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The Garden Cemetery Movement



Early 19th-century burial grounds were still utilitarian walled enclosures usually close to churches with minimal planting.  The wealthy had their own chapels and grounds.  A few citizens had memorials in or near the church but most people were buried together in a grave pits nearby.  Such unmarked ‘overburials’ could be reused in about 10 years and the bones taken to charnel houses. When overpopulation and finally Acts of Parliament insisted that burial grounds be outside of town, the concept of large ‘gardens for the dead’ became a possibility.  However, Victorian cemetery designers lacked models to follow.  Churchyards had developed almost organically, restricted by space, and public parks did not yet exist.  Instead, the landscaped private parks of landowners provided inspiration, with chapels taking the place of the country house as the main centre of attention. The boundary walls, entrance lodges, and a scattering of Arcadian memorials were all there, ready to be borrowed.

The Parisian cemetery of Le Père Lachaise was of very grand design which nonetheless  strongly influenced design from 1815 onwards. Its combination of straight cobbled streets and winding paths and, a profusion of monuments, and a number of imposing structures set amid a carefully planted setting that sought to remind the visitor of Arcadia, was widely copied in English cemeteries.  These landscapes developed in splendour as each new memorial added an extra note of interest.  It became a street rather than a ‘garden’.

The landscape of the early Victorian cemetery was usually laid out more informally in the picturesque style, with sweeping drives and serpentine lines of trees emulating the legacy of the most fashionable landscape designers such as Humphry Repton. Planting was very carefully designed, with trees, especially yews trees, lining the drives and pathways, and  more trees and walls enclosing the perimeter of the site. 

By contrast, John Claudius Loudon’s practical and influential book, On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries (1843), promoted a more utilitarian layout than the ‘garden’, often based on a standard grid pattern that did not fit well with informal picturesque principles but was undoubtedly a more efficient use of land.  It made finding a grave easier, too. Loudon believed that cemeteries should also be spiritually educational, soothing and dignified places, a view to which many others subscribed.  He wrote: “ Churchyard and cemeteries are scenes not only calculated to improve the morals, the taste and, by their botanical richness, the intellect, but they also serve as historical records.”

The many cemeteries created as a result of the 1853 Act were planned in the style of the Garden Cemetery with either a picturesque layout or a grid pattern or both.  Smallcombe (opened in 1856) was an early  combination of the two, with nature being allowed over the years to play a substantial part, justifying the soubriquet of a Garden Cemetery.  Among the variety of memorials are several official war graves and four memorials are architecturally listed.  

(A useful source of more information is ‘Paradise Preserved’ a publication of Historic England.)

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