Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by The Association of Gardens Trusts (CEM 94)


  The Trust is a registered educational charity formed to promote the recognition, interest, education and appreciation and involvement of the public in matters connected with the arts and sciences of garden land and cultural landscapes.

  There are now gardens trusts in 32 English counties, a London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust, eight groups in Wales under the auspices of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust and strong interest in several of the remaining English counties and in Northern Ireland. The collective membership is over 7,000 and growing.

  The garden trusts share a common interest in working with government agencies, local authorities, national and local amenity societies, educational trusts and local communities in the care and conservation of the historic and natural heritage. We are concerned with the conservation of historic gardens and landscapes, with town and country parks and in the creation of new gardens in towns and cities. We are interested in all green spaces as all land has a history which contributes to its character and natural heritage.

  Our work is helping with the conservation and creation of gardens and parks with local authority, commercial and private owners and with local communities contributes to tourism, to economic regeneration, to social inclusion and to access.

  We firmly believe that once other essential needs have been met, health, housing, education and employment, it is the quality of landscape that contributes most to the quality of life.


  The historical significance of cemeteries is in their essential contribution to the development of British towns and cities. The majority of cemeteries in Britain's inner cities started in the 19th Century and were the consequence of the major expansion in urban centres. In the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, when cities expanded rapidly there was a corresponding deterioration in environmental conditions. At the beginning of the 19th Century, the majority of the burial places were attached to churches and chapels. The creation of cemeteries detached from the parish churches had started earlier, the model cemetery on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh dates from the 18th Century and was an attempt to provide a dignified setting for burials as an alternative to the seriously overcrowded church yards. The first large urban cemetery was Pe"re-Lachaise, Paris opened in 1804. This well laid out and densely planted design had a significant influence on the thinking of 19th Century designers in Britain.

  The horrific conditions in sanitation, water supply and burial in the major British cities are well documented and resulted in demands for improvement. The outbreaks of cholera claimed the lives of thousands in the 1830s and reoccurred in the succeeding decades. These events overwhelmed the normal burial system, leading to the disposal of corpses in plague pits dug in the existing crowded urban church yards.

  The alarm over conditions was voiced by many individuals including George Frederick Carden in London whose inspiration led to the formation of the General Cemeteries Company. It received permission by Act of Parliament to establish a cemetery at Kensal Green in 1832. Other cities also were at the forefront of cemetery development. In Liverpool, two companies created new cemeteries before 1830. The Liverpool Necropolis was opened in 1825 and the St James Cemetery was created in a disused quarry in 1829. In 1832 the Glasgow Necropolis was opened on a hill not far from the cathedral. This improvement was not universal and the outrage felt by many at the inadequate burial facilities is exemplified by George Alfred Walker's Gatherings from Graveyards of 1839 and Edwin Chadwick's Report on Intra-Mural Interments of 1843. Parliament also felt the concern about urban environmental conditions and set up select committees to investigate. The 1833 Select Committee on Public Walks was the earliest attempt to identify the open space available for public use in towns. This mentions the new cemeteries in Liverpool and Glasgow along with the botanic gardens in Birmingham and Sheffield.

  One of the most persuasive advocates for well-designed cemeteries was the distinguished editor of the Gardener's Magazine, J C Louden. In May 1830 he wrote to the Morning Advertiser proposing that there should be several new cemeteries established equidistant from each other in the Metropolis. During the 1830s he published a series of articles in the Gardeners Magazine, describing existing cemeteries and proposing new design solutions. These topics were used as the basis for his book On the Laying Out, Planting and Management of Cemeteries published in 1843. The book is pervaded by the idea that cemeteries should be "tasteful, classical, poetic and eloquent" and he also stated that "by their botanical riches cultivate the intellect."

  The movement for creation of hygienic, dignified burial places gained momentum during the late 1830s and resulted in a number of new cemeteries. Examples are St James Highgate, London in 1839, Westminster Cemetery, Brompton, London in 1840. The first cemetery commissioned by a municipal authority was at Southampton. J C Loudon was appointed to design and supervise the work and unfortunately he caught a chill and died in 1843 during the construction.

  Culturally, cemetery designs are of great significance, many outstanding Victorian designers were commissioned to plan and supervise the new cemeteries. Not only were garden designers involved but architects, sculptors and artists contributed throughout the country.

  J C Loudon was a prolific writer and theorist and was responsible for several cemeteries which demonstrated his design philosophy. Designs for Cambridge Cemetery were quoted in his book as an example of suitable treatment for flat sites while the design for Bath Cemetery was shown as a design for hilly sites.

