Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

150 Years of Higher Cemetery – Michael Parrott


Once the Romans left Exeter, Christian burials took place in what is now Cathedral Yard but insufficient space meant that and subsequent burial grounds were never large enough and in the 1850s the situation was desperate.  However, in 1854 Stephen Brunskill of Polsloe House died, leaving £140,000 in probate (more than 15 million today!). His trustees agreed to sell ten acres  of land to the council to build Higher Cemetery although such a rural area was considered by many to be so far from town as to be unacceptable for a Cemetery.


Edward Ashworth, an ecclesiastical architect produced drawings of the proposed chapels and lodge (he is buried in Higher Cemetery, near the parts that he designed) and Robert Veitch was hired to landscape the cemetery.  He introduced several varieties of plants and is buried in Higher Cemetery close to St Marks Gate.  Because the Church of England forbade those who did not adhere to its beliefs to be buried with those who did, a mere 1.5 were allocated for noncomformists while 4.5 acres were for Anglicans!


In 1866 the Higher Cemetery was officially opened by the Bishop of Colombo (our own bishop was unwell).  Since then the cemetery has been enlarged and now has the remains of over 70,000 people buried in over 45 acres.


In that same year, the young Harry Hems arrived to work on the Royal Albert Memorial, picked up a horse shoe in the street and promised himself  to hang it over his future workshop entrance.  It is still there!  He designed many of the largest and grandest memorials in the cemetery many of them grander than his own memorial there.


Many interesting citizens are buried in the Higher Cemetery. 


For instance, self-taught painter Edward Ladell realised that his still life paintings showing fruit and wine in a goblet, usually on a table and often with a tablecloth were very popular and led to wealth and success.  He is buried in the Higher Cemetery and his gravestone is quite unique showing a table, table cloth, fruit, wine goblets, artist pallets and brushes and even some books on artwork.


A year after Ladell’s death, a gas light at the Theatre Royal ignited curtains.  There was mass panic and escaping was perilous.  The passageways were narrow and the doors only opened inwards.  Many on the upper decks burnt to death.  The fire killed at least 186 d the majority are buried in a mass grave at Higher Cemetery.


Harry Hems made and designed the memorial at Higher Cemetery.


A national enquiry led to nation-wide changes - fire safety curtains installed, all fire exit doors having illuminated signs and release doors to be openable from the inside.


Exeter Council, as a result of the fire, took over responsibility for firefighting from insurance companies and engaged William Pett as its first superintendent.  He modernised the fire service with improvements to sprinkler systems and coded whistles to improve communications between fire fighters.  In 1934 he died and is buried with a very unique gravestone showing a helmet and a white stone made to look like a cushion bearing replicas of his many medals.


Francis Godolphin Bond had a distinguished career in the Navy starting (aged 8!) as a servant to his uncle who was transporting food to the West Indies for freed slaves.  Some of his artefacts are now at the RAMM.  His final command was a 16-gun fast schooner and in his long and successful career he captured 47 ships.  He died in 1839 and was laid to rest in Holy Trinity Church in South Street.  But when it was deconsecreated in 1988 he was reburied in the Higher Cemetery.   One of the staff involved claims that when the coffin’s lid was opened Bond’s sword was inside.


Sir John Bowring was a political columnist with an extraordinary gift for languages.  He served as governor in Hong Kong and one of his many poems is quoted on his grave. 


His second wife, Deborah, became an early suffragist and started a debate as to whether women should disdain their traditional roles and instead campaign for greater female rights. In 1871 she became vice-president of the Bristol & West of England Society for Women’s Suffrage.  She died and was buried in the Higher Cemetery beside her husband, who had died 30 years previously, on what would have been her 86th  birthday.


Charlotte Treadwin (nee Dodds)  showed great skill in producing local and continental lace and moved to Exeter where she learnt dressmaking and millinery.   She set up business at 5 Cathedral Close and married the man next door - John Tredwin.  Her skills were so great she received royal patronage and won medals which are now at the RAMM.  She died in 1890 and in March 2009 a new headstone was unveiled before many representatives of various lace societies.


