In the 1830s, on the eve of the Victorian era and with maturing industrial and agricultural revolutions and a growing empire, Britain’s urban population was booming. Around the country people were leaving the land for the historic port cities and industrial new towns; the mills and potteries and mines. And they kept dying, as people do. The old parish churchyards, designed for small and low density settlements, and already with several centuries beneath them, were overflowing. Literally: new burials were taking the plots of old; burials were stacking up; decaying flesh was somehow ending up in the water system, and diseases were spreading. In 1832, parliament passed laws to legalise — encourage — private cemeteries; not small churchyard burial grounds, next to people’s houses and shops and wells, but great out-of-town parks. In London, the magnificent seven — most famously Highgate Cemetery — were created.
In Bristol, the population had doubled in the three decades since the turn of the century. Its dead suffering from the same issue of post mortem accommodation as those of every city, a shareholder company was formed in 1837 to establish the park cemetery at Arno’s Vale, on the Bath Road, two miles south-east the city centre and on the then outskirts of the city. The gently sloping site was landscaped in the Arcadian style, with neo-classical mortuary chapels and entrance lodge by local architect Charles Underwood, and the first burials were made in 1839.
Nine years earlier, the Indian writer and reformist Raja Ram Mohan Roy had come to Britain as an ambassador from the Mughal Emperor. A lifelong campaigner against sati, the Hindu tradition of widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, Roy was seeking to influence British lawmakers who had the power to uphold or overthrow the Bengal governor’s decree of 1829 outlawing the practice. He died of meningitis in Stapleton, then a village just beyond the northern limits of Bristol, where he was buried. Supporters and admirers felt that his basic resting place was suitable for such a great man, and in 1843 was moved to the new cemetery at Arno’s Vale and reinterred in a Bengali-style “chatta” tomb, one of the most impressive and unique of the cemetery’s listed monuments.
In total there are 25 Grade II* listed monuments — statues, obelisks, mausolea, and war memorials — alongside the four Grade II* listed buildings. A driveway leads between two entrance lodges, sweeps past the doric non-conformist chapel, past rows of obelisks and statues and up to the grand corinthian-style Anglican chapel, set on a rise to one side. Then, behind the grand buildings and monuments, paths wind away up through trees and denser fields of more modest memorials. And these densely filled plots were almost Arno’s Vale’s downfall: it got full, and at exactly the wrong moment.
In the mid-1980s, at the height of Thatcher’s societyless Britain, plots were running low at Arno’s Vale, and business was drying up. Still an independent company, the owners needed to make some efficiency savings, and downsize their workforce: the gravediggers and gardeners had no place left in this business. The cemetery began to be taken over by nature, and by vandals. But the owners did have a good idea for saving the company. They noticed that, while the burial trade was looking down for them, they did happen to have a valuable asset: 45 acres of almost pristine development site on a main road and only a mile from the main railway station. Attempts to build on the site were blocked with the help of campaign groups, but the buildings and monuments continued to decline until the owners finally packed in the business and locked up in 1998. Even, so they didn’t let their assets go without a fight when the city council put in a compulsory purchase order for the neglected land and its crumbling listed buildings. Arno’s Vale finally became public property in 2003. These pictures were taken in 2006, not long after the peak of the cemetery’s gothic phase, when the buildings were boarded and monuments overgrown. Some vegetation clearance had already begun at this point, but most of the restoration work had yet to begin. Since then, all of the buildings have been repaired and reopened.
More pictures of Arno’s Vale can be found in this gallery.