Memorandum by the Ford Park Cemetery Trust
The invitation to submit written evidence to
the Environment Sub-committee was addressed to the Plymouth Devonport
and Stonehouse Cemetery Co. (subsequently referred to as "the
Company"). The Company went into voluntary liquidation in
March 1999 and the Trust is the Company's successor in title.
The Company was established by private Act of
Parliament in 1846. It was one of a number of private cemetery
companies founded in London and other major conurbations in the
1830s and 1840s to meet the crisis in burials caused by rapid
urbanisation and poor public health. The history of the Victorian
cemetery companies, with one or two notable exceptions such as
Kensal Green, was broadly similar in that they prospered greatly
during the 19th and early 20th centuries but declined from the
1960s onwards. The increasing popularity of cremation, shortage
of burial space and the difficulty of deploying labour saving
machinery in cemeteries with closely packed graves, many with
kerbstones, all contributed to their decline. In addition, the
Company faced particular difficulties with regard to Ford Park.
Although there was space for additional burials, the ground was
extremely difficult to dig. The private Act of Parliament establishing
the Company made it necessary for the Company to seek Home Office
approval to raise its fees which as a result increasingly lagged
behind costs. The declining profitability of the Company appears
to have been reflected in weaker management which in turn led
to increasing vandalism and neglect. The loss of the contracts
for the maintenance of the service graves, of which there are
some 1600 at Ford Park, was the final blow which forced the Company
On assuming responsibility for Ford Park Cemetery
in March 1999 the Liquidator immediately closed it on grounds
of public safety. The resulting public outcry led to a petition
in favour of the Cemetery signed by around 23,000 people, an eloquent
testimony to the strength of public opinion. The Cemetery was
subsequently reopened and considerable public pressure was brought
to bear on the Labour-run City Council to take it over. The Council
declined on expenditure grounds but, with the local press, it
played an important role in encouraging the formation of Ford
Park Cemetery Trust.
The Trust was incorporated as a company limited
by guarantee on 13 December 1999 with the following objects: (1)
the provision and maintenance of Ford Park Cemetery as a public
burial place (2) the provision and maintenance of Ford Park Cemetery
and its natural environment as an open space for the public benefit
(3) the restoration and preservation of Ford Park Cemetery as
a site of historic and architectural interest for the public benefit
and (4) the advancement of the education of the public particularly
in the history and heritage of the City of Plymouth.
It achieved charitable status on 21 January
2000. It acquired the saleable parts of the Cemetery for £20,000
from the Liquidator on 26 April 2000 and the non-saleable parts
from the Crown Estate for £1 on the same day. The remarkably
short time-scale of four months between the establishment of the
Trust and the acquisition of the Cemetery illustrates what can
be achieved when local and central government, the local press,
public opinion, a sympathetic Liquidator and a dedicated group
of private individuals all pull in the same direction.
2. THE ENVIRONMENTAL,
Victorian cemeteries have two unique characteristics.
Firstly, because many were founded on what in the 1830s and 1840s
was the edge of conurbations, they now occupy a position which
is relatively central to those conurbations. Thus Ford Park Cemetery,
which extends over 34 acres, is immediately adjacent to Central
Park and the two open spaces together form an immense lung near
the heart of Plymouth which is of great environmental significance.
Secondly, because of their size and relative
neglect in recent years, many Victorian cemeteries are valuable
habitats for fauna and flora and Ford Park is no exception. One
of the challenges facing the Trustees is how to retain that characteristic
while returning the Cemetery to a state which public opinion feels
properly honours those who are buried there.
More generally, it is among the long-term aims
of the Trustees to hand on for the enjoyment of future generations
a place of beauty and tranquillity.
Ford Park was the principal burial place for
the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse throughout
the second half of the 19th century and as such is a microcosm
of local history during that period, and indeed subsequently.
There are some 260,000 persons interred in Ford Park and about
30,000 graves, of which about 1600 are service graves.
Victorian cemetery architecture has been sadly
underrated and neglected and, in spite of widespread vandalism,
Ford Park contains a wealth of it. It also has a beautiful early
Victorian mortuary chapel attributed to George Wightwick, an architect
practising in Plymouth during the middle of the 19th century.
The Trustees are currently investigating the possibility of Grade
2 listing for both chapel and cemetery as a preliminary to a feasibility
study for the restoration of the chapel, assuming National Lottery
heritage funding is available. It is the view of authoritative
independent observers that Victorian cemeteries with their superb
monumental architecture are an unrecognised but priceless part
of our heritage.
