Beside the towering shadow of Bristol’s St Mary Redcliffe church, sits an unassuming patch of grass, surrounded by trees and overlooked by an impressively unchanged 1980s bar.
From the outside, it looks like a poorly-planned public park. The type that council planners agree to install, to offset the ecological destruction of their building plans. However, this plot has far more stories to offer than its patch of grass and sticky benches suggest.
The small community garden, now predominantly maintained by local residents, was used as a burial ground by Bristol’s Quaker population since 1667. The site was once double the size and housed thousands of burials, despite there only being 177 surviving headstones.
Before discussing the burial ground itself, the small, fenced inlet towards the back of the ground is worth investigating. Lurking beneath the Colosseum pub, hewn into the rock, sits a hermit’s cave. St John’s Hermitage is a scheduled ancient monument and was first used in 1346 where hermit John Sparkes was ‘installed’ by Thomas Lord Berkeley. The hermit’s duty was to pray for the wealthiest Quakers, namely Berkeley and his family. Subsequent hermits took up residence in the tiny cave well into the 17thcentury. But why did Berkeley require constant prayer? According to the research of slwoods.co.uk, Thomas Lord Berkley, otherwise known as ‘Thomas the Rich’ was a feudal baron whose ancestral home was Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. S L Woods explains that, ‘In 1327 Thomas was made joint custodian of the deposed King Edward II of England, whom he received at Berkeley Castle where he died, believed to have been murdered by an agent of Isabella of France. Thomas de Berkeley was tried an accessory to the murder of Edward II by a jury of 12 knights in the 4th year of King Edward III of England, but was honourably acquitted.’
With a firm iron gate fixed across the entrance, this cave remains remarkably well preserved and sits free from graffiti and outside damage, with only the influx of autumn’s dead leaves to contest with. The cave, however, does not sit empty. In place of a hermit, rests a large pile of simplistic headstones, stacked to the ceiling. While these are not addressed in any accessible signage (a laminated info sheet is somewhat weather damaged), the former headstones of the ground’s inhabitants were simply stacked away, and have rested atop one another since the 1950s.
Quaker headstones differ greatly from more common Anglican, catholic or atheist stones from the same time period; these carry simple initials, and nothing more. But why? To understand burial and ritual, one must first, understand the community.
Quakers refer to themselves as ‘The Religious Society of Friends’, or simply ‘Friends’ for short. The Quaker movement is a subdivision of Christianity who formed after splitting away from the Church of England.
[While they are commonly known today for their peaceful ways and conscientious objection during wartime, they were not always pinnacles of moral values, much like anyone else.
David Emeney, writing for ‘Discover Bristol’ explains that ‘In the late-17th and early-18th centuries, Bristol Quakers such as Charles and John Scandrett were slave ship owners. Famous Quakers who benefited from the produce of slave labour included Frys (cocoa) and Lloyds and Barclays (banking/insurance for ships), and the Galtons (guns). Other families, less known today but leading Bristol merchants of the period, including the Champions, the Goldneys and the Harfords, whose brass and iron goods were traded to West Africa for slaves.]
Quaker cemeteries are commonly referred to as ‘burial grounds’, rather than the former, which was not widely used as a term by Quakers until the 19thcentury. Earlham College professor Thomas Hammdescribes Quaker burial practises and memorials as ‘unusual’ and ‘an illustration of how Friends try to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world.’
In death, as in life, they believe in equality of status. Subsequently, Quakers believe it improper and unpleasant to elevate and celebrate certain people above others through elaborate headstones. Initially, all tombstones and grave markers were banned by the Quaker movements, believing that any lasting memorial would commemorate one above others, however plain or small in size. During the formation of the Quaker movement in 17thcentury England, churchyards were filling with increasingly elaborate memorials, so the decision to forego them altogether was revolutionary in a sense. Quakers saw these towering monuments as an indulgence in extreme vanity, with the middle and upper classes exercising ‘dominion in death’.
Most early Quaker burial grounds consisted of simple grassy areas, appearing to be little other than a tended garden or yard. Graves were unmarked and there were few outward signs that any burials had taken place at all.
However, over time, many Quakers believed this to be similarly unacceptable, but did not want to indulge themselves in the elaborate masonry of the day. Many Quakers came to an agreement that a small, simple stone would be appropriate, marking the burial plot of the individual, but nothing else. During the 19thcentury, when many headstones reached their architectural and artistic peaks, Quaker groups came to a consensus that marking most graves would indeed be appropriate after all. It was then deemed appropriate that the name, date of death and age should be recorded on the stone. Stones would be free from any decoration and would be held to strict height and width parameters. From what is viewable through the metal bars in Bristol’s burial ground, many of the more ‘wordy’ headstones are so weathered that cataloguing internments without original documents to refer to would be a hellish task. However, the earlier, smaller stones, featuring initials alone, remain crisp and clear. Despite the Quakers being a relatively small group, the stacked headstones span from 1667-1923 and commemorate lives lasting from a mere eight months to 99 years.
While the last burial took place in 1923, the ground was maintained by the faith until the 1950s when Bristol City Council’s road-widening scheme took precedence. Unusually though, the land was not obtained by the council through some compulsory purchase scheme. Rather, the Quakers in charge of the plot chose to donate their land for the greater good of the city’s transportation links. However, considering the burial ground, alongside a listed building or two, were sacrificed for the road, it remains a contentious topic today.
It should be noted that the burials disinterred during the road-widening, were re-interred at Avon View Cemetery.
Initially, the council aimed to maintain the remainder of the burial ground, opening it as a small community green space. Shortly afterwards, in the 1960s, the burial ground was further repurposed and replanted with fragrant plants and flowers to create a sensory garden for the blind. While this wonderful idea was maintained for a short while, it eventually fell into disrepair, with time, weather and vandalism all playing their part.
Today, the part is undertaking a sometime regeneration project, via the hard work of volunteers. And, while this work is slow and perpetual considering its city-centre position, it’s a small patch of 17thcentury Bristol and Quaker history, which is well worth preserving.
All photographs taken by myself.