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.