A Short Guide to Holywell Cemetery
Forty years ago the historian A.L.Rowse wrote an evocative account of a walk he had just taken one July morning in the direction of Holywell. “Quiet, a blessed stillness, only Sunday sounds – it might be the Victorian age – as I turn in under the shadow of St Cross and glimpse, embowered in its shrubberies, the little sexton’s house and church school, in the Gothic of the 1860’s, something straight of Alice in Wonderland: latticed windows, overhanging eaves, porch buried under a rambler rose. But one would never have believed what treasures there are within – the whole of Victorian Oxford leaps to the eye fom headstone to headstone.”
It is true: Holywell cemetery is one of Oxford’s best kept secrets – a haven of tranquillity and recollection in a city where space and stillness are increasingly at a premium. Its stones contain a wealth of hidden stories.
In the mid-19th century Oxford’s existing churchyards were no longer adequate for the needs of a growing population. Outbreaks of cholera in the 1840s exacerbated the crisis, and raised concern for public health. New cemeteries (as opposed to churchyards), were created on the edge of town at Holywell, Osney and Jericho to meet the needs of the city parishes east, west and north of Carfax. The site at Holywell, gifted by Merton College in 1847, was administered by the incumbents of the parishes of St Martin’s, Carfax (since demolished, except for its tower); All Saints (now Lincoln College library); St Mary the Virgin (the University church); St John the Baptist (Merton College chapel) and St Peter in the East (now the library of St Edmund Hall).
In 1850 a lodge was built beside the gate for the keeper and his family. (The wrought- iron gate, to the right, leads to the separate -and much older – parish churchyard of St Cross).The keeper, paid from combined parish funds, evidently did more than bury the dead and tend their graves: he created a much-admired garden. An English traveller in Spain, the Reverend Hugh James Rose, writing in 1873, could not help contrasting the neglect he saw there with “the beautiful array of tombstones, sculptures, flowers and shrubs in a small cemetery in England – I mean that of Holywell, in Oxford – probably the most tasteful in England”. Peter Miller, brought up in the keeper’s lodge between the two World Wars, looking back at his childhood, remembered ‘a lovely garden full of trees and flowers’.
The retirement of the last keeper in 1931, the disappearance of all but two of the contributing parishes, and subsequent lack of income, meant that what was a garden gradually became a wilderness. Burials were fewer, and there were no funds to support a caretaker. The recovery was largely due to the efforts of Peter Bostock (1911-1999), Canon Emeritus of the diocese of Mombasa, who in his retirement in the early 1980s, almost single handed, supervised a general process of clearance. Working from a survey carried out in 1970/71 he also compiled an invaluable annotated list of the burials, over 1200 in number. His three volumes, with an alphabetical index, are now available to researchers in the Oxfordshire Record Office. In 1987 a Society of Friends of Holywell Cemetery was created which raises money to pay for a part-time gardener and publishes an annual newsletter. It owed a great deal initially to the advice of Camilla Lambrick of the Ashmolean Natural History Society, to the initiative of the Oxford Urban Wildlife Group and especially to the dedication of Lars Thielker, periodically assisted by volunteers, who managed to rescue neglected tombstones from the undergrowth, while respecting and conserving the naturalness which is one of Holywell’s attractions. This task is now in the capable hands of the University of Oxford Parks team of gardeners and tree specialists.
When the cemetery was opened in 1847 burials were restricted to baptised members of the Church of England, but that bar was removed long ago. University dons predominate, as you might expect (at the last count there were 160 of them, including 32 Heads of Houses), but there is no barrier here between town and gown. Shopkeepers and tradespeople abound, with names which will be recognised by many Oxonians: Boffin the baker, Salter the boatbuilder, Badcock the draper, Gillman the bootmaker, Mallam the auctioneer, Knowles the builder, Castell the tailor and robemaker, Goundrey the ironmonger, Payne the jeweller, Goodall the chemist, Venables the gunsmith, Broadhurst the printer and stationer, Mowbray the ecclesiastical outfitter, Thornton the bookseller. Here too is Benjamin Blackwell (1814-1855), the first city librarian whose little bookshop in St Clement’s was the forerunner of his son’s more famous premises in Broad Street. George Claridge Druce, the proprietor of a chemist’s shop in the High Street, was both a businessman and an eminent botanist, whose dedication to science was rewarded by three honorary degrees and Fellowship of the Royal Society.