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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘local history’

Local cemeteries, redux

Or, improvements in photography

Regular readers might remember the post last week about Ridgeway Park Cemetery, a small and heavily overgrown cemetery bordering Eastville Park in Bristol. As our daily exercise at the weekend, I took The Children back there again, but took the Proper Camera with me this time.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

It was an excellent winter’s day for taking the camera out, and you can certainly see the difference when compared to the previous photos.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

We took the opportunity, as it is winter, to poke around in some of the parts of the cemetery that are completely overgrown and virtually impassable in summer.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

I won’t post the full set of photos here because there’s quite a few, but you can go and look at them on Flickr if you’d like; I’ve tried to transcribe some of the inscriptions too.

Sons and daughters of the soil

On local history (in general)

A train of thought has been slowly easing into the station over the past few days, after I read a very interesting blog post by historian Caitlin Green about the Ridings of Lindsey and the route between Lincoln and Grimsby—at any rate, the route between Lincoln and Grimsby mapped in 1675 by the Scottish cartographer John Ogilby. Ogilby was the creator of Britannia, Britain’s first road atlas, in the form of 100 cross-country routes drawn as strip-maps at a scale of 1 inch to the mile. Nottingham to Grimsby via Lincoln is map 78.

I recall watching a documentary when I was a child about the history of mapping, which discussed Ogilby, and for some unknown-to-me-reason it was illustrated with rostrum shots of Ogilby’s Grimsby-to-Lincoln route. I was baffled and amazed. Firstly, that of all places, they had decided to show a map of the very village I was living in at the time; and secondly, that our village was on Ogilby’s map. Our village was on a route from Grimsby to Lincoln, but it certainly wasn’t on the main one.

Nowadays there are basically two reasonable routes between Grimsby and Lincoln. You have the main road, the A46, with various straightened-out parts and bypasses and suchlike. Parallel to half of it, though, is the B1203: in general it still goes through villages rather than around them, and it goes up and down a lot more. The A46 cuts across the Wolds from Grimsby to Caistor, then runs south along their foot to Market Rasen, minimising the time it spends on the hilly ground. The B-road’s route is closer to a crow-flies route from Market Rasen to Grimsby, but as a result much more of its route is in the hills. This is the route that appears on Ogilby’s map, following much the same route as the B1203 today. However, it wasn’t until I read Dr Green’s post the other day, that it really occurred to me that, of course, Ogilby’s route didn’t quite follow the same route as the modern roads. The question of exactly which routes were meant by Ogilby when compared to modern topography is a very interesting one.

My thoughts on this led to a bit of a Twitter discussion with Dr Green,as to how Waltham has developed over the years and how the pre-enclosure road from Waltham to Scartho might have survived as a footpath down to the 1950s. That’s not really what I wanted to talk about today, though, although I might possibly write something about it in the future. The train of thought that’s been wandering around in my head this week is more about the importance of fine-grained local history, and how easily it is lost.

The Mother spent a lot of time over the last twenty years researching our family tree—or, rather, her family tree, as she gave up on my dad’s when she discovered a number of things in the early 20th Century which didn’t quite tally with her views on how People Used To Behave.* From her grandmother, she inherited a Victorian Bible with lists of various marriages and dates of birth inscribed on the flyleaf, and various stories about how her family were descended from Spanish pirates who had settled in Cornwall in the 16th century. These had presumably all come from her grandmother’s parents, who had been the first generation to move out of their tiny Cornish fishing village and had moved to London to marry and have children. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother, but apparently she was always also very proud of her “genuine Cockney” roots, having been born in Soho. My mother got right onto all of this, feeding the information into Ancestry, linking it up with other people who could trace their roots back to the same Cornish fishing village, and so on. However, all she ever seemed to be interested in were names on a chart. She entered different ancestors’ names into the data like a birdwatcher who is only interested in ticking each species off in a book, or a trainspotter who does nothing more than gather numbers. That’s…not really what history means to me. To me, history is more about what these people actually did. How they lived their lives, and what the world was like around them.

When we moved to Waltham, before I started school, we moved to a new-build house on a clean new estate with barely any sense of history. My parents, too, seemed to have no sense of history or of the landscape around us. I remember asking The Mother one day what we might find if we did an archaeological dig in the garden, and she replied with: “nothing at all, it was just a field.” It took a few years before I realised that one farmhouse left behind on the estate was much older than all the other buildings; or before I realised that one cul-de-sac was in the middle of a mature avenue of trees. As far as my family were concerned, or anyone I knew, the village was tabula rasa, a clean slate with no history save for the old windmill and the part-Saxon church. All of the roads might for all I knew have been there for eternity, whether built two or two hundred years before. History, to me, was the sharp-angled village library, built in 1981.

