Norwich – A New Public Cemetery at Mousehold Heath (1848)

Thanks to Google and archive.org, this short book from 1848 is available on-line. The book contains a proposal to turn land at Mousehold Heath into a cemetery, something which wasn’t enacted, although Earlham Cemetery opened in 1856 to deal with the issues raised in this book.

The author of this book isn’t given, but it was addressed to the Lord Bishop of Norwich, who was then Edward Stanley. The author painted a clear picture of the situation in Norwich churchyards at the time:

“In many of the Norwich churchyards the soil is now almost level with the windows; piled up four, five or six feet above the original surface with the ashes of the dead, which are allowed to lie undisturbed for a period far too short for total decay of the corpse and its tenement”.

That’s not an ideal situation and nor was the outbreak of cholera in 1848, which strengthened the author’s case. Indeed, the Home Secretary actually forced the council’s hands, saying that churchyard burials in Norwich must stop by 1855 because of the cholera issue.

The author of the book suggested:

“There is lying, hardly beyond the precincts of Norwich, within half a mile of the Cathedral, a tract of land, which I can hardly be wrong in stating as comprising from 100 to 200 acres, not only uncultivated but wholly unproductive; bearing only thorns and briers; the stones and gravel extending to the very surface”.

He added that the owners of the land, who were the Church of England, had granted permission for it to be used, but they wanted in recompense:

“Funds to be appropriated towards the establishment and maintenance of a National School in the neglected, and wellnigh near heathen, district of Pockthorpe”.

This is a slightly blunt way of describing the area of Pockthorpe…. (it’s around where Norwich Puppet Theatre is, Silver Road and the area at the base of Mousehold Heath).

The author’s vision of how the new cemetery should turn out was modern and indeed the basis of how the new wave of burial grounds were built. The Rosary Cemetery had already opened by this time, with a chapel and plenty of space allocated for burials. The author noted though the necessity for two rooms to place the dead body before burial, saying a requirement was:

“Two large rooms for the dead, to which a corpse may be removed shortly after death, till the time of interment; one being set apart for those who have died of a fever or other infectious disease. I would make this a very principal point. Nothing can be more distressing than the state of many a poor man’s family after a death has taken place, and before the body can be interred. I speak only from what I have myself seen in country parishes: often is a man and his wife and a large family of children – some perhaps nearly grown up – living in two rooms, or perhaps even in one, with the corpse of one of its members occupying one out of the two or perhaps three beds, and this perhaps in the hottest weather of summer”.

There was also an interesting observation about the difference between English graveyards, which the author noted were “little else than a passage leading to it, or a large enclosure overgrown with weeds and rank grass”, compared to European graveyards which were more spacious and were destinations in their own right.

The proposals for this cemetery were that it should be primarily for the Church of England, along the lines of Mill Road Cemetery in Cambridge where each parish received its own chunk of land. When Earlham Cemetery was opened, there was though much more room provided for dissenters. So, although the burial needs of the city of Norwich were resolved in the 1850s, this was an interesting proposal. There had been suggestions of using Mousehold Heath as a site for burials since the late eighteenth century, proposals which were never enacted.