Rule by the Margate Local Board of Health 1851 - 1858

Anthony Lee

The New Cemetery.

Increasing population, combined with limited space, meant that by the middle of the nineteenth century church graveyards had become seriously overcrowded and unhygienic. The state of the graveyards was one of the issues on which an Inspector from the General Board of Health was expected to report. Starting with the Metropolitan Burial Act in 1852,1  and the Burial (Beyond the Metropolis) Act,Parliament passed a series of acts known collectively as the Burial Acts, creating a system of public cemeteries. Under the acts local churchwardens could convene a meeting of the parish vestry to decide whether or not the parish wanted to build a new burial ground, the cost of which could be charged to the Poor Rate. These cemeteries would have consecrated ground for Anglican use and unconsecrated ground for the use of Nonconformists.

In October 1854, an order in council, under the provisions of the Burial Acts, was published in the London Gazette and pinned to the doors of St John’s parish church in Margate:3

Burials to be discontinued forthwith in Margate parish church, in Zion Chapel, in Ebenezer chapel; and from and after the 1st of September, 1856, in the whole of the church yard, and the burial ground of St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Chapel, and Ebenezer Chapel.

In response to this notice a vestry meeting was called, on 5 January 1855, at St. John’s Church, to consider forming a Burial Board and building a new cemetery for the parish. 4  Unfortunately, the Burial Acts required that seven days’ notice of any meeting should be given, and as this had not been done the meeting had to be abandoned.Two weeks later, on 17 January, this time after proper notice, the vestry meeting actually took place.5 Josiah Towne, a local solicitor, explained that there was no time to be lost. They had only 20 months before all burials had to stop in the churchyard and in that time  they had to do ‘all that was required in searching for and selecting the ground, completing the purchase, preparing plans, obtaining estimates, and erecting the walls and chapels, and ultimately awaiting the Archbishop’s convenience for the consecration of the burial ground.’ He proposed that they should form a Burial Board without delay. Others, though, were not in a hurry. William Pickering, a local tailor, ‘charged Mr. Towne with being too eager and premature in urging the present consideration of the question.’ He thought they should postpone making a decision.  Edward Wright thought the parish ‘was already burdened with one board’ and he would oppose creating another board. J. J. Chancellor and William Caveler also wanted delay.

In reply, Towne said ‘he had not heard a single argument against his motion. He must tell the vestry why he had taken upon himself to require so early a vestry. The fact was, that no sooner was Her Majesty’s order on the church doors, than Mr. Pickering, with a dozen others, began to start a cemetery specula­tion at the expense of the parish, but for their private profit, and which attempt he immediately warned them he would stop and had now effectually done so; Mr. Towne concluded by observing that he was supported in his requisition by some of the most respectable rate-payers, men possessing property and influence in the parish, and he had no doubt the good sense of the vestry would justify his endeavours.’ In this he was supported by the vicar, the Rev. C. T. Astley, who thought ‘the sooner this question was determined the better it would be for the parish.’ This turned out to be the majority view and a Burial Board was duly established.5

The next step, electing the members of the Burial Board, was the main business of a vestry meeting held in April, at which ‘a larger number of rate-payers than usual were in attendance to take part in the proceedings, the chief attraction being the elec­tion of a Burial Board’.The first business was the election of two churchwardens for the following year; G. Y. Hunter, chairman of the Margate Pier and Harbour Company, was re-elected as one, and William Caveler, architect and surveyor to the Margate Pier and Harbour Company, was elected as the second. The question of the Burial Board was then raised and led to a discussion ‘which was at times carried on with great warmth.’  Josiah Towne produced a possible list of members ‘but the meeting adopted the course of selecting members from the body of the meeting’. The Burial Acts laid down that a Burial Board should have between three and nine members, and the vestry went for the maximum, electing J. Woodward, R. How, R. Jenkins, G. Y. Hunter, G. Sturges, J. S. Swinford, J. Mercer, J. Crofts, and J. Berry Flint. The Kentish Observer commented: ‘By this list it will be seen that the interest of both church-men and dissenters are well represented, and we hope that they will exercise due precaution in incurring expenses, which are to be borne by their fellow townsmen out of the poor rates’.6

The Board started quickly, issuing an advertisement for land of ‘from six to twelve acres’.7 In July, at a meeting in the parish church, it was agreed to purchase eight acres of land at Salmestone, for £1000.8 In September an advertisement was issued, asking for architects to send plans for a new cemetery to the Clerk to the Burial Board:9


