Brief History of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Oxford (opened in 1848)
St Sepulchre's Cemetery was opened in Oxford in 1848 as a parish cemetery for four churches:
St Giles, St Michael, St Mary Magdalen, and St Paul
The situation before the cemetery opened
1835–6: Building of St Paul’s Church
St Paul’s Church (shown right in 1837) was built in St Giles’s parish in 1835–6, and in 1837 a district chapelry (an area taken from the parishes of St Giles and St Thomas) was assigned to it.
This gave the people of the Jericho area of Oxford a more accessible church with more pew space, but it did nothing to solve the problem of finding space to bury them when they were dead, as the new church did not have its own burial ground. Although St Paul’s conducted burial services, the deceased continued to be buried in the respective churchyards of St Thomas (for those streets which came under the Oxford registration district) and St Giles (Headington registration district). The church was situated outside its own chapelry and remained in St Giles’s parish.
1843: All of Oxford’s twelve churchyards declared full
In 1843 a committee reported that every churchyard within the City of Oxford (which of course did not then include nearby villages such as Cowley, Iffley, and Headington) was full, and the need for new burial grounds became more and more urgent. The argument about a large general cemetery for all versus smaller parish cemeteries continued to rage right up until 1847: at the Town Council on 1 January that year Alderman Browning (who wanted a general cemetery outside the city) stated that the proposed burial ground “at Jericho, near the foundry, was in the midst of a large and increasing population, so that the evil was only transferred from one part of the city to another”. (Alderman Browning now lies in the cemetery he fought against.) On 14 January Alderman Sadler said of the proposed site of the Jericho Cemetery that “one part of it was gravelly, and the other part a swamp”.
1847: Decision to create three new parish cemeteries
The clergy opposed the opening of a large general cemetery, so instead three smaller local parish cemeteries were created for the eleven parishes and one district chapelry that then comprised the city of Oxford. Each cemetery catered strictly for the following areas:
- Osney Cemetery for the four ancient parishes of St Aldate, St Ebbe, St Peter-le-Bailey, and St Thomas
- Holywell Cemetery for the four ancient parishes of St John the Baptist, St Martin, St Mary the Virgin,
and St Peter-in-the-East
- St Sepulchre’s Cemetery for the three ancient parishes of St Giles, St Mary Magdalen,
and St Michael-at-the-Northgate, plus the new district chapelry of St Paul.
The following notice appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 20 March 1847:
OXFORD PARISH BURIAL GROUNDS.
Notice to Builders, Stone Masons, and Quarrymen.
PERSONS desirous of submitting Tenders for the performance of certain Works in Building the Walls to enclose the proposed Burial Grounds, severally situate at Osney, in the parish of St. Thomas; at Jericho, in the district of Saint Paul’s; and at Holywell, all in the city of Oxford; may inspect the particulars for the same at the office of Mr. Underwood, architect, 18, Beaumont-street, on or after Saturday the 27th of March, between the hours of Ten and Four o’clock.
The Committee do not pledge themselves to accept the lowest Tender.
There is some information about the architect of St Sepulchre’s, Henry Jones Underwood (who committed suicide in 1852) in this article about Newman’s church at Littlemore, which he also designed.
The rules for the four new cemeteries were drawn up by the Rural Deanery of Oxford in August 1848.
The heyday of St Sepulchre's Cemetery, 1848–1894
1848: Consecration of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery
St Sepulchre’s Cemetery was consecrated on 23 September 1848 (just after Osney, and just before Holywell). Although it was situated in St Giles’s parish, it was sometimes referred to as St Paul’s Cemetery or the Jericho Cemetery. The land used for the cemetery was the old farmstead of Walton Manor Farm, which had been abandoned at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
It provided burial plots for people living in the north-west part of the city of Oxford right up to (but not including) Summertown, namely the parishes of St Michael-at-the-Northgate and St Mary Magdalen (in the Oxford registration district), St Giles (in the Headington registration district), and the district chapelry of St Paul (straddling both registration districts). The cemetery is divided into those four long sections running east to west, with St Paul at the north end, then St Giles and St Michael, and finally St Mary Magdalen at the south. The areas allocated were as follows:
- St Paul: 2 roods 37 perches
- St Giles: 2 roods 19 perches
- St Michael: just 36 perches, as it was a dwindling parish
- St Mary Magdalen 2 roods and 28 perches
Hence those who were neighbours in life still lie side by side.