The Cemetery records, going back to 1848, also
form a valuable cultural asset. The Trustees, in partnership with
the Devon Family History Society, have embarked on a programme
which will ultimately see the entire records computerised and
made available to historians, genealogists and schools. It is
hoped to obtain funding for this task by means of a Local Heritage
The degree of practical and financial support
the Trust has received from members of the public since it took
over the Cemetery is testimony to the special affection in which
the Cemetery is held by many individuals. It is an important part
of the social and cultural infrastructure of the City.
3. THE CONDITION
The Trust inherited a legacy of vandalism, neglect,
under-investment and weak management stretching back over a number
of years. Many parts of the Cemetery were overgrown and inaccessible,
and the overall state of the Cemetery was an affront not only
to those with family buried there but to all right-thinking people.
Unstable headstones, masonry which had been degraded by vegetation
and subsiding graves presented major hazards to public safety,
a consideration which remains the overriding concern of the Trustees.
In addition the Cemetery has its own unique problems of periodic
flooding and the presence of Japanese Knotweed, which greatly
complicates the disposal of green waste.
This heading is too restrictive unless by "burial
space" is meant new burial space in old cemeteries. Old Cemeteries
such as Ford Park have, subject to certain conditions, large potential
for new burials.
Unlike some Victorian cemeteries, Ford Park
still has considerable space for new burials, albeit in unfriendly
ground. A full survey of the Cemetery has yet to be carried out
but it is conservatively estimated that we have space for at least
2000 new graves which would permit the burial of a maximum of
The existing graves fall into three classes,
namely what historically have been called freehold graves (that
is grave spaces granted in perpetuity), common graves where the
Company retained legal ownership of the grave space and which
have no headstone, and grave spaces which were subject to a complicated
option to purchase which in many cases was not exercised. The
latter class of graves was sometimes inaccurately described as
leasehold but they were not leasehold within the strict legal
meaning of the term, that is the grant of an exclusive right to
the grave space for a term of years. Similarly grave spaces subject
to an option to purchase which was not exercised were misleadingly
referred to as forfeit graves.
Until the Cemetery records have been computerised
it is not possible to estimate the breakdown of graves between
these three classes but it is likely that the so-called freehold
graves constitute about three-quarters of the graves in the Cemetery.
As regards the common graves and so-called forfeit
graves, these have historically been reused. The human remains
in a grave degrade to a very small volume after 75 years or so,
so that a grave which almost certainly would have been dug for
at least three persons in the 19th century or early 20th century
can now comfortably take two more interments without any disturbance
of human remains. Common graves and forfeit graves have been,
on occasions are and are likely to continue to be a source of
new burial spaces.
The reuse of grave spaces without disturbing
existing human remains is a sensitive matter so far as the public
are concerned, but if tactfully handled the idea can be successfully
mediated. It is worth remembering that the principle has been
implemented in churchyards for centuries.
As already indicated, unused ground, common
graves and forfeit graves will provide the Trust with an ongoing
resource for new burials for many years to come. New grave spaces
would be available to the Trust on an altogether larger scale
if in the future it could reuse grave spaces granted in perpetuity.
Local authorities can already do so (see Part III Schedule 2 of
the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 SI 1977/204),
and it is suggested that a similar power could be extended to
private cemetery companies such as Ford Park Cemetery Trust. Whether
the power is used or not in the context of Ford Park will depend
on public opinion and the views of future trustees but, generally
speaking, it would dramatically increase the potential of old
privately-owned cemeteries for new burials.
The above comments assume no disturbance of
existing human remains. The trustee body managing Ford Park as
at present constituted would not contemplate exhumation to provide
fresh burial spaces, even assuming the legal consents were to
be forthcoming. Opinion among the Trustees is divided as to the
reuse of existing graves without disturbing human remains.
5. THE MANAGEMENT
It is hoped that the evidence so far submitted
illustrates in general terms the important role which private
charitable trusts can play in the ownership and management of
cemeteries which were formerly owned and managed by private commercial
More specifically private charitable trusts
have a number of unique advantages over commercial companies or
5.1. They can draw on a wide range of dedicated
voluntary help. In the first six months of its management of the
Cemetery the Trust has generated an income of over £30,000,
made up of a City Council grant, donations and fees, set against
personnel costs totalling £4,550.00 for a part-time caretaker
and the occasional services of a self-employed gravedigger. The
entire administration of the Trust has been undertaken by volunteers.
