History of the Cemetery
Tunbridge Wells did not become a separate parish until 1829. Prior to that local people had to travel to Frant, Tonbridge or Speldhurst parishes to bury their dead. The town’s first parish graveyard was at Holy Trinity Church – the first burial there being in April 1830. However, by 1849 the churchyard space had begun to run out, and 3 acres on the northern fringe of the town were allocated as a new graveyard. This was Woodbury Park. From 1849 to 1873 this was the town cemetery for Anglicans and Non-conformist sects, but Roman Catholics did not come into that category.
As the town continued to grow, space at Woodbury Park Cemetery began to run out. Fearing a burials crisis, the Local Board of Commissioners – predecessors of today’s town council – decided to lay out its own large new town cemetery. Unlike the 2 earlier ones, this would provide separate sections for Anglicans, Non-conformists, and Roman Catholics.
20 acres were acquired in Frant Forest from the Earl of Abergavenny, whose steward William Delves was a member of the Board. Later purchases added 7 more acres.
An advertisement in The Builder invited designs for layout, chapels and lodges from architects and landscape designers. Prizes ranging from 2 to 10 guineas were offered and an architect appointed. But problems arose when the building contractor they had selected went bankrupt. Finding a successor led to delays and increased costs. Someone was also needed to lay out the paths and plots. For this they turned to their Town Surveyor, William Brentnall. His design was a formal grid, very different from the graceful curves at Woodbury Park (For more information on William Brentnall, see publication).
Plan of the Cemetery in August 1873
The wording reads:
I sanction the Division of the Tunbridge Wells new Cemetery at Frant Forest into consecrated and unconsecrated portions, as marked on this plan, the consecrated ground being tinted pink and the unconsecrated ground being tinted blue.
Whitehall 26 August 1873
R Lowe - one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State
However, the Board’s troubles were still far from over. The temporary ‘pest house’ put up on the cemetery site to cope with a recent epidemic had to be moved to new premises next door. Plot marking and planting were delayed because the surveyor’s staff were diverted to deal with a water crisis elsewhere in the town. The walls were too low and ran over budget. The superintendent and gravedigger hired in May were still being paid whilst doing nothing.
Then it transpired that the Town Clerk had not yet received all the necessary authorisation documents and burial register from the Home Office. Frequent animated Board meetings took place. Once these problems were negotiated, there was a final hurdle. The Bishop of Chichester (Frant lay within his Diocese), had gone abroad and was a notoriously dilatory letter writer. Frantic negotiations ensued. The consecration finally took place on Saturday 18th October 1873 – 6 months later than originally planned.
Before any Anglican burials could take place the cemetery had to be consecrated. However, as the opening date kept slipping back revenue was being lost. Since this restriction did not apply to burials in the unconsecrated sections, it was decided to allow burials prior to this date. Just one took place, that of a Roman Catholic – Mrs Isabella Burrowes, aged 33, the widow of Captain Thomas Augustus Burrowes of the 45th Foot was buried on 9th October 1873.
Just as the cemetery was divided into consecrated and unconsecrated sections, so too were separate but linked chapels provided for Anglicans and Non-conformists. Linking them was a ‘porte cochere’ through which a horse drawn hearse could pass.