“A cemetery is a place for burials, other than a churchyard or graveyard attached to a regular place of worship. Cemeteries are usually multi-denominational but may belong exclusively to a single denomination” (Rutherford, The Victorian Cemetery, 2008).
Reading Old Cemetery is one early example of a ‘Garden Cemetery’ in England.
Following a private Act of Parliament in 1842, a private company called ‘The Reading Cemetery Company’ was established and the first internment at the site was in 1843.
The cemetery was built on an area of farm land called Hatton’s Platt, owned by Mr Chomeley Esq. At that time it was still part of the parish of Sonning, just beyond what was Reading’s eastern boundary.
This was in keeping with the national movement to site new cemeteries away from town and city centres where the pressure on churchyards and burial space due to a rapid increase in urban populations was leading to unsanitary conditions and concerns about public health. Indeed, it was reported that the conditions were so bad in some churchyards that people would faint when attending church services.
According to local historian Anne Ellis, here in Reading there was great concern about the insanitary conditions of its churches and churchyards during the 1830s and 1840s – with the town often referred to as a cease pit! At that time Reading had a particularly high mortality rate when compared to the national average.
With Reading being located between two rivers (the Thames and the Kennet) there were also very real concerns about cholera due to waste and seepage from its overcrowded burial grounds being washed into these waterways. The churches of St Giles, St Lawrence and St Mary’s were literally over-flowing – so much so, that people could no longer walk though these areas because of the hideous smell! Thus, the creation of a new cemetery in East Reading was much needed.
Originally there was objection about the cemetery by vicars of the three parishes of Reading, before the second reading of the bill in the House of Commons and discussion about the location of the site. The bill passed and on Tuesday 6th September 1842 the first General Meeting of the Directors and stakeholders took place in the Council Chamber. Originally tenders (drawings and specifications) for 5 contracts were issued for Monday 5th September 1842 that included: Episcopal Chapel (Contract A); Dissenting Chapel (Contract B); Entrance (Contract C); Boundary Walls (Contract D); Formation of roads and walks (Contract E). Tenders for the erection of the entrance and both chapels were invited again for 1st October 1842 at the office of Mr William Brown, Architect & Co, at 154 Friar Street. The contract for plants was awarded to Sutton Seeds.
The cemetery originally included two chapels, one for Anglicans and one for so-called Dissenters (non-Anglicans).
On 27th October 1842 the foundation stone for the Episcopal Chapel was laid in a prestigious Masonic Ceremony by the Provincial Grand Master for Berkshire following a ceremonial procession from the Town Centre. The event was advertised in the national press, was attended by many spectators from and was well-documented in the press.
Thank you to Mr Roger Coles, the curator of The Library and Museum at the Masonic Hall Reading for sharing this information from the book “The History of Freemasonry in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire”. The drawings of the masonic procession were originally part of the Illustrated London News (Saturday 05 November 1842).
Burials were also divided between the Anglican consecrated ground and the Dissenters’ non-consecrated ground and the low wall that marked the boundary between the two areas can still be seen. Reading Old Cemetery is one of the few cemeteries where the dividing wall has survived.
The cemetery was extended at its far (east) end in the early 20th century which includes a Garden of Remembrance.
The two chapels were demolished: the Episcopal Chapel in the 1960s and the Dissenters’ Chapel in 1980s.
The Reading Cemetery Company ran the site until 1959 when its ownership and management was taken over by Reading Borough Council. It is now a ‘closed site’ – although burials continue in existing family-owned graves.