At secondary school we learned about enclosure and were shown before and after maps of each of the local villages. Most of the roads, we were told, were built at enclosure, which is why they have sharp bends or zig-zags where they cross the parish boundary. So how did people travel before that? There were few if any roads marked on the pre-enclosure maps. What route was John Ogilby marking on his map, if all the roads were built later? If I thought at all to ask any of these questions, nobody quite knew how to answer them.

I recall someone from my parents’ generation who had grown up in the village telling us that a slight rise in the Grimsby road, close to the old village school, was called Pepper’s Hill. As a name, it didn’t appear on any maps, and I have no idea where it came from, or where she had got it from. Moreover, why did nobody else know about this, and why had nobody told me?

Traditionally, history was always seen as a grand progression of Great Men, of names and dates and battles and similar Important Events. That’s still believed in some regressive, reactionary circles, but it’s not true. There are many histories, and everyone’s story is a history in itself. I love the history of place, the fine-grained history and archaeology of a small piece of topography, the sort of history that asks where the roads really did run in a particular village a few hundred years ago. It’s one of the reasons I waffle on here so much about local cemeteries and suchlike, and why I think it’s worthwhile to look at just how individual places and neighbourhoods have changed. It’s even more important to look at a regular neighbourhood than it is to study the history of a castle or a palace; but so much is lost, or overlooked, or just forgotten. My great-great-grandparents left Cornwall, and left behind them so much knowledge of their tiny village and of their local towns that is all gone completely now, so much dust in the wind. I can go back to where they came from and walk the same streets; I can go to the village museum and see walls of photos of Victorian fisherman who are probably all distant relations of myself; but I have no connection with that landscape or with any of the people. My family has jumped too many times, and broken its connections at each one.

If you go all the way back, back to when the English first arrived here, just think: there is so much that has been forgotten and lost. There are so many rivers in England called Avon, and we do not know the pre-English name for any of them, because Avon is just the Welsh word for “river”. There are so many kings of Britain, from the period after the Romans left and before the English arrived, whose names and numbers and forts are forgotten and missing from the record completely, because they had the misfortune to lose a war. The history we do have now is the history of survivors, but sometimes we should remember there is a history of the forgotten too.

This post is a bit of a mish-mash, a bit of a strange ramble around my mind, but I suppose what I’m really trying to do is set out some sort of a manifesto, for why I like to study history, for why I went and got myself a degree in archaeology, and for what I think is important in those fields. Above all, this is a plea to know the land around you, know its shape and how it came about, know what was here before you and what you have inherited. I hope that wherever I live in the future I will always try to learn about the landscape around me; and hopefully now I’m an adult I will have the resources to be able to do that. This land is our land, but we merely hold it in trust for our descendents; and the same goes for our history too.

* My great-grandparents got together circa 1910 or so but never actually married—because my great-grandfather was already married to someone else. Allegedly, a few decades later someone used this fact to taunt my grandmother, and she immediately punched them to the floor. There were also other bits which would be hard to even draw on a standard family tree, such as the distant relative of my dad who got married to his stepmother’s sister.

Another human cemetery

Not Greenbank, for a change

Another day, another cemetery, although back on to a human one this time. Back in October, Twitter user @libbymiller asked if I knew Ridgeway Park Cemetery. Although I do know it, and I’ve been foraging for brambles there frequently in summer, for some reason I’ve never taken any photos. Today I woke up, saw it was a fine frosty day, so tried wandering off in that direction.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park is only small, but its history tracks in microcosm the history of the great urban Victorian cemeteries of Britain. It opened in the 1880s as a private alternative to the nearby city-owned Greenbank Cemetery, filled up with graves, and as it filled up and plot purchases dropped off its owners could no longer make a profit from it. In 1949 the owning company was wound up and the cemetery taken over by the city council.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery, mapped

It was built behind a grand old house, Ridgway House, which in the 1860s seems to have been the home of the private school attended by local celebrity W G Grace. The house was demolished in the late 30s, and there is now no sign of it at all above the ground as far as I’m aware, although Huyton Road runs on the line of its approach drive. Although the house has disappeared completely, the boundaries of the cemetery still follow the lines of previous boundaries. The following map is from immediately before both the cemetery and Eastville Park were laid out, but the cemetery boundaries can be clearly traced on the tithe map from 40 years earlier.