All the streets covered by the cemetery in the early years
The two earliest readable surviving gravestones so far discovered are those of the Hale children in St Paul’s parish and of Diana Myers in the St Mary Magdalen section (the first burial in each took place on 26 October 1848, three days after the cemetery opened).
The cemetery also originally had a Norman-style chapel (see thumbnail), designed by the Oxford architect H. J. Underwood (the same person who designed St Paul’s Church in Walton Street). Some burial services were conducted in their entirety in the cemetery chapel, while others were held in the parishes churches, followed by a solemn procession on foot or by carriage to the interment in the cemetery.
Six of the ancient Oxford colleges (Balliol, Exeter, Jesus, St John’s, Trinity, and Worcester), who were no longer allowed to bury their dead under their chapels, made use of the cemetery. In 1868 a seventh college, Keble, was built in the cemetery “catchment” area.
1849 and 1854: Cholera epidemics
The 95 deaths in Oxford in the first cholera epidemic of 1832 had added to the pressure on the city's cemeteries. Far fewer people died in the second epidemic of 1849, and a maximum of eleven victims are probably buried here (St Paul: 3; St Giles: 3; St Mary Magdalen 1; and possibly the 4 who died in Oxford workhouse). The third epidemic, which started in Walton Street in 1854, led to 22 deaths (St Paul: 8; St Giles: 3; St Michael: 4; St Mary Magdalen: 2; and Workhouse: 3). Deaths of cholera by parish can be seen in Dr Acland’s report (page 30). The only gravestone in the cemetery which mentions that the victim died of the 1854 cholera outbreak is that of Mary Butler, but the Sexton recorded in his notebook relating to the St Paul’s section that Elizabeth Bustin buried on 1 October 1854 and Thomas Faulkner buried on 6 October 1854 both died of the disease: he gave no depth for their burial, so they were probably buried in the plot set aside for the poor who died of cholera, where the Revd Addington Venables, then Curate of St Paul's, was to bury his son in 1863 to identify with the people.
1855: Original cemetery fully reserved after only seven years
The original cemetery was full after only seven years, and this Order was made in 1855, stating that from 1856 burials at St Sepulchre’s cemetery were only to take place in plots already reserved. (The cemetery, however, was later extended.)
1860: Norham Manor estate
William Wilkinson laid out the Norham Manor estate in 1860, increasing pressure on the cemetery
This was the last census where the parish boundaries were the same as when the cemetery opened in 1848. The relevant streets of these four parishes in 1861 are described in the introductory pages to the census books. The population of the cemetery “catchment area” was then 9,342 people (4,121 men and 5,221 women, divided as follows between the parishes:
- St Giles (excluding Workhouse and Radcliffe Infirmary): 2,577
- St Mary Magdalen: 2,555
- St Paul: 2,239
- St Michael: 971.
Although the parish of St Giles was massive in area, its population was only a fraction more than that of the overcrowded parish of St Mary Magdalen.
1862: New Church of Ss Philip & James
This consolidated chapelry was carved out of the old St Giles’s parish (including a part of the St Paul’s district chapelry which fell in that parish). Ss Philip & James Church had no churchyard, so people who died in this area continued to be buried in the St Giles’s section of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery (or in family graves already existing in the St Paul’s section). The huge expansion of north Oxford at this time necessitated an extension to the cemetery: Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 13 August 1864 reported that members of the Burial Board of this new church were “in treaty for the purchase of some land on the south side of the existing Jericho Cemetery”. The burial register for this church does not begin until 1 April 1863 (with the information duplicated in the St Giles’s register), and ends on 8 April 1907 (except for one burial recorded in 1946).
Gothic lodge built (1865)
The Gothic gatehouse and lodge that were designed by Edward George Bruton as part of the original plan in 1848 were built in 1865. Also in that year, Lucy’s Ironworks was built to the north-east of the site.