All the clearance work in the Cemetery has to date been carried
out without cost to the Trust in part by Groundwork Trust who
receive Landfill Tax and New Deal money, in part by various voluntary
organisations and groups, in part by many individual volunteers
and in part by the City Council. Clearly as the scale of clearance
increases and the business of the Trust expands more paid professional
help will be required. It is likely and desirable, however, that
the volunteer element will always play a most important part in
the Trust's management of the Cemetery.
5.2. More generally a trust such as ours
can enlist the support and goodwill of the community as a whole
in a manner which no local authority or private company can emulate.
This can have a number of beneficial side effects such as, for
example, a decreasing level of vandalism. From the start the Trust
has been at pains to project itself as a community trust which
exists to serve the people of Plymouth.
5.3. A private charitable trust can tap
into charitable funds not available to a local authority or private
company. Similarly it is uniquely placed to mobilise donations
from businesses and private individuals.
In short, it is the core argument of this memorandum
that private charitable trusts have an important functional and
ideological role in the management of older cemeteries. Functionally
speaking, so long as they can call on voluntary help of adequate
calibre, they are likely to be able to administer a cemetery such
as Ford Park as, if not more, efficiently than a local authority
or commercial company and at very much lower cost to the public
purse than a local authority. Ideologically they epitomise the
principle of civic engagement to which, as the writer understands
it, all political parties subscribe. They are worthy of support.
6. THE FUNDING
6.1. The Trust has and will continue to
benefit from public funding of various kinds. It received a setting
up grant of £10,000 from Plymouth City Council without which
the Trust would not have been financially viable in the initial
months of its ownership and management of the Cemetery. The receipt
of Landfill Tax and New Deal money has enabled Groundwork Trust
to input considerable resources, notably in terms of manpower,
into the Cemetery. The Trust has, of course, benefited from the
generous tax arrangements for charities and may well benefit further
in the future from concessions, for example on VAT, outlined by
the Chancellor in his recent Budget Statement.
6.2. The Trust would expect public bodies
such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Serco, acting
for the Ministry of Defence, to support the Trust on grounds both
of public policy and because it represents the only realistic
option for restoring the Cemetery to a state which properly honours
those who are buried there, and particularly the 1,600 or so graves
of servicemen killed in action or in peacetime. The long-term
viability and effectiveness of the Trust depends to some extent
on its success in winning back the maintenance contracts for the
service graves which were lost by the Company. The Trustees believe
that they can discharge those contracts to a higher standard than
the present contractors and at a competitive cost. They do not
regard the maintenance of areas immediately around service graves,
without addressing the overgrown wilderness extending beyond those
areas, as an acceptable long-term solution. They hope the Ministry
of Defence and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will see
matters in the same light.
6.3. So long as grave spaces are available
to meet any likely demand for burials at Ford Park the Trustees
are confident of the financial viability of the Trust. It is their
long-term aim to build up from the sale of burial spaces an endowment
fund, the income of which could in part fund the maintenance of
the Cemetery when the potential for further burials is exhausted.
The likely long-term success of this strategy
would be enhanced if future trustees had the option of reusing
so-called freehold graves where, for example, the last interment
was more than 100 years ago (see para 4 above). This raises the
more general question of the application of the 1977 Statutory
Instrument governing Local Authority cemeteries to private companies
which are managing cemeteries. The Home Office has advised the
Trust solicitors that it is best practice for the Trust to observe
the provisions of the 1977 Statutory Instrument but this is hardly
a substitute for a proper legislative framework.
6.4. It is hoped that bodies dispensing
public funds, such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, will
pay due regard to the central role which cemeteries such as Ford
Park play in the life of local communities. Cemeteries are for
the living not the dead and public funds expended on them will,
as well as preserving a priceless heritage, have a direct and
beneficial impact on local communities in a way that the restoration
of many historic churches does not.
This memorandum touches on a number of areas
which fall within the terms of reference of the Sub-committee
where the Trustees feel central government could make a difference,
either directly or indirectly.
More generally, they are of the view that the
role of charitable trusts in the ownership and management of cemeteries
deserves wider recognition and closer study. The first step would
be to undertake a national survey of cemeteries owned and administered
by private companies, whether charitable or non-charitable, unincorporated
trusts and individuals. Drawing on their experience and the knowledge
they have acquired of other cemeteries in parallel situations,
it is clear to the Trustees that there is a major problem in the
transition from private non-charitable ownership to ownership
by a charity which it is beyond the scope of this memorandum to
analyse. It is, however, an issue of great importance for the
future viability of cemeteries such as Ford Park.