Before the cemetery was built

Unlike the still-active Greenbank, and the much-loved Arnos Vale, Ridgeway Park seems relatively forgotten as cemeteries go. The area near the gates is in reasonable condition, just with grass a little long; but as you go in further, towards the park, it becomes more and more overgrown until you are effectively in a patch of woodland with added gravestones.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

If you’re local, this is the ideal time of year to visit somewhere quite so overgrown. If you’re not, you might have to wait a while and come back next winter. Or, indeed, in summer, when it has an entirely different atmosphere but is still just as lovely a spot.

Update, January 11th 2021: I went back to Ridgeway Park with an SLR camera and took some more photos. The new post about it is here.

A more unusual cemetery post

Or, what to do with your faithful companions if you're rich

Last night was a wild night. Howling wind, hammering rain, the sort of storm that wakes you up as it’s trying to blow your bins down the street.

I was surprised, then, this morning, to find the storm had passed and it was a bright, sunny, fresh winter’s day. Not wanting to waste it, and wanting to get some post-Yuletide fresh air, we headed out to Ashton Court. If you know Bristol, you probably know Ashton Court. If you don’t: it’s an ancient manor, already a manor before the Norman invasion, which was bought by the City Council in the 1950s to avoid it becoming completely derelict.

Ashton Court

This is, according to the internet, a much-hacked-about 16th century gatehouse. The interior of Ashton Court is a bit of a mystery, as not much of it is ever open to the public, but its enormous grounds are effectively a public park, albeit a public park that still hosts a herd of red deer. It also hosts a slightly less medieval golf course (boo) and miniature railway (hurrah).

Naturally, today, the railway wasn’t running and I’ve never seen what’s attractive about golf, so we wandered the various gardens and parkland and woods on the estate, nearly slipped over in the soggy, slippy mud from last night’s storm, managed not to fall into the waterlogged haha, and stood by the deer park fence watching the deer.

At the edge of the garden, though, we found something a little more unusual and a little more interesting: the pet cemetery of the last family to live in the house, in the first half of the 20th century. It does not, a hundredish years later, look particularly well cared for.

Pet cemetery

Presumably most of the graves are of dogs, although the headstones generally stick to euphemisms like “faithful companion” and similar. You have to assume this is the grave of a dog, not a servant.

Grave of Matthew

Some of them are in better condition than others.

Pet grave

Pet grave

If I’d known it was there, I’d have brought the Proper Camera, a sketchbook and a measuring tape. If we have another nice day, maybe I should come back again.

Grave of Sylvie

On Troopers Hill

Or, photo post of the week

As it is such a lovely, sunny, bright and winter day, we went out for a walk, for a picnic on Troopers Hill. The lumpy, bumpy and steep slope overlooking the Avon, crowned with a rough and slightly wonky chimney. It was busyish, not crowded, but full of groups of families, walking dogs, eating picnics and flying kites. We sat and ate our food, tried to look at the view without squinting, and watched buzzards hovering and circling over the woods.

The chimney

The chimney was probably built in the late 18th century for copper smelting. Various copper and brass works lined the Avon and Frome in the 18th century; it was Bristol’s major industry, powering the city’s corner of the transatlantic slave trade. The chimney on Troopers Hill fumed to turn copper and zinc ore into brass kettles and other ware, for sale in West Africa in exchange for people, to be shipped as slaves to the Caribbean for the enrichment of Bristolian merchants. Quite a dark history for a local landmark. The brass works did not survive the end of the slave trade, as they no longer had a guaranteed profitable market for most of their products; by the mid-19th century, the copper smelters had closed. Troopers Hill was still covered by other heavy industries, though: coal mining, clay mining, stone quarrying, and a tar distillery. As the industries declined through the twentieth century, though, it slowly turned into a slightly wild and unruly green space. The chimney, though, was left looking over everything.

A view from a hill

The council have repaired the base of the chimney, where the flues would originally have entered it, and built a little passageway into it. Inside, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Chimney entrance

Inside the chimney

That local cemetery again

A bit more local history

A damp, misty, gloomy November weekend: so obviously, we livened it up by taking another walk around Greenbank Cemetery!

Regular readers might recall the post a while back tracking the evolution of the cemetery through maps. When it first opened, an open stream ran to the north of it; over time, this small beck was culverted as the land either side became first allotments then cemetery. This stream is the Coombe Brook; on the 1880s map, it seems to have risen in Speedwell near the Belgium Pit colliery and ran westwards, joining the River Frome just behind the Black Swan, the infamous Easton pub/club originally built in the 17th century. The modern confluence is, presumably, somewhere in a tunnel system deep under the M32 motorway.

