By the middle of the 19th century, it was clear that England was running out of space to bury its dead. The population had grown rapidly and all over Britain, churchyard cemeteries had been struggling to cope with the demands of the dead. Churchyards were full to bursting, and bodies were often buried within inches of each other. The problem was particularly acute in Melcombe Regis where there were only three small graveyards – one adjacent to St Mary’s church, another in Bury Street (now a multi story car park) and Bank buildings Baptist church (now built over).
Legislation was required and in early 1850s the Burial Acts came into force enabling local authorities to acquire land for the provision of municipal cemeteries, these to be managed by Burial Boards.
It was decided to build a cemetery at Westham. This was the first major building work on this side of town. Access had to be way of Gas House Lane, now Newstead Road.
The designers of this new cemetery were inspired by Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris that was informally landscaped, with roads wide enough for carriages, and smaller paths for strolling. London architect W J Pinch designed two chapels for the cemetery, Presbyterian and Non –Conformist.
Melcombe Regis Cemetery opened on 31st march 1856.
As you wander around this cemetery your notice that Victorian graves tended to be much more elaborate than modern graves. It was expected that a middle-class family would spend as much as it could afford on a funeral procession and monument appropriate to the deceased’s social status. Victorian funerals could be very expensive affairs.
The Victorians saw cemeteries not only as a place in which social status could be established but also as a place to visit, a place in which to reflect and contemplate, and a place in which to stroll – a perfect Sunday afternoon out. This was especially true of the middle-classes.
Attitudes to death were soon to change though. Sensible people began to protest about the crippling cost of funerals, monuments and mourning clothes. The public too were exasperated with Queen Victoria’s obsessive mourning of her husband to the extent that she had become a kind of absent queen, rarely making public appearances.
But it was World War I that finally put the nail in the coffin of Victorian mourning. So many young men died for what seemed senseless reasons that Christian faith – and with it attitudes to death and mortality – was shaken to the core. Suddenly Victorian monuments seemed inappropriate. Almost overnight, lavish displays for the dead disappeared.