Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery (CEM 34)


  Arnos Vale Cemetery is a 45-acre Victorian Cemetery located between the A4 Bath Road and the A37 Wells Road in Bristol. It was planned as a Greek-style Necropolis and landscaped using trees and plants noted in classical legend. Its Arcadian Garden (Grade II) contains four buildings designed principally by architect Charles Underwood—two Entrance Lodges (both Grade II*), an Anglican Mortuary Chapel (Grade II*) and a Non-Conformist Chapel (Grade II*). Several of these buildings are now on the English Heritage "Buildings At Risk" Register. In addition to the Listed buildings and Garden, there are also a number of monuments which are also listed, for example, the tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy, the great Indian social reformer who died whilst visiting Bristol in 1833. This magnificent Grade II* monument provides a valuable multi-cultural aspect to Arnos Vale.

  The whole Cemetery site is of considerable ecological importance, having progressed from mediaeval countryside through Georgian estate to Victorian Cemetery without the use of chemical pesticides or insecticides. It also forms a major part of the Arnos Vale Conservation Area set up in 1996 by the Bristol City Council and encompassing other cemeteries and major features in the Arnos Vale District of Bristol.


  In the early part of the 1800s, nationwide outbreaks of Asiatic cholera made burial in local churchyards a risky business. Pollution of the local water supplies became widespread, and in addition the relatively small churchyards quickly began to fill up because the frequently-fatal dangers to health increased the demand for burial ground. Also, particularly in this country, the practice of moving mortal remains from churchyards after an appropriate period of interment—usually to the charnal houses—sat very uneasily on the shoulders of the Church and its belief in the resurrection. Therefore, at the beginning of the 19th Century, many large towns and cities saw the establishment of large cemeteries by joint stock companies which, as well as solving the health problems, recognised an opportunity to realise profit on their investment. One such cemetery was Arnos Vale and in 1837 a private Act of Parliament established the Bristol General Cemetery Company which still controls Arnos Vale Cemetery today.

  When, in the 1850s, the idea of burial for profit became frowned-upon by the general public, and local authorities began to set up their own cemeteries, the Bristol General Cemetery Company wielded sufficient political influence to prevent any change in the status quo. The Burial in Towns Act had closed the old city churchyards, but Arnos Vale was the only place of burial in Bristol until the City Council opened a cemetery at Greenbank in 1896!


  All through the reigns of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, the residents of Bristol continued to bury their dead in Arnos Vale and the Arcadian Garden and terraced slopes above continued to receive the leaders of Bristol, several Lord Mayors and an American Consul. The names of many prominent families appear on elaborate memorials. Members of the Wills tobacco and Robinson packaging families; George Muller, Mary Carpenter and Raja Rammohun Roy rest in the Arcadian Garden and its perimeter. Among the ordinary citizens resting nearby are at least two survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, a police officer murdered in Old Market whilst trying to intervene in a fight over the ill-treatment of a donkey, and perhaps the notorious Mary "Princess Caraboo" Baker, who managed to pursuade the Squire of Almondsbury that she was an Eastern Princess. Much further down the rigid Victorian social scale are the unmarked mounds of the common graves of the poor and the flat grave markers of the guinea graves of those whose friends and relations had managed to collect the required twenty-one shillings and thus avoid a pauper's burial.

  As the years rolled by, the burial space filled up and the top plateau to the south was encompassed by a further Act of Parliament in 1891. To try to halt the decline in income which occurred as municipal facilities were opened, the Non-Conformist Chapel was converted to a crematorium in 1928 and a Garden of Rest was created for the scattering of ashes, together with a cloister for mounting memorial slabs. From that time, cremations became an increasingly important part of the Cemetery Company's activities, and indeed vital to its economic viability, as income from interments inevitably decreased as the Cemetery filled up.

  Arnos Vale also contains a considerable number of individual war graves, a small military cemetery with a Cross of Sacrifice, and a splendid First World War Memorial which is a nicely detailed classical stone arcade built into the hillside close to the Northern (Main) entrance.


