I worked in my student days as a gravedigger and, while it was one of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever experienced, it was also by far and away the toughest job I have ever held. Yet, for a person fascinated by the past, it was an occupation rich in source material. As I became familiar with the grounds and the thousands of graves and plots, I would often spend time reading the inscriptions on the many and varied monuments, crosses and tombstones.
I realised there was a wealth of beguiling historical information freely available, and one could trace the changing patterns of local community life and death over many generations. There were also lots of opportunities to gather invaluable primary data about the class, status and religious denominations of the people interned there. It was also a place of major contrasts: some sections were filled with elaborate memorials and expensive celebrations of the lost ones of wealthy families or local eminent persons, while other parts were full of more standard graves or, in some places, multiple pauper’s graves.
Inevitably, I also heard stories from the veteran gravediggers who I worked with about past employees in the cemetery who, in some cases, had spent their whole working lives toiling as labourers in the grounds and helping to bury hundreds of people from their local community, including – on some occasions – members of their own family. The cemetery I worked in (located in Kingston-on-Thames, in Surrey) had opened as Bonner Hill cemetery in 1855. It was part of the great Victorian cemetery building boom of the 1840s and 1850s in England, and had once employed a substantial number of men to dig graves, cut grass and generally maintain the grounds (including a network of greenhouses and flowerbeds).
Many of the new ‘garden’ cemeteries created in England in the mid-19th century were a response to seriously overcrowded churchyards and were usually located on the outskirts of towns, providing essential green ‘lungs’ for bereaved visitors. They had often been run by private cemetery companies but, when many of these businesses gradually experienced financial and other difficulties (partly as a result of the growth in popularity of cremation in the UK and also due to diminishing income from the ‘upkeep’ of graves), a fair number of such privately-run burial grounds fell into disrepair and decline. In quite a few cases, the sites were reluctantly taken over by local town and municipal authorities. Although the numbers of men employed in England’s cemeteries shrank substantially in the 20th century, burial grounds remained a key source of local authority employment for some types of men, especially for semi-skilled and unskilled staff. But rates of pay remained notoriously low.
What was the quality of life actually like for the average worker in a cemetery in the early 20th century? In Kingston’s case, where the cemetery was created and run by the local council (‘Kingston Corporation’), the pay was poor and the sheer physical work could be notably harsh and back-breaking, with graves being dug in all kinds of weather, come rain or shine, and only very crude wooden huts available for the men to shelter in. There was also a lack of adequate washing facilities. Moreover, with no mechanisation available, basic gravedigging was usually carried out by individual men who had to excavate graves purely by hand (known in the trade as ‘hand-digs’), using only a pick and shovel. Such hand-dug graves could be 5ft, 6ft, 7ft, 9ft or even 12ft in depth, with ‘shoring-up’ of the sides of the hole reliant solely on simple wooden support timbers and battered sheets of tin.
The amount of soil temporarily removed could be substantial, and cave-ins were an ever-present danger, reflecting the variable quality of the ground in any particular spot. Indeed, depending on where you were in the cemetery, a gravedigger’s experience of digging a grave could vary considerably. In some parts of the Kingston grounds, for example, there was regular waterlogging of newly-dug or re-opened graves, especially in the lower parts of the cemetery, where the grounds had originally been reclaimed from a marshy area not far from the Hogsmill river. Graves had to be baled out using tin buckets, as special hand-pumps were not purchased for the men to use until 1925. A pump-house also had to be built in one corner of the cemetery to help regulate water-levels in the grounds.
Some further insights into cemetery life can be gained by exploring a combination of local newspaper reports and the minutes of Burial Boards (local authority committees that met monthly to oversee and manage their local cemetery). I was recently looking at such evidence in relation to both Teddington and Kingston cemeteries in the early 1920s. In the case of Kingston cemetery, for example, these types of sources can provide important information about the numbers of internments over time, the fees charged, the tenders awarded, decisions about investment and spending, working conditions, and lots of other diverse and sometimes controversial matters associated with the everyday running and daily life of the burial grounds.
