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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Rosary Cemetery

The Rosary Cemetery

The Rosary Cemetery in Rosary Road, Norwich was the first non-denominational cemetery in England, licensed for burials by the Bishop of Norwich in 1821 when the first interment took place. It was to be a cemetery where people were free to be buried with the religious service of their choice or non, if that was their preference.

Design and Layout

It was laid out on 5 acres of a former market garden known as the Rosary. The layout included an avenue of trees and a variety of different trees and shrubs. To prevent soil slippage on the sloping site cobbled drainage channels were provided to remove surface water. Whilst many European cities had cemeteries separate from churches there was no tradition of this in England. Many of the early English cemeteries looked to the continent for inspiration particularly Pere-Lachaise in Paris where the arrangement of winding footpaths and an undulating terrain provided a model for English cemeteries - perhaps including the Rosary?

Thomas Drummond

The new cemetery was opened by Thomas Drummond (1765-1852) a retired Unitarian minister who although born in Norwich had, during his time as a minister, lived in Derby, and latterly in Ipswich where he was the incumbent at the Friars Street Chapel until 1813. It is difficult to be definite about Drummond's reasons for opening the Rosary but as a Unitarian he had experienced at first hand the prejudice against dissenters. There is a record of him trying desperately to obtain a Christian burial for a young child in Ipswich but being refused by the Anglican clergyman in charge of the parish.

Restrictions on Dissenters

Like many urban centres Norwich had seen the growth of a wealthy commercial class - many of whom were dissenters; Baptists. Methodists and Congregationalists and others who found irksome the restrictions imposed by the Church of England upon their freedom of action and their ability to participate in public life. The restrictions on dissenters included:

  • The refusal by some Anglican clergymen to bury dissenters unless the Anglican burial service was used
  • The obligation upon all parishioners to pay the church rate for upkeep of the parish church - at a time when many Christians were members of dissenting churches.
  • A bar on dissenters attending Oxford and Cambridge universities
  • The requirement that all marriages were registered in church

Prior to the opening of private cemeteries the majority of burials took place in the parish churchyards where the burial service had to be conducted in the manner prescribed in the book of Common Prayer, where non-conformist ministers were forbidden to conduct funerals, and fees for burial services were paid to the Church of England.

Cemetery Campaigns elsewhere

The main driving force behind the establishment of private cemetery companies during the 1820s and 1830s was the determination of the substantial, and increasingly powerful, dissenting community to have a say in the way their lives were controlled. This was clearly evident in other parts of England such as Manchester where George Hadfield was prominent in the establishment of Rusholme Road cemetery and in Nottingham where Samuel Fox was instrumental in founding the Nottingham Cemetery Company in 1836. They wanted cemeteries that were independent of the Anglican church, would remain unconsecrated and that would allow any (or no) burial service.

It is not clear whether there was a similar strength of feeling in Norwich but it is reasonable to assume that Drummond, as a Unitarian and a very active correspondent and author would have been aware of the debate in other parts of England. However, the slow utilisation of spaces in the Rosary during the early years indicates that there was no major pressure in Norwich for a significant increase in cemetery provision; rather that it was opened to provide burial space for dissenters. This view is supported by the number of prominent dissenters who became shareholders in the Rosary cemetery.

Existing cemeteries

Some dissenting groups had their own burial grounds in Norwich. The Unitarians had one at the Octagon in Colegate and there had been several Jewish burial grounds (including those at Oak Street and Mariners Lane) and one for Quakers at Gildencroft. But until Drummond opened the Rosary there was no non-denominational burial ground. Apart from these small cemeteries all burials took place in the City's churchyards.

There were other factors that made the establishment of a new cemetery in Norwich a viable proposition; the increase in the City's population leading to overcrowding and high death rates; the already overcrowded churchyards, sanitary problems and public fear of body-snatchers.

Population Increase

There was increasing pressure on burial space in urban areas during the early part of the nineteenth century from the increase in the population and population density.  The population of Norwich increased from 37,000 recorded in the census of 1801 to 68,000 in 1851, 80,000 by 1871 and 100,000 in 1891.

