Elmswell Cemetery

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The churchyard was closed in 1900, and since then departed Elmswellians have been interred in the Parish Cemetery, on the other side of the road going down the hill. Though the A14 precludes any real sense of quiet, it is a pleasant spot, and there is a bench at the far end with a fine view across the fields towards Woolpit.

In 1980 the Parish Council had a plan drawn up showing (most of) the graves then visible, but there do not seem to be any data recorded with this. Somewhat later, about 1991, a plot-allocation plan appeared, showing surnames (but very often nothing else) including graves which have disappeared or are unmarked [see example]. So in the spring of 2002 the History Group undertook a new survey, the results of which are available here.


Elmswell Cemetery and the Victorians

A shortened version of a talk given to the Elmswell Millennium History Group
in St John’s Church on 24 July 2014 by David Buckton FSA

The story of how Elmswell came to have a cemetery can be told only because of the prodigious work put in by the late Norman Kenyon and the Parish Recorder, Maureen Dow. Much of the evidence for the reconstruction that follows can be found here, on the History Group’s website.

The Church of England played an important part in the life of the village in the nineteenth century, although not so important as in previous centuries. The Rector or his curate usually presided over meetings of the Vestry, which was responsible for much of the civil administration of the village; all parishioners could attend and vote, although at one time the number of votes they could cast depended on the amount of rates they paid. To emphasize the civil role of the Vestry, the Vestries Act of 1850 prohibited ‘the holding of Vestry or other Meetings in Churches’; in Elmswell, however, this ban was routinely ignored by William Macfarlane, Rector from 1878 to 1893.

After a difficult passage through Parliament, the Local Government Act 1894 created parish councils to replace Vestries as the civil authority in villages. Much of the pressure for the Act had come from Nonconformists, who saw parish councils as a means of reducing the power of the established church. This fundamental change in the way local affairs were run led to a great deal of confusion – and not a little bad feeling – in the last six years of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th. There was evident tension between Church and State (in Elmswell, the Rector and churchwardens on the one hand and the newly created Parish Council on the other), and between ‘Churchmen’ and ‘Dissent’ (between Anglicans and Nonconformists). In Elmswell, the Baptists had built their mission hall in 1887, and the Methodists had pulled down their old chapel and built a new one in 1898.

The scene is set by a notice in the Elmswell and Tostock Parish Magazine for July 1900 by James Hipwell, Rector of Elmswell from 1893 to 1908:

The Rector was setting out his stall: the church would get new land for burials, and Elmswell ratepayers would foot the bill.

A public meeting in April 1900 had already agreed to consider what should be done to provide a new burial ground, and the Bury and Norwich Post and Suffolk Standard published on Christmas Day 1900 carried a very full report of a parish meeting held the week before:–

Burial Ground Question at Elmswell

contradictory proceedings
breezy meeting
confusion reigns

There would appear to have been three parish meetings in the run-up to Christmas 1900. The first, which was well attended, resolved that the owner of the field bordering the north-west corner of the churchyard should be approached, to ask him to give, lease or sell a piece of it for burials. A second poorly attended meeting (allegedly only six people present) was called by the chairman of the Parish Council, John Leatherdale, apparently because there was a difference of opinion over whether the previous meeting had voted to extend the churchyard or to establish a cemetery. This second meeting seems to have decided simply to seek clarification by putting it to a third meeting.

And so to the third meeting in a very short space of time: it was held in the council school on the Wednesday before Christmas, 19 December 1900. Because he was the chairman of the Parish Council, Mr Leatherdale took the chair. John Coleby Leatherdale was or was to become a Justice of the Peace; he was a farmer and lived at Elmswell Hall. Born in Norfolk, he had been baptized in Wymondham Congregational Chapel, which may be significant in the light of what follows. When he died, in 1926, he was buried in the cemetery he had done so much to establish.

Parish Councillors at the meeting included:–
Robert Baker, a miller and corn merchant; Robert Durrant, a chemical manure merchant, saddler and harness-maker, whose business was at the corner of Grove Lane and Ashfield Road; J King, probably James King, a farmer, who lived in Cross Street; David Sparrow, a corn porter; and John Borley, the builder. We know from his grand-daughter that John Borley lived in Virginia House, which he had built. This is more or less opposite the Baptist chapel, which he also built. When he died, in 1941, his obituary in the Bury Free Press recorded that ‘in years gone by [he] took the services there, while he also preached at many other chapels in the district.’

