Seaford Town Cemetery
A Bit of History
|The Beginning of Seaford Cemetery|
The residents of Seaford were customarily buried in the graveyards of the Parish Churches of St Leonard’s in Seaford’s town centre and St Peter’s at East Blatchington. By the latter part of the 19th Century both were becoming over-full, and a Town Cemetery was created on the then outskirts alongside the Alfriston Road. The problem at St Leonard’s and St Peter’s was simply that, after hundreds of years, the graveyards had risen well above their original levels, and it had become almost impossible to dig a grave without disturbing the remains of other burials.|
Furthermore, grave plots by the mid-19th Century were becoming rather more permanent. Up until that time wooden markers – varying from the most simple of crosses to carved 'rails' (a board supported above ground by posts, sometimes called "leaping-boards") – had been used for the vast majority of interments, and these markers rotted away or disintegrated relatively quickly. With increasing wealth families who could afford to do so increasingly preferred to mark their loved ones' resting places with stone headstones, footstones, solid slabs, rectangular kerbs, prominent chest tombs or large crosses. The arrival of such memorials gave gravediggers very little opportunity to open new graves which did not obviously disturb neighbouring ones.
It opened in 1897, and no further burials were permitted inside the Churchyards, officially at least. New interments in the churchyards were made unlawful by an Order In Council of 29th May 1898:
Her Majesty, by and with the advice of Her Privy Council, is pleased to order, and it is hereby ordered, that no new burial ground shall be opened in the under-mentioned parishes without the previous approval of one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State, and that burials in the said parishes shall be discontinued as follows, viz.:—|
EAST BLATCHINGTON, SUSSEX. — Forthwith and entirely in the Parish Church of East Blatchington, in the County of Sussex; and also in the Churchyard, except as follows: —
(a) In vaults and wholly walled graves now existing in the Churchyard burials may be allowed on condition that every coffin be separately enclosed by stonework or brickwork properly cemented:
(b) In partly walled graves now existing in the Churchyard burials may be allowed of so many of the relations of those already interred therein as can be buried at or below the depth of five feet without exposing coffins or disturbing human remains:
SUTTON-WITH-SEAFORD, SUSSEX. — Forthwith and entirely in the Parish Church of Seaford, in the County of Sussex; and also in the Churchyard, except as follows: (as above)
|[ The problem of space had become common in English churchyards; such Orders began to be issued for cities in the early 19th Century. ]|
Prior planning had already been done. The land was acquired and the required 8-foot wall had been built around it by 1894. The Lodge and Chapel had been built by December 1896 by William Wilkinson, a builder in the High Street (who was later buried in Section B). The Rules & Regulations were agreed by Seaford Urban District Council (SUDC) on 3 February 1896, and the Bye-Laws for the Management of the cemetery approved by the Local Government Board on 26 March 1896. At the time it must have seemed a more than adequate provision of space. A map dated about 1900 shows the cemetery extent, with the initial burial area extending only as far as the Chapel. Wooden markers continued to be used in the new Seaford Cemetery well into the 20th Century; hardly any remain, though some wooden posts may now be atop substantial stone bases.|
The main, original part of the Cemetery was divided into 3000 plots in Consecrated ground, blessed by the Bishop of Chichester, and a further 1000 plots in Unconsecrated ("dedicated" - reserved for burials) ground. The extensions, to the North and East, are unconsecrated, but individual plots may be consecrated as required by a Bishop, or blessed as appropriate by equivalent ministers of other denominations. The Chapel was left unconsecrated for use by all beliefs, though laid out and furnished in late Victorian church fashion. The unconsecrated sections quickly became known as "the [Roman] Catholic area".
|[ Click for larger versions ]|
|The first recorded burial – of the body of a man washed up on the beach – took place on 16 March 1897 in the middle of what is now block A5. This and adjacent plots were subsequently used for a further 9 interments of "unknown" bodies, the last being in 1965.|
Three more burials took place in 1897, the annual totals rising to 15, 26 and 32 in 1898-1900, and averaging 35 between then and 1914. The WWI years (1915-1919) saw this rate jump to an average of 109, peaking at 185 in 1918 when the Influenza Pandemic was raging and took the lives of many of the Servicemen camped at Seaford. Over the next period of peace, 1920-1939 the average fell back to 54 a year, rising again to 101 in 1940, since when the yearly average has remained steady at around 70. If one considers the churchyards at St Leonard’s and St Peter’s, it becomes obvious that they would have been quite unable to cope with the demand for interment spaces since 1900. These figures do not take into account Seafordians cremated at Eastbourne Crematorium since it opened in 1960, and for whom no ashes urns or memorials have been placed in the cemetery.
