Are you looking for a relative buried in Bishop’s Cleeve? Are you curious to know how our churchyard came to look the way it does? Is your interest in lovely old leather-bound Record Books? Or do you just like detective puzzles?
Ultimately we might have an on-line record of the graves and memorials in our churchyard, and the burial registers to go alongside them. That’s a long way off, though, and because it’s all rather old the records are quite complicated and there are many gaps and puzzles.
To understand what’s available it’s best to first read through some history, then look at what’s available and how we might be able to help. But if you’d rather go straight to the data, scroll to the end and there’s a complete list of what’s available so far – including a full set of photographs you can browse from your own computer.
How the Churchyard came to be what it is today
We like to think of churchyards as tranquil places where nothing ever changes and everything always looks beautifully tidy. Neither of these is true, of course, and keeping the appearance up takes a lot of work. Two things in particular are worth remembering:
Firstly, churchyards have a tendency to fill up: this means even if they start out with plenty of land they almost always run out of space and have to either find more land or devise ways of re-using land that’s already been used.
Secondly, keeping the place tidy and safe takes maintenance, and that costs money and effort – both of which are usually in short supply.
To anyone like the rector, churchwardens, or church council responsible for an active churchyard these issues are never far away.
St Michael’s churchyard began as a roughly square shape covering much the same area that you see these days when you look out from the church porch. For many hundeds of years local people died and were buried here, and gravestones and tombs were erected above them. After a period of time (sometimes as short as 20 years, though usually much longer) the ground was dug over again and used for new burials. Some records were kept, but they were often a bit haphazard, and over the course of time things ‘on the ground’ got a bit disorganised.
For one thing the ground level gradually grew higher and higher (for obvious reasons); for another, the frequent disturbance of the ground often meant that existing gravestones became unstable and started falling over. And there wasn’t always a very firm control over layouts and plot boundaries, so extra graves were sometimes sneaked in or old graves were simply lost sight of. This happened across the country, and by around 1850 Parliament recognised that many old churchyards were over-full and badly managed – indeed words like ‘disgraceful’ and ‘hazardous to health’ were often used in formal reports. With their typical reforming zeal, the Victorians set out to tidy things up.
At Bishop’s Cleeve the older burials were nearest to the church – in fact just outside the Porch and along the south wall of the church – and it was this area that had got particularly messy. Later graves dug in the more distant parts of the churchyard were a bit tidier, but the old ones had become particularly over-crowded with many old tombs and graves, and the ground level had risen dramatically: in fact a lot of earth was piled up against the church walls, which created serious issues with damp. The situation had become sufficiently bad to attract national attention, and in 1865 the Privy Council issued an Order in Council to limit further burials in the churchyard.
[Here are links to the Order in Council and the Covering Letter. The Order in Council specifies that all burials must be 5 feet deep in good soil, or in free-standing vaults – which seems to leave room for a significant number of further burials; but the covering letter seems to take a harsher line limiting almost all burials. In the event the parish seems to have blurred the issue, and this confusion over whether the churchyard was ‘full’ or not caused a minor delay in the 1955-65 re-ordering discussed below.]
In the following years a lot of work was also done to restore the church building, including removing the earth which had piled up against its walls. So things were a bit tidier, but there were still a lot of old tombs and uneven ground around the porch and along the south side of the church; and by 1900 the rest of the churchyard was also full.
A this point a New Burial Ground was developed, taking in the land either side of the current driveway from the village centre. A formal Burial Register was opened for this, entitled New Burial Ground, 1900.
The New Burial Ground soon filled up, however, so in 1928 a Western Extension was opened on land extending towards what is now the Rectory. A further Burial Register was opened, entitled Western Extension, 1928.
Through all this time the oldest part of the churchyard had struggled on, with its uneven ground and rather haphazard layout; the older tombs and graves were still standing, but they fell even more into disrepair. By 1955 their condition was described as ‘very deplorable’, so plans were formed to remove the existing graves and generally tidy the place up.
Tidying up a churchyard is never a simple business, and there were many complications – not least of which was that despite being the oldest part of the churchyard, and despite the 1865 Order in Council, some burials had nevertheless been allowed in this area quite recently. In the event the project took about 8 years to get under way and was finally completed in 1964/65, with a record of what was removed being written in a book Gravestones Removed in 1964-5. (Click on the link to see a copy.)
Most of the gravestones were relocated – but where to? The work was done with care [more details to come], but there is no record of where each individual gravestone actually went. Most were put round the walls of the churchyard, but these suffered vandalism and were eventually relocated. A few seem to have been placed in the Western Extension – which leads to some puzzles in understanding that part of the churchyard, since this means some of the dates are earlier than 1928. Others may have been placed in the Eastern part or the New Burial Ground of 1900, which again makes the dates confusing and worsens the already poor layouts. Where it was impossible to detect any inscription on a gravestone, the builders were instructed to use it for paving or to grind it up: most of these ended up in the rough land known as the Cherry Orchard to the north of the present Rectory.