  Today, Arnos Vale, together with many other Victorian cemeteries, has reached crisis point. As they have filled up, the incomes of the privately owned cemeteries have dwindled. Less money is available to pay staff, and new systems of local rating have reduced cash flow for maintenance. Changes in social outlook have led to vandalism and indifference. The early Acts of Incorporation state that it is not the duty of the companies to care for individual graves. There are fewer descendants left to care for graves and, in any case, sadly this is no longer a matter of any consequence to many.

  These cemeteries, including Arnos Vale, are in a condition of gross neglect. Memorials are destroyed. Wind-born seeds of Ash and Sycamore grow into saplings, slowly but surely eroding the grassland areas, and bramble closes the paths once walked by visitors to family graves.

  In spite of an air of dereliction and neglect, Arnos Vale still stands as an oasis of peace and rest in an urban desert. Until the end of March 1998, the Cemetery staff, with the limited means at their disposal, concentrated their efforts in a "presentation area" around the old Non-Conformist Chapel which had been used since 1928 as the crematorium. The burial plots between the Bath Road Lodges and the Anglican Chapel have many monuments relating to the social history of the City of Bristol. A few yards further into the Cemetery emphasises the extent of the problem. The grave of Mary Carpenter, the Victorian pioneer of juvenile care, was lost in the undergrowth until recently relocated.


  Arnos Vale Cemetery is a haven of quiet reflection and rest, and a place to remember those no longer with us. Approximately 250,000 burials have taken place in 50,000 graves. In addition, approximately 750,000 cremations have also been carried out with the majority of the cremated remains scattered in the Gardens of Rest. Unfortunately, the future of Arnos Vale as such has become a matter of great concern for, in 1987, the present owner suggested that a considerable section of the Cemetery should be used as a residential development site. Greatly alarmed by this possibility, a small number of people arranged a public meeting attended by hundreds of people. The intransigence of the owner, who addressed the meeting, fuelled the start of the Campaign to Save Arnos Vale Cemetery from inappropriate and unacceptable development, and from that same meeting came the Association for the Preservation of Arnos Vale Cemetery—always known as APAC for short!

  From that time, countless and continuing offers to help with the work in Arnos Vale Cemetery have been made by APAC to the owner, who has never accepted them. Officers of APAC participated in fruitless—and with legal representation, expensive—meetings with him.

  A situation of crisis came in the Spring of 1998 when the City Council, acting as government agents, were obliged to refuse to renew the owner's cremation licence because the crematorium had failed to meet the stringent regulations of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Therefore the crematorium ceased to operate, thus removing a major souce of the Cemetery's income. Simultaneously the owner announced that the Cemetery itself was no longer financially viable and would be closed and locked on 31 March 1998.

  Following a widespread public outcry, the owner left the Cemetery on that day leaving the gates unlocked and he has not been seen there since. A group of volunteers, who were named the Arnos Vale Army by the Bristol Evening Post, took over the opening and closing of the gates on a daily basis—that is seven days a week—which affords considerable protection to the Cemetery and its buildings against vandalism and theft. It also means that the public can have access to the Cemetery and the last point of contact with their loved ones, and indeed burials in existing grave plots continue to take place.

  A petition was set up at that time to support the Campaign to Save Arnos Vale Cemetery and provide it with a secure future. In a very short space of time, over 20,000 signatures were collected.

  On Thursday 21 May 1998, Ms Jean Corston MP (Bristol East) secured an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons which was greatly appreciated by all campaigners. Ms Corston has been extremely supportive of the Campaign to Save Arnos Vale Cemetery since she was first elected to represent the citizens of Bristol East at Westminster.

  In July 1998, supporters of the campaign peacefully marched from the Cemetery to the Council House in Bristol to convince the City Council that saving Arnos Vale was what the public wanted. On the same day as the march, the owner served a writ on the volunteers to try to evict them from the Cemetery gates. The case went to Court and to the delight of everyone—except perhaps the owner—the Judge dismissed the case.

  By this time, APAC had changed its name to the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery, bringing it into line with the many other cemetery groups in other parts of the UK, all working hard to preserve and protect their respective cemeteries and all members of the National Federation of Cemetery Friends. The Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery has over 500 currently subscribing members, many of whom are in other parts of the UK and overseas.

