Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tales from Newtown Road Cemetery, Newbury

By Niki Hinman, Local Democracy Reporter

Tucked inside the old graveyard in Newbury is a monument worthy of a scene in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

It is covered in Masonic symbols and has a broken column on the top.

It is the grave of Walter Barclay Wilson – who died from ‘a visitation from God’.

“He was the son of a butcher where Vodafone is in Northbrook Street,” explained historian and cemetery friend Brian Sylvester. 

 “This chap was only 32 when he died.  Apparently he was a fit and healthy young man, who just didn’t wake up one day.

“The masonic lodge got together to pay for the memorial for him. The broken column is a symbol of someone who died in his or her youth.”

Walter’s is one of two truncated column graves in Newtown Road.  

Another is for a local cattle dealer who saved his father from being run over by a sports car by pushing him out of the way, but was hit himself.

Then there are the tragic child graves of the Sturgess family.  Three of their seven children died. One of the girls saved her sister from the hooves and wheels of a manure cart, but was trapped and killed herself.  A few years later, another sister died after being hit on the head with a falling heavy tyre.

The cemetery is full of surprising stories.

“We found this very overgrown grave which turned out to be that of a soldier who died in the first world war,” said Brian.

“It turned out he [T. A. Maccabee] had been blown up by a shell in France, and he had lain wounded for three days on the battlefield. They had to amputate both his legs.

“He had 19 operations before he died of his wounds in 1920.  He is buried here with his mother and father.  But sadly, there is also an inscription for his brother who also died in France, but who remains buried over there.

“We applied to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and advertised in the Newbury Weekly News for the family to come forward.

“They came forward and they decided to club together to restore the grave. The Commonwealth Committee also came forward and established this grave.”

According to the Office for National Statistic, 1,315 people died in West Berkshire in 2021.

Of those, 392 died at home, 606 died in hospital, and 205 died in hospices or care homes.

Those of us among the living all know residing in West Berkshire can be maddeningly expensive.

For the dead, however, virtually no amount of money will secure a final resting place in the old cemetery.

Newtown Road is now closed for burials, unless you can prove, with a receipt, that you have a right to be put in a family grave. 

The town’s cemeteries are managed by Newbury Town Council which says unless an ‘Exclusive Right to Bury’ in a particular grave exists, a ‘Purchase of Grave Space’ form must be completed and the appropriate fee paid to the council.

But it only lasts for 100 years in a selected grave costing £2,597 for non residents, and £883 for residents. 

Newtown Road Cemetery is closed for business, as it is full up.  There are said to be about 12,000 graves in the four acre plot – buried seven deep.

The cemetery was originally commissioned in 1847 – as all of Newbury’s church graveyards were then full.

Now, joining the majority in Newbury takes place at Shaw Cemetery.

It is maintained at a cost of £112k a year by the town council, which has budgeted to receive £35,000 in burial fees. 

Shaw is a lawn cemetery and there are therefore rules indicating what may be placed on graves.

Glass, china or other easily breakable pots and bottles are considered highly dangerous, and are not permitted in the cemetery.

And these days, constructing a broken pillar, or a harp playing angel as seen in Newtown Road might be more of a challenge.

Before a memorial of any kind is erected on a grave, a permit must be issued from the council. This is a legal requirement. Designs, materials and inscriptions are all vetted before a permit is issued.

Ros Clow leads the history group at the Newtown Road cemetery. They research the people buried here.

“Our job is to try to put a name and write a paragraph about all the residents. So far we have done about 4,000,” she said.

The local council took it over in 1953, and Newbury Town Council has a budget of around £33k a year to keep the grounds. 

“The big cedar trees were donated by the Earl of Carnarvon in the 1850s, but every time there is a high wind or even snow fall, the branches snap off,” said Ros.

“Storm Eunice took its toll. The town council will come along with chain saws and tidy it up.  We are leaving some of the fallen branches as a haven for insects and birds. We are trying to promote the cemetery as a beautiful piece of nature in the town centre.”

The friends of the cemetery run regular walks and talks about the who’s who of the six feet under. The next one is on March 26 – between 10am and 4pm.

Among the residents is Queen Victoria’s personal artist, around 40 former Mayors of Newbury and 20 Commonwealth war heroes – and Albert Alexander, the first man to be treated with penicillin.

In December 1940 Albert, a Newbury man but living in Oxford, was scratched on his mouth by a rose thorn. 

Infection set in and by January 1941 Albert was hospitalised. His face became so covered with weeping red abscesses that one of his eyes had to be removed. The infection had spread to his lungs. He had no hope at all.

Meanwhile Oxford scientists had been developing supplies of penicillin mould and were now ready to try this new drug out on a human being. 

Albert Alexander became the first patient to be treated with penicillin. 

Within 24 hours his condition was greatly improved. 

However, at this point the penicillin supply ran out and Alexander died a few days later.

“We have a diverse cross section of Newbury society in here,” said Brian.

“We even have a couple of murderers in here, but they don’t have graves. They were buried here in the early hours of the morning with no ceremony.” 

One of the murders took place on Enborne Road – the man shot his fiancé.

The Friends of Newtown Road were set up in association with Newbury Town Council to help restore the cemetery to its former glory after it was closed in 2000 on health and safety grounds.

In 2013 the town council also repaired the stain glass window in the remaining chapel.

Details of burial costs and more information can be found at www.newbury.gov.uk/services/cemeteries/shaw-cemetery/

The friends of Newtown Road Cemetery can be found at www.fnrcnewbury.org.uk/index.asp

  • Newtown Road Cemetery – Spring Welcome Day 10am-4pm. Introductory tour at 10.30am, nature wander at 11.30am and medical matters tour at 2pm.

There is also a wild flower display, find-a-grave service and book stall.

Admission is free and refreshments will be available. More details from [email protected]

The photo above shows Brian Sylvester and Ros Clow at Newtown Road Cemetery, Newbury and is from BBC LNPS.