Preserving St Albans’ forgotten cemetery

Sue Back, Richard Bull and Sue Gaylard of the Highfield park trust at the Highfield Park Garden of R

Sue Back, Richard Bull and Sue Gaylard of the Highfield park trust at the Highfield Park Garden of Rest - Credit: Archant

THE first group of corpses was buried in a pit near a St Albans asylum in 1899, the year that then reporter Winston Churchill travelled to South Africa to write about the second Boer War.

By 1948, nearly 50 years later – when Britain’s National Health System was created – the bodies of more than 1,000 people had been laid to rest alongside, atop or beneath other corpses in what had become a paupers’ grave at Highfield.

Back then, randomly spiking the earth above the remains of people buried seven-deep, one above the other, were plain bubble-shaped metal grave markers.

But they did not carry the names, ages or the date of death of loved ones, as we would expect in this day and age.

They simply bore numbers which signalled the presence of the buried remains of daughters, sons, mothers and fathers in the unconsecrated cemetery, located alongside the Alban Way, in a corner of Highfield Park on Hill End Lane within sight of Longacres open space.

And if it was not for the dedication of a group of caring locals, this forgotten cemetery would still be a neglected, weed-riven, over-grown part of the city.

This poignant area, the Hill End Garden of Rest, managed by the Highfield Park Trust, has gradually been transformed into a more dignified setting for the 1,019 people buried there.

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It was the burial ground for patients and staff of the former Hill End and Cell Barnes mental hospitals, both of which closed in the 1990s.

Highfield Park was established from the parkland grounds of both hospitals as part of the residential redevelopment of those sites.

According to park trustees Sarah Graham and Sue Gaylard and park manager Richard Bull, “there are still a lot of unanswered questions” about the cemetery.

Patients were only entitled to a pauper’s burial and were laid to rest in communal graves without a headstone after a hurried ten-minute ceremony.

Hill End Hospital was founded in 1899 adjacent to the burial site as the “Hertfordshire County Asylym”, and was also referred to as Hill End Asylum. Cell Barnes Hospital opened in 1933 and closed three years after Hill End’s closure, in 1998.

Richard explained that as the graveyard was located on the edge of Hill End hospital residents would have, “been able to look at this and know that this is where they would end up”.

Sue added: “If your relative was in a mental institution, they were cut off because of the social stigma. They were seen as an embarrassment to the family.”

In 2007 a woman researching her family history was upset to find there was no grave to lay flowers for her grandmother at the overgrown site.

Enquiries by the trust revealed a burial register at the county archives in Hertford, which showed there were 1,019 burials in 179 graves over a period of nearly 50 years.

In 2008 some soil was removed, revealing the location of those communal graves, courtesy of some remaining markers.

The Register of Burials states each grave number and lists those laid to rest in the same place at certain times.

Details for grave marker number 24 show that six people were buried in 1909 in the same place, including a shoemaker, labourer and charwoman.

Eight years later, a seventh person was also buried at that plot.

Since the discovery of the markers, the trust has placed a stone monument at the cemetery’s entrance, carved in memory of those laid to rest.

Further inside, extensive ground works have been carried out, roses planted, and an archway and a memorial made with burial markers have been installed.

Sarah, Richard and Sue said that while the origins of the Hill End Garden of Rest were a “fascinating and sad topic” the trust was ensuring those buried are not forgotten and that visitors had, at long last, somewhere pleasant and peaceful to reflect upon those who have passed away.

n All enquiries about burial records should be directed to Hertfordshire Archives at Hertford. Once a plot number is identified, a sketch plan on an information board opposite the cemetery can be used to locate where relatives are buried.