|Great War Cross|
|A site for the Cross of Sacrifice (or Great War Cross) was offered to the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) in June 1922, and it was erected in about 1925 or 1926. In 1935 the IWGC thanked the Council for improvements it had made to the area around it, noting that:
"The effect of the addition of this open space to the comparatively small area which the Council granted to the Commission in May 1923 must be greatly to enhance the appearance of the memorial, more particularly if this space will be kept free from other monuments."SUDC confirmed that it intended to allow no burials adjacent to the Cross for the foreseeable future. The Cross stands on what is now Block B5, which had previously been earmarked for 50 burial plots (numbered 3130-80). (See also Seaford's War Memorials)
|The Lodge and Staffing|
For many decades the Lodge was occupied by a Cemetery Superintendent, living on site beside the gate for this purpose. When the post of "Working Cemetery Superintendent" was
was advertised in December 1937, to start work on 1 January 1938, the wage offered was only £2-10s per week (£107 per annum, now approximately £6,000), but included the cottage as accommodation.|
As at March 1949, the original walled cemetery area enclosed 15½ acres. The number of interments was rising - from 54 to 80 over the period 1947-1949; nevertheless its life expectancy was given as 60 years. This was somewhat optimistic, as the Northern Extension was full and the Eastern Extension had to be opened before 2009! The cemetery was averaging an annual income of £437, against expenditure of £1,325 a year. It was operating at a loss to the Council of £11-odd per burial. For at least the first 50 years of its operations, grave owners could make annual payments to the Council to have relatives' graves maintained, but in the late 1940s at least it received numerous complaints over the standard of maintenance. At the same time the General Purposes Committee was obliged to send a stern letter to the Superintendent, reminding him that he was not employed merely to supervise the other two permanent gardeners, but to work himself.
In more recent decades, The Lodge has been either assigned to a Council official not directly concerned with cemetery duties, or rented to someone whose sole Cemetery obligation is to open the gates at 9am and close them at dusk. There is now one full-time (Monday-Friday) groundsman employed on a site which is rather larger, though he isn't expected to mow all the grass himself, and a machine looks after the back-breaking task of digging fresh graves. Council staff are not permitted to maintain or touch the memorials; this is the responsibility of the owners, in practice their surviving relatives. Stones can become brittle or develop fractures which makes moving them hazardous, so risking public money on even well-intentioned attempts at maintenance is forbidden.
|Nevertheless, in February 2002 the Seaford gravestones were unfortunately one of the victims of panic moves by numerous Councils in England over-reacting to a Central Government circular on Health & Safety in graveyards. As a result some 431 stones at Seaford were 'laid flat' by Lewes District Council, supposedly to prevent them toppling and injuring visitors. The public outcry at this official vandalism [which all too often resulted in a number of slightly lose stones being displaced, permanently damaged and / or placed face down so that their memorial inscriptions were no longer visible!] undoubtedly saved many more from a fate they never deserved. Stones now lying forlornly may well have come to be in such a position as a result of that unhappy exercise in Political Correctness. A Council statement was issued in 2002. Since then, Councils have been given guidelines to operate a rather more common sense policy and consult relatives wherever possible before taking action. The notion of using unthinking machines to "test" (and occasionally break) headstones and crosses is happily discredited, though periodic checks do still take place.|
|Changing materials and designs|
|Undoubtedly some of the early grave markers were wooden crosses, which simply decayed. The only substantial wooden cross remaining is that of Dora Tyndale against the west wall in Section D, dating from 1932. A few smaller crosses survive awhile or are replacements on plots maintained by relatives. Wood was incorporated into a few more elaborate designs, where it has survived well supported and surrounded by stone. The original grave markers of the war dead, both here and abroad, were wooden crosses, before the Imperial War Graves Commission (now CWGC) replaced them with more permanent headstones, as seen in a 1917 image and in the case of Private Barcroft.|
An immediately noticeable difference from the Seaford Church graveyards is the lack of traditional footstones; the pattern is only preserved in a pair. Absent, too, are stone rails. Stone grave markers intended to last increasingly enclose plots with kerbs, and simple headstones gave way to more ornate designs, with the inscriptions being placed at the head, foot, middle or around the kerbstones.
Although there had been an introduction to marble at St Leonard's, it evidently became the material of choice in the cemetery, at least for those families which could afford it. There are more traditional sandstone memorials, but few resemble those found at St Peter's or St Leonard's; 1898 therefore marks a change in the designs of the Seaford memorials which have survived. There are only a couple of sandstone headstones (eg: B2-2066 and C3-296) which share the same weaknesses seen at St Leonard's - severe erosion to about half way down. Granite, particularly 'rough-hewn' also soon became popular, unfortunately during the period before the opening of the area above the Chapel, and they were thus placed on the steepest part of the slope southward towards the Alfriston Road. Many have obvious voids below them, and time will tell how long their supports will manage to keep them in place.
