From Garden Cemetery to Wilderness to Restoration

A New Cemetery

The industrial revolution saw a massive increase in the population of England’s towns and cities where private companies began to establish large cemeteries from about 1830 onwards to resolve (and profit from) the scandalous overcrowding of inner city churchyards.  One such cemetery was Arnos Vale, set up in 1837 through a private Act of Parliament establishing the Bristol General Cemetery Company.

When the Health in Towns Act of 1855 finally closed the old City churchyards, Arnos Vale was the only significant large place of burial in Bristol until Greenbank Cemetery was opened in 1871.

Arnos Vale Cemetery was designed to be visually attractive in the style of a walled Greek Necropolis, with neo-classical mortuary chapels and gate lodges  set in a beautiful garden of trees and plants noted in classical legend, with the backdrop of a steep hillside terraced like an amphitheatre.

Today, the 45 acre site is of considerable ecological importance, having progressed from mediaeval countryside to Georgian estate to Victorian Cemetery to the present day with almost no use of chemical pesticides or insecticides, it is now a rare urban haven for wildlife and plants.

There are four fine buildings within the Cemetery – two Entrance Lodges and two Mortuary Chapels (Anglican and Non-conformist). All four buildings are listed Grade II*.  Designed by Charles Underwood and built using the finest materials so that the high quality of the building probably saved them from even greater dereliction, given their lack of maintenance and attention over the last two decades of the 20th century.

The Lodges with their Doric columns were the working office buildings and the home to the cemetery superintendent and his family. They were linked by a tunnel running under the main drive-in area between them so that day to day movement would not interfere with funeral processions passing through the gates.

The Ionic styled Non-conformist Chapel is more elegant than the Lodges but still with sufficient moral simplicity to satisfy the religious ‘dissenters’.

The Italianate styled Anglican Chapel is the grandest building, set at the crest of two inclines which enhances its majestic proportions with its stunning bell tower.

The Anglican Chapel - about 1870

The Anglican Chapel – about 1870

The names of many prominent Victorian and Edwardian families appear on elaborate memorials such as ‘Wills’ and ‘Robinson’ who provided the generations of Bristol with much needed employment in their heydays.  Great social reformers such as George Muller, Mary Carpenter and Raja Rammohun Roy rest in the Arcadian Garden area.  Among the ‘ordinary’ citizens resting nearby are survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and a police officer murdered in Old Market whilst trying to intervene over the ill-treatment of a donkey.

Expansion and Development

heritage- arnos vale mapFrom the 1890’s it was necessary to gradually expand the cemetery into a further area, previously used for pasture.  Initially it was rented out as allotments and then converted to ‘cemetery’ as it was needed.  In this flat area to the south of the cemetery, many 20th century people are buried, particularly railway workers and their families from Totterdown and Pylle Hill.

In 1928 the Bristol Crematorium was opened at Arnos Vale, using the crypt of the Non-conformist Chapel to house part of it, and further buildings were added around it in the 1950s.  In its day, it was a state of the art installation and the first Crematorium in the West of England.  Subsequently municipal crematoria were also opened in Bristol at Canford cemetery in the 1950’s and then Bristol South in the 1970’s.  More recently, a private crematorium was opened in South Gloucestershire, to the north-east of Bristol.

Decline and Threat of Closure

The Anglican Chapel in 2006

The Anglican Chapel before restoration

In the late 1980s, Arnos Vale, together with other Victorian cemeteries, reached a critical situation; fewer burials and a preference for cremation and in Bristol, serious competition from the more up-to-date and efficient municipal facilities.

Income dwindled and there was  less money to pay for staff and maintenance.  Changes in social outlook led to vandalism and indifference.  Many of the once-splendid memorials toppled and the grounds became over-grown as wind borne seed of ash and sycamore took root.  Once grassed areas became choked with bramble, bindweed and knotweed closing paths once walked by visitors to their family graves.

1998 saw Arnos Vale Cemetery reaching crisis point, it lost its cremation licence, and the owners announced they were closing the Cemetery and locking the gates.  In the event, bowing to public pressure, the office was closed down, but the gates were left unlocked.  A few dedicated volunteers took responsibility for opening and closing the gates on a daily basis, a vital task which they performed for a long time.

Campaign, Rescue and a New Start

Meanwhile In 1987, alarmed by a press report that the private owner of the Cemetery had announced aspirations to clear and commercially develop a large section of the Cemetery, a group of concerned locals came together to form the ‘Association for the Preservation of Arnos Vale Cemetery’ (APAC) (later changed to ‘Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery’).  They campaigned to secure a safe future for Arnos Vale, supported by the Bristol council, Bristol citizens and many people worldwide.