Crowded Churchyards

Many Norwich churchyards had been in use for more than 800 hundred years, were full to overflowing and for some time had relied on raising the level of the ground to accommodate further burials. As early as October 1671 John Evelyn, the diarist, when visiting Norwich wrote 'one thing I observed of remark in this City, that most of the church-yards(though some of them large enough)were filled up with earth or rather the congestion of dead bodies one upon another, for want of earth etc., to the very top of the walls, and many above the walls, so as the Churches seemed to be built in pits'.  Conformation of Evelyn's observations is visible today at St John Baptist, Maddermarket and St John Baptist, Timberhill.

High Death Rate

The death rate in 19th century Norwich was high, exacerbated by frequent outbreaks of disease including cholera in 1832 and 1849. This put additional pressure on the existing burial space in the churchyards. The Norwich churchyards were finally closed for burials in 1856 when the new municipal cemetery was opened on Earlham Road.

Threat to drinking water

The use of City centre churchyards for burial posed risks to public health. Much of the drinking water came from parish pumps. A public drinking fountain set up near St John Baptist, Maddermarket had to be moved because in the words of City's first public analyst ' the water produced was almost pure essence of churchyard' and its bright sparkling quality was reportedly due to the large quantity of nitrates, from decaying human matter.!


One of main selling points of the new cemeteries, in Norwich and elsewhere, was the security they claimed to offer against body-snatching. There was much public fear of newly buried bodies being dug and sold to the many schools of anatomy in London. Until the Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to the practice there were enough examples of body-snatching to legitimise these fears, notably cases in Norwich in 1824 and a notorious case in Great Yarmouth three years later. However, it appears that there was concern in Norwich about the security of the Rosary and an anonymous poem was circulated claiming that it was no safer than any of the City's churchyards and that body-snatchers had indeed been at work there.


Whilst the establishment of private cemetery companies elsewhere was met with determined opposition by the Church of England, in Norwich the liberal attitude of Bishop Bathurst seems to have ensured its relatively smooth birth. The cemetery company was established in 1819 but the Rosary was not registered with the Bishop of Norwich until 14th June 1821(recorded by the plaque on the chapel in the Rosary). Bishop Henry Bathurst had established a reputation for tolerance since his arrival in Norwich in 1805.This is demonstrated by his record:

  • voting for the emancipation of Catholics
  • supporting parliamentary reform
  • demonstrating a tolerance and friendliness to dissenters-as shown by his registration of the Rosary as a burial ground.

Even then, because the ground was unconsecrated the established church largely ignored the Rosary, although all sects were allowed to bring their own ministers to perform the funeral rites. Although it is interesting to see from the records that Thomas Drummond performed almost all of the early burials.

First Burial

The first burial - in November 1821 was the re-interment of Ann Drummond, wife of the founder, who had died 2 years earlier and been buried at The Octagon.  There were few burials during the early years: 2 in 1822; 3 in 1824. Of the first 10 burials, one was a re-interment (Ann Drummond), another was a memorial to Drummonds in-laws, there were 5 infants and 3 people in their 30s. The number of burials increased slowly; 5 in 1825, 10 in 1826 and 14 in 1827. From 1831, the year of a cholera outbreak, the numbers increased to 50 annually and from 1850 to 100. By 1900 there were 18,000 people buried in the 5 acre cemetery and it was later extended northwards to Telegraph Lane to take in a further 8 acres which is still in use.

People Buried at the Rosary

Amongst the people buried at the Rosary were many of the individuals who made major contributions to the life of Norwich in the nineteenth century including, John Alexander - long serving minister at Princes Street chapel, Jeremiah James Colman - industrialist, philanthropist and politician, Richard Hanbury Gurney - banker, James Sillett - Norwich school artist, Frederick Ringer - Norwich born businessman who became known as the 'King of Nagasaki',  Jacob Henry Tillett - reformer and founder of the Norfolk News, Robert Webster - the first Chairman of Norwich City Football Club, George White - shoe manufacturer and Liberal MP and George Wide - survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Ownership and Management

Originally the Rosary was run as a private company with shareholders but appears to have been effectively controlled by Drummond. In 1841 it was turned into a trust, presumably to safeguard its future after Drummond's death.  It remained as such until 1954 when the funds in hand were insufficient for the trust to continue and responsibility was passed to Norwich City Council which continues to manage it. The last Chairman of the trust was the novelist R H Mottram, who appropriately enough is buried there.

The Chapel

This is the second chapel at the Rosary and was built in 1881 having been designed some years early by Edward Boardman. It replaced one that had been constructed at the time of the opening of the cemetery in 1821.

Nick Williams