Teignmouth Cemetery is a focal point of history, the collective memory of many people who lived in Teignmouth from the early 19th century. They all would have contributed to the life and development of the town and its place in history. Some would have been well-known for their contribution; others might have gone gentle into the night but have their own stories to tell.
It is a place which deserves recognition and a certain reverence but sadly Teignmouth Old Cemetery has been allowed to slip into decay – its buildings are derelict and boarded up, its grounds are overgrown and many of its gravestones have fallen.
This project is intended to restore some of its former glory and allow us to remember the stories of those people who are buried here and their place in the history of Teignmouth.
Concerns about the cemetery had been expressed by Councillor Jacqui Orme three years ago:
“A PROJECT to restore dilapidated buildings at Teignmouth cemetery is being considered.
The historic gatehouse and chapel are rundown and now the town council has launched an initiative led by Cllr Jacqui Orme, to investigate the feasibility of an upgrade. There are signs that squatters may have been living in the gatehouse, and lead could have been stolen from the roof. The council agreed to donate up to £200 towards opening up the buildings, which have been sealed off in places, and carrying out a survey to discover the extent of the work needed and the cost.” Teignmouth Post 12th January 2012
But more recently there has been a confluence of several streams of activity from June to October this year, 2015, which have generated a popular wave of enthusiasm to retain, restore and remember the cemetery and the history of those buried there.
On 23rd June Teignmouth Town Council agreed to contact Teignbridge District Council about the state of the cemetery:
Cllr. Bladon circulated images of the old and new cemeteries, showing the overgrowth in the old cemetery and piles of grass cuttings in the new. Suggestions for maintenance of the Teignbridge District Council owned cemeteries were debated and discussed, and Cllr. Bladon proposed, Cllr. Burgess seconded and it was agreed unanimously that the Clerk write to Teignbridge District Council and ask for immediate action in improving the maintenance of both sites.”
On 8th July, virtually out of the blue, Teignbridge District Council issued a planning application for change of use of the cemetery buildings to private residential accommodation:
“The cemetery chapel is currently being used as a store, the store is derelict with no roof, the lodge Is derelict and unsafe for use. The application is for a change of use for both properties becoming one residential unit with a link between the two. The store will become a garden for the residence.
The eastern side of the cemetery is currently being used for burials and the western side is used for existing family burials.”
The announcement prompted an immediate public response, a petition was raised and a large number of objections were lodged against the planning application.
The story hit the local press. As one summary from the Mid-Devon Advertiser explained:
“A plan to convert the chapel and lodge at Teignmouth cemetery into a house has come under fire. Some residents maintain it would be an inappropriate site for a home, and could lead to further development. Wendy Thomas, who complained about the lack of grass cutting at the cemetery, said: ‘Once again Teignbridge has shown disregard and disrespect for this fine old Victorian cemetery and its buildings. ‘The chapel provided a smaller, more intimate environment within the cemetery grounds, to hold a service for those that wanted an alternative to a church service.” Mid-Devon Advertiser 7th August 2015
The Poetry of the Cemetery
Meanwhile, I had come to the cemetery by a different route. Through research on poets and poetry associated with Teignmouth I had come across a young Victorian woman from Teignmouth, Leah Lee, who had married a French poet, Jules Laforgue, deemed the father of modern verse (see the first blog on Leah Laforgue).
Leah was buried in Teignmouth Old Cemetery and I went in search of her grave which I eventually found, completely overgrown, not far from the buildings under threat. I did a small amount of clearance, enough to expose the headstone properly. Then on 19th August Jacqui Orme, now Mayor, joined our walking group to visit the grave.
We agreed to complete the cleaning up of the grave. The local garden centre, Jack’s Patch, provided plants that we could place around the grave area – lavender, geraniums and Mexican daisies. We also planted daffodil bulbs and crocuses to give some colour the following Spring. Jacqui arranged for a group of students on a Community project to do more research into this particular grave and to design a plaque that could be used to mark this and other graves as they were cleared.
The Threads Come Together
We also found out that a couple of other local people had been already tending some of the graves – Wendy Thomas, who had also organised he petition, and Brian Hall who had been clearing around some of the military graves in the cemetery.
The threads were coming together and at an ‘On The Verge’ meeting on 19th September we started to discuss next steps for moving the project forward.
History is shaped by people, places and events converging, sometimes serendipitously, sometimes with intention and this project is no exception.
Neil Howell, 24 Sept 2015