Non-councillors present included:–
William H Green, of St John’s House, a churchwarden, with a business as corn merchant and maltster; Henry Kinsey, a farmer and income tax collector, of Hill Farm – the last farm on the left before Great Ashfield; Robert Pye, a timber merchant with sawmills at the station;
John Henry Newson, coal and manure merchant, of The Cottage, on the corner of New Road and Church Road – Elmswell’s older inhabitants knew this junction as ‘Newson’s Corner’; Nathan Warren, engineer, manufacturer of general agricultural implements, wagon and cart builder and ironmonger, who carried on businesses at Blackbourn Works and at Stowmarket (when Frank Nunn took over the business, he traded for a time as Warrens of Elmswell); a Mr Jolly, probably Henry Jolly, listed in Kelly’s 1908 Directory as a Justice of the Peace, a miller (wind and steam) at the station; Harry Cornelius Pearl, grocer and draper in New Road; a Mr Robinson, probably the highway surveyor Richard Robinson, who lived in School Road; H Mulley, most likely the bricklayer Harry Mulley, with an address in The Street. Messrs Parsey, Balham, Fincham and Blake were listed as attending, but there is no trace of them in the 1901 census, although a Mr Parsey was at a meeting of Elmswell ratepayers in February 1888, and an Emily Mary Parsey was recorded in the 1901 census as a 17-year-old niece living in the household of Daniel Collen, the Parish Clerk. Mr Collen was Elmswell’s sub-postmaster, as well as a corn and flour merchant and stationer. He has a memorial plaque on the north wall of the nave in St John’s church. He acted as clerk at the meeting just before Christmas 1900.

Mr Leatherdale opened that meeting by summarizing what had gone before:

The Parish Council had got the blame, but it hadn’t closed the churchyard. In fact, as a temporary emergency measure, it was the Parish Council that had had it re-opened for the burial of a child. And did the Parish Council get the credit for this…?
There followed questions about the legitimacy of the badly attended meeting:

Mr Kinsey wanted to know the names of the ten ratepayers who had called the meeting. These could not be produced, and confusion reigned for a time.

This immediately takes us back to the Rector’s piece in the parish magazine six months earlier: The churchyard will remain as heretofore the freehold of the Rector, but maintenance, as well as provision for keeping of gates and fences, will fall on the Rates.
There followed some argument as to whether Elmswell had adopted the Burial Act 1900. The 1894 Local Government Act had made it a duty of the newly created rural district councils to provide cemeteries, but ‘in rural parishes the parish meeting have [sic] the exclusive right of adopting these Burial Acts for the parish’, making the Parish Council responsible. A parish meeting in Elmswell on 21 May 1900 had voted to adopt the Burial Acts 1852–1855, and so the village had already taken the decision. The chairman went on:

Mr Warren had been accompanied on his visit to Mr Holmes by Mr Green. Both were churchwardens. Mr Green had gone with Mr Warren because, he said, Mr Leatherdale’s refusal to do so ‘was practically a slight on Mr. Holmes.’ William James Owen Holmes was a Fellow of the Royal Society whose passion was astronomy. He lived at Strumpshaw Hall, a neo-classical mansion some eight miles east of Norwich. He owned the swans, with ‘upping’ and marking rights, on the River Yare. When he died, in 1908, Elmswell landowners were named as trustees of his estate: Mrs Kinsey, William Durrant of The Grange and Whitehouse Farm, Mr Leatherdale himself, and Walter Williams, who had the two farms on Grove Lane – Grove and Botany Bay farms. The trust in question was probably a Trust for Sale, which meant the trustees were to sell Mr Holmes’s property in Elmswell and hold the proceeds in trust for the beneficiaries.

If Messrs Warren and Green had to travel to Strumpshaw, they would probably have gone by rail, changing at Haughley Junction and probably at Norwich Thorpe Station (although there were through trains from London to Yarmouth). The nearest station to Strumpshaw Hall was on the line from Norwich to Lowestoft – and to Yarmouth via Reedham. It was Buckenham Ferry, an isolated station in the marshes close to the river bank, where Mr Holmes’s son, also William, moored his steam yacht, the SS Flower. William junior’s love of steam rivalled his father’s love of astronomy and eventually led to the establishment of the Strumpshaw Hall Steam Museum.

The 1841 tithe map and the 1904 Ordnance Survey show a number of fields and a small wood to the north of the church and almshouses. A hedge marked the boundary between two fields bordering the churchyard: the one on the School Road side (‘Church Field’ on the tithe map) fairly flat, the other (‘House Pasture’) on a steep slope down to the stream in the gully. This sharply sloping field shared a boundary with the west end of the churchyard from Bunker’s Hill to a point about due north of the church tower.

According to the 1881 census, Ireland William Hewes Graham, lived at Elmswell Hall. He was described as landowner and farmer of 908 acres, employing 30 men and 11 boys. According to White’s 1874 Directory, he had bought the land in 1873. He was only 31 at the time, and it seems that he had overreached himself, since he went bankrupt in 1889 and left the village (the 1911 census shows him living in Plymouth).

