Bath’s cemeteries provide a chance for visitors to discover stories from the past and to see how rituals surrounding death have changed, as Georgette McCready discovers. Pictures by Matthew Sterling
Tombstone tourists, or taphophiles to give them their Greek title, will find themselves in their element in Bath – a city rich in fascinating gravestones, unusual cemeteries and much of historic and social interest.
Some people like visiting churchyards and cemeteries because they are tranquil places, silent apart from birdsong. Others enjoy reading the epitaphs which tell so many stories, about love, loss, suffering and of remarkable lives recorded and set down in stone. To study graves is to learn a great deal about the human condition, as well as the changes in how our society views death and its rituals.
A good place to begin an exploration of Bath’s dead community is at an exhibition, Building Memory: the Architecture of Death and Burial in Bath, which runs at the Museum of Bath Architecture on the Paragon, until Sunday 25 November. Here the Bath Preservation Trust’s head historian Dr Amy Frost has curated a tantalising introduction to the city’s historic approach to memorials.
Before you head off to Bath Abbey – which has more memorial plaques than any other church outside London – learn the story behind the 17th-century splendidly ornate tomb of Lady Jane Waller, which shows her lying in repose, her husband William Waller, a general in the Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, watching over her. But if you look at the twin memorial plaques above the effigies you’ll see the right hand one, meant for Sir William, is blank. After his wife died following the birth of his child, William went on to marry twice more and he was not laid to rest by his first wife, but is buried in Westminster. William is best known in Bath for leading Cromwell’s army in the Battle of Lansdown in 1643.
Dr Amy Frost has found examples of memorials for events and battles, heavily influenced by classical architecture. But the Victorian period is the most ostentatious time for a grand celebration of death, giving the wealthy a chance to show their social status with large, ornately designed tombs, monuments to their success in the world. The exhibition highlights the era when Bath’s parish churches could no longer house the growing numbers of graves on their land and the city became a forerunner in the development of cemeteries. These cities of the dead were laid out with driveways, paths, vistas and plantings of trees and shrubs, where an urban population could not only pay their respects to the dead but enjoy a green space away from the hustle and bustle of every day life.
Dr Frost said: “If you want an overview of how memorial architecture has changed, take a walk through Lansdown Cemetery. The graves nearest to Beckford’s Tower are the oldest and the most elaborate, but as
Enter under Henry Goodridge’s splendidly imposing stone archways. The entrance to the left has The Gates of Death engraved over it in suitably Gothic fashion. The cemetery was opened in in 1848. One of its principal occupants is William Beckford himself, who originally arranged to be buried here, but after his death his body was removed to Bath Abbey. His daughter later brought his remains back to Lansdown where he now lies under an enormous tomb on a grassy island, separated from its neighbours by a walled moat.
The cemetery has been allowed to go back to nature in the older areas, giving birds, deer and rabbits the chance to roam, and rampant blackberry bushes obscure some of the tombs. The cemetery has a very high proportion of professional people, ex-military and clergymen. Among the great and the good you can find the graves of: David Harrel (d.1939), former commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Under Secretary for Ireland, 1893–1902; Forbes Fraser (d.1924), surgeon and founding father of the Royal United Private Hospital, later renamed in his honour and now the Royal United Hospital, Bath; Mary Pitman (d.1857) wife of Sir Isaac Pitman who developed shorthand, so her grave’s inscription is spelled phonetically, and Henry Goodridge, architect, who designed Beckford’s Tower, Cleveland Bridge with its distinctive temple-like lodges and The Corridor, one of the earliest examples of a shopping arcade.
Lansdown Cemetery is worth a visit for the views alone, looking out over sloping meadows down over the western side of Bath.
ST MARY’S CHURCHYARD AND CEMETERY
At that time a mortuary chapel was built off Henrietta Road, now a picturesque near ruin, standing in a delightful tree-fringed secluded churchyard. Although this was only used as a burial ground for a relatively short time it contains what may be Bath’s oldest coffin, that of a Roman citizen, which was unearthed in the 19th century and placed respectfully by the wall of St Mary’s. Standing in here in leafy seclusion, it’s a strange sensation to think the constant traffic on Bathwick Street is just a few yards away.
The second, larger St Mary’s Cemetery lies in a beautiful grassy valley reached by footpath from Horseshoe Walk, Widcombe. In summer this is an idyllic spot to find butterflies and wildflowers. Graves include that of barrister Frederick Edward Weatherly (d.1929), composer of Danny Boy, and Charles Edward Davis (d.1902), the Victorian Bath architect responsible for overseeing the excavation of the Roman Baths, on which so much of the city’s tourist economy now relies. Charles Dickens enthusiasts will also be pleased to find the tomb of Moses Pickwick, one of the Pickwicks of Corsham who lent their name to the author’s novel The Pickwick Papers.
A large area of the cemetery was dedicated to dissenters, those who do not follow Church of England doctrine. A great athlete lies here, Horace Ford, the 12-times British champion archer, much feted in Victorian times for his skills. The family of the painter Lord Frederic Leighton are also buried here and his name is recorded on the memorial.
Sadly this is also the resting place of two little Bath girls, murdered by a stranger, John Straffen in 1951. The graves of five-year-old Brenda Goddard and nine-year-old Cicely Batstone are marked by a pair of small stone angels. There is also a grave festooned in the bright red, gold and green ribbons of the Rastafarian faith. These mark the grave of one of the Emperor Haile Selassie’s servants, Blatain Gueth Neroy, who died in 1938, during the years when the Emperor of Ethiopia sought refuge in Newbridge.
BATH ABBEY CEMETERY
This magnificent cemetery, on the slopes of Ralph Allen Drive and with views of the abbey, was designed by one of the leaders in the garden cemetery movement, Scotsman John Claudius Loudon, and opened in 1844. This design movement wanted to give visitors a pleasant park-like environment to explore while at the same time paying their respects to the dead.
You’ll find one of the earliest examples of a war memorial in the cemetery. It’s a Greek Revival style obelisk, unveiled in 1856, bearing the names of all the men with Bath connections who died fighting in the Crimean War. Also buried here is William Cuninghame (d.1900) former bodyguard to Queen Victoria and actor/playwright
OCCASIONALLY OPEN BURIAL GROUNDS
Building Memory: The Architecture of Death and Burial in Bath is at the Museum of Bath Architecture until 25 November; museumofbatharchitecture.org.uk