Quality time with dead people
That’ll be Arnos Vale, then, our very own Victorian necropolis, meaning “city of the dead”, which is exactly what it is, a parallel to the city of the living outside.
There are many reasons why you need to see this place. There’s the wildlife – few pesticides or chemical fertilisers have ever been used on the 40-acre site. There’s all those amazing Victorian monuments. And this weekend there are also lots of events and guided tours following a £5m restoration project which has seen its listed buildings brought back into use, many of the monuments cleaned up and lots of the vegetation cut back.
I’ve written the (very reasonably-priced) guidebook and four guided trail leaflets, following lots of research, and with lots of help from some of the very knowledgeable volunteers who keep the place running. You’ll need something to tell you about some of the more interesting monuments or dead people.
(I’d recommend the guidebook though. One of the things everyone finds particularly interesting is decoding the secret language of shapes and symbols on Victorian graves, and the book tells you a little about them.)
I ended up doing far more work than needed because it’s so fascinating. From a historical viewpoint, the great thing with Arnos Vale is that pretty much the whole story of Victorian Bristol is concentrated in this 40 acres, as for several decades it had a near-monopoly on burials in the city.
Arnos Vale Cemetery opened in 1839 to meet a need for burial space which the old parish churchyards could no longer cope with. The stories of overcrowded city graveyards, with corpses buried close to the surface and of stray dogs pulling up bits of bodies were legion. Our forebears might not have known as much about infection as we do, they were perfectly aware that these places were a health hazard. As in many other British cities at the time, a “garden cemetery” was proposed, well away from the city centre.
The arrogance of the wealthier citizens, and the struggle of vested interests is intriguing. The founders clearly enjoyed the feeling of doing Bristol a good turn, but they weren’t a charity. The Bristol General Cemetery Company assured investors the returns would be handsome, which they eventually were. But this was only after years of furious rearguard fighting by the Church of England, who managed to get a ten shilling (50p) tax slapped on every burial in the Anglican section of Arnos Vale.
If you can trace Bristol ancestors back 100 years or more, some are almost certainly among the 300,000 or so people buried or cremated here. These range from the wealthy citizens remembered with huge, expensive monuments which cost more than a skilled working man would earn in a lifetime, all the way to the ordinary folk buried with tiny headstones in so-called ‘Guinea Graves’ or placed in common interments with no memorial at all.
Glimpses of these anonymous masses are rare. One example I did find was very telling: John Hill, an ex-soldier wounded at the battle of Waterloo. He ended his days in the Stapleton parish workhouse. Did any of the city fathers who owed so much to Hill and his comrades, think to buy this hero a decent burial? No. He went to a common interment – a polite expression for what your great grandparents called a pauper’s grave.
By the early 20th century there were rival cemeteries, and the rural area around Arnos Vale countryside had been transformed into the industrial suburbs of Brislington, St Annes and Totterdown. From Bristol’s main burial place, it now became the local cemetery. Its survival as a business, however, was assured when in 1928 it opened the first crematorium in South West England, winning sceptics over, the story goes, by a demonstration in which a sheep was cremated.
Cremation took a long time to catch on. What few people realise nowadays is that the very idea of burning a body was shocking to many in more Christian times. Some believed you needed your body for the Resurrection. Others simply dismissed cremation as something that Vikings, Indians and other heathens did.
Arnos Vale also contains several war graves, mostly service personnel who died at camps or hospitals near Bristol. There are two black South Africans who died in WW1 here, for instance. There’s also the name Elsie Davison on a WW2 memorial monument; as a female pilot, she was a minor celebrity in the 1930s. She joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1940 and was killed in a training accident – probably the first woman pilot to be killed in the war on any side. She was cremated at Arnos Vale and her ashes scattered from the air.
AVC lost its cremation licence in 1998, the company was now in the hands of a single owner and it faced the threat of building development. People with loved ones buried here, and many who simply believed the site was unique and precious campaigned to save it. The Council eventually made a compulsory purchase order, and Arnos Vale is now run by a charitable trust.
Arnos Vale is no longer private property; it belongs to all of Bristol now. Go visit.
And bring a camera. Stone angels, granite obelisks, flowers, ivy, trees … It’ll all make you feel like you’re some photographic genius.
Arnos Vale Cemetery is open to the public daily from 9am-5pm Mon-Sat and 10am-5pm Suns & BHMs. It closes at 4.30pm from October to February. Admission is free. See www.arnosvale.org.uk
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