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The Condition of Hertfordshire Graveyards

Old Herts

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Many people visit the county to see the place where their ancestors lived and were finally buried. To avoid unrealistic expectation I feel it appropriate to say something about what you might find, with examples of some graveyards near to where I live.

Maintaining a cemetery, particularly one which contains mainly closely packed graves with a wide variety of commemorative stones, is a nightmare. I must admit involvement in a genealogical crime. When I first came to Tring the original graveyard round the church had long been tidied up but there was an Victorian extension which had been disused for very many years. It was a wilderness and the Church advertised for people who wanted particular stones to be preserved to record the fact. As a young man, new to the town, I was enlisted to help smash the unclaimed stones with a sledgehammer and load them into a skip. No-one kept any record of the inscriptions on the many hundreds of stones that were destroyed. ....

A few years later the horror of what I had been involved in became apparent when I revisited Sandridge churchyard to discover that the beautiful polished granite stone of my great great grandparents, Dolphin and Maria Smith had suffered a similar fate.

Such clearances were not uncommon. Few town churches have retained their graveyards intact, the nearest example is at Aylesbury, Bucks, where it is difficult to find a clear plot  between the stones. Berkhamsted parish church has a area of clear grass adjacent to it which must have been the graveyard, but no stones remain. At Hemel Hempstead stones have been stood up against the wall of the churchyard - with some being laid flat to form a path. Your ancestor's stone may still be there but it no longer marks the grave. At Redbourn discarded stones have been used to build the wall round the compost heap! In bigger towns there must be the thought that parts of what were the churchyard may have been built over.

Chapels associated with the non-conformists sometimes had a small graveyard attached. Quite a number of these buildings (and a few associated with the Church of England) have been converted to houses or offices. Definitely some of my relatives were buried in such a graveyard in Aylesbury, Bucks, which became the garden of a private house in about the 1840's. There has subsequently been redevelopment of parts of the area - and I have no idea what happened to the graves. On another occasion I visited a chapel where there had been a memorial to another ancestor. The chapel had been sold to become a youth club and the builders were at work. The shape of the "missing" wall memorial could still be seen marked with fresh plaster.

Rural parishes may have less pressure on space - but still have the problems of maintaining churchyards which have many more graves than than the existing active congregation. Codicote uses the old-fashioned way of keeping nature at bay between the graves - sheep - but this is generally not appropriate. More and more are leaving parts of the graveyard to revert to nature and for instance the October 2007 edition of Village News (for Long Marston, Puttenham, Wilstone, and Little Tring) reports "Did you know that All Saints Churchyard is a designated wildlife site? We have Great Crested Newts in the churchyard and bats in the church."

For a discussion about 20th century cemeteries see Burials in Stevenage, Early 20th century

Having written the above I decides to comment on the state of some of the graveyards around Tring, in approximate age order, to illustrate the kind of things you might expect to find.

Tring Parish Church - original graveyard: Grass cut and trees neat and tidy. There are a number of grave stones, apparently in their original positions, including a few from the 18th century. I might have expected more but perhaps grave boards were still the norm when the extension opened. Early postcards suggest the number of stones in the churchyard has not changed much since the early 20th century. A couple of seats were installed under the trees a few years ago.

Aldbury Parish Church - original graveyard: Original area between church and village contains a few 18th century stones and many later ones, and is well maintained. The modern west extension not so tidy.

Puttenham Parish Church - Set in the fields, it has a pleasant and well kept graveyard with plenty of space - but I might have expected to see more old stones. However the population of Puttenham was never high and many of the older burials may have been marked by grave boards. This graveyard is still open for burial.

Long Marston - Former ancient parish church: All that remains is the church tower, and a few stones, in what is now the garden of a private house.

Quaker Burial Ground: Abandoned perhaps 200 years ago, it has reverted to dense woodland, including yew, and is approached through a gate labelled "Private". I understand there is a single small stone which records the fact that it is a burial ground.

New Mill Chapel: The area immediately adjacent to the chapel is maintained - but most of the stones are in parts of the graveyard which are well on the way to reverting to woodland.  In one area the thick undergrowth and small trees have recently been cut back.

Akeman Street Baptist: Area round the chapel kept as lawn - but the hedge and ivy is encroaching on the area. Behind the chapel is a wide lawn and beyond there are stones in a rough grassed area, with quite a few covered with ivy.

Tring Parish Church - Victorian extension: grassed area with mature trees opening onto an unfenced car park on two sides. Frequently used footpath runs through it so some some litter but not serious. Cleared in 1973 apart from a few stones, when adjacent area of slum housing was redeveloped to provide the Dolphin Square shopping centre and Frogmore Street car parks.

Tring Town Cemetery: Large area, still in use, which is very well maintained by council standards - the only graveyard that give a feel that you are entering a garden. There was a short-lived problem of official "vandalism."  Perhaps 50 or more stones were uprooted because the council decided they were "unsafe". It is interesting to note that the vast majority of desecrated stones were small modern stones less than two foot high - where there was no significant danger of the stone falling on anyone! You may well find similar evidence of Health and Safety gone mad in other council-run cemeteries in Hertfordshire. Fortunately most if not all have been restored. [2016: This cemetery is currently filling up fast and an overflow area is planned when a large housing estate is build over adjoining fields.]

Wilstone Cemetery: Totally rural and has been in use for about 100 years. Surrounded by fields, with field type hedges.  There is an avenue of yew trees and the area round the graves is regularly mowed, but unused areas are neglected. Rabbits have taken up residence in several graves - presumably because there is a greater depth of disturbed soil in which to excavate their warrens. (This churchyard is on higher ground about a mile from the church because the grass area around St Cross, Wilstone, is so low lying that any attempt to dig a grave there would result in a pond!)

Long Marston All Saints: Comparatively modern with few burials, area around the stones regularly mowed. Other non-grave areas being left to encourage wild life.

There were a number of other chapels in the area which are now private houses. I do not know if any of them had their own burial grounds - and if so what happened to them.

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July 2016   Various amendments