I’ve been excited to write this one. A good graveyard is always a winner. An old asylum cemetery? Don’t even need to think about it. Count me in.
A short walk from Wells city centre, now tucked in behind a relatively modern housing estate is the Mendip Hospital Cemetery. It’s a pretty, peaceful green space now but it comes with some interesting history.
So, here goes. Kicking off with…
Mendip Hospital Cemetery: The History Bit
The story of the cemetery begins in 1873. A committee from the Somerset and Bath Lunatic Asylum purchased a plot of land on the outskirts of Wells for the princely sum of £400. By January 1874, the land was consecrated, an additional strip of land purchased for access, and what had once been a meadow became a cemetery serving the asylum.
Despite the Victorian love of mourning etiquette, there wasn’t much thought for ambience. It was a place to put the dead, rather than a place of mourning. As such, the head of the committee from the asylum decided that there must be, “a substantial stone wall and secure entrance gate” and that a chapel should be added with “all things necessary for the convenient performance of the burial service”.
The Chapel might have been built for function, but some consideration was given to form. On the outside at least, it’s an attractive little building. Now, the adjacent trees tower and surrounding homes gather round it. In the 1800s, it was probably the dominant feature. Sadly closed on the day of our visit.
By the early 1920’s more space was required and so more land was purchased. By the 1940’s , the National Health Service Act was forging change. The cemetery was placed in the hands of the NHS, under whose ownership it remained for many years.
The cemetery was in use from 1874-1963 and became the resting place for almost 3000 patients and staff from the Mendip Hospital, originally known as the Somerset and Bath Lunatic Asylum.
Saving the Cemetery
In time, the cemetery was handed to a local conservation trust for use and upkeep. The idea was to use the space as a nature reserve and community resource, but the plans didn’t come to be.
By the 1990s the cemetery-turned-green space had fallen out of use once again. The gates were locked. However a prime plot of land in that part of the world is never going to go unnoticed, burials or no burials. In 2000, it was proposed by NHS Estates that the land go to auction.
The local community said no. I love a people power story, this one is no exception. Local folk rallied, then Wells MP David Heathcoat Amory got involved and the plot was withdrawn from auction.
A meeting in a town hall led to the formation of The Friends of Mendip Hospital Cemetery. They now maintain the cemetery, preserve the history, are tracing the names and stories of those buried there and manage the space as a public amenity.
At first glance, you might not even realise this place is a cemetery. No rows of stones or striking monuments. Most graves here are effectively unmarked. Most burials were marked with just an iron ‘key’. It wasn’t uncommon for those in the asylum system to become lost to their families, so there were rarely mourners to visit or to insist upon an more detailed memorial.
Although many of the iron markers were removed over time, many remain. They are very simple and strangely touching. Each one represents a person and their story.
One of the tasks being tackled by the Friends of Mendip Cemetery is the preservation of as many of the stories as possible. Using records and photographs, the Friends are preserving as much personal history as possible. Find some of the stories on the facebook page.
There are a few traditional gravestones generally belonging to asylum staff. If there was no family or none that could afford a grave elsewhere, the Asylum would manage a decent burial. Despite asylums of old holding a fearsome reputation, stories of the staff here suggest they genuinely cared. Caring could cost them; as with the story of Thomas Mason posted above, who cared for Syphilis patients.
I loved exploring the Mendip Hospital Cemetery. As a place, yes. But really it’s about people, isn’t it? The people buried here and those who cared for them. The people who saved the cemetery. The people who volunteer to care for the place and the history.
And of course, people like me who visit and share in the hope of stirring up interest. And definitely lovely people like yourself who come with me. It’s genuinely appreciated. Attention and interest protects places like this.
The Mendip Hospital Cemetery isn’t the only asylum cemetery in the UK, but I believe it’s the only complete cemetery with the original chapel, layout and iron markers. That makes it something special.
If you love a good graveyard as much as I do, try these next: Glasgow Necropolis and The Victorian Cemetery, Highclere
The grounds and history I found interesting, Helen, but the Facebook page was downright depressing. I hadn’t come across those ‘keys’ before. What an ending! 😕
There are some really sad stories on there, aren’t there? I think overall though, from what I’ve read, the asylum was quite forward thinking for its time.
