice on the entrance gates has for many years read ‘Bath Abbey Cemetery: Private’ so unsurprisingly, many visitors assumed that the cemetery was closed to the public. The notice has recently been changed to ‘Bath Abbey Cemetery: Visitors Welcome’, which it is hoped will encourage more visitors and dog-walkers into the cemetery. An information board has been set up just inside the entrance gates. Local history and residents groups have also worked hard to promote interest in the cemetery in the Bath area and, on occasion, to bring pressure to bear on the local authority to improve its maintenance regime.

  Two-stage Greek Revival monument with crossed palm relief decoration
  On the left a monument in the Greek Revival style commemorates Ann Partis who founded Partis College in Bath, a home for ‘gentlewomen’ which is still in existence.

Further measures are also under consideration, for example, the possibility of extending a public walk from the neighbouring Prior Park Estate, owned by the National Trust, into the Abbey cemetery. Other practical measures might include the formation of a monument recording group and a ‘Friends’ of Bath Abbey Cemetery. The recent successful application by the Friends of St Mary’s-next-St John’s Cemetery in Bath for Heritage Lottery Funding will pay for the restoration of another local cemetery and holds out the possibility of obtaining funding for some of these projects.

The future of sites such as the Abbey cemetery will depend on them fulfilling different functions for a variety of users. Clearly, they remain places for families to come and remember their dead, and must be maintained accordingly but closed cemeteries will inevitably be used less and less in this way. Increasingly their role as beautiful and tranquil green spaces, often situated close to busy city centres, will come to the fore. With the growing popularity of genealogy and cultural services promoting local history as a leisure activity, cemeteries could become an intrinsic part of the heritage sector. It is in fulfilling Loudon’s vision of cemeteries as places of recreation, embedded in their communities and providing that all-important ‘local history and biography’, that these historic cemeteries will find their raison d’être for the 21st century.


Recommended Reading

JS Curl, 'John Claudius Loudon and the Garden Cemetery Movement', Garden History, No 2, 1983

JC Loudon, On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries; reprinted with an introduction by JS Curl, Ivelet Books Ltd, Redhill, 1981


Historic Churches, 2005


LUCY RUTHERFORD is the archivist for Bath Abbey.


The author wishes to acknowledge the help of Charles Curnock (abbey administrator), Andrew Ellis (author of the Tombstone Trail leaflets) and Alan Morley (cemetery development manager).

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