  Sir Joseph Paxton is justly famed for his work on the Crystal Palace but he was a many talented man involved in designing gardens, urban parks, engineering works and buildings as well as finding time for a heavy involvement in politics. With the help of assistants he designed and supervised the drainage of swampy ground in Birkenhead for the creation of one of the earliest public urban parks at Birkenhead. As a consequence of his fame in handling this difficult project, he was commissioned by Coventry City Council in 1845 to design a new cemetery on the site of a disused quarry just outside the city walls. The design embodies all the values of this Victorian era, a parkland cemetery with woodland walks, chapels, monuments and arboricultural planting. Before its decline, this would have been a perfect example of the values stated by Loudon in his writings.

  Edward Milner was an assistant to Joseph Paxton and his protege. He worked on many of Paxton's designs and achieved fame as a designer after the death of Paxton in 1865. Examples of his work are found throughout the country including the Pavilion Gardens at Buxton, Derbyshire, the Arboretum at Lincoln and the Stoke Cemetery, at London.

  The use of sculptors to produce free standing tombs and monuments declined dramatically after the Victorian era but the commissioning of noted designers to layout cemeteries and the buildings has continued to this day. As well as the landscape and horticultural assets, the cemeteries contain a wealth of buildings and monuments by a great number of architects and designers. Many of the buildings are of outstanding quality worthy of preservation.


  In general cemeteries have suffered a decline during the latter half of the 20th Century. The original cemeteries have nearly all passed into the hands of the local communities and have competed for funding with other more urgent needs. The original cemetery designers anticipated the need for supervision and usually provided accommodation for a resident superintendent. The accommodation is now normally used for offices or other purposes less connected with the cemetery. The reduced supervision and the changes in society have led to a situation where most of the cemeteries are subject to attack by vandals and the theft of carvings from monuments.

  The compaction of the ground over burials usually results in subsidence and movement of the tombs and monuments, often leading to collapse. In the majority of cases due to the cost of reinstatement, these constructions are removed and not repaired. Slowly our Victorian heritage of monuments is disappearing and with it our evidence of an important aspect of 19th Century life.

  The increasing cost of labour for ground maintenance has also played a part in the erosion of cemeteries. The use of mechanical grass cutters has produced a need to remove stonework and simplify the areas. Many original cemeteries followed the advice of Loudon and created an arboretum on the sites. This tree heritage on many sites is past its maturity and is in decline. Without incentive or encouragement the maintenance of this asset will not be continued for the benefit of the next generation.

  In most of our cities there are major changes taking place with the regeneration of inner core areas and old cemeteries are not immune from the effect of these pressures. The existence of open spaces in built-up areas is often threatened by the needs of transport systems. Not only roads but tramways see the cemetery space as an opportunity. In Birmingham the Key Hill Cemetery has been used for part of the route of a light railway. In fairness to the City Council it should be said that a careful study was made to record all monuments and minimise disruption before the scheme was approved.

  One other problem facing the older cemeteries is over use. As the space is finite and burials are continuous, many cemeteries have lost their original dignity and aesthetic appeal as a result of over intensive use. This is particularly a problem with the sinuous woodland cemeteries where a balance between burial grounds and walks was originally intended.


  The creation of new burial grounds is not just a problem but also an opportunity to emulate the great Victorian visionaries and provide new facilities of lasting appeal. Private enterprise started the new cemeteries movement in the 19th Century and in the 20th Century it showed one possible solution by the creation of woodland burial grounds outside towns. The establishment of the National Forest has also provided an opportunity for trees to be planted in memory of fallen soldiers. This idea could be extended and one part of the forest used to provide a burial ground serving the centre of England. This could be a self-financing scheme and properly designed, it will leave a natural woodland asset to the next century.


  Discussions with the Heritage Lottery Fund staff have always shown a readiness to consider support to the historic cemetery sites. However, few reports appear to result in an application for funding because of the requirement for local authorities to find their 25 per cent contribution to the restoration project and the greater priority given to projects for the living.


  Many local authorities recognise the historic and artistic value of their cemeteries and have commissioned studies. The writer of this submission has been involved in preparing detailed reports on four historic cemeteries and believes that similar documents have been prepared by many local authorities. These would be useful to the Environment Sub-committee to provide a detailed record of the state of cemeteries at the end of the 20th Century. A copy of a booklet commissioned by Coventry City Council as part of their public participation exercise on the London Road Cemetery is enclosed for information.

December 2000

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