A Peaceful Place to Rest
West Hill Cemetery, Winchester
In The Beginning
Writing of the early years of the 19th century Alderman Thomas Stopher recalls that little had been built in the western environs of the City and that the open chalk down was almost devoid of trees. A major technological advance was about to change all this.
The advent of the railway, after an initial reluctance by the citizens to use this noisy, smelly and novel form of transport, brought a new prosperity to Winchester. It was not long before those with an entrepreneurial instinct saw great opportunities for making money. Much speculative building was put in hand (good solid dwellings by any standard that still form a great part of the present housing stock) and the City started to expand beyond its former boundaries. And with the railway and all this development came the trees that are such a feature of the City as we view it today.
In the 1830's Winchester did not have a cemetery and the graveyards of the City's churches were overcrowded and in some cases had reached their capacity to accord burials for the citizens.
Mr. C.W. Benny, a Portsmouth grocer and a man of substance, saw here an opportunity for a sound investment by providing a cemetery. After all, in the natural order of things, people died and had to be buried, cremation not being a popular option at this time. Accordingly in 1839 Mr. Benny formed The Winchester Cemetery Company with a capital of £5,000 in £10 shares. In 1840 the Company was incorporated by Act of Parliament. The Act contained the usual powers for the construction of a cemetery and associated chapels. Two Chapels were built; one for members of the Church of England, the other for "Dissenters", but were demolished in the 1930's. Also specified were the maximum charges for interments. For every person buried in the open ground (common grave) the sum of 12/-; for every person buried in a purchased or private grave the sum of two guineas; for every person buried in a vault, catacomb or brick grave the sum of four guineas. One section of the Act, combined with other circumstances, was going to cause problems for the City Council at a later date.
Mr. Benny took a keen interest in the running of the cemetery and amongst other provisions insisted that the Keeper who lived in the Lodge had a large and vociferous dog to protect the graves of recently buried people from the attentions of grave robbers. He was well aware of the problem, as his sister's body had been taken from its burial place, much to the grief and consternation of her family.
The site chosen was on the southern slope of West Hill with its northern boundary on St. James' Lane, then known as Barnes Lane. The land belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral. Alderman Stopher records that the appointed architect was Owen Brown Carter who designed the Lodge and the two chapels and the perimeter wall with its elegant pillars and railings. The Lodge still stands at the northeast entrance just above the St. James' Lane railway bridge, but both the chapels have been removed. Although the Cemetery is now closed, occasional burials in family plots and vaults do still take place.
In "The History of Hampshire" the Cemetery is described as "a piece of ground about 7 acres in extent, delightfully situated on the sunny slope of West Hill, and laid out with the greatest taste". The grounds were, as now, open to the public and "afforded a very agreeable promenade with a charming view of the valley beyond St. Catherine's Hill and St. Cross as far as Twyford and Brambridge". It must have been a beautiful sight in those days and even today, in spite of much building and the many mature trees, there are still wonderful views to be had out of the City to the east and southeast.
By the beginning of the First World War the Cemetery was nearly full and by 1918 the Cemetery Company was virtually defunct. At a meeting held in the Guildhall on 28th January 1921 the position of the Company was put before the public and as a result a Committee was appointed to assist the extant directors in the maintenance of the Cemetery. This Committee was known as the West Hill Cemetery Society and they ran the Cemetery from 1924 to 1928.
In the following years matters went from bad to worse and a resolution of the problem became imperative. On the 15th December 1946 the Town Clerk, Mr. R.H. McCall, presented a brief on the matter to the City Council. It was a model of clarity and commonsense and an admirable and lucid explanation of a complex situation.
He explained that in 1924 the Directors had sought Counsel's advice on the feasibility of transferring the undertaking to Trustees appointed by the Society. Counsel, a Mr. Neville Tebbutt, had made a number of comments. The first was that the Cemetery Company was prohibited from selling or transferring its undertaking or the cemetery to other persons. He further advised that the Cemetery was not one to which the Burial Acts applied, in the sense of requiring the Local Authority to maintain the same when disused. He also drafted a Declaration of Trusts that was adopted by the Cemetery Society. But due to the rule against perpetuities (the Society not being a charity) the Trust was confined to the period of the lives of the issue of His Majesty King Edward VII and for a further period of 20 years from the death of such survivor! In this case the Trust would have expired in 1958 following the death in 1938 of Princess Maud, the wife of King Haakon VII of Norway.
Other relevant facts were that the Company had not held a meeting since 31st December 1920, the last Director of the Company had died on 29th October 1936 and the Secretary and Treasurer, Mr. Alfred Bowker, had died on 18th March 1944. There were other problems too numerous to list here.
In 1948 a further Opinion of Counsel was sought with a view to transferring the Cemetery Company and the assets of the Cemetery Society to the City Council. In this opinion, Mr. J. Mills, agreed with the previous opinion and said that to do this a Private Act would be necessary. He also said that if the Council declined the offer then the Society was under no obligation to continue to maintain the Cemetery. He also stated that if the work of the Society ceased it must remain for local opinion or local effort to prevent the Cemetery from becoming derelict. The Town Clerk advised that it was quite certain that the City Council had no legal power to spend money on a Cemetery that did not belong to them.
He also advised them that if the Council did not take over then the state of the Cemetery might deteriorate and that it was "notorious that any property kept in reasonable repair is less expensive in the long run than letting the same property get into a very bad state and then have to put matters right". The point was also made that it would be wrong to disregard the fact that pressure on the Council to take responsibility would increase in line with the state of dereliction. It was close to the City centre and would always be regarded as something of importance and that it would be considered as a credit to the City or a disgrace, depending on its state. That opinion would probably hold good today.
Another factor to be taken into consideration was that any contribution by the Local Authority must be measured against the value of the site to the City's reputation and the maintenance of the rateable value of the surrounding district that would certainly deteriorate if the Cemetery became a place of desolation. Telling words in any age!
In conclusion he advocated a Bill in Parliament so that the Cemetery could be taken over by the Council and in the event the Winchester Corporation Bill, all 64 pages of it, was passed in 1952.
In the Hampshire Chronicle of 12th December 1964, the Town Council gave notice that they intended to remove memorials, tombstones and railings on 200 burial plots. Certain headstones were to be placed against the side-walls of the Cemetery. Objections had to be registered by 18th January 1965, after which the work was to be put in hand. It is not known how many objections, if any, were made but the work was certainly put in hand. In the1980's the Council, as a matter of policy, commenced the destruction of some of the gravestones to facilitate the work of the gang-mower. They were also using chemical sprays to inhibit growth that the mower could not deal with. After many years of effort by the Landscape Committee of the Trust (then the Preservation Trust) and others, the Council was persuaded to alter its policy of destruction and the use of sprays and to treat the Cemetery as a managed area promoting the proliferation of flora and fauna.