Elmswell Cemetery

Elmswell Cemetery

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.

  • plan of the cemetery as it now is, superposed on the 1980 Council plan; visible graves are identified by number in sections A to T.
  • Photographs showing views with graves numbered for ease of identification and a few close-ups of individual graves.
  • an alphabetical list of all names (currently about 900) which appear either on the gravestones, with date-of-death and age where given, or on the 1991 plot, with any date written in there.
  • a spoken record of the inscriptions on the visible graves: in future years, when the weather has further degraded the inscriptions (it is amazing how some of the stones have weathered in less than 50 years), reference may be made to the recording via the Group’s Honorary Secretary;
  • information about the lives of the people buried 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 Churche’s; 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 Dissentia (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:

    In the August 1898 number of the magazine, attention was drawn to the insanitary state of the churchyard, and of course matters have grown worse. In 1860 the area for interment had been limited by direction of the Home Office. An order from the Queen in Council will shortly be issued, directing the churchyard to be closed forthwith, so that there will be, with some few reservations, no more burials. Considering the heavy burden of the Rates, it will be a serious undertaking to provide, as must now be done, fresh ground for the dead. 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.

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

    After the closing of the Churchyard a death took place in the parish, and interment being necessary, application was made to the Home Secretary for permission to re-open the burial ground, and sanction to do so for three months was granted. This was about a month ago [the letter from the Home Office, to the Clerk of the Elmswell Parish Council, was dated 20 November 1900], and following upon the permission so obtained, a public meeting was held.
    The residents of Elmswell distinctly had a night off on Wednesday, and the Board School was the scene of an unrehearsed comedy. For some time past there has been a ferment in the parish over burial matters, the Churchyard being full, and having been closed by order of the Home Secretary a few weeks ago, but the parishioners hardly appear to know what they want.
    At this meeting it was resolved that Mr. Leatherdale and one of the churchwardens [this was Nathan Warren] should approach Mr. Holmes with a view to acquiring a piece of land adjoining the churchyard at its north-west corner, for the purpose of enlarging the burial ground. Subsequently Mr. Leatherdale declined to fulfil the obligation into which he had tacitly entered, on the ground that he had been under a misapprehension as to the exact intention of the resolution, and he therefore called the present meeting.

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:

    They would remember that on the last occasion they met under very trying, very painful, and very sorrowful circumstances. The dead waited for interment, and the Churchyard was closed against him.

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. Green asked whether it did not seem somewhat strange that at the meeting which they had heard so much about there seemed to have been scarcely anyone present. There were plenty at the recent meeting when it was resolved that Mr. Holmes should be approached. (Hear, hear.)


    • Mr. Kinsey: Yes, let us hear something about that other meeting, and who were there.


    • The Chairman said they could not go about the parish telling everybody that a meeting was to be held. A notice was put on the church door. Why did Mr. Kinsey not attend the meeting?


    • Mr. Kinsey: I didn’t know of it.


      • The Chairman: Why I didn’t
    • you go to church?


    • Mr. Kinsey: That’s my business. (Laughter.) The Clerk doesn’t know who called the meeting.


    • Mr. Jolly: The Chairman was authorised to call it.


    Mr. Kinsey: How do you know?

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.

    Mr. Warren had gone to see Mr. Holmes; Mr. Leatherdale had not. Why not? He had not done so because [under the Burials Act] they could not accept that piece of land if it had to be under other control, and he and Mr. Warren would have differed in the nature of their request to Mr. Holmes. The Parish Council was ordered by the Home Secretary to find new ground according to the Burials Act, which enacted that, whenever a churchyard was closed, the Parish Council became the Burial Authority, and not the Parson and Churchwardens.

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:

    Here you have this Act passed by the strongest Conservative Government ever known, and would it have been passed had it not been a necessity? That Act has given us freedom, justice, and liberty, and we will make use of it. (Applause.)

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’s) 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 a farmer and brickmaker, of Elmswell and Hitchama, 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:

    • Mr. Baker said the means of access to the piece of land in question… were bad. It was downhill, and would make the burden of the bearers very heavy. Of course it would not do to fix upon a specific site, as that might put the price up if the owner was not a generously disposed man, and the best thing to do would be to give the Parish Council a free hand in the selection of a site.


    • Mr. Green: No one wished to blame the Parish Council, but they had heard all sorts of rumours as to what the latter intended to do utterly unnecessary things. [And here comes a clue to the outcome of his and Mr Warrenâ’s visit to Mr Holmes:] Land could be obtained adjoining the Churchyard, and he thought it was a very nice spot.


    • Mr. Newson said some persons declared it suitable, while others said it was unsuitable. It was very difficult of access, however.


    • Mr. Green asked whether a path could not be made across the Churchyard.


    • Mr. Newson did not think they could expect the Rector to grant this privilege in respect of his freehold.


    • Mr. Kinsey: Could he stop it? I don’t think he could.


    • The Chairman believed he had power to do so.


    • Mr. Kinsey did not think so, because he did not imagine the new Act gave the Parson more power.


    • The question of privilege between Church and Dissent having been raised, Mr. Kinsey said the latter had the same rights as Churchmen, whereupon Mr. Baker launched forth into some anœstories which he had heard,  and which alleged deep injustice to Nonconformists at the hands of the clergy. This irrelevant and undesirable departure further delayed the business, as charges and contradictions became general.


    • Subsequently the Chairman said if they wished to have this land adjoining the Churchyard, he would do his best to get it, but it must be in the hands of the Parish Council. He then called for propositions.


    • A confused babel arose, numerous sites being suggested from various parts of the room.


    • Mr. Kinsey, on order being restored, proposed That Elmswell Parish Council apply to Mr Holmes to grant a piece of land for a burial ground at the north-west corner of the Churchyard, by purchase or otherwise.” This was seconded by Mr. Pearl.


    • Mr. Jolly proposed an amendment: That the Parish Council be empowered to inspect certain sites that they may think suitable for a burial ground, and report thereon to another meeting to be called at a future date for confirmation.”


    • This was seconded, but Mr. H. Mulley pointed out that this would involve loss of time, and three weeks of the three months extension of time granted by the Home Office had already expired. Considerable confusion followed the raising of this point, and on the Chairman putting the amendment to the meeting, there was a large preponderance of hands held up against it, but whether through misunderstanding or because of Mr. Mulley’s interjection, no one knew.


    • However, Mr. Baker then sprang to the rescue of the amendment, and said if they left the entire matter in the hands of the Parish Council it would be satisfactorily attended to.


    • The Chairman subsequently announced his intention of putting the amendment to the meeting again, and someone called out asking what it was they were voting upon.


    • This kind of thing continued for some time, and then Mr. Newson said under any circumstances another meeting would be necessary, and words to that effect were added to Mr. Jolly’s amendment, and were afterwards withdrawn.


    The Chairman urged that time was an important element, and Mr. Jolly withdrew his original amendment, and moved: That the Parish Council be requested to select a suitable site for a burial ground. This was put to the vote, and understood to be carried by a large majority, Mr. Kinsey’s motion being put and defeated.

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.

It 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 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.