New Church of St Barnabas (1869)
This ecclesiastical district was carved out of the St Paul’s district chapelry. People who died in this new parish of St Barnabas's Church continued to be buried at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, but until March 1871 the burials were recorded in St Paul's register.
Lower portion of cemetery raised to same level as upper (1875)
Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on 16 October 1875:
ST. PAUL’S CEMETERY. A very necessary improvement is now being effected at this Cemetery, in the raising of the lower portions of the ground belonging to St. Paul’s parish. An opening through the boundary wall has been made from Juxon-street for the passage of carts, and earth from the drainage works is carried in daily. It is estimated that about 3000 loads of earth will be required to carry out the idea of raising it to the level of St. Giles’s portion, which was raised some time since.
Burial Law Amendment Act of 1880
This made many changes to burial law, and people in the relevant parishes could now be buried in St Sepulchre’s Cemetery with a nonconformist service, or without any service at all. The words “certified under the Burial Law Amendment Act of 1880” that start to appear in the parish registers indicate that the deceased was a nonconformist or Roman Catholic.
Insight into the work of the Keeper of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery (1882)
Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on 15 April 1882:
The Vicar [of St Paul’s Church] stated that the Curators of St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery had decided to close the gates on a Sunday between 11 and 2, and at 6 o’clock in the summer and dusk in the winter in the evening. They found that it was absolutely necessary that some such step should be taken for the protection of the graves, and in order that the keeper should not be detained there all day, as they felt that the time he devoted to the work should bear some proportion to his remuneration. Several of the parishioners expressed themselves strongly against the proposed change. — The Vicar pointed out that the practice was adopted at Holywell Cemetery, and generally throughout the country. — Mr. Brucker proposed “That this meeting regrets to hear that it is proposed by the Curators to close the cemetery between eleven and two and at six in the evenings on Sunday, and earnestly hopes that the former arrangement be not discontinued.” This was carried unanimously, and the Vicar promised to lay it before the meeting of the Curators.
Fund created by St Giles’s Church for maintenance of the cemetery after closure (1882)
Jackson’s Oxford Journal, reporting on 15 April 1882 on the St Giles’s Easter Vestry, stated that £30 had been given to “a new fund to be designated the St. Sepulchre’s Sustentation Fund. They were looking forward to the time when the cemetery must be closed, and they wished the graves of their friends to be kept in order. They therefore thought it advisable that they should lay by a store, in order that the money should be capitalized.”
St Sepulchre’s full to bursting (1887)
It appears that the 1855 Order may not have been fully observed, as an article in the New York Times of 8 May 1887 referred to the “disgraceful state of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery”, where bones of people buried thirty or fewer years before were lying around on the surface of newer graves, and described it as “the latest scandal at Oxford”.
Thefts at the Cemetery (1887, 1890, and 1899)
It was reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 30 July 1887 that Charles Cook, who was lodging nearby at the Walton Ale Stores, was prosecuted for stealing flowers from the graves in the cemetery almost every evening and throwing them over garden walls. He was fined 2/6 with £1 costs (or 14 days’ hard labour), and a warning was given that the next person caught stealing in this way would be sent to prison. Notwithstanding this threat, less than three years later it was reported (12 April 1890) that when Elizabeth Cox of Great Clarendon Street, who was employed at the Clarendon Press, stole flowers from the cemetery, she was let off with a fine of 2s. 6s and 10s. costs (or 14 days’ hard labour).
A case at the City Court reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 4 February 1899 involved two labourers from London charged with the theft of five silk hats (belonging to the undertaker Henry Symonds and four pall-bearers) which had been left under a tree near the outer gates of the cemetery during a funeral. The defendants claimed that they thought the hats had been thrown away: one was sentenced to a month’s hard labour, and the other was discharged and told to get out of the city quickly.
Petition against the closing of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery (1892)
It was reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 6 August 1892 that Councillor Taphouse presented a memorial from parishioners to the City Council’s Cemeteries Committee against the closing of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery.
St Sepulchre's Cemetery in its declining years, 1894–1945
Creation of municipal cemeteries eases pressure on St Sepulchre’s (1894)
The situation eased once a Burial Board was formed and three municipal cemeteries were opened in 1894: Botley in west Oxford, Rose Hill in east Oxford, and Wolvercote in north Oxford.