THE BURIAL BOARD for the parish of St. John the Baptist, MARGATE, Kent, is desirous of receiving PLANS, designs, elevations, and specifications, with estimates for laying out a NEW BURIAL GROUND, enclosing with a brick wall four of, or the whole of, the  eight acres of the aforesaid burial ground, for building two chapels, and a lodge with entrance gate. The buildings are not required to be of an expensive character. The parish contains about 11,000 inhabitants. A premium of twenty pounds will be given to the architect whose plans, designs, elevations, and specifications are approved by the board. The architect is to be prepared, if required by the board, to engage to superintend the carrying out of the intended works, if called upon to do so, upon receiving the usual fee for the same. A sealed letter, containing the name, and address of the party should accompany the specifications, with a motto, which will be opened after the selection is made, and the plans not approved will be returned. The board does not pledge itself to accept any plan. The designs to be sent free of expense to me, at the office of the Burial Board, on or before the First day of November next. A tracing of the ground, with further particulars, may be obtained by application as above.

Clerk to the Board.
Town-hall, Margate, 18th Sept., 1855.

There are two interesting points in this advertisement. The first is the plea that ‘the buildings are not required to be of an expensive character’. The second is that the competition was to be anonymous. Each architect was required to use a ‘motto’, a name such as “Economy” or “Experience” to be put on the plans and other paperwork, so that the members of the Burial Board would not know who the architect was; only after the best proposal has been chosen would the sealed envelopes containing the names be opened and the name of the chosen architect revealed. This was a commonly used device to prevent favouritism and ‘jobbery’ and to ensure that the competition was fair and open.

At a ‘very numerously attended’ vestry meeting in January 1856, the results of the competition were announced; the chosen architect was S. W. Tracy, of Ipswich, and the estimated cost for the buildings £1,400.10,11 This led to considerable argument. G. Y. Hunter explained that 30 plans had been submitted to the Board, which they reduced first to 12, then to 7 and finally to 3. Amongst the final three was a plan submitted by William Caveler. Caveler’s plan was, however, rejected because ‘the Board had a knowledge of whose plans they were dealing with’. It was reported in the local press that the Board rejected his plan ‘as he had unfortunately not complied with the stipulations of the advertisement’,12 implying that it was Caveler himself who was responsible for his name becoming known to the members of the Board. This rejection of Caveler’s plan did not go down well with the vestry and led to a ‘long conversation . . . of a very personal character’.10  One member of the Board, John Woodward, declared that Caveler’s plan was the best plan, but other members of the Board ‘asserted that undue influence had been attempted by Mr. Caveler to get his plan accepted’. George Ovenden objected to agreeing any sum of money until the parishioners had had an opportunity to examine the plans and specifications.  It was finally decided to adjourn the meeting for 14 days, ‘the inhabitants not thinking it wise to vote away so large a sum of money without fully knowing or seeing what it was for’.10  

A number of inconclusive vestry meetings were then held,13,14  but finally an advertisement dated 1 April was placed for tenders for the work.15 Six tenders were received as follows: Duckett and Mercer, Margate, £1,933; Edwards, Margate, £1,896; Crothall, Canterbury, £1,890; Hacker, Canterbury, £1,843; Kelson, Canterbury, £1,833; W. E. Smith, Ramsgate £1,726. The tender from W. E. Smith of Ramsgate was duly accepted.16  By the end of June 1856 it was reported that work was making rapid progress,17 and that the walls of the chapels were now high enough to be seen from the Margate road.18 A description of the cemetery appeared in the Kent Herald for 31 July:19

The site is considered well chosen, being at a short distance from the town (on the Minster-road,) elevated, and com­manding a delightful view of the sea and the surrounding country. The boundary walls enclose eight acres of ground, which are being tastefully laid out from the designs, and under the personal superintendence of Mr. Cormack, of Southampton. The two chapels (episcopal and dissenters') are in the early English style of architecture, and placed at about 10 yards back from the public road, built of Kentish rag stone, with Bath stone dressing, and the roofs covered with ornamental tiles.   The lich-house [mortuary] is of the same description. The lodge at the entrance is a red brick building, also covered with ornamental tiling. The entrance gates will be of bold mediaeval ironwork. The front boundary wall is not yet erected, but is, we understand, to be a dwarf brick wall, and surmounted by iron-work resembling the gates. The whole of the works are being performed by Mr. W. E. Smith, of Ramsgate, and through his exertions it is expected that the cemetery will be ready for consecration in the beginning of September.

