SARAH RUTHERFORD
Paradise regained in Reading
Reading Cemetery, its layout and elements of its planting surviving as a good example of a
mid-19th century cemetery, has been included on English Heritage’s Register at Grade II.
              Reading cemetery entrance Gateway c1842
  Reading has one of England’s earliest garden
cemeteries. It opened in 1843, only 24 years after
the first one, in Norwich. Its opening coincided
exactly with the publication of an influential book on
cemetery layout and construction by the landscape
designer John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843) On the
Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries.
Although Reading Cemetery was probably not
directly influenced by Loudon, in some aspects it
illustrates his theories; in other aspects it takes the
opposite course. It makes an interesting comparison
to put the theory and suggestions which he published
in 1843 against what actually happened at Reading
Cemetery, a typical early provincial cemetery. It is
also a useful exercise to compare this example with
the local cemeteries which we all live near, whether
urban or rural.
The first large municipal cemetery in Europe was
Pere Lachaise, opened in 1804 in Paris. Its rural
Arcadian landscape influenced many cemeteries,
including British ones. The new cemeteries were
the antithesis of the foetid, overcrowded town and
city churchyard alternatives. In England garden
cemeteries appeared in a trickle from 1819, when the
Rosary in Norwich opened, and gradually turned
into a torrent by the late 1850s. Garden cemeteries
were laid out to try and create a sort of garden
paradise on earth using the picturesque principles
of 18th century landscape parks. The early years
coincided with the work of JC Loudon, an opinionated
but practical Scot with an eye for minute detail and
far-seeing ideas. He managed to combine landscape
aesthetics with the practicalities of burying the
deceased decently and most efficiently.
Before the Burial Acts of the mid-1850s cemeteries
could usually only be set up as private companies.
The first ones were thus moneymaking ventures
created to make a steady return on an investment.
To ensure that business flourished an attractive,
hygienic environment, which catered to the social
mores connected with the disposal of the dead, was
a necessary marketing tool.
Loudon responded to market forces. He realised
that the f lourishing garden cemetery movement
needed guidance during the inevitable boom. He
codified his ideas in On the Laying Out, Planting
and Managing of Cemeteries, published in 1843. That
book also showed how his theories could be used
in a modest cemetery such as the one he designed
for Cambridge, opened in 1843 and still there. The
book was widely influential, tackling as it did all
aspects of the subject: from the design, layout and
appropriate planting to efficient grave digging, vault

 


 

construction and book keeping. Loudon did not
shrink from his self-imposed duty to attend to even
the most gruesome detail if it was likely to improve
the efficient and hygienic disposal of the dead.
Loudon believe that cemeteries were far more than
just repositories for the dead. Garden cemeteries such
as Reading were instructive; improving of manners,
morals and taste; educational; and soothing places
for relatives. Indeed, cemeteries ‘might become a
school of instruction in architecture, sculpture,
landscape-gardening, arboriculture, botany and in
those important parts of general gardening, neatness,
order and high keeping’, as well as serving as historical
records for local history and biography. All of which
many still do today, including Reading Cemetery.
Here the main exception is in the ‘neatness, order
and high keeping’ category. The neglect of this
aspect has, however, certainly led to greater wildlife
interest (including two resident muntjac deer).
The shareholders realised that a grand cemetery
would attract a higher class (and therefore more
wealthy) clientele. At Reading the cemetery stood at
the east edge of the town in the 1840s, alongside
the main road from London to Wales. It formed a
grand preliminary to the imposing merchants’ villas
lining the main town approach. Its grand gateway
and lodges overlooked and complemented them at
the head of the vista into the town. On a more
practical level, for Loudon it was a good place for
exercise and fresh air even when not attending a
funeral, perhaps making a visit in the course of a
walk out from town.
Although a landscape designer, Loudon favoured
a mundane, rectangular site which could be laid out
in a regular grid pattern. This was for economy of
space: the more regular the shapes of grave divisions
the more graves could be inserted. It was the shape
he used in his Cambridge cemetery design. Reading
immediately departs from his preference, for its
position where the London and Wokingham Roads
join means that the site is firmly triangular. The
divisions for burial plots adhere to a grid in some
places, but not a very rigorous one, and there are
triangular divisions, and oval and circular ones in
the form of roundels within the main grid, too.
Even worse from Loudon’s point of view, there is
a serpentine perimeter path which provides access to
plots in the outermost divisions, but in its wavy form
it inevitably wastes a certain amount of grave space
in doing so. He unbent over serpentine paths in the
case of steep hill sites where they were useful to
breast the contours evenly. At Reading, where the
site is more or less naturally flat, he would have

 



 

Page 2

 

 

Reading cemetery Anglican
chapel c1842 (demolished)


