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Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor explores the town’s cemetery, where 463 stillborn babies were laid to rest





When the government decided that burials were no longer to be carried out in urban areas such as town centres because of hygiene regulations the Great Churchyard in Bury St Edmunds was closed, although family plots could still have recently deceased members interred.

Examples of this were that of William Chapman, who died February 1872, and his wife Harriet in December 1891 – perhaps the last burials here as their infant son William Mortlock Chapman, who sadly died aged 22 months on April 9, 1846, predeceased them.

Land for the new cemetery was purchased in 1855, off the executors of the estate of George Brown of Tostock as part of the Westfield Estate, the cemetery opening on October 1.

Bury's Borough Cemetery Lodge was built for the cemetery caretaker
Bury's Borough Cemetery Lodge was built for the cemetery caretaker

The name Brown was given to nearby Upper Brown Road and Lower Brown Road but with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee imminent on June 20, 1887, the town’s corporation met on May 3 and in her honour on June 21 these roads were re-named Queen’s and York Road.

The cemetery was approached by a rural lane, Field Lane, which was renamed Cemetery Road; changing again to King’s Road to celebrate the coronation of George V in 1911.

More land was purchased in 1880, increasing the size of the cemetery to about 15 acres, and further land was acquired in the latter half of the 20th century when allotments near to Hospital Road were reclaimed for more burial plots.

The cemetery chapel - originally there were two
The cemetery chapel - originally there were two

Built for the cemetery caretaker, the lodge at the King’s Road entrance was constructed of Kentish rag stone, as were the two chapels.

The surviving one was for Anglicans, the other for non-conformists, but this was demolished several years ago after a disastrous fire.

They were all built to designs by architects Cooper & Peck.

The preparation of the site, laid out in compartments (designated areas) to make it easier to locate graves, and the building of the chapels and lodge cost some £5,500.

Long before cremations were the norm, burials here were mostly with headstones.

The plaque put up to commemorate the 463 stillborn babies buried in the cemetery
The plaque put up to commemorate the 463 stillborn babies buried in the cemetery

One area though has no markers, for along a boundary wall on the cemetery south side in Compartment One there are the graves of 463 babies, buried between August 1867 and March 1887.

These were stillborn, their mothers mostly local people, in many cases unaware of what happened to their offspring that they failed to carry to full term (24 weeks plus) or failure of the baby to draw one breath.

The babies were removed by the midwife or doctor, in many instances not allowing for any grieving process to take place.

Many of the births in the 19th century were at home and perhaps a lack of hygiene or expertise may have sadly contributed to stillbirths, but there was also a high proportion in the hospital as difficult pregnancies were dealt with there.

Evidently, it was a common practice for sympathetic undertakers to secrete a stillborn baby in with a coffin about to be interred, unknown to the family members.

From July 1, 1837, all deaths had to be registered the same way as births and marriages but not until 1874 were death certificates required for a stillborn child to be buried. The compulsory registration of stillbirths was not until 1927.

The population of the town surprisingly expanded by 25 per cent between 1861 and 1891 to 16,630, with local industry contributing to this growth, Bury had also added a third parish that of St John’s.

Most churches only recorded the death of children that had been baptised, something these babies never received.

However they are not forgotten because Sue MacDonald, the Cemetery Registrar for St Edmundsbury, had a poignant plaque put on this wall, in memory of them.

The gravestone of Francis King Eagle, the first mayor of Bury
The gravestone of Francis King Eagle, the first mayor of Bury
The grave of Frederic Gershom Parkington, who left his clock collection to the town
The grave of Frederic Gershom Parkington, who left his clock collection to the town

Notable burials in the cemetery are those of the first mayor of Bury, Francis King Eagle, and that of Frederic Gershom Parkington who left a fabulous clock collection to the town in memory of his son, John, who was killed in the North African campaign of World War Two. Internments in the cemetery are now reaching full capacity.

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

-- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.