St Sepulchre’s cemetery

St Sepulchre's,cemetary
St Sepulchre's,cemetary

A quiet sanctuary

Posted - January 16, 2013

The presence of this aptly named cemetery often leads people to ask if there was ever a church or chapel nearby, but the cemetery dates only from about 1850 and was a very practical solution to a very serious problem. For, with the population explosion of the 19th century, at a time when burial was the only feasible and acceptable means of disposal of the dead, existing churchyards were full — overfull.

St Sepulchre's Cemetary Jericho

The problem arose with changing attitudes to death after the Reformation. Until the 16th century shroud burials were the norm. Bodies were wrapped in a woollen shroud and placed straight into the ground, a custom which allowed the ground to be re-used at regular intervals. Stone coffins or burials within the church were exceptional and reserved for a few powerful families. Memorials were either a brass or a plaque in the church but more commonly took the form of charitable gifts to the church or to the poor named after the donor. After the Reformation the custom gradually spread of having individual graves, or family graves, in perpetuity, marked by memorial stones. These took up room in the church yard and progressively reduced the space available for the poor who could not afford such memorials. As the population increased so did the problem, but it was the cholera epidemic of 1831 which raised the alarm. By 1845 all the churchyards in Oxford were overfull and a health hazard. The civil and ecclesiastical authorities closed the churchyards and opened three cemeteries for Oxford, St. Sepulchre for the north Oxford Parishes, Osney for those of west and south Oxford and Holywell to cover the central Oxford parishes. These were opened after the second cholera outbreak in 1849.

The site chosen for St. Sepulchre was the old farmstead of Walton Manor Farm which had been abandoned at the beginning of the century and part of the land sold by St John’s College. This was one of the three farms, together with Blackball Farm, where Queen Elizabeth House now stands, and Diamond Farm the site of the Acland Hospital, which gave the name Three Farms to this area in the 18th century. Long before it had been the Saxon manor house which the Norman Roger d’lvri, who had fought at Hastings, acquired and which is recorded in the Doomsday Book. The 18th century farm gateposts still stand on Walton Street but the ornate lodge at the entrance to the cemetery was designed by E.G. Bruton in 1865. Its Gothic style is repeated in many of the memorial stones within the cemetery. Many local families are buried there and none of the new churches subsequently built in Oxford needed to have its own churchyard. St.Paul’s had used the Radcliffe Infirmary ground until the cemetery was opened. The best known individual buried there is Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) the classical scholar who became Master of Balliol College in 1870 and Vice Chancellor in 1882. He is commemorated in Oxford by the satirical verse:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
If it’s knowledge, then I know it.
If I don’t, it isn’t knowledge.
I’m the Master of this College.

The cemetary is now closed but remains a quiet sanctuary for wildlife and visitors.

Information and image from the Jericho Sketchbook

Did you know?

Why Jericho still has such a mix of houses?

Jericho’s intriguing mix of housing today owes a lot, to the Residents’ Association in the 1960s and 1970s which together with the then Vicar and some local councillors resisted plans to bulldoze the whole area and turn it over to offices and light industrial use.

Cranham Street used to be a blot on the city

Before Grantham House was built, the site became notoriously derelict, making Cranham Street according to the local press a ‘blot on the city’ – wrecked by local children, and a refuge for rats and for ‘layabouts sleeping off the drink’ who were repeatedly evicted by the police.