Henry Dyer, known as Harry, was apprenticed to Willey & Co., but his main local prestige was that he played full back for Exeter City Football Club on eleven occasions in the 1907/08 season. He worked for the White Star Line on the RMS Adriatic, then the Olympic and finally as Senior Assistant 4th Engineer on the Titanic. He presumably went down with the ship although his body, if recovered, was never identified and therefore never buried.  He is remembered on his parents’ gravestone. 


During WW1 many buildings such as Topsham Barracks, Brandninch House and Streatham Hall were transformed hospitals.  The war wounded were brought back to the UK and disembarked from ports such as Plymouth and then put on trains to Exeter.  Other soldiers died as a result of accidents or illness in the UK.   Many patients in Exeter hospitals therefore had no local link specially if they had come from the front.   Many died.  In Exeter it was decided that if some one died here they would be buried here - usually within 2-3 days.  This meant that relatives would often not hear of a death until after the burial was completed.


The first war victim in the Higher Cemetery is Ernest Medland who, in November 1914,  was 27 years old and while training in Salisbury Plain contracted pneumonia.  One hundred colleagues attended his funeral.


It was decided that space for 181 bodies should be reserved for soldier burials with space in the middle for a memorial.   This still exists today but the allocation was not large enough for, by the end of the war, 219 needed burial.  All the graves are marked by very simple stone squares with just the name and initials i.e. no age, date of birth etc.  There are, however, two Henry Youngs buried so the second gravestone is  the only one bearing a Christian name – to differentiate it from the earlier grave.  Australian and Canadian soldiers have their country identified after their names.


in 1917 a tram ran out of control careering down Fore Street and turning over on Exe Bridge.  Fore Street had the steepest gradient on the system and the driver had only qualified two months earlier.  He seemed unable to put the tram into reverse gear and did not apparently drop sand on the rails to help control the vehicle.


Mary Findley was thrown from the tram and killed – the only death from the disaster. Her husband had been at work all day and he couldn’t get into the house so had to force his way in. He feared the worst and went to the police station.  Mary is buried in the Higher Cemetery.


Sidney Endacott was well known in Exeter as a sculptor, woodcarver and stained glass artist. Sidney taught at Exeter School of Art and many postcards were published showing his pictures of Exeter.   He enlisted with the army but he was too ill to fight and in any case   they wanted his skills and put him to work drawing diagrams of technical parts of lorries.   He died just before the war ended at the age of only 45.  His gravestone depicts an artist’s palette and brushes.


The Friends of Higher Cemetery is a non-profit organisation formed in 2011 to promote Exeter's Higher Cemetery as a place of remembrance and as a public amenity.  They meet weekly and provide guided walks and talks about the people buried there and ensure that the burial plots are well maintained.  For instance, the theatre fire memorial had become in very poor condition but it has now been cleaned and restored and the chains which were removed during WW2 have been restored.  Also restored and cleaned has been the memorial to Bombardier Scattergood who escaped the fire and then went back and pulled many people to safety until he disappeared.  His remains showed that he had suffocated while trying to save yet another person.


The Friends have also designed a tree trail leaflet which can be downloaded and is very popular.  They also work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


When the Friends were formed, they thought they could provide a few talks on some individuals but in effect you have potentially 70 thousand stories there.  For instance, simply by researching they found tucked away an American soldier called Walter George Hooper who was born in Exeter but emigrated to the States in his youth. The Friends located his gravestone and made a presentation about his life.  They had made contact with the American embassy in London and a uniformed representative from the American embassy came down for the event.


Walter had joined the American army and served in Plymouth and France in many battles including a huge gas attack when hundreds died.  He was gassed and taken to hospital but died and was buried in France.    After the end of the war many Americans wanted their relative’s bodies brought back to the US that their government decided to send letters to relatives which included Walter’s father here in Exeter.  The Americans agreed to exhume his son to the Higher Cemetery where he was reburied in 1923.   News got around the city and on that day hundreds and hundreds of people attended the funeral. They had all lost loved ones and couldn’t attend military funerals so this was their chance almost to say goodbye at Walter’s funeral.  


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