Reading cemetery
Nonconformist chapel
c1842 (demolished)

 

disapproved.
The control and therefore the selection of visitors
was important. For a populous neighbourhood,
Loudon recommended a boundary wall 10–12 feet
high with a main gate and lodge, where a gate-keeper
lived and could make sure that only the right sort
of people entered. Loudon recommended panels of
iron railings inserted in the wall at intervals, so that
visitors and passers-by obtained pleasant views into
the cemetery. This would enhance its reputation as

 

a place of repose and contemplative resort of some
social standing. At Reading a stout stone wall was
built, complete with lower lengths where railings
were indeed inserted. These drops remain today,
with views in and out remaining an important
feature.
The narrow end of the triangular Reading site
pointed west. This was a good place to construct
an imposing gateway in the middle of the first and
most important view of the cemetery as one left
town for London. This stated the cemetery’s social
pretensions. The Reading gateway is expensively
built of Bath stone as a classical triumphal arch,
through which every visitor had to enter on their
way to Paradise (whether immediately or deferred).
It incorporates a lodge on either side of the arch, and
by some miracle the original ornamental wrought
iron gates remain. Loudon really preferred one lodge

 


 

to two, but he thought that where it was absolutely
necessary to have two, they should be combined into
‘one pile of building with the gateway’, as happened
at Reading.
The main drive at Reading is broad and straight.
It scythes through the centre of the cemetery from
the great gateway to where the Anglican chapel used
to stand at the far end, as the main focus of the
site. Loudon preferred straight roads and walks as
he said they contributed far more than curved lines
to ‘grandeur and solemnity of effect’. He required
at least one broad straight road to link the main
entrance to the chapel, as at Reading. To achieve
easy circulation to all plots, he recommended the
roads be from 12–20 feet wide, according to the size
of the cemetery, with the lesser walks no less than
5–6 feet wide and so-called ‘green paths’, between
rows of plots, 3–4 feet wide. At Reading the main
drive is the formal spine of the cemetery, surrounded
by a largely informal garden-type layout beyond.
Complementary buildings formed the focal points,
constructed in a uniform style throughout. As well
as lodges there were mortuary chapels provided for
the last religious rites before interment. In small
cemeteries there might be only one chapel, but
in larger ones there would be two, one each for
Anglicans (Church of England) and dissenters (such
as Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists), and
in the largest metropolitan cemeteries sometimes
three, to include a chapel for Roman Catholics.
At Reading Cemetery it appears that Nathaniel
Briant, a local architect and surveyor, was the
principal architect, presumably designing the gateway
and dissenters’ chapel. Briant may well have been
responsible for the layout of the cemetery too. It
appears that another architect was involved: William
Brown, a Reading architect, is said to have designed
the main, Anglican chapel.
The classical style was chosen at Reading for the
two chapels and the gateway. This choice of style
followed the trend in other contemporary cemeteries,
including Newcastle (1834–36), Bristol (1837–40,Birmingham Key Hill (1834–35) and Gravesend
(1841). Between the 1820s and 1850 the classical
style was favoured, but Loudon did not favour one
particular style. After the 1840s gothic became the
architectural style of preference, for its connection
with the established church.
Loudon recommended that the chapels should be
placed in a ‘central and conspicuous situation, so as,
if possible, to be seen from all the prominent points
of view along the roads and walks.’ If more than one
chapel were provided, they should be either grouped
conspicuously together to appear as one building, or
be placed so far apart that they could not be seen

 


 

Page 3

 

Details showing how to
conceal brick and tile
edging between grass and
paths.

from the same point. The second is more or less
the case at Reading, especially given the prolific
trees. The Anglican chapel had pride of place, conspicuously at the head of the cemetery.
The dissenters’ chapel stood some distance away
in a subsidiary position. It stood asymmetrically on
one side of the main drive and was approached from
an informal serpentine drive. Where the Anglican
chapel looked down the drive to the entrance gateway
and beyond towards town, the dissenters’ chapel
faced north across the drive, the view terminating
at the boundary wall.
At Reading the 1842 Act of Parliament establishing
the cemetery stipulated that consecrated ground (for
Anglicans) was to be separated from unconsecrated,
and that chapels were to be provided for the established church and for dissenters. The Anglicans
and dissenters were firmly separated by a discreet but
sturdy low brick wall. This runs south to north across
the site dividing it effectively, between the two.
The act also required that part of both sections be
put aside for burials of the poor, although Loudon
disapproved of such segregation. At Reading the
most impressive monuments tended to cluster around
the chapels; some, though, are also scattered across
the rest of the cemetery. One particularly fine chest
tomb is sited within one of the roundels. There is
nothing like the same number of grand monuments
as is the case at, say, Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford
(1854), where they line the main terrace, packed side
by side to reinforce the position of the families whose
loved ones reside there.
The grounds, according to the Berkshire Chronicle
in 1842, were intended ‘to be ornamentally laid
out and planted [to] afford to survivors a solemn
and pleasing remembrance of their departed friends.’
Of this sentiment Loudon would have approved.
Structural plants, including trees and shrubs, were
essential to clothe what otherwise at Reading would
be a boring sea of monuments and lawn, unrelieved
except for the chapels. Woody plants were vital
to manage dramatic changes of scene and provide
variety. Although many have gone at Reading, the
relatively few which do remain indicate how effectively this was achieved.