Described as ‘farmer and brickmaker, of Elmswell and Hitcham’, he appears to have taken out two mortgages with the National Provincial Bank. At a meeting of his creditors in the Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds, on 27 September 1889, the Official Receiver (who said the gross assets of the estate were the largest he had ever had to deal with) was appointed the trustee, shortly to arrange a meeting of the solicitors for Mr Graham and the bank, together with Mr H A Elmer, Mr J H Newson and Mr N Warren, ‘in order that there might be a consultation as to the realisation of the estate.’ Presumably as a result of this meeting, the 1891 census shows William Diaper as farm steward, his wife and teenage daughter, apparently at Elmswell Hall. Subsequently Mr and Mrs Leatherdale moved in, from a farm in Great Ashfield, and Mr Holmes of Strumpshaw Hall must have acquired the land immediately to the north of the churchyard at about the same time.

At the meeting before Christmas 1900 there was considerable disagreement about the suitability of this site:

So, parish councillors looked at possible sites. While they were looking at one adjoining the churchyard, they saw the gravedigger dig up human remains. If a grave was being dug in the churchyard, this would presumably have been during the time covered by the special licence, so after the meeting on 19 December but before 20 February 1901. The Parish Council was not wasting time. In fact, by 16 January sites under consideration seem to have been reduced to two: a corner of the school field, and a field on Woolpit Road owned by a Mr Rice. The Parish Council applied to the County Council for a loan of £150 for the purchase of land and for laying it out as a burial ground.

The loan applied for in January was approved in March, and, as we now know, the site on Woolpit Road was the one chosen for the new cemetery. In April the land was purchased for £100 per acre: a total of £133 15s, plus £10 compensation to the tenant allowing for immediate possession. George Mulley, described as a piper (a pipe-layer, perhaps) was appointed gravedigger (there were four George Mulleys in the village in 1901). Tenders for iron fencing were invited, and in July Nathan Warren’s tender was accepted: £73 10s 6d, plus £3 10s for painting it. The rates precept was increased from £10 to £15 to meet the expenses of the burial ground, and further loans were sought.

Cast-iron grave-markers, two sets numbered from 1 to 250, were needed to mark the burial plots. Presumably one set was for the consecrated section of the cemetery, for Anglicans, and the other for the unconsecrated part, for Nonconformists and others: the letter from Whitehall in November had requested a plan of the future burial ground, showing the consecrated and unconsecrated portions. The estimate for supplying the grave-markers was: 31s 6d per 100 unpainted, 33s 6d per 100 painted. Mr Warren’s tender was again successful: the 500 markers cost £12 6s 4d. It was decided that a thousand ‘Myrobella’ or cherry plum trees should be planted near the fencing for a total of 40s.

Hand Bier PhotoIt was proposed that a hand-bier should be provided for use by the parishioners, to take the coffin to the church or chapel and then on to the cemetery. The hire charge was set at 1s 6d (a shilling for the upkeep, sixpence for the gravedigger).
In July it was laid down that the incumbent would receive 2s 6d for every funeral (under the Burials Act 1900 this would be illegal unless he were actually officiating at the committal: ‘No fee, except for services rendered by him, is to be paid to the incumbent of a parish…’). The sexton was to receive a shilling for tolling the bell at the request of the mourners.

The first burials date from that year, 1901, although the grave-markers were not yet in place. In October 1902 it was recorded that the grave numbers would be put in place as soon as the ground was fit.

Elmswell’s hand-bier was bought in March 1903 for £14 15s. In March 1904 tenders were invited for the erection of a shelter for it. In April 1904 the Parish Council paid the Great Eastern Railway Company £4 3s 4d for transporting the bier to Elmswell, plus tax of £4 0s 2d, making a total of £8 3s 6d. In June £15 6s 6d was paid to John Borley for building the shelter. The rates precept was raised from £15 to £20.

In March 1928 the bier was hired out for the last time; the cost of borrowing it had gone up from 1s 6d. to 2s 6d. Later that year it was sold for £3 10s to Mr R.Mulley of Tostock. Records show that it was in constant need of repair: a year before the sale the Parish Council had spent £4 on overhauling and redecorating it and spoke of buying a new one. The Mulley family, who were undertakers, were at the time considering buying their own hand-bier, possibly because of the cost of hiring the Parish Council’s – the charge for taking this out of the village was 8s 6d. When they gave up arranging funerals in and around Elmswell, the bier was taken to Essex for the use of a younger generation of Mulleys. For the last 25 years or so it has been in the Tithe Barn Museum in Upminster, on loan from B.F.Mulley & Son, the local funeral directors. An information panel exhibited next to the bier records that it was in use in Elmswell from the early 1900s until the early 1950s.

The bier shelter built for it by John Borley in 1904 was restored by Colin Lomax in 2013 through the generosity of individuals and organizations, including the Elmswell Millennium History Group. The list of contributors, and of loved ones they wish to commemorate, is to be permanently exhibited on the shelter.

Bier Shelter Before & After