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When Billing Road Cemetery was big business

Retired landscape designer Christine Whittemore of Northampton Heritage Hunters looks at the history of Billing Road Cemetery…

In the mid-19th century churchyards had become so overcrowded with burials it was realised that gases escaping into the air, and waste products from corpses leaching into the soil created a serious public health hazard. There was also a need for security to prevent body snatching for sale to the medical profession for dissection. This practice was regarded with horror as the prevailing Christian belief was that bodies should remain intact for the Resurrection.

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The cemetery movement started in France with the design and construction of Père La Chaise Cemetery in Paris, popularising the idea of burying the dead in large, properly-drained and landscaped grounds set out with elegant outdoor furniture, walkways and gardens. People could linger, admire the architecture and sculpture, and visit their departed loved ones’ graves in pleasant surroundings. This became the fashion all over the western world.

This was the time when death was thought of as a period of repose before resurrection and the Day of Judgement. It was a time when families were large, but many died of childhood illnesses and during epidemics. The dead were treated with great respect and the funeral became a serious ritual with special items of clothing, jewellery, transportation and paraphernalia symbolic of mourning. Unfortunately the burial of the dead also became a means of displaying social status and the costs involved escalated to the point where poorer people descended into serious debt. Societies and savings movements eventually denounced these excesses, and by comparison today we hardly celebrate death at all.

plan 002 slightly bigger

Billing Road Cemetery in Northampton was opened by a private venture, the Northampton General Cemetery Company, in 1847 and the layout was designed with the help of Robert Marnoch, Superintendent of Regents Park Botanical Garden in London.

The nine acre site on quiet Billing Road provided 16,575 graves, a chapel with vaults in the centre, and two gate lodges, one at the Billing Road entrance and one close to East Street. The cemetery was walled with stone surmounted by iron railings, and the roadway provided an easy passage for horse-drawn funeral carriages. The layout included a circle symbolic of eternity with interlinked walkways leading to the plots, and was planted with trees and shrubs to “beautify” the scene.

Bonham carriages002

John Claudius Loudon (1783 – 1843) was the national authority on landscape gardening and cemetery design, and the landscape plan was adapted from his “pictorial gardenesque – predominantly exotic planting planned for colour effect and botanical variety”. The Billing Road Cemetery planning committee required a pleasure garden and insisted on the inclusion of flower beds despite Loudon’s advice that a funerary landscape should only include trees and shrubs of a sombre tone.

The cemetery was opened at the height of the era of funerary excesses and money was to be made from selling the grave plots and their maintenance. Charges for burials were 2/6d (twelve and a half pence) for a stillborn, 15 shillings (75 pence) for a child up to fifteen years of age, and 2/6d for officiating at the service. 50% of grave plots were purchased by families and 50% purchased for paupers. Social funds, including those arranged by Northampton Corporation and St Andrew’s Hospital, provided interment fees for the poor.

angel on neadstone

The cemetery contains the remains of many prominent local people including town mayors, Caroline Chisholm ‘the Emigrants Friend’ who is revered in Australia for her work with poor settlers, and Robert Fossett, the circus proprietor once judged the best bareback rider in the world who died in 1922. It also contains the remains of police detective James Kemp who was killed on duty by an armed man in 1868, many luminaries of the shoe trade, and the recently restored Commonwealth War Graves Memorial commemorating the fallen of both world wars.

As time went by and Billing Road Cemetery became full, the profits to be made by the company trickled away and the site started to deteriorate. It was taken over by Northampton Borough Council in 1959, the same year that saw the opening of the Counties Crematorium at Milton Malsor, and cremation became the most popular option.

engraving 1848 Gen Cem Co document tomb and yews

Early cemeteries provide a record of a town’s history and development, their people, art and architecture, attitudes to death and the changing fashion of funerary styles. They are an outdoor museum, a place for reflection and spiritual renewal in a tranquil setting. They are also expensive to maintain, and councils, always seeking to cut costs, see them as a drain on the public purse; and so they must be turned into “open space” (some would say a green desert) for cheap and easy upkeep.

If you visit Billing Road Cemetery today you will find very little of its former Victorian garden atmosphere, with only a few scattered monuments remaining to remind us of the love, care and respect with which the dead were treated by the Victorians.

Northampton Heritage Hunters is a group devoted to recording local memories and researching the history of Northampton. They meet every Friday from 10am to 12 noon at Alliston Gardens Community Centre, Adelaide Street NN2 6AR. Sounds interesting? You are welcome to drop in to a meeting and help create more articles like this.

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