Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Fiona Green, Landscape Historian (CEM 81)

  The founding of cemeteries in response to overcrowded church burial yards initiated a form of landscape design which responded to the deepest emotions, those affected by death. The cemetery designer was allowed to contrast burial in a churchyard where the grim image of decay prevailed through the perils of shallow graves and body snatchers versus an arcadia where the spirits of the dead could roam in a place of beauty and tranquility. I would like to refer to three contrasting examples of nineteenth century cemeteries in the north-east.

  Firstly, Westgate Hill Cemetery, Newcastle upon Tyne. This, the first private cemetery in Newcastle upon Tyne, and one of the earliest in the country, was opened in 1829 and provided three acres of unconsecrated ground for the burial of dissenters who relied previously on wasteland adjacent to glassworks on the outskirts of the city. The architects John and Benjamin Green designed the cemetery assisted by a local nurseryman William Falla who laid out the landscape. The grounds were described in 1855 as being similar to the famous "Garden Cemetery" at Pe"re-Lachaise in Paris, which was built at the beginning of the cemetery movement. The remaining earth mounding at Westgate Hill Cemetery is evidence of an attempt to emulate a style of the period. This concerned changing the visitors perception of the space by building mounds of earth which were planted with trees and shrubs. Today at this cemetery (2000), many of the monuments have fallen, there is little remaining shrubbery, few trees, the chapel of rest has been demolished, and the gates have been removed. The cemetery is located is the heart of a community but regard for those buried there, the landscape and architecture and overall significance of the site has been lost for the time being.

  Newcastle General Cemetery on the north east side of the city was the second commercial cemetery to be developed. One of the greatest architects of the region John Dobson (1787-1865), was commissioned to design the cemetery and built awesome, severe neoclassical chapels of rest, a lodge, high walls and a richly planted landscape dominated by evergreens. Dobson was deeply influenced by the prodigious writer and landscape designer JC London (1783-1843) who commented that the entrance to the General Cemetery was highly appropriate and could never be mistaken for an entrance to a public park or country residence. An indication of the weight which was given to the fitting design of such a particular setting. The cemetery has a superb collection of monuments which are almost all in a severe Classical style. John Dobson was buried there among many contemporaries whose tributes reflect an era when the city of Newcastle was at a peak of achievement. Having survived proposals for a new road to dissect the site in 1981 the cemetery remains unhallowed. The tree and shrub planting is overmature and overgrown by self sown scrub which undoubtedly provides a diverse habitat for flora and fauna but is inappropriate for the interpretation of a nineteenth century designed landscape, momentous architecture and a significant repository of nineteenth century funerary sculpture.

  Lastly, I would like to mention West Cemetery in Darlington, Co Durham. West Cemetery was consecrated in 1858 having been designated by JP Pritchett (1830-1911). Little was known about the design of the landscape for the cemetery until research into the local public park, South Park, revealed the superintendent park keeper was responsible for both. On visiting the cemetery one is immediately struck by the abundance of mature trees. The extensive range of species forms a collection of regional significance and the local authority are promoting it as an arboretum in their Green Strategy. A survey of the trees was made in 1980 by a local group of naturalists and the total was some 400 including, Abies pinsapo—Hedgehog Fir, Catalpa bignonoides—Indian Bean Tree and Sorbus domestica var pyriformis—True Service Tree. The list includes many evergreens and conifers, come of which had only recently been introduced when the cemetery was built. The cemetery is well maintained in a traditional manner with bedding displays at the entrance and along the main walk.

  Cemeteries like public parks, provide a vehicle for very particular artworks—landscape design, monument sculpture and purpose built buildings. Cemeteries have a stamp of local identity this in turn gives a locality distinct qualities, setting it apart from other places. We need to appreciate cemeteries and return to the aspirations for Garden Cemeteries. We should treat the components of cemeteries with deserved respect as part of our national heritage and not abandon them to ecological habitats. In Necropolis Glasguensis John Strang wrote in 1831, A Garden Cemetery is the sworn foe to prenatural fear and superstition . . . A Garden Cemetery and monumental decorations are not only beneficial to public morals, to the improvement of manners, but are likewise calculated to extend virtuous and generous feelings . . . They afford the most convincing tokens of a nation's progress in civilization and in the arts . . . The tomb has in fact, been the great chronicler of taste throughout the world.

December 2000

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