Not much of the Coombe Brook is still above-ground at all nowadays. However, if you explore Royate Hill nature reserve, just alongside the cemetery, you can find the point at which it disappears underground.

Coombe Brook

Water disappearing into this tunnel, assuming it doesn’t get syphoned off into a storm sewer, will come out into daylight again in the River Frome alongside Riverside Park. Unfortunately you can’t see the mouth of the 19th century culvert under the cemetery because it is protected behind the romantically-named Royate Hill Trash Screen.

Royate Hill Trash Screen

As it was a bit muddy down here today, we headed back into the cemetery. I took a few more photos of 1930s graves in the part of the cemetery that was formerly allotments: more evidence for my previous post about the cemetery being expanded a few years before the maps says. Moreover, they’re fairly interesting gravestones too.

1930s grave

1930s grave

More on the spread of death

Or, the perils of trusting a map

Semi-regular readers might remember that, about a month ago, I posted about Greenbank Cemetery and its history, and looked at the available historic maps online to track its growth through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This weekend I went back to Greenback for the first time since I wrote that post, partly for the autumnal atmosphere and partly to see how much evidence is visible on the ground for the different phases of growth I identified on the maps.

The cemetery today is bounded by roads to the north and south, Greenbank Road and Greenbank View. One thing I discovered when writing the previous post is that, according to the maps, there was a phase when there were bands of allotments between the roads and the cemetery itself. The allotments seem to have been created in the Edwardian period; later, the cemetery was extended and swallowed them up. When I visited the cemetery this weekend I went to look for evidence of the northern allotment. The boundary between the cemetery and the allotments (not to mention the field that preceded them) is still clearly evident on the ground.

Former boundary of the cemetery, now a path

The area on the left has been part of the cemetery since, I think, its first expansion in 1880. The area on the right, where graves are packed in much more closely together, was a field at that point, then became allotments, then cemetery. If you poke around, there’s some signs that the edge of the cemetery might have been a haha-style sunken wall.

Possible former cemetery wall, with walling stones now used as makeshift steps

These four trees would have been on the boundary originally. I wonder if they were planted because there was a gate here from the allotments? There’s nothing marked on the map, though, and the map is quite thorough at including the cemetery’s paths, so they may not have been planted until the cemetery was extended.

Four trees straddling the former cemetery boundary - possibly a former gateway?

I said previously that the extension of the cemetery over the allotments “must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments”. That map’s available on the National Library of Scotland website; here’s an extract from it.

Greenbank in 1938, apparently

However, on walking round the area of allotments shown on this map, I quickly found that an awful lot of graves are of people who died before 1938. The dates on the headstones run back over ten years before that, to the mid-1920s.

Monument to John Smyth, d. 10th Feb 1926

Monument to Ena Sargant (d. 27th July 1925) and Patricia Sargant (d. 13th March 1925)

Monument to Jesse Jordan (d. 16th March 1930), Clara Jordan (d. 19th December 1930) and Agnes Flemming (d. 18th September 1924)

The 1920s-dated monuments run all the way up to the road, so it wasn’t a case of the cemetery taking over the allotment step by step either. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be reburied, or for people to be commemorated on headstones in spots they’re not buried in, there are so many 1920s monuments in this part of the cemetery that you can’t really use that explanation for all of them. So, unless I do at some point find some evidence that there genuinely was some sort of mass reburial and movement of graves in Greenbank Cemetery in the late 1930s, something like a Bristolian version of the building of the Paris catacombs, we have to conclude that this is a mistake on the map; or, more likely, that the map isn’t a full revision and the change in size of the cemetery was one of those changes in the real world that the Ordnance Survey didn’t bother to draw onto their maps at that point in time.