Cemetary Stodart left
The new cemetery soon after opening, with the two chapels [stereoview by Stodart]

By January 1857 the grounds were largely complete, as described in the Kent Herald:20

With no slight pleasure we announce our recent visit to the new burial ground, and at the same time, can state that our anticipations as to the arrange­ment of the roads and walks, and the tasteful manner in which the shrubberies and groups of planting have been formed, so as to produce the desired effect — light and shade — are realized to the fullest extent; and when, in the course of the ensuing spring, the cemetery shall have been completed, we cannot but feel persuaded that, by its proximity to the Marine Promenade and its pleasing and picturesque appearance, it will become a  favourite place of resort to visitors and others during the summer and autumnal season, and consequently it must prove highly advantageous to the newly incorporated town of Margate.

The cemetery was opened on Saturday 1 November ‘and on the following day a great number of persons visited the grounds, who expressed themselves highly satisfied with the manner in which the Cemetery had been laid out and the style of the various buildings. The distance from the town appears the only objection’.21  As well as being pretty much on time, it was also brought in on budget: ‘The Burial Board's annual account shows that they received of the Public Works Loan Commissioners, on security of the poor-rates, £3,900, and by the sale of ground for 49 interments, £56 1s. The land cost £1,081 12s. 6d., the buildings £2,090 13s., law charges, for conveyance of land £91 16s. 8d., premiums for plans, architect's commission, surveyor's charges, and maps £189 4s. 9d., laying out and planting the ground £131 12s. 10d., shrubs, trees, &c.  £102 2s. 4d., and after paying other incidental expenses a balance of £18 15s. 1d. was left in hand.22 The only sour note was that vandals were active, even in those days; in March 1857 it was reported ‘we regret to find that, although the new cemetery has not been open long, there has already been some damage done to some of the stones erected there. A reward has been offered for information relative to the offenders’.23 There were also complaints about how some bodies were being conveyed to the cemetery: ‘A very reprehensible practice prevails here of conveying to the cemetery corpses in “flys”. This is done for economy, but not justified where hand-hearses and one-horse hearses are obtainable at a very moderate charge; but more reprehensible is it as affects the general health, for what could be more dangerous to a weak and susceptible frame than to enter one of these flys after, it may be, the conveyance of a body that has died from typhus! We apprehend that those of the public who know the use to which flys are put in this respect will not very readily adopt them as vehicles of pleasure. A correspondent informs that a few days ago he witnessed, within a brief period, two instances of the kind, the ends of the coffins protruding from each side of the fly, thereby indicating the bodies were not those of children’.24  

Finally, although in October 1854 all burials had been banned in Margate’s churchyards, in March 1857 the government allowed some exceptions to this general rule: ‘[the government] have, upon further consideration, resolved to permit interments to be continued as hitherto in all the vaults and brick graves, subject to the following conditions: — That in opening the vault or grave, they shall not disturb the adjoining soil, and that between each coffin, a layer of charcoal four inches thick shall be placed, and that each coffin be separately enclosed, bricked and cemented over. This arrangement is looked upon as a great boon to those who have relatives buried in the old graveyard. To avail oneself however, of this privilege, it is need­ful that the degree of relationship should be as close as father, mother, brother, sister or unmarried children’.25   



1. An Act to amend the laws concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis, 15 and 16 Vic, cap. 85, July 1 1852.

2. An Act to amend the laws concerning the burial of the dead in England beyond the limits of the metropolis, and to amend the Acts concerning the burial of the dead in the metropolis, 16 and 17 Vic, cap. 134, August 20 1853.

3. Kent Herald, October 16 1854.

4. Kent Herald, January 11 1855.

5. Kent Herald, January 25 1855.

6. Kentish Observer, April 19 1855.

7. Kentish Observer, April 26, 1855.

8. South Eastern Gazette, July 24 1855.

9. South Eastern Gazette, Sept 25 1855.

10. Kent Herald, January 31 1856.

11. South Eastern Gazette, April 15 1856.

12. Canterbury Journal, December 1 1855.

13. Kent Herald, February 7 1856.

14. Kent Herald, February 14 1856.

15. South Eastern Gazette, April 15 1856.

16. Kent Herald, May 1 1856.

17. Kent Herald, June 26 1856.

18. South Eastern Gazette, June 24 1856.

19. Kent Herald, July 31 1856.

20. Kent Herald, January 15 1857.

21. Canterbury Journal, November 8 1856.

22. Kent Herald, June 4 1857.

23. South Eastern Gazette, March 3 1857.

24. Kent News and Advertiser, November 26 1857.

25. East Kent Times, March 7 1857.