There is something special and atmospheric about cemeteries, especially Victorian ones with their gothic monuments. Towns and cities grew rapidly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with people migrating from the countryside, looking for work in the factories and industries. Overcrowding, dirty drinking water and poor (or non-existent) sewerage systems fuelled epidemics such as Cholera and the churchyards couldn’t cater for the vast increase in burials. This wasn’t a new problem; churchyards had been struggling for centuries and a burial plot could be used many, many times. The sexton of St Margaret’s Church in Leicester estimated some plots were being used for the 21st time1. The solution was to build cemeteries. Early ones were usually established by non-conformists and businessmen and were often run as private concerns. One example is Key Hill Cemetery in Birmingham where one of my ancestors William Cooke is buried. This was opened in 1837 and contains over 20,000 graves and over 62,000 burials. The Jewellery Quarter Research Group (JQRG) has put over 11,000 existing memorial inscriptions for Key Hill Cemetery online. Its story is similar to other cemeteries which were funded privately. They eventually became full and/or became bankrupt, eventually being taken under the care of local authorities. Many were not able to fund the upkeep and the cemeteries became overgrown and the headstones and monuments became unsafe. In recent years, many of these places have been put into the care of groups of ‘Friends’ and have been cleaned up and many have been granted listed status.
Welford Road Cemetery was Leicester’s first municipal cemetery and was opened in 1849 and between 1855 and 1901 was Leicester’s only burial ground. If you have an ancestor who died and was buried in Leicester between this period then you will find them in Welford Road Cemetery. The cemetery is now closed to burials except to those who own a freehold and there is still space in the plot. There are over 213,000 people buried in the cemetery and approximately10,000 memorials. Amongst those buried there are Thomas Cook and William Green.
Headstones can give valuable information and sometimes they can give a lot of information about an individual and William’s headstone is a fine example. It gives us his date of death – 27 January 1881, aged 91 – but it also provides the useful information that he was:
‘A veteran of the Peninsular War. Present at the Battles of Corunna, Busaco, Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz.’
His death date and age give an approximate birth year of 1785. So who was William? We don’t know where he was born from the headstone but we have a date of death. You can find deaths in the GRO index listed on FreeBMD and order the certificate from the GRO website.
You can find regimental and service records on findmypast.co.uk and this should give further information about where he was born and possibly the names of his parents. The National Archives has a good explanation of what the records contain and where to find them on its website. The Peninsular War was part of the Napoleonic Wars and you can find out more about it and the battles William was involved in on the Peninsular War website. He even has an entry in Wikipedia and was the author of a memoir entitled “A brief outline of the Travels and Adventures of William Green (late Rifle Brigade) during a period of ten years in the British Service”. This is one of the few accounts by an enlisted man of life in Wellington’s Army. You can go to the Friends of Welford Rd Cemetery website here.
1. Grave Matters, A walk Through Welford Road Cemetery, Leicester. Max Wade-Matthews