4. The Cemetery Chapel

Vine Hill Drive

The Higham Ferrers cemetery and chapel as described in the contemporary press 1893─1896

The Higham Ferrers Cemetery and Cemetery Chapel is situated at the broad junction of Cemetery Lane, Saffron Road and Vine Hill Drive. The site is approximately 3.5 acres in size and the main entrance a wrought iron gate ─ is to the right of where the chapel stands. The chapel is a symmetrical brick building consisting of two rooms either side of a covered porch. It was built in 1896 under a contract to Mr. B Marriott of Wellingborough. In the floor of the porch the initials “AS” have been set in pebbles and the date 1903. These are attributed to Arthur Sanders who is thought to have renovated the building at this time although it is unclear as to why the building would need renovating within six years of its construction.

The building on the right-hand side of the porch houses a storeroom and a second room in which there is the original sink used by the person employed to lay out the deceased. This room is decorated in a functional way with little expense, to ensure that it did not detract from the fact that it was a working room.   The mortuary slab is currently housed in the Chapel which is on the Vine Hill Drive side of the building and is altogether more ornate internally, decorated with coving and architrave and it has a fireplace. The walls are currently painted a light yellow. This room was used once bodies had been made presentable for their families to see and the bier is still in this room. It may well be that this room was used to hold services prior to burial.

Why did Higham Ferrers Cemetery Chapel get built?

By 1891 the population of Higham Ferrers was 1810 people. Twenty years earlier it had been 1232 and this substantial increase in townsfolk is likely to be the reason that the town council recognised the need for a new and enlarged cemetery due to the increased pressure on the church graveyard.

The first public indication that the town council was considering a new cemetery appeared in the Northampton Mercury on 27 January 1893. In a brief report on the business of the January meeting, the final remark said simply “Some conversation ensued on a notice of motion by Mr. Pack as to providing a cemetery, but nothing was settled”. At the February meeting of the council Mr. Pack “… in accordance with notice, proposed a committee be appointed to enquire into a site for a cemetery”. This set the ball in motion for what was to prove to be some considerable discussion, debate and argument  over almost the next four years, before agreement was reached on what was to be done.

The monthly meetings of the Higham Ferrers Town Council were reported in some detail in the local press, chiefly the Northampton Mercury. By April of 1893 the committee to deal with the matter had been appointed and set about its task. From this meeting and for the next three years the deliberations were typified by numerous suggestions, claims and subsequent counter-claims, objections, refusals, rebuttals and retractions. It seemed to be interminable and to the interested or even casual observer the whole drawn out saga must have been extremely frustrating. A range of sites was suggested including a field and part of an orchard on Wharf Lane (now Wharf Road), Newton Lane near the new railway (now Newton Road), Windmill Field, and a site centrally situated in the town and owned by Honourable Mr Fitzwilliam who was a major landowner of the time. The suggested sites were owned by various people in the town. In June 1893 a Home Office inspector (a Mr. Hoffman) had been sent for to give his view on each of the sites. Test holes were dug at some proposed sites to determine whether the land was appropriate for graves.

Discussions raged on over subsequent meetings and the following are some of the objections made were: the site was better used as building land; the soil was unsuitable because of too much clay; the inhabitants of the town had not been considered, particularly the poor who could not afford to travel so far to bury their dead; the impracticalities of carrying a corpse so far; the increased potential cost of one pound to a funeral; on and on it went for months.

And so square one was reached again. More accurately, square one hadn’t yet been vacated. In fact the Mayor reported that they had gone back to the original suggested field to sink two more test holes but neither was suitable as the first was clay and the second solid rock.

More deliberations took place until finally in the council meeting in February 1895, we read: “The Mayor reported the result of the Town Clerk’s interview with Mr. Fitzwilliam’s Agent when he offered to sell field No 114 for a cemetery at the price of £225 for the whole field”. The map below shows clearly the location of said field.

More decisions were required regarding a budget not only for the chapel building but for the clearing of the land, the style of fence and the size of loan the council was prepared to take out to cover these costs. The final decision to be made was which contractor would be engaged to carry out the work. The salient facts regarding costings were;

A loan of £1,400 was applied for and the contract was awarded to Mr. B. Marriott of Wellingborough and the work was to be completed by 25 June. By 14 February work was underway and running smoothly.

An interesting comment was made in the Independent and Non-conformist magazine on 11 June 1896: “The Town Council of Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, have decided that no part of the new cemetery provided under “Marten’s Act” shall be consecrated; but it was resolved at the last meeting of the Council, “That the vicar, in conjunction with the Wesleyan minister and the Council, be asked to make provision for a dedicatory service.”

It is interesting to note that even back in 1897 the behaviour of the youths of the town was of concern to the town council. The minutes of the town council minutes of 1st February 1897 shows there were concerns about young lads accessing the cemetery and what action needed to take place to protect the sanctity of the graveyard with “Notice was given that some method be adopted for stopping boys from climbing the cemetery gates”. A motion proposing roller spikes to be put on the aforementioned gates was carried.

Finally, on 19 October 1896, the cemetery was formally and officially opened by the Mayor. Of course this didn’t go to plan either. The opening ceremony was to be held at the new chapel building however the British weather intervened. The inclement conditions and the necessity to keep the robes of the dignitaries dry resulted in the decision to hold the ceremony in the Town Hall. An inauspicious start for the building but opened never the less almost four years after discussions commenced.