A cheaper material often used initially for grave surrounds or kerbs, as an alternative to marble or granite, was the glazed brown pottery with a "rope" design, more commonly associated with older garden lawn edging. It has unfortunately tended to sink, in many cases entirely or just leaving a shape in the grass. The graves thus enclosed may well have had wooden crosses, which have disappeared, or small inscribed tablets, some of which have also sunk.
In the area from the cemetery gate northwards, many individual grave markers have long disappeared. On average the Blocks in Section A have lost 41%, whilst further north Section E has lost some 48% and a Block in Section G is now 70% empty. While this is generally due to subsidence, the affected parts of A and E are slightly further from the Chapel; it was always a tradition in churchyards to try (and sometimes compete!) for a space as close to the building as possible, so memorials to the well-off or well-connected tended to cluster around porches or East ends, others taking whatever more modest places were available. There are often traces of the very tops of kerbstones in otherwise empty areas of grass. The trend in the 1920s and 30s, particularly noticeable in parts of Sections B and C closer to the Chapel, was towards much bulkier and heavier monuments than had been common in churchyards. The apparent ease with which some monuments and kerbstones over the whole of the Main Area can sink, or take on a distinct lean, is evidence less of instability at the site and more of a lack of sufficiently sturdy supports for these very heavy stones. Many memorials have remained as perfectly level and intact as they were first constructed. The soil is mostly clay under chalk, with some sandy areas.
Curiously, the soil against the East wall of the Main Area (Blocks C8 and G1) closely resembles the looser, lighter soil found in St Leonard's graveyard. That earth became well broken down as a result of centuries of re-digging it to fit in new graves (over the course of which the surface rose several feet). The same cannot have happened at the cemetery, but the similar lack of compaction in C8 suggests it had been well dug over at some time.
By 1990 the Council had ruled that all grave monuments must be made of one single block. This caused frustration and irritation with family members who wished to commission a smaller tablet or the popular "open book" design (below), which rests on the grave surface and is supported at an angle by a second stone at the back. There are numerous examples in the main area, though some have gradually lost the rear support and now lie flat, askew or part-buried. (This is simple to remedy, by family members willing to spend a few minutes re-packing the stones; cemetery staff are not permitted to help or to maintain memorials themselves).
|Phases II, III and IV|
|Although the whole of the Main Area was initially walled, it was not laid out and prepared fully with lawns and paths right at the start. A hedge marked the edge of the area in use, just north of the Chapel. Beyond that the ground was unprepared. In 1932 the Seaford Council was discussing a proposal to rent it to a farmer for grazing at the rate of 5 shillings (25p) an acre. Purchase of the land from a Mrs F Sandwith for the first extension to the cemetery was completed in November 1935. The area first opened remained sufficient for half a century, however, not becoming full until 1950, when sections to the north of the Chapel were cleared, leveled, planted with lawn grass and made ready for use. At that time the plot numbering was not to rise above number 4,000.|
The original guiding design principle had been that each block should have clear lawn between the rows of burials and paths, but whether due to demand for space in favoured sites or simply lack of space, few blocks retained this open perimeter. What is clear, from earlier photographs and the numbering system, is that plots could at first be chosen by families more or less anywhere - often very probably selected on the spot when booking a burial at the Chapel's vestry-cum-registration office. Consequently there is no clear date order in Sections A - D. (See Note on Cemetery Plans). Then, as now, plots could be reserved and the Council sold a number, recorded as land sales.
Despite the 1950 restriction on numbers, the limit of 4,000 plots was surpassed by the early 1970s, and the Northern Section became a necessity, the first burial in Section H taking place in 1973. This necessitated the purchase of additional land and demolition of a part of the northern wall to make a way through. At an average of around 33 burials a year, the just over 1,000 plots in the two Northern Sections filled up over the next 30 years, during which cremation became much more popular.|
The Eastern Extension saw its first interments in 2001. At the present observable rate at which the three lawn Sections (A, B and Lawn) are becoming occupied, a further extension seems likely to be required in the not too distant future. This is a problem facing all municipal cemeteries, and numerous suggestions for saving space are under discussion, some of which could change significantly the traditional look of English burial grounds. In Seaford, the District Council owns the land immediately next to the Alfriston Road, presently reserved as an open recreational space and used by many local walkers. It appears likely to be the site of the next extension, therefore. Both the Eastern Extension and probable "East-of-East" Section lie within the boundary of the South Downs National Park.
It is perhaps worth noting that the churchyard at nearby St Andrew's, Bishopstone, has not yet had to close for new burials and looks unlikely to need to for some years to come.
|Cemetery Introduction - Names Index - Cemetery Plans - The Chapel - Cemetery Trees|
|Black & white photos courtesy of Seaford Museum & Heritage Society.|
|For further information about Seaford Cemetery contact Lewes District Council.|
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