In 1828 a new cemetery was opened in Whiffens Avenue in Chatham, as the churchyard at St Mary's Church in Dock Road was overcrowded. The land was acquired by the parish from the Board of Ordnance, and the original entrance is shown here:
Anyone who has read "Chatham Past" by Phillip MacDougall will have seen his photographs of the main entrance. Since he took his photographs, the iron gates shown in them have been removed.
As you can see from this photograph, Whiffens Avenue and the burial ground are on a fairly steep slope at the bottom of the Great Lines.
The burial ground must be one of Chatham's best-kept secrets. It's almost always quiet; most of the visitors are locals walking their dogs. I only know about it because I used to walk through it with my parents (most often my Dad) when I was a child. We walked through Gillingham and over the Lines into Chatham to go shopping, and then quite often we'd walk back the same way. I've been told of people who have lived in the area for years without knowing of the place though. If you're visiting the area, it's not far from the town centre, and is worth wandering through.
The inscription on the memorial stone above the entrance reads:
THIS BURIAL GROUND WAS THE GIFT
OF THE HONOURABLE BOARD OF ORDNANCE
TO THE PARISH OF CHATHAM,MAY 1828
REVD MATTHEW IRVING B.D.MINISTER
Burials continued until 1870, when the new cemetery opened in Maidstone Road (an extension to the new cemetery, in Palmerston Road, was opened in 1912).
In 1905, the cemetery was opened as the Town Hall Gardens (the new town hall having been built across Rope Walk in front of the cemetery on the corner of Whiffens Avenue and The Brook). Looking at the photograph of the main entrance, it is just possible to see a panel on the inside of the right-hand wall. This panel, shown here, reads:
acquired and laid out by the Corporation
of Chatham and intended to be preserved
as an Open Space under the Open Spaces
Act 1877 were opened on the 14th June 1905
Councillor W.D.Driver, Mayor.
H.P.Mann, Town Clerk.
Charles Day, Borough Surveyor.
On the opposite wall is a memorial stone to Sergeant Patrick Feeney, who was shot in 1834 by Private Benjamin Gardner in Chatham Barracks. The memorial stone was erected by the officers of the 50th regiment. Sadly, like the dedication stone, no effort appears to be made to protect it from local vandals.
THE MEMORY OF
SERGEANT OF THE 50TH REGIMENT
WHO DIED 9TH JULY 1834
AGED 31 YEARS
HE WAS SHOT ON THAT DAY BY
A PRIVATE OF THE SAME COMPANY IN
THE EVENING IN CHATHAM BARRACKS
FOR WHICH THE MURDERER WAS HANGED
ON CHATHAM LINES IN THE PRESENCE OF
THE TROOPS OF THE CHATHAM GARRISON
THIS STONE WAS ERECTED BY THE OFFICERS
OF THE 50TH REGIMENT TO MARK THE WORTH
CHARACTER WAS HELD IN BY THEM
When it was opened as a garden, most of the gravestones were moved against the two walled edges of the burial ground (The north-east and south-east walls). Those shown in this picture are against the north-east wall, and are generally in better condition than those against the south-east wall.
The stones are in a variety of conditions, from those which are completely legible, to those whose surface has eroded to the extent that not even the original surface survives, let alone any engraving.
Unsurprisingly, the stones which are even partially sheltered by trees are in much better condition than those which are against more open areas of the walls. Some of the granite stones have weathered much better than the marble ones.
This image shows a group of stones against the north-east wall of the burial ground. Some of the inscriptions are readable, whereas others, notably the third stone from the right, are completely illegible. Indeed, this particular stone has eroded to a depth of approximately an inch across almost all of its surface, with bumps where some areas have barely worn at all.
The stones against the south-east wall of the burial ground, seen looking north-east (uphill) towards the Great Lines and the eastern corner. These stones are more exposed than those against the north-east wall, and so are generally in worse condition. On the left of the picture the remaining bases of some of the tombs can be seen.
Another view of the stones against the south-east wall. Larger tombs and remnants are visible on the left of the picture.
The house on the left of the picture, behind the wall, is next to the old Ragged School. The white house on the right is on the corner of Rope Walk, which goes around two sides of the burial ground, and Cross Street. Just out of interest, my great-great-grandmother's family used to live in Cross Street which along with the two roads joining it to The Brook (King Street and Queen Street) were amongst the poorest areas in Chatham. The houses had originally been built for dockyard officers in the 17th century, but by the early 20th century they were in a very poor state. The residents were moved out in approximately 1930, and the houses demolished. There are now more modern houses in these streets, although one side of Cross Street is just the back wall of what was a petrol station in The Brook, but which is now yet another used car lot.
Very few of the memorials have been left in place. Those that have been are towards the eastern corner near the south-east wall, and are not in very good condition. Most of them are incomplete tombs with just bases remaining, as shown on the right of this photograph, although some of the flatter ones survive intact. This photograph also shows the largest surviving un-moved grave, which has a "winged" stone. Like all of the other tomb-type stones, this one is badly worn.
One thing which cannot be seen in this photograph is the almost obligatory children's playground, which is just out of shot to the left.
In the eastern corner there is a gap which used to allow access to the path which runs behind the burial ground. This has since been closed with metal bars, but there is another gateway half way along the wall. If you go through that gateway and turn right, there is a steep asphalt path which leads up the the Royal Naval War Memorial.
I'm sure that there used to be a step at this gateway. When I was a child, my parents and I used to walk across the Lines, past the Naval Memorial and down a steep narrow unpaved path to the back of the burial ground. As you can see it's all overgrown on the other side of the wall now, and if there was a step here it's obviously been removed. You can see where the brickwork around and to the left of the gap has been replaced. The bottom of the new brickwork is roughly where the top of the step(s) would have been.
The pieces of stone on the ground here are fragments of nearby gravestones.
The burial ground is the last resting place of people from all backgrounds, including several Naval Captains and Surgeons from the Dockyard, which is around half a mile away along Dock Road.
In one of the late 19th century maps I have seen of the area, the area at the top of Whiffens Avenue behind the main burial ground is shown as the Military Burial Ground. This area has since been converted to a car park.
This photograph was taken just outside the gateway in the north-east wall of the burial ground, looking back towards Whiffens Avenue, and away from the path to the Naval War Memorial. To the right, just out of shot, is an area of land where a public air-raid shelter was built during the second world war. After the war it was demolished and filled in completely. I haven't been able to find any remaining trace of it.
All photographs © 2003 Jason Ross