Further along the south wall of the church and on the ground towards Gothic Cottage it seemed better to re-use the ground for further burials: so this area now contains some late 20th-century burials. A third Burial Register (confusingly also entitled New Burial Ground) was opened for this part of the churchyard.
[more to come on the details of how this area was used]
By the 1980s even the re-used burial ground was filling up, and Bishop’s Cleeve was expanding rapidly. It was generally recognised that the village needed a whole new cemetery with proper facilities: so the County Council opened the new Bishop’s Cleeve Cemetery at Kayte Lane. The churchyard was formally ‘closed’ to further burials.
Although the churchyard is now formally ‘closed’, it can still be used for burials under very special conditions such as burial of family members in existing family graves where there is space – and there are also provisions for the interment of ashes. The Garden of Remembrance is also still in use, though strictly only for the burial of ashes: we have stopped adding memorial plaques since there is no more space available. Eight hundred years of using the churchyard as a burial ground have come to an end, and the churchyard nowadays is largely a place of memorials, tranquility and peace.
If you want to know about the precise arrangements these days for a burial or interment in the churchyard, please go to the church’s funerals and memorials page.
The last major event in the churchyard was a geographical survey in 2009 to record exactly what was out there ‘on the ground’, with a full set of location points and photographs. That survey mapped the graves in the sectors shown on the map here…they don’t quite correspond tidily to the original parts of the churchyard, but our churchyard detectives are good at interpreting exactly what’s what. [More to come]
So these are the records we have…
- The New Burial Ground Register 1900, which covers the area around the driveway from the village.
- The Western Extension Burial Register from 1928.
- Removal of Gravestones 1964/65, which covers all the gravestones removed in 1964/65 from the original churchyard. (But some of the more substantial old memorials were left standing, and these weren’t captured in any of these registers.)
- The New Burial Ground Registeropened in 1965 for the re-used part of the old churchyard.
- The 2009 Surveywhich catalogues all the gravestones currently in the churchyard, including the old ones noted at 3.
This might suggest we have a full and accurate picture, but unfortunately things are rarely this simple with historic records and churchyards. The most obvious things to note are that the burial of a body (or ashes) does not always link neatly to a gravestone; and that despite a lot of care there are some anomalies and occasional errors or changes in the registers. It’s not unknown for stonemasons to erect a headstone on the wrong plot – and we’re already noted a number of ways that extra graves can sneak in or old ones be overlooked! It’s also true that none of the Registers noted here lists the memorials which were not removed in 1964/65 but were left standing in the old churchyard…all of which explains why our churchyard detectives are so important!
…and this is the situation ‘on the ground’ today…
The 2009 survey was an important milestone in recording what was actually out there ‘on the ground’. It’s particularly useful because it includes accurate location data and a complete set of photographs (you can access these by scrolling down this page.) It also captured for the first time those old memorials which pre-date all of the current Registers. But even this survey faced challenges such as making judgements on precisely which row a particular grave was in, what to make of patches of apparently bare ground, and how to record a gravestone whose inscription had completely worn away. Work is still needed to make the survey completely accurate and to link it with all the historic records – which again means we still need our churchyard detectives.
Yet to come…
Fuller discussion of the 2009 Survey and its Sectors.
Lots more Photographs.
Adjustments along the wall to Church Road, the Garden of Remembrance, and ashes/interments generally.
The area to the north of the church
Now you understand the history, how to do lookups and how to contact us
More historic documents and data
Particular work on War graves in the churchyards, and to names on the Bishop’s Cleeve War Memorial
Something about older records at County Hall…need to investigate what they have, since they probably go back a good way further than our Records.
Complete list of documents and data
Full-size maps of the churchyard (click on the images for the full size versions)
ORIGINAL BURIAL GROUND
The New Burial Register opened in 1965:
[Presumably there are also older records at County Hall…]
NEW BURIAL GROUND OF 1900
Burial Register for ‘New Burial Ground’:
WESTERN EXTENSION, 1928
Burial Register for Western Extension, 1928:
REMOVAL OF GRAVESTONES, 1955-65
2009 SURVEY (ORDERED BY SECTORS)
Overall Spreadsheet (Excel) recording surnames and locations of the gravestones [ultimately this could be the key to all this – but that’s a good way off yet.]
Sector 1 (The Western Extension of 1928, the western part of the New Burial Ground of 1900, and the western part of the original churchyard)
(these correspond to rows in the Burial Registers and hence are linked to the formal plot numbers – but the correspondence is, as always, rather complex.)
Sector 2 (The eastern part of the New Burial Ground of 1900, and parts of the original churchyard)
Sector 3 (The eastern part of the original churchyard)
Photographs by Rows: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N
Sector 4 (Land round the north side of the church)