Visit to the Catacombs - 13 May 2009
The first outside visit of the year, on a cold and wet May morning started at the Cathedral with a walk to 21 the Mint, via St Olave's Church. Our Redcoat guide was very knowledgeable, pointing out unusual features that many have walked past hundreds of time without noticing them – in Mint Lane there is a well in a garden that was never contaminated by cholera in 1832, saving many locals from the disease – or the site of Allhallows Church in Bartholomew Yard that was a parachute factory and after the war, a corset factory before demolition.
We finally reached the Catacombs and were regaled with tales of
Victorian burial practises, including the Exeter law that everyone before 1815 had to have a woollen burial shroud to encourage the woollen trade – I wondered why I was always told to wear a vest as
a child! When opened in August 1837, Bishop Philpotts would only consecrate the Anglican side of the cemetery and catacombs, reckoning that the unbelievers can look after themselves – he became so
unpopular with Exeter's citizenry that they would throw rotten fruit at him when he passed in the street.
Tucked under the city wall, the catacombs were built to accommodate coffins in individual vaults on each side of a long, central passage. Although coffins were lowered from above to their resting place, a fine Egyptian façade was built along the front with entrances for the bereaved to enter to attend an interment. The coffin was slid into a brick lined vault while the officiating priest would conduct the service. Nearby, in a small, walled off area was a bricklayer who would wait for the end of the service, when he would then brick up the entrance. A brass plaque, or in some cases, a square stone with details of the deceased would be fixed to the bricks
When first opened, the charge for interment was 20 guineas, a price which proved to be far too high. Most of the occupants were from outside of Devon, as wealthy local families preferred to bury their dead elsewhere. The price was dropped to 10 and then 7 guineas, which was not enough to prevent the catacombs from being a commercial disaster. Between 1837 and 1883, only 16 interments were made, all in the Anglican section. The City took over the venture using the Dissenters end of the passage as a temporary morgue for the unidentified bodies from the Theatre Royal fire in September 1887. The walls of that section were covered with lime wash after the bodies were buried in Higher Cemetery. During the Second War, the cold and dark passageways were used as bomb shelters.
Our guide told the story from a few years ago, of vandals that got into the catacombs, broke into one of the individual vaults, slid out the coffin and stole the skeleton. The police, through the Express and Echo announced that the remains were likely to be infected with cholera, an invention, as cholera raged through the city five years before the catacombs were opened. Two rather chastened and white faced young men turned up at Heavitree police station complete with their find, which was presumably hastily interred, while they were hastily interned.
The structure is dank and musty with the outside wall crumbling and weeds growing out of the stonework. Inside, at the apex of the vaulted arches, engineers have fixed small glass plates which are designed to break if the structure moves – they are all broken as the massive outer wall settles, although it is not known if the catacombs are in danger of collapse. When the Redcoat tours started around about 1990, they had an open day for the catacombs when 5,000 people turned up to see the interior, as many as Exeter City would get for a league match – one wonders which was the livelier.
The cemetery and catacombs had 17,552 interments before it was closed in 1949. Samuel Wesley, organist and composer was buried there in 1877, John Gendall, Exeter artist in 1865 and William Woodbridge, miller of Cricklepit in 1879.