At the Society’s November meeting Dave Napier gave a talk on Bristol’s historic Arnos Vale Cemetery, which has its roots in the early nineteenth century, when space in the parish churchyards was becoming increasingly scarce. The trigger for the founding of Arnos Vale seems to have been the high mortality rate caused by an outbreak of cholera in 1831. Arnos Vale’s first burial – that of Mary Berlatt – took place in 1839. The cemetery had both Anglican and non-conformist chapels but the non-conformists had the run of the place for the first few months – the Anglicans had to wait until the Bishop of Gloucester had consecrated the ground, and the first Anglican burial did not take place until October 1840.
The cemetery was privately owned and operated as a business concern. However, four years after opening only 99 burials had taken place. Business improved when the cemetery started to offer cheaper burials to the less well-off: in the 1860s more land had to be purchased, which doubled the original size of the cemetery. Further expansions took place in the 1880s and 1890s. Today there are around 170,000 graves in the cemetery.
Arnos Vale was the only cemetery in Bristol until the Council opened Greenbank Cemetery in 1871. The delay in establishing a publically-owned cemetery may have had something to do with the fact that many of the Directors of Arnos Vale were City Councillors.
Arnos Vale may owe its existence in part to cholera, but some of those buried there are notable for their role in helping to contain subsequent epidemics of the disease. John Addington Symonds (1807 – 1871) attempted by observation to determine how the disease spread. This led him to realise that the disease could be transferred from person to person: one example from his work concerns a girl who became ill with cholera in Bristol; she returned home to Thornbury where she recovered, but her mother, who had never been to Bristol, caught the disease and died. The physician Dr William Budd (1811 – 1880) established rules for combating the spread of the infection in hospitals.
In addition to physicians, the cemetery contains a number of military graves. The War Memorial was erected in 1921 to commemorate the 200 soldiers who died in Bristol hospitals during the First World War. One soldier who is not listed on the Memorial is Joseph McMillan, who was discharged from the army after catching tuberculosis, from which he later died. As a result of Mr Napier’s researches, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which looks after 500 graves in Arnos Vale, has decided to adopt McMillan’s grave and to erect a stone.
One who served with distinction was H.W. Shove, who joined up aged only 15 and by the age of 25 was already the captain of a submarine. He became only the second submarine captain to successfully navigate the Dardanelles, for which he was awarded the DSO. He left the Navy and, after his wife died, joined a Catholic farming community, where he met his second wife, and took up beekeeping. Apparently, he was often to be seen dancing up the country lanes playing his home-made pan pipes; there may of course be a connection between this and his other hobby: the illegal distilling of liquor. He was recalled to the Navy (presumably the only officer in the Fleet who could pipe himself aboard) in 1939 and was responsible for the routing of supply convoys, for which he was later awarded the OBE.
Arnos Vale is one of Bristol’s historical treasures; the final resting place of the ancestors of so many of the city’s current residents, their stories, like those of Symonds, Budd, McMillan, and Shove, just waiting to be told.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall.
Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.
NB during the uncertainty caused by Coronavirus pandemic the Society is not holding meetings at St Mary’s Hall but Zooming their meetings free of charge! Please contact Jenny Ovens, Secretary at for log on details.