The historic development of cemeteries in England

Reprinted with permission of Friends of Becket Street Cemetery – Leeds

Pere Lachaise Cemetery opened in Paris. This was an early public cemetery which was influential in English cemetery design. It was laid out informally in the Picturesque style.

The Rosary Cemetery in Norwich opened. This was the earliest interdenominational cemetery in England. Religious motives lay behind its founding as it was intended to provide dissenters with an opportunity to follow their own burial customs. In the early 19th century religion permeated everything, including daily life and death, charitable provision,
education and politics.

Most of the early cemeteries, including Chorlton Row Cemetery (Manchester) set up in 1821 and Low Hill Cemetery (Liverpool) in 1825 were established by Nonconformists. These early cemeteries tended to be located in urban centres with fast-rising populations. They were funded by joint-stock companies, whereby shareholders received an annual
dividend and philanthropists and Nonconformists could play a part. The joint-stock cemetery companies were constituted under individual Acts of Parliament.

Further cemeteries were established across England, mainly by private companies in urban centres. They include Key Hill (Birmingham) in 1834, Newcastle General Cemetery in 1834, Sheffield General Cemetery in 1836 and York cemetery in 1836-7. Six large cemeteries were established in London including Kensal Green in 1833 and Highgate in 1839.

Leeds General Cemetery Company was established.

Leeds General Cemetery Company opened a cemetery costing £11,000 at St George’s Field, Woodhouse. It was unconsecrated and intended for use by Dissenters. This was the first cemetery in Leeds.

St Bartholomew’s Cemetery (Exeter) opened in 1837. It was funded from rates levied by the city’s Improvement Commissioners and was therefore the first cemetery in England funded by public money. This was the only example in the 1830s and publicly funded sites continued to be a rarity in the 1840s.

The first cholera epidemic (1831-2) killed 52,000 people in Britain and brought the problem of graveyard overcrowding into sharp focus. The graveyards were perceived as a menace to public health and private finance alone was not enough to cope with the scale of the problem. This was particularly true as private finance cemeteries developed by joint- stock companies predominantly catered for the wealthy as rates to be buried within the grounds
were high.

In 1839 Dr G. A. Walker published Gatherings from Graveyards in which he argued for the pythogenic theory i.e. that gases given off by human putrefaction could be deadly to anybody who inhaled them:

‘…the filth and corruption of the urban burial yards generated poison and disease’ (Walker 1839).

Walker argued that the wealthy had a duty to help improve conditions and not ignore the crisis. He believed that legislative action was needed. Walker and his supporters ensured that the issue of burial was integral to the wider debate regarding urban sanitation.

Cemetery building increased in England, with most serving urban areas and being built by private companies. Many cemeteries were informal in layout but adhered to a grid pattern for burial plots. However, since the early 1840s dissatisfaction with the joint stock companies had been mounting.

J. C. Loudon drew up an influential plan on the layout of cemeteries entitled On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries. Loudon was involved with the design of Southampton Cemetery in 1843 (although his original designs were radically changed). This opened in 1846. Loudon also advised in the layout of Abbey Cemetery (Bath) which opened in 1844 and the Cambridge General Cemetery, opened in 1843. Southampton General Cemetery was set up by the town council with funding from public sources.

‘For Loudon, cemeteries presented problems that were primarily practical. His concern was
how best to design and run a given cemetery, not how to develop a strategy that could deal
with the burial crisis, and his work ranges accordingly from recommendations about drainage
and planting to observations on efficient grave-digging’ (Brooks 1989, 34).


Burmantofts Cemetery (Leeds Burial Ground at Beckett Street) opened. Over the following 150 years approximately 180,000 people were interred at the cemetery in some 28,000 graves.

The Cemeteries Clause Act provided guidelines for the establishment and running of commercial cemeteries.

In 1848-9 there was a second cholera epidemic and this, together with the resurgence of Chartism, forced the government to act. On the last day of August 1848, the first Public Health Act, 11 & 12 Vict c.63, received the Royal Assent. This Act laid the foundations for all subsequent public health measures and was the beginning of the legislative process that would establish public cemeteries throughout Britain.

The Act was heavily influenced by Chadwick’s report of 1843 and it created a General Board of Health with powers to appoint officials and inspectors and create local boards of health (London was exempt from this coming instead under the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers). The general public health functions that the boards were responsible for
included powers relating to the burial of the dead.

Starting with the Metropolitan Burial Act in 1852, a series of Acts, which became known as the Burial Acts, were passed. Consolidated in 1857, they established a national system of public cemeteries. Parish vestries appointed Burial Boards to be responsible for providing for the interment of the dead of the parish and they would often do so by building a cemetery and charging the expenses to the Poor Rate. The Burial Board was responsible for the management of the cemetery, for fixing fees and charges and the sale of grave plots.
These cemeteries would have grounds consecrated for Anglican use and grounds unconsecrated for the use of Nonconformists. In the Burial Act of 1854 town councils were enabled to form Burial Boards using the Borough Rate to establish cemeteries deemed to be for the parishes within the Borough.

West Cemetery opened in 1856

The Burial Acts resulted in a large number of cemetery foundations in both rural and urban areas. Furthermore, once public authorities were given the power to provide decent places of burial, the building of new joint-stock companies ceased to be commercially viable although several continued to be used. Virtually no private enterprise cemeteries were founded after the 1850s. In London following the Metropolitan Burial Act, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery and Marylebone Cemetery opening in 1854, were the earliest Burial Board cemeteries in London. Large numbers of public cemeteries continued to open in England throughout the second half of the century such as Lawnwood Cemetery (Leeds) which opened in 1875.

The Cremation Society of England was founded to much opposition from the general public. The first legal cremation occurred in 1885 at Woking Crematorium.

The Local Government Act of 1894 passed the responsibility of cemeteries to the newly constituted local authorities at district, town and parish level.

The Cremation Acts of 1900 and 1902 enabled public provision for those individuals who wished to be cremated and the first municipal crematorium was opened at Hull in 1901. The increasing trend towards the secularisation of British society can be seen in the increase in numbers of people opting to be cremated following their death. After World
War II the practice became widely used, reaching a peak in the 1970s. In 2002 approximately 70% of all disposals were by cremation.