  Finally convinced that the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery and the public at large were serious about and committed to the campaign, the Bristol City Council commissioned a Regeneration Study to evaluate the situation at Arnos Vale and examine the best way forward to a secure future for the Cemetery. The Study looked at the situation from many angles and concluded that commercial development on the Cemetery site was not financially viable. Further, it recommended the setting up of a Trust to manage the Cemetery on a day to day basis.

  In June 2000, the City Council unanimously accepted a recommendation to acquire the Cemetery, its buildings and records, preferably by negotiation with the owner. Should negotiation fail, the Council also unanimously agreed that the Cemetery should be acquired by Compulsory Purchase. To date there has been no outcome from the Council's negotiations with the owner. In the interim period, the Council have carried out various Urgent Works to protect the listed buildings from the weather and further deterioration, and are currently seeking to recover the cost of these works from the owner.


  Whilst the original shareholders of the Bristol General Cemetery Company set up the Cemetery with good intention, the fears of the general public in the mid 19th Century regarding burial for profit have proved to be well founded. In the Friends' opinion the current owner of Arnos Vale has shown scant regard or respect for the dead and the feelings of their descendants, and is interested only in using the land for development purposes. In a Memorandum dated 10 February 1995, he stated "The dead have been here a long time—the living should now have their turn". This demonstrates totally that while Arnos Vale—or any other cemetery for that matter—remains privately owned, there may always be the hidden agenda of commercial development, bringing desecration of the last resting place of the dead, and unending misery and suffering to their living descendants. Neither is there any way, apparently, to regulate and enforce the proper maintenance and care of privately owned cemeteries, particularly including their records which, at Arnos Vale, are seriously deteriorating due to neglect and inadequate storage. Private ownership is, in short, now an anachronism.


  As recommended by the City Council's Regeneration Study, the Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust has now been set up. The Trust has applied to the Charity Commission for registration and charitable status. It is clear that the best way to secure the future of Arnos Vale Cemetery is for the City Council to acquire the freehold of the Cemetery and its buildings and records, and to lease the same to the Trust on a 125-year lease with a peppercorn rent. With the appropriate safeguards written into the Trust Deed and the Lease between the City Council and the Trust, this will ensure that the Cemetery is protected and secure for the long-term future.

  Management of the Cemetery in this way will open up opportunities for funding which are not available to private owners. Funding bids have been prepared on behalf of the Trust and submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, and others are being prepared to take maximum advantage of funding sources.

  Inspired by the success of activities taking place in other "protected" cemeteries by Friends groups, the Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust and the Friends, working closely together, see a living future for Arnos Vale, with improvement to the landscape and buildings, educational programmes involving local schools, wildlife conservation programmes, historical tours and a visitor centre with appropriate facilities. The view is frequently expressed that Arnos Vale is probably the best Victorian cemetery in the UK, and visitors will be encouraged to experience the historic importance of this Cemetery, not only to Bristol but internationally. Arnos Vale was once described in the local press as the "Cemetery of Shame" because of its neglect and dereliction. All those who are sympathetic to the aims of the Campaign now look forward to a time when Arnos Vale Cemetery occupies the position in Bristol's environmental heritage that it so richly deserves.


    —  Cemeteries should be regulated, ie more control over private ownership to prevent the cemeteries becoming targets for commercial development. Grave plots have been purchased in good faith and these contracts must be honoured.

    —  Consideration should be given to the re-use of burial space as opposed to setting up new cemeteries on green field sites. We appreciate that certain conditions must be applied to this procedure—graves should not be considered for re-use earlier than 75 years after the last interment. Every attempt should be made to contact living relatives.

    —  Burial records should be an integral part of their cemetery and not the property of the owners. Thus when an owner moves on, the records cannot then be used as bargaining power to determine conditions of alternative ownership.

    —  Trust ownership should be encouraged with properly set up Trust Deeds and Leases, whether from Local Authorities or private owners. Local Authorities often do not have sufficient resources to supplement declining incomes once cemeteries become full, and private owners rarely qualify for grant funding.

    —  Experience shows that educational and historical programmes and activities can work extremely well in cemeteries, raising useful funds and cultivating the interest of the general public, whilst according the appropriate respect to the memory of the dead. In cemeteries where there are activities for young people, vandalism is less.

December 2000

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