The Victorian churchyard (No. 2) of St. Mary's Ewell

Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
Sources for Epsom
and Ewell History

Postcard view of St Mary's Ewell
Postcard view of St Mary's Ewell
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

In 1848 the new church of St. Mary's was consecrated for divine worship in a service attended by a crowd of 1500 people: in effect, the whole population of the parish. Over the next fifty years, many of them would be laid to rest around the new spiritual heart of the village. The ruins of the old church lay down Church Street, opposite Ewell Castle; only the fourteenth-century tower remained intact, but many villagers from the old families of the village continued to be buried around it in what we now think of as churchyard no. 1, including the vicar Sir George Glyn, whose persistence had led to the construction of the new church. This fronted onto London Road and its churchyard (no. 2 in our counting) gradually filled up as the parish grew in the nineteenth century, until in 1902 the Glyn family decided to pull down the buildings of Rectory Farm, which had separated the old and new churchyard, and link the two spaces with an additional burial ground (churchyard no. 3). This, too, proved inadequate for a growing population and in the 1930s a plot of land on the far side of Church Street, north of the road, was made available: this area (churchyard no.4) remains the burial ground for parishioners of St. Mary's.

Plans suggest that churchyard no. 2 was laid out for about 800 burials. Today, there are 320 monuments, and although it is clear from early postcards that some monuments have been lost, their number was not great. Probably about half the people buried around the 1848 church had tombstones of some kind - a much higher proportion than in the older churchyard. Most of the empty spaces are to be found to the north of the church, in the area which was traditionally reserved for outsiders and the poor. The south side, by contrast, was allocated a larger size of grave-plot, although the take-up of these spaces was slow and most of the graves here belong to the end of the nineteenth century. Vaults were only allowed at the east side, where a few traditional table tombs are allocated to particular families. The graves all follow the orientation of the church, a few degrees north of east, and they are laid out in straight lines, in contrast to the traditional huddle of churchyard no. 1, where people fitted in as best as they could, with the rich nearer to the sacred fabric and the poor further away. But for all its intended orderliness, no. 2 was not laid out like a modern cemetery, where burial succeeds burial in neat rows. As a rule, the earliest graves are on the east (including Amelia Harvey, E016, who died just three months after the ground was consecrated). Then come those on the west and north, and finally those on the south, but there is no fixed progression. Some families had evidently booked a space in advance, and the ground continued to be used for many years after no. 3 was opened in 1902. A few modern graves are to be found amongst the old ones, including the monument to John Dent (E005a), the local historian.

Fashions in burial changed over the lifetime of churchyard no. 2. In the 1860s families were still commissioning tall headstones with the epitaphs chiselled in cursive or capital letters. The cult of all things medieval persuaded some stonemasons to use Gothic lettering - not the most legible of scripts, especially when weathered - and to vary the classical outline of the headstone by ending it in crosses of various designs. By the end of the century there was much more relief carving, some of it spiritual in design, some purely decorative. This period also saw the rise of the monumental cross, so that instead of lying between an inscribed headstone and footstone, the grave was demarcated by a stone kerb with a cross raised at one end on a plinth large enough to carry the monumental inscription in leaden letters. These crosses were fastened onto their stands with mortar, not dowels, and they have been the bane of churchwardens ever since, for when the mortar perishes the massive cross is liable to topple over. Most of these monuments have therefore been laid flat, making the churchyard a safer place if not so interesting to the local historian. Another irreparable loss has come from the Victorian fondness for speculating in new building materials. Since the first use of gravestones in Surrey, it had been customary to carve them out of limestone, which although it weathers slowly will usually remain legible in the slanting light of noon. But from the 1870s there was a vogue for sandstones from the Midlands. These take a narrower, smarter line of script but the smooth surface of the stone will eventually flake off, taking all the writing with it.

We are lucky to have a record of the churchyard made in 1973 by a team of volunteers, comprising Mabel Dexter and other members of the Nonsuch Antiquarian Society (now the Epsom & Ewell History & Archaeology Society). It was the NAS who divided the monument into north, south, east and west for recording purposes, and this arrangement has been kept in the numbering although it was not part of the original plan. The recorders' notes were later passed on to Bourne Hall Museum where they were typed up. In the summer of 2013 a photographic record of the churchyard was made, to show the shape and style of all monuments before any further deterioration took place. The original records made forty years earlier were checked and collated against the monuments by Louise Aitken, and the resulting transcript is, we hope, as accurate a record as possible.

Transcript          Plan

Jeremy Harte

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