The population in each parish served by St Sepulchre’s at the time of the 1891 census was as follows: Ss Philip & James: 5,020; St Barnabas’s: 2,758; St Paul’s: 2,567; St Giles’s: 2,250; St Mary Magdalen: 1,774; and St Michael’s: 602.
Telephone wires (1894)
The National telephone company applied to pass wires over St Sepulchre’s Cemetery
New Church of St Margaret (1896)
St Margaret's Church, built between 1883 and 1888, was originally a chapel of ease to replace a mission room in Hayfield Road. In 1896 a district taken from the north of Ss Philip & James’s parish was assigned to it. Some people who died there continued to be buried at St Sepulchre’s.
New Church of St Andrew (1908)
St Andrew's Church in Linton Road was dedicated in 1907, and was formed of an ecclesiastical district taken from
(1) the Ss Philip & James’s consolidated chapelry in the old parish of St Giles (the part north of Park Town and east of the Banbury Road), and from (2) the parish of St John’s in Summertown to the north. There was however very little space left in the cemetery at this time.
Loss of cemetery burial register (c.1920)
The cemetery burial register was kept in the gatehouse before the First World War, but is understood to have been destroyed by floods in about 1920.
Whole area taken into Oxford registration district (1932)
The city had taken in new suburbs, including Headington, in 1929, and in 1932 the Headington Registration District was abolished. From that date the whole area covered by the cemetery was in the Oxford registration district.
Opening of Oxford Crematorium (1939)
The opening of the Oxford Crematorium in Headington greatly eased the pressure on all Oxford cemeteries, including St Sepulchre’s.
St Sepulchre’s Cemetery closed (1945)
St Sepulchre’s Cemetery was closed for new burials in 1945 and vested in the care of the City Council, although the land is owned by the Diocese of Oxford.
Right: The grave of Ethel Annie Gilder, who died on 14 April 1944, may be the last new one dug in the cemetery
A few people were buried after that date in existing graves: the St Giles’s burial register shows that the last person from that parish was buried in St Sepulchre’s on 30 April 1949.
The last burial in an existing grave so far discovered is that of Mrs Emma Kearsey in the St Paul's section on 15 July 1950.
After the closure of the cemetery in 1945
Plans were made to sell the gatehouse, which became a private dwelling.
St Paul's Church was closed, and the parish of St Barnabas was united with the old district chapelry of St Paul.
St Sepulchre’s chapel demolished (c.1970)
The cemetery chapel was demolished in about 1970 and replaced by a paved area with seating.
Inscriptions on grave markers recorded (1988)
Canon Peter Geoffrey Bostock (1911–1999) of 6 Moreton Road and his team completed their record of all legible grave markers in March 1988. (He himself is buried in Holywell Cemetery, where he also recorded the inscriptions.)
Register of Historic Parks and Gardens (2004)
On 26 January 2004 St Sepulchre's Cemetery was registered within the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by English Heritage for its special historic interest, designated Grade II. See List Entry No. 1001682
Friends of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery (2005)
This group was formed by Peter Strong in 2005.
Lucy’s Ironworks closure (2005–7)
Lucy’s Ironworks closed in 2005 and the buildings were demolished in 2007. Three blocks of flats on the site (Furnace House, Foundry House, and Fettlers House) now overlook the cemetery. The cemetery is bordered on the other side by the offices of Eagle House (the Oxford-Man Institute of Quantitative Finance)
Memorial Inspections (2008 and 2014)
Memorials were inspected by Oxford City Council and unsafe headstones were laid flat:
Launch of the St Sepulchre's website
This took place on 12 February 2013.
Green Flag awarded to St Sepulchre's Cemetery (2015)
St Sepulchre's Cemetery won its first Green Flag award in the summer of 2015.
Uniting of the parishes of St Barnabas and St Thomas (2015)
In September 2015 the parish of St Barnabas was united with that of St Thomas, so that St Thomas's Church (the “grandmother” of St Barnabas via the district chapelry of St Paul) is now a chapel-of-ease to St Barnabas. This new parish covers much the same area as that of the ancient parish of St Thomas up to 1836, but also includes the part of St Giles's parish taken into the St Paul's district chapelry that year.