 

South Metropolitan cemetery, Norwood, Surrey. Loudon approved of this style: lines of upright trees along drives and paths with many evergreens and conifers. He disapproved of broad, open lawns broken up by clumps of trees and shrubs like a landscape park.

 

Loudon was emphatic that a cemetery should not
be planted up with irregularly scattered clumps of
trees and shelterbelts in the style of a landscape park.
This was really the only existing model of large-scale
landscape design available at the time. Planting in
this way would waste valuable burial space, restrict
the free circulation of air and would give the cemetery
the erroneous character of a park or pleasure ground.
Instead he preferred to promote the essential
character of the cemetery as a place of repose for the
dead, and of quiet contemplation for the mourners.
This would come from lines of trees along paths and
boundaries, making the most economical use of the
grave space available. Special specimen trees would
indicate junctions and features. Trees with narrow
conical shapes, such as cypresses, were preferable to
those with ‘bulky heads’. Also preferred were dark
evergreens: pines, firs, junipers and yews, preferably
which could be clipped into columnar forms so that
they did not overhang and obstruct grave plots. The
intersections of the burial divisions he recommended
could be planted with trees ‘of a kind strikingly
different from every other planted in the cemetery’
to act as markers.
At Reading, although the architect Nathaniel Briant
probably laid out the structure of the cemetery, it
is unlikely that he was a plantsman. The Mercury


Page 4 reported in 1842 that Messrs Sutton and Son, of the
Market-place, Reading, had received ‘the contract
for planting the ground with suitable shrubs and plants’. Suttons was a well-known seed and nursery
firm. Their extensive trial grounds lay close by the
cemetery to the north and they are still in business,
now based in Devon.
Some of the trees may well date from the 1840s,
including cedars in variety, and weeping, copper and
cut-leafed beeches. A Wellingtonia stands near the
site of the Anglican chapel. These have obviously
been planted as specimens and are now spectacular.
This follows exactly Loudon’s Gardenesque principles
of showing off individuals to their best advantage.
The cemetery had a line of trees along the boundary,
with thickly scattered deciduous and coniferous trees
throughout. At the centre of most of the roundel
division features was a specimen tree: if deciduous,
surrounded by a circle of conifers; if a central conifer,
then surrounded by a circle of deciduous trees. The only feature not deliberately enhanced by planting
was the low wall dividing the dissenters from the
Anglicans.
How has the cemetery, so carefully crafted,
survived? It is a juxtaposition of nature and history,
both garden history, architectural history and social
history, and it remains much as Loudon envisaged. It
is not a beacon of such good taste as it might once
have been, but it still provides a place of quiet repose
and contemplation. Unfortunately it is sometimes
used for anti-social activities. This can inhibit locals
from using it as a green space, which is a shame

given its attractions otherwise. The Constabulary has
restored the gateway as a neighbourhood office and
this is intended to act as a deterrent to anti-social
activities. It could be very useful as an aid to the
local schools’ national curriculum studies in various
subjects.
More negatively, the major losses are the chapels,
which dominated the cemetery, and it now looks
rather unkempt. Four cuts of the grass each year
balance the cemetery character for those who still visit
graves with the increasing wildlife interest. However,
it retains its 1840s cemetery character and charm,
together with the walls and gateway, much of the
path system, some spectacular survivors of the 19th
century planting, most of the monuments, and the
sites of the mortuary chapels.
Reading Cemetery certainly is a living example
of typical garden cemetery design and demonstrates
many of Loudon’s views. It survives in much better
condition than one might think at first glance, if one
takes the time to look at it carefully and take stock
of exactly what remains of the historic design. There
are many other historic cemeteries which have similar
local or even national interest. I hope that this article
encourages you to go and take a second look at the
one nearest to you. It is probably of historic interest
and might even live up to some of Loudon’s ideals.
Sarah Rutherford is acting
head of the Register of
Parks and Gardens of
Special Historic Interest in
England at English
Heritage, Room 209,
23 Savile Row,
London W1S 2ET.