If I had copious amounts of free time, it would be very tempting to create a full catalogue of all of the monuments in Greenbank and their dates, and then develop a typology of changes in funerary design, spotting trends between different undertakers and stonemasons. It would be even more interesting still to then do the same for another large Victorian cemetery in a different part of the country, and track the regional differences. Sadly, I have nowhere near enough free time to embark on such a project. I’ll just have to wander around the cemetery, spot things like this occasionally, and enjoy the views.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

The spread of death

Or, exploring some local history

Yesterday, after the rain had stopped, we went for a walk around Greenbank, the local Victorian garden cemetery. It’s a lovely place to visit whatever the weather, but on a cold day, after a rainstorm, with drips coming from every branch and all of the colours having a dark rain-soaked richness, it is a beautiful quiet place to wander around. Even when the children are pestering you to turn around and head back home so they can have some hot chocolate and watch TV. “It is a very hot chocolate sort of day,” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

Wandering down the avenue

Exploring the graves

At the centre of Greenbank Cemetery is a connected pair of mortuary chapels: one for Anglicans, and a separate but identical one for other forms of Protestant. They have been derelict and fenced off for a long time, and their central wooden spire was taken down sixty or seventy years ago, but they are still surviving despite the failure of plans a few years ago to restore them and make them usable spaces once more. Above the entrance to the central atrium, between the two chapels, is a finely-carved inscription. “Opened 1871. Enlarged 1880.”

Greenbank Cemetery, Opened 1871, Enlarged 1880

Nowadays when you look at Greenbank on a map it’s surrounded in many places: by roads, by housing, on one side by a disused railway line. So I thought I’d dig into the archives to find out what its original groundplan was, and which parts were extended. Luckily, thanks to the fantastic work of Know Your Place Bristol and their maps, this was relatively straightforward to do. This first map is dated to 1880-81, so it seems to be after the first phase of enlargement of the cemetery. If you don’t know the area, note that it is bounded by an open stream to the west and north, and that Greenbank Road goes up to the cemetery gates and no further. I assume the original area of the cemetery was the part centred on the chapels, and the extension was the area east of the line of trees.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1881

In many ways, even without the big garden cemetery this would be a typical landscape for the fringes of a growing Victorian city: a hotchpotch mixture of farmland and unplanned speculative terrace-building. There are rows of houses without proper streets in some parts, streets laid out without houses in others, and a city-sized workhouse with its own private burial ground behind it. If I’d extended the map to the north or to the south, you’d see a typical Victorian park: Eastville Park on one side and St George’s Park on the other.

If we skip forward thirty years or so, we can see how much the landscape has “filled out”. Moreover, we can see how the cemetery has been expanded to the west. The stream has been culverted; the land to the north and south of the cemetery has been taken by allotments. This map is from 1912; I’ve traced a map from 1902 which doesn’t show this, so we can assume this expansion took place some time in the Edwardian period, more or less.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1912

In that thirty years huge parts of Easton which previously had just been sketched out for development have now become packed terraced streets, and some of the terraces which were built along narrow paths now have proper roads to them. Schools have been built, and a church. There’s a lot less open space, but there’s still some, here and there. Fishponds Road has acquired trams, up in the top-left corner; and the workhouse have stopped burying their dead on their own land.

If you know the area, though, you’ll know that it does still look a bit different today. To see the modern layout of the cemetery, we have to move forward to a 1950s map.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1955

This is the boundaries of the cemetery as it is today. Greenbank Road has been extended, and Rose Green Road has been widened to take traffic. The cemetery has swallowed up the allotments on either side of it, stretching out to reach the roads. This must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments. However, it can’t have happened very long after, going by the dates of some of the graves on the ground. These sections of the cemetery include a number of graves from the Second World War, including civilian victims and enemy prisoners.

What’s always puzzled me about this, though, is that still to this day the emptiest parts of the cemetery include some of the areas which were included in the original 1871 cemetery right from its opening. The north-western side of the original cemetery, which slopes quite steeply down to the course of the brook which marked the original boundary, is still empty of graves. It’s one of the areas being used nowadays for interment, along the line of a path which was put in place when the cemetery first opened. Meanwhile, the late-Victorian and the 1930s extensions are jam-packed with graves, many of them now overgrown and abandoned.

This is the point at which a proper essay on local history would be drawing to a conclusion and discussing what conclusions we can draw about the growth of cemeteries in provincial English cities. As for me, I just like looking at old maps. I think it’s a fair assumption, though, that that city council deliberately bought additional land around the cemetery with the aim of expanding the cemetery into it when required, and in the interim used it for allotment space. Of course, I also like wandering round a cold, damp cemetery, too.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

At some point I’ll have to write more about that other burial ground marked on the map. That’s not just disused: for many years there was no sign of it at all on the ground, until a memorial was erected relatively recently. That, though, will be a story for another day.

Update, 2nd November 2020: We went back to Greenbank the other day, with my proper camera this time, to try to see if I could track on the ground any of the cemetery’s history of growth. Indeed, you can, if you know what to look for: however, it doesn’t quite marry up with the dates of the maps I’ve found. The new post about the cemetery’s history is here.