Brief History of
Smallcombe Vale was a meadow on the edge of a small wood until the 1820s, when
part of it was laid out as a garden. It was probably a kitchen garden for vegetables,
as it was 'glebe' land, given over by the owner, the 3 rd Duke of Cleveland, ‘for the
sole use of the Rector of St Mary’s, Bathwick’.
By 1850 the population of Victorian Britain had rapidly grown and the Parish of
Bathwick was overwhelmed by demands for burials. The churchyards were full.
Spurred on by Acts of Parliament to create burial grounds out of town, a fashion
arose for cemeteries to be viewed as ‘Gardens for the Dead’. Smallcombe was to be
one of them. The kitchen garden was included in a larger piece of land extending up
the hill and into the woods which the Duke sold to the Church of England for a
reasonable price. Later, gravediggers complained at having to remove all the trees
and their stumps but were delighted with the garden area, already cultivated and
easy to dig.
So on May 9 th 1855 the corner stone of the Anglican mortuary chapel was
ceremonially laid. Under the stone was a cavity, in which a sovereign, a shilling and
a penny were placed. This was an important ceremony in the life of the parish and
was described at length in the Bath Chronicle of 10 May 1855. Among
the dignitaries were the Rector Rev HH Scarth, the Architect Thomas Fuller and the
builder George Mann, who was himself to be buried here. Prophetically the Rector,
wielding the customary silver trowel, said to the local people standing around: “In all
human probability our own mortal remains, and the remains of those we have known
and loved on earth, will rest in this spot.”
Most of the citizens buried here were born locally in Somerset, many in Bath itself.
Because of the Duke’s low valuation of the land, the cost of burial was kept at only
£3 and a ‘decent burial’ was affordable by most. This meant that, as well as the
aristocrats and military figures, it is the artisans, traders, craftsmen and labourers
that actually built and traded in Victorian Bath, who are buried here. They practiced
a wide range of trades and professions, from goldsmiths to corset makers, poets,
pianists, engineers, grocers, fishmongers, soldiers, inventors, lawyers, admirals,
songwriters and churchmen.
In 1859 there was a heated debate about ‘The Cemetery Question’ – what to do with
dissenters – and in 1861, on land adjacent but separated by a wall, a second
Smallcombe cemetery was built to accommodate the Non-Conformists as well as Anglicans. It was to be run by a Bathwick Burial Board, not the Church. To the right of the main Anglican
gate, it contains its own small but elegant chapel, designed by Alfred Goodridge, and
a curious row of stones going up the slope. They demarcate the Non-Conformists on
the right, among whom are two founders of the Plymouth Brethren and a
Swedenborgian. Curiously, the closer the Anglicans were to the stones, the cheaper
the burial costs. Today the line of the stones can be hard to make out among the
memorial stones, as the demand for more burials continued into the 20 th century.
By 1907 the population had doubled, just since the 1850s. The two cemeteries, now
generally seen as a single entity, were expanded up the floor of the valley to the east
and also into unused corners, even some of the paths were encroached upon. This
new amenity was occupied by the Edwardians and by later 20 th century Bathonians,
as well as by outsiders coming to Bath to retire. It includes some aristocrats and
even a descendent of Charles II and Nell Gwyn. Tragically, evidence of two world
wars is everywhere and the lack of today’s medicine is revealed among the
children’s graves. However, behind every memorial is a personal story and, if we can
find it, a contribution to the history of Britain and of Bath.
Smallcombe Garden Cemetery was closed to new burial plots in 1988 and has
become partially relinquished to nature and time. This is part of the charm that
visitors recognize and share. It remains the same tranquil but semi-wild space,
described in 1856 as “a beautiful spot, secluded and even picturesque”, in which we
can ponder and “hasten the time when there shall be no more crying and no more
pain, and the tears will be wiped from every eye.”