The first part of this two part blog examines the cultural and historical background of one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful, and least discovered, cemeteries. Warriston Cemetery lies approximately a mile to the north of the City Centre, close to the city’s Botanical Gardens.
A feeling is now prevalent against burials in cities: London has its Kensal Green, Glasgow has is necropolis and these are but single instances of many new cemeteries which in these and other cities this feeling has called into existence.
Caledonian Mercury January 30th 1845
On 1st June 1843, the Directors of the Edinburgh Cemetery Company respectfully announced to the inhabitants of Edinburgh and Leith that the new Edinburgh Cemetery at Warriston was open for the purpose of interments. A print reproduced in Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh based on an 1843 drawing by Daniel Wilson, evokes the scene. Elegantly dressed ladies and top hatted gentlemen, enjoy a setting of rural tranquillity. A bonneted child holds a parasol. There is a sense of open space and middle class domesticity. The Melville Monment and the recently erected Scott monument are clearly visible on the horizon. Further afield is the outline of St Giles cathedral in the Old Town of Edinburgh. The city is distant and far removed.
In the early 1840s, Edinburgh’s existing cemeteries and graveyards were overcrowded, unhealthy and dangerous. The business of death was unregulated. Fifteen years previously, body snatching had been common place. Robert Louis Stevenson describes how William Burke, the resurrection man,” infamous for so many murders at five shillings a head”, sat at a rear window in Candlemaker Row, with pipe and night cap, and observed burials taking place in nearby Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Watchtowers, mort coffins and mort safes were commonplace. A watch tower, overlooking the high walls of St Cuthbert’s Churchyard had been built as late as 1827. Human remains were frequently visible. In 1843, the directors of the new Warriston Cemetery declared that no human body would be disturbed after interment. Moreover, in an unambiguous reference to the state of the city cemeteries, “no remains of humanity will at any time unpleasantly meet the human eye”. Graves, they continued, would be six feet deep and in the case, of multiple burials at least 12 feet deep. The Anatomy Act of 1832 had effectively put an end to the practice of body snatching but disease continued to plague the City. There were serious outbreaks of cholera in the early 1830s and even as late as 1849 . The siting of Warriston, on the outskirts of Edinburgh was, therefore, significant. Removed from the crowded city centre, death could be both sanitised and beautified. In a front page advertisement of the Caledonian Mercury and in their detailed prospectus, the directors declared that the New Edinburgh Cemetery was to mark an “improvement “on the present customs elsewhere.
The immediate inspiration for Warriston were London’s garden cemeteries of Kensal Green (1831), Norwood (1837) and Highgate (1839), which in turn had been influenced by European cemeteries including Pere Lachaise in Paris. The link between city and cemetery was consciously broken, as was the association between church and burial ground. Curiously though, there was something of the new garden cemetery which evoked the tranquillity of a country churchyard:
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep
Warriston was the first of Edinburgh’s “garden cemeteries”. The Dean, Dalry, Rosebank, the Grange and Newington cemeteries were to follow within the course of the decade. Before the advent of cremation, the business of death was necessarily linked with space; the new cemeteries, funded by private investment, promised attractive returns.
The original nine acre site at Warriston was designed by David Cousin (1809-1878). An apprentice to the fashionable William Playfair, the young architect had tendered an unsuccessful entry for the design of a new monument to commemorate the life of Sir Walter Scott. In the 1840s, he became a specialist in the design of cemeteries, in the new garden style. During the course of Edinburgh’s sepulchral decade, Cousin went on to design the Dean (1845), Dalry (1846), Rosebank (1846) and Newington (1848) cemeteries, as well as a large number of Free Churches. Features included serpentine
paths, gothic gates and lodges. At Warriston –and later at Dalry and Newington – a particular selling point was the catacombs which cut through the cemetery east to west. They are just visible in the right of Wilson’s drawing in the slight depression to the left hand side of the bridge. Cousin also made good use of the rural backdrop of existing country estates both at Warriston and the Dean. At the Dean cemetery, stone carvings from the original House of Dean, were imaginatively incorporated into the southern retaining wall overlooking the Water of Leith.
The 1843 tariff offered the public a wide range of burial and funeral “options”. The price of a standard 7 foot by 3 foot grave, varied , according to situation, from £ 2 .6s. and 8d. to £ 4. 13 s and 4 d. – “being at the rate of 20s. to 40 s. per square yard”. For another £ 6 and 14 shillings, a funeral could be arranged to include a hearse with four horses and two mourning coaches, with two horses apiece, “including every charge excepting the undertaker’s”. Other possibilities included a two horse hearse accompanied by two one horse morning coaches (an extra £ 3 and 14 shillings) or a hearse, drawn by one horse without coaches, “the company walking” (13 shillings a sixpence – “add price of one space of ground”). The tariff, couched in a language of choice familiar to the 21st century consumer, reminded potential customers that they were, “not required to use the
Company’s Hearses and Coaches for funerals in this cemetery unless they please. It is optional to them to use the necessary conveyances where they choose” In addition, simple “Shoulder” and “Spoke” funerals provided funerals at more affordable prices for the families of those who were less well off.
A “range of catacombs” was lovingly described in language as
appealing to the prospective house purchaser as the long term dead. The catacombs were “well lighted airy and dry…affording space for sepulchre to a large extent”: top of the range was an entire vault with enough space for 20 coffins, a mere snip at £ 120, whilst a single private catacomb for one (leaden) coffin retailed at a more modest £ 7.
By the beginning of November 1843, nearly 200 burials had taken place at the new Edinburgh Cemetery at Warriston. The approach, from the west, was from Inverleith Row, almost opposite “but a little beyond”, the gates of the Botanical Gardens; from the east, access was by Easter Warriston Lane, nearly opposite the Gate of Easter Warriston House (now the site of Warriston Crematorium). By the autumn, the directors –with a view to facilitating “immediate and direct access from the city” – had almost completed a Carriage Drive, including a bridge, from Canonmills down the south side of the Water of Leith.
The advent of Edinburgh’s garden cemeteries coincided with the development of Edinburgh’s suburban rail network. In 1845, the new Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven Railway spliced Warriston cemetery in two.
Next Blog: Further Development and a Visit to the Cemetery:
Selected background reading:
- Brooks, Mortal Remains, the History and Present State of the Victorian and Edwardian Cemetery, London 1989 (good on the garden cemeteries, subsequent care and conservation)
- Wilson, AN, The Victorians, London 2002
- Gifford, McWilliam and Walker, “Edinburgh”, Buildings of Scotland, 1984