Friends of the Wembdon Road Cemetery
Bridgwater, Somerset


Burial Pratice in Mid-Victorian Bridgwater

By Mr. Tony Woolrich, extract from Bridgwater Waterworks, chapter 3, 'Public Health & Sanitation in Mid Victorian Times'

St. Mary's Church and Churchyard, © S. Mullan

Until the 1840's the main graveyard of the town surrounded Saint Mary's Church. Small graveyards were to be found at the various nonconformist chapels, and at the Holy Trinity and St. Johns churches which were consecrated in 1840 and 1846 respectively. As the population grew these graveyards rapidly became overcrowded.

In 1827 the Vestry Minute Books of Saint Mary's recorded the expenditure of £134 2 3 for the removal of soil from the graveyard. At that time it was common to find the level of a churchyard had risen several feet above the original soil line as more and more corpses were interred, and the site was levelled. Any bones found were removed and buried elsewhere, usually on non-consecrated ground. In 1831 a letter was published in the local newspaper complaining about the dilapidated state of the churchyard, and the Vestry later resolved to buy some property on the South West flank so that it could be enlarged.

In 1842 the Vestry decided to acquire a new graveyard, since Saint Mary's was now completely full, and in 1844 it agreed to enlarge the one at Saint John's church to achieve this.

Little seems to have happened since a leader appeared in the Bridgwater Times in January 1847 about public health and the state of St Mary's graveyard, and in November of that year the paper printed more leaders about the evils of burials in town churchyards, and mentions the National Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns.

In January of the next year the Bridgwater Times published a horrific series of reports, leaders and letters about the burial practices of the churchyard. These showed that it was the practice to allow bodies to decompose partially and for the remains to be then dug up to release more space for succeeding interments. The gravedigger would ram an iron bar into the ground and by the smell of what came up when he pulled it out, claimed to be able to judge whether decomposition had proceeded enough. If he was happy he would remove the bones to the charnel house under the North Transept, and when that was full it took three cartloads to transport them to a bone pit elsewhere in the churchyard.

A correspondent listed the interments which had taken place there annually since 1840:

Year Interments
1840: 264
1841: 183
1842: 237
1843: 173
1844: 156
1845: 144
1846: 171
1847: 167

He also stated that an acre of land could give decent burial to 136 bodies annually. The whole area of Saint Mary's Churchyard, including the church building the walks and the walls was barely an acre in extent, and the land actually available there for burials was under half an acre.

Another correspondent said that the churchyard was surrounded by wells, some within six feet of the boundary wall. A large-scale map of this part of the town, produced in about 1820, shows the churchyard completely surrounded by little houses, with the exception of the present gates and a strip in Saint Mary Street about the width of the east end of the church.

In November 1848 the Vestry set up a committee to examine the question of creating a new cemetery for the town. In February 1849 the newspaper reported that boys had been caught in the churchyard playing with parts of a partially decomposed body, and the minutes of the Easter and August Vestry meetings recorded the negotiations to find a site for a new cemetery. In the autumn of 1849 cholera reached Bridgwater and about 200 Bridgwater people died in about two months. Most were interred in the town graveyards, though 51 were buried in the graveyard of Chilton Trinity Church, which was opened specially after being unused for almost a century. Later in the year there was newspaper comment about unnecessary delays in getting the clergy to attend funerals at Saint Mary's church.

The newspaper in March 1850 carried a letter about overcrowding in Saint Mary's churchyard and stating that 15 interments had occurred in one small plot in a few weeks, some only 2½ feet below the ground level, and that graves were kept open to await the next burial.

In February 1851 the Vestry discussed the new cemetery at Wembdon Road, and this was consecrated in September of that year. At the end of the year Saint Mary's Vestry minutes recorded a vote of censure on the Vicar, the Rev. James who was refusing to use the new cemetery because of the inconvenience and the loss of fees in which it involved him. Evidently the town as a whole was apathetic about using it. The newspaper for January 1852 recorded the problems about getting burials carried out at Wembdon Road, through the clergy being late, a leak in the chapel roof and waterlogged graves due to bad drainage. In August 1853 Saint Mary's Vestry sent a memorial to the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, requesting that the town's graveyards be formally closed. Dr Holland, a government appointed inspector, took evidence about the burial practices, and an order was made closing most of the graveyards from 1 February 1853.

Saint Mary's churchyard was laid out with new paths, trees and shrubs in 1856.

During the rest of the century there were continuing problems over bad drainage at Wembdon Road cemetery, with occasional leaders and letters about it in the pages of the newspapers.

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