The conditions of work for gravediggers were especially tough at times. The First World War had seen many of the younger and fitter employees in England’s cemeteries called up for service in the armed forces, leaving the remaining (usually older) men to cope with the same numbers of burials; this was also not helped by a very tight financial context at municipal level, where purchase of new equipment for the men was kept to a bare minimum. In both Teddington and Kingston cemeteries, for example, especially just after the end of the First World War (when there was an upsurge in labour unrest across the country more generally), there were clear signs of discontent among the few remaining gravediggers and other employees.
In July, 1919, it was reported that representatives of the employees at Teddington cemetery had approached Teddington District Council, saying: ‘Much complaint is made at the treatment of these workmen’, and alleging that attempts to get men to ‘sign in’ for work each day showed ‘a mistrust of the men’ by the cemetery Superintendent (manager). Similarly, in October, 1919, the Kingston Burial Board received a letter from Mr. J. McGrath, assistant secretary of the National Union of Corporation Workers, asking whether employees could be granted a 47-hour working week without loss of pay, the same terms that had been granted to other employees of Kingston Corporation and also to workers for Surbiton and Malden District Councils. It was stated that the grave-digging staff at Kingston cemetery consisted of eight men and two boys, and they were each working 56.5 hours per week, which included 6.5 hours on a Saturday. It was decided, after some grudging discussion, to grant the request, but only because other public bodies had made the concession.
As well as a struggle for fair pay and better hours, there were also other challenges faced by cemetery workers. By December, 1919, there was growing awareness of the impact of the influenza epidemic, which began to increase burial workloads. Similarly, in early 1920, there were increased demands by frustrated local undertakers for better management of Kingston’s cemetery, especially for the construction of fresh paths and wider carriageways in the cemetery to the new parts of the burial grounds, and the need for public toilets to be constructed and made available. Local funeral directors accused the councillors on the Burial Board of having lost ‘intimate touch’ with the public on many such issues. One letter to the Board stated: ‘We have made many suggestions of late years of improvements but evidently it has not interested anyone to worry about them; they prefer to go on in the antiquated, slipshod manner and risk scandal and grief to the public’. A temporary compromise solution was arrived at, whereby some gates in the lower part of the cemetery would be selectively opened for particular funerals, to make public access easier. In November, 1920, the Board still claimed it did not have the money for the improvement work demanded, but ‘fully intended to keep faith with the public’ and the work would be done ‘as soon as possible’.
In February, 1921, it seemed some of the heavy work burden on the small band of gravediggers in Kingston would be eased slightly when the Burial Board agreed that the Superintendent, Mr. C.J. Johnson, would allowed to take on three unemployed labourers on a temporary basis to ‘help with unsightly heaps of soil from graves lying about the cemetery’, as the Board recognised that the Superintendent was unable to remove the heaps without additional help. However, even if you were a Superintendent of a cemetery with considerable responsibility, you could face the same battle for better conditions that was regularly experienced by your own workforce. The Superintendent at Kingston was entitled to just two weeks holiday per year and, while away, he was still expected to personally pay for a temporary manager in his absence!
Interestingly, in March, 1921, it was revealed by the Surrey Comet newspaper that ‘friction’ had broken out between the cemetery manager and councillors on the Burial Board. At the request of the Superintendent, the Board’s committee members had inspected the manager’s lodge-house in the cemetery grounds, and had ‘agreed that certain decorative repairs should be executed, others being deferred’. At a Board meeting later, when informed of what had been decided, the Superintendent said it was not worthwhile upsetting the place unless all the decoration work could be done. However: ‘His attitude was resented by some members of the Board as lacking in courtesy’, while one councillor also complained that the directions of the committee as to the removal of surplus soil by hiring three temporary labourers ‘had been disregarded’ and, instead, ‘a horse and cart’ had been hired at greater cost.
The Board’s chair told the Superintendent ‘that when the committee gave instructions they must be carried out’. And, clearly to drive home his point, the councillor claimed ‘that numerous complaints had been received as to the condition of the cemetery, which was not pleasant for the Board, and… they would expect to see an improvement’. It was thus no surprise to find in my research that, in April, 1923, the Superintendent handed in a letter of resignation, after nearly 28 years of service. He told the Board that ‘as the work had been steadily increasing, he found it difficult with advancing years to carry out the duties’.
Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: WikiMedia Commons and S. Woodbridge)