You just have to thank God that attitudes to mental health have changed, and many would argue that they still have a long way to go. Whatever our many issues of global warming etc I’m still quite grateful to live in our times. 😘❣️
Definitely! The ‘ good old days’ were not always kind times. Especially for women.
so much history oozing from each pore; fascinating
Very fascinating, I’m after getting a look at the old asylum now. It’s been converted to apartments so some top level lurking will be required.
I have to confess to having a house in Suffolk to which we escape that is part of an 18th century workhouse that became a sanitorium before closing in the 1980s. There’s a small graveyard, but sadly, no markings left. Such places are redolent with history
No signs of any hauntings? energies? If there’s ever a woman in wellies with a big black dog pops up, might just be me. Lurking.
Agh… that’s exactly it! That and the way the back bedroom window never stays completely shut as if something wants to slide out… or in. It’s a bit of bugger when the cluster flies are out too!! Or Latitude Festival is on ~(it’s half a mile away) and the noise seeps in!
The history of this place is so interesting. Thank you for sharing it 😊.
Thanks for reading, it was a beautiful and intriguing place. And just tucked away behind a housing estate!
This is fascinating Helen. I hadn’t realised the asylums had their own cemetaries. I wonder if there’s an equivalent to the old asylums in the Glasgow area. Talking of which, I’m hoping/planning to do a visit of Glasgow Cathedral soon, so I’ll definitely visit the neighbouring Necropolis; and the one on the Southside
Oh I loved the Necropolis, have a fabulous visit! And the Cathedral is full of gems. Do you follow Anabel @The Glasgow Gallivanter? She’ll be able to give you all the tips for a good visit.
No. I’ll check her out, thanks.
Hello, what is now Gartnavel Royal in the West End used to be the Glasgow Lunatic Asylum, though it doesn’t have its own graveyard, or not that I know of. There are thousands of unmarked graves in the Necropolis though, so some of them could possibly be “lunatics”, as well as paupers and unclaimed bodies from prisons and hospitals. Check online for walking guides to the Necropolises – there are four in total. I like the Southside one and the Western one, though the Eastern one (Janefield) is less interesting I think. Glasgow Women’s Library’s Necropolis guide is very good, though this is not an unbiased opinion! And it features on my blog quite a lot too.
Helen, I didn’t know about asylums having their own cemeteries as well. Lots of stories and storied history here. Nice to hear the locals got their way on the lot being auctioned. So much of our land here “goes away” to make more money…for everyone but the local community.
That would usually be the way of things here too, especially in a desirable city like Wells. I’m glad the local people put up a fight, it’s too unique a piece of history to be lost.
What a fascinating story, and a great example of local People Power. It’s ironic that the dispossessed buried here are receiving in death rather more attention than they did in life. I hope quite a few stories can be recovered. Meanwhile, a lovely and peaceful place to explore.
What a brilliant way of putting things! I do like that the Friends of Mendip try to trace relatives, if they can. Sort of giving them back to their families.
Exactly. A hard job though, probably.
How interesting – I love the history and the story of it being saved by the local people. I find the iron keys very sad – so many lives lost to their loved ones, I hope more of their stories are told as research continues.
The keys are sad, they hint at how society viewed the patients I suppose. The work to trace the stories must be huge and fascinating, but what an interesting project it must be.
It was so interesting to read. Thanks for sharing this unique piece of history.
This is fascinating, both for its history and the ‘look’ of the place. I’ve been to Wells but had no idea this was there!
Very interesting Helen. Although I visited Wells we didn’t get to or know about here. Interesting to learn that the asylum has now got a new lease of life as apartments.
I think the cemetery is a bit under the radar Marion, but I’m glad we managed to find it. It’s good that the asylum building was preserved. I’m sure I’d be too fanciful to live in a building with that kind of pedigree though!
What an absolutely fascinating and unique place, I don’t think I’ve ever seen iron keys with numbers instead of proper gravestones. That saddens me profoundly, I am glad that at least some of the stories have been recovered. The photographs on their Facebook page are incredible, the stories again very sad.
So interesting, but so sad. As you will see, I jumped into the conversation with Brenda!
Those iron keys are so different. I think I would feel a little sad wandering around there, though I am glad it was saved. X
It didn’t feel sad on a sunny day, I suppose it was a bleak place when it was in use as a cemetery as there’d be no community around it then. The key markers are different, designed to be impersonal. Once I started researching the work the Friends of Mendip does, I definitely warmed to the place!
I love a good cemetery and this is a certainly a fascinating one.
Yes, a beautiful place but the back story made it a bit different.