07 May 2017

Grave matters: Penarth Cemetery

Strange as it may seem, I miss not living near Cathays Cemetery, with its depth of history, its park-like grounds, its haven for flora and fauna, and its sense of peace and solitude. I have, however, discovered another cemetery, my local here in Penarth, though it’s only a fraction of the size of Cathays.


According to the Penarth Town Council website, five acres of land for the cemetery were acquired from the Right Honourable Robert George, Lord Windsor, Lord-Lieutenant of Glamorgan and Chief Commissioner of Public Works, on 2 March 1903, though the need for a new cemetery had been signalled many years earlier.


Prior to the opening of the town cemetery, most Penarth burials were in the graveyard around the Church of St Augustine. and as early as 1897 Reverend W. Sweet-Escott wrote to the district council pointing out the need for additional burial space (Evening Express, 20 March 1897). Somewhat surprisingly, the idea of a new cemetery proved to be quite a contentious issue. It wasn’t the cemetery itself that stirred up strong emotions but rather the decision as to whether or not the land would be consecrated, which would affect the cost of a burial. The Nonconformists were not against paying for tombstones, memorials or vaults but disputed the fact that they should have to pay a fee to a rector to perform the burial service.


The cemetery is not mentioned again in the newspapers until 1898, when Cardiff Council tried to amalgamate Penarth with Cardiff, something that was vehemently opposed by the ratepayers of Penarth. Even Cardiff’s promise to provide a new burial ground was not enough to persuade the good people of Penarth (and the town remains separate to this day). 

According to the report in the Evening Express, 21 February 1898,

Mr. A. Mackintosh said that the overtures of Cardiff were premature and pointed to no real advantage. With regard to the cemetery question, Penarth was rich enough to provide its own, and if Penarth people had to take their dead to Cardiff for burial it would simply be adding another terror to death. (Laughter.)

Penarth District Council finally decided to advertise for plans for a new cemetery in April 1901, restricting its call for tenders to Penarth and Cardiff architects only (Barry Dock News, 5 April 1901), though it would appear that nothing came of that advertisement as there is a further report in the Barry Dock News of 11 October 1901 stating that the Council had ‘resolved to re-write the bills of quantity for the proposed new cemetery, and advertise for tenders for same’. It seems much like council matters today – a lot of talk and bureaucracy but not much real action!


The first burial in the new cemetery finally took place in December 1903, and in 1928 the Council acquired a further 2½ acres to bring the total acreage to 7 and the number of burial spaces to 5000. More than one person can be buried in each space, of course, so the most recent burial total stands at over 10,500.


Howver, burial space is once again becoming an issue. On 28 March 2014, the Penarth Times reported that the cemetery was due to run out of burial space in three years – that’s right about now! – so the Council was looking into alternative methods of housing cremated remains. Columbaria, ‘scatter lawns’ and ‘above ground vaults’ were all under consideration, though I haven’t found any reference to a decision in more recent newspapers, and I haven’t noticed any new structures during my visits to the cemetery.

As with most old cemeteries, Penarth’s is an interesting place to explore, for the design and architecture of its buildings and its grave monuments, for the beauty of its wildflowers in the springtime, for the wildlife that inhabits its quiet spaces, and the view from the top of the hill is stunning. I will certainly be visiting again soon.