After huge efforts, many setbacks and legal wrangles, Bristol City Council finally became the new owners of Arnos Vale in 2003, and a charitable trust was set up to restore and protect the cemetery.

You can find out a little more about the ‘Save Arnos vale’ campaign  from the latest Arnos Vale guidebook, which can be bought from the shop in the East Lodge.

In April 2001, convinced by the high level of public pressure, the Bristol City Council made a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO), after the failure of negotiations with the owner to buy the Cemetery.  A prolonged legal battle culminated in the CPO “going forward unimpugned” and the ownership of Arnos Vale Cemetery passed into the hands of the City Council on 7 August 2003 – out of private ownership for the first time in its existence.

With the generous assistance of Northcliffe Newspapers, who owned the Bristol Evening Post, the Crematorium Books of Remembrance which had been put up for sale were rescued and are now on display at the cemetery in the West Lodge.

What has been achieved?

A programme for the restoration and regeneration of the site was established under the project management of Bristol City Council. This included the four main buildings, landscaping, paths and some principal monuments. The West Lodge was restored with the backing of English Heritage and Bristol City Council; this was the first building to be used by the Trust in March 2006 as offices and a visitor’s centre with the books of remembrance on display.

A second phase was completed in the spring of 2007 with tree works to remove some of the self seeded trees with other undergrowth generally to form widened access corridors based on the original drives and footpaths. This is primarily to allow light at ground level and to encourage diversity of plants and shrubs.

The Anglican Chapel in 2009 after restoration

The Anglican Chapel in 2009 after restoration

The main restoration building programme began in March 2008 and was completed in November 2009.

The East lodge is now used as the visitors reception and a shop selling quality gifts, books and locally made art.  The lodge basement has been fitted out as a place for volunteers; the remaining space on the top floor is used by cemetery staff.

The Anglican chapel has been restored to its former excellence, including the plasterwork and tiled floor. The original fixed seating was lost some time ago and not replaced.  It is now used for a wide range of events including funerals, concerts, meetings and weddings.

In the crypt, there is an interesting free exhibition about the Great War, telling the story of some of the 356 servicemen from that war who are remembered at the cemetery.  It is currently open daily.

The former Non-conformist chapel is now used for a wide range of events from school visits, to meetings and talks.  It has been considerably remodelled including a new glazed entrance foyer with basement facilities including accessible visitor toilets. The building is now known as the Spielman Education Centre and also contains a display of artefacts from its days as a crematorium. The crematorium is no longer functioning but burials continue and existing burial rights are honoured by the Trust.  In addition cremated remains can be scattered in the two gardens of rest or interred in cremation plots, and memorial plaques can be placed on the memorial wall. More information can be found in the Cemetery Services section 

heritage- west lodge opening

Opening of the West Lodge at Arnos Vale – March 2006

The West Lodge, the first building completed, now houses the main information about the cemetery as well as the Crematorium Books of Remembrance. There are staff offices on the top floor. Much of the refurbishment was funded by the Heritage Lottery Foundation (HLF) but also through donations and fundraising.

The Friends played an active role in the refurbishment phase by fundraising for particular projects and also providing volunteer time which was used for ‘match funding towards the HLF grant. The Friends donated in excess of £65,000 to the refurbishment of the cemetery as well as the greater part of the £250,000 of volunteer time.

Friends, Trustees and all other volunteers worked relentlessly to ensure that the cemetery was saved and restored. For a number of years Richard Smith was chairman of both Trust and Friends and was awarded an MBE in 2006. His wife Joyce was also awarded an MBE in 2008 for her significant contributions including various roles on the Friends Committee.

 A place of Quiet Reflection

Arnos Vale once again welcomes visitors who wish to visit a place of quiet reflection and rest and somewhere to remember those no longer with us.

Arnos Vale springtime blossom

Arnos Vale springtime blossom

Many parts of the Cemetery no longer tended, are now a haven for wild life.  The environment varies from woodland to open meadow and is the breeding habitat of many species.

In the winter it offers refuge to many migrant birds who find shelter and food in the berry-rich bushes. The spring brings carpets of primroses and bluebells and the birds, including southern visitors filling the air with song. The ecology of the site will be sensitively balanced with the need to access family graves safely

Arnos Vale Cemetery now has a secure future and Arnos Vale will once again achieve the respect, dignity and prestige which inspired its inception.