Death in Bridgwater: A Strange History with Dr Miles Peterson

Death in Bridgwater: The strange history and uncertain future of our burial grounds with Dr Miles Peterson

Dr Miles Peterson

The Ebenezers are delighted to welcome back Dr Miles Peterson, our leading historian of Bridgwater, Chair of the Bridgwater Heritage Group, and an inexhaustible and wonderfully entertaining source of the most extraordinary & surprising details of our local history. This evening he will tell us all about Death in Bridgwater.

There are some beautiful churchyards locally but in 1851 the churchyard of Bridgwater's medieval parish church of St Mary's was a vision of hell. So many bodies were being crammed into such a small place on a weekly basis that partly decayed pieces of corpse and bone littered the ground, and the stench became toxic. Such was the horror that it led to the creation of a dedicated garden cemetery on the Wembdon Road, breaking a tradition of burial in the town that had lasted some six hundred years.

In turn, by 2010 the Wembdon Road Cemetery had dilapidated to such a point that plans were mooted to sweep away the grand Victorian tombs. So the Friends of the Cemetery formed to preserve this place of remembrance.

The continuing story of Bridgwater's many places of burial gives us a window into the fascinating history of how people have faced death and loss over a thousand years, as well as a deep social history of the area: Saxons, medieval townsfolk, Protestant reformers, dissenting congregations and Victorian bigwigs all differed and shared practices, and now all lie beneath the turf. The town is dotted with almost twenty burial grounds of all shapes sizes and ages.

Tombstones piled up in a graveyard

But what happens now? What happens to all the many disused burial grounds, taking up some very, very valuable land, especially when there are no more burials and the number of living mourners dwindles with each year, when there are developers poised to move in, dig up the dead and build on the land? And if we want to preserve these places, how can we do so and how do we pay for it?

Dr Miles Kerr-Peterson

Dr Miles Kerr-Peterson is co-founder and chairman of the Friends of the Wembdon Road Cemetery. The Friends formed in 2010 and have so far recorded all 1452 surviving memorials, restored 55 large toppled memorials, and repaired countless smaller stones and kerbs. The cemetery has been transformed over the years, but there is still a very long way to go.

Miles is also a historian Bridgwater in general, and manages the Bridgwater Heritage Group, a series of websites exploring the town's history. Most of the year though he lives in Glasgow, where he is a historian of James VI's Scotland, being an affiliate member of staff at the Universities of Glasgow and Dundee.

Human skeleton in the dirt
Joanie Gorman