History behind town’s chapel and cemetery

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LAST month, Biggleswade History Society, in conjunction with the town council, opened Drove Road Cemetery and Chapel to the public. Memory Lane looks at its history, with thanks to Jean Croot of the society.

FOLLOWING two cholera epidemics in the 19th century, a large number of public cemeteries were founded in both rural and urban areas during the 1850s and 60s. Biggleswade’s Burial Board was set up in 1867 and two acres on the eastern edge of the town were purchased for the new burial grounds at a cost of £1,500. Burials in Drove Road Cemetery began in 1869, when St Andrew’s churchyard was closed.

The Local Government Act of 1894 passed responsibility for cemeteries to the newly formed local councils at district, town and parish level. Biggleswade Town Council keeps the Drove Road Cemetery Registers (1869-1986) at the Council Offices in Saffron Road, and will answer enquiries or allow viewing by appointment.

Drove Road Cemetery Chapel, designed by architects Ladds & Hooker of London, is an imposing example of a Victorian gothic building. The construction work began in 1867 and was carried out by local builder Edward Twelvetrees. James Howe was the stonemason.

The central spire rises to a height of 90 feet, housing a single 2cwt bell of 20⅞ inches diameter cast by John Warner & Sons of the Crescent Foundry, London, and tuned to F sharp.

On either side of the drive-through archway beneath the spire is a chapel: one for the Church of England and the other for nonconformists.

When first built on the edge of the town the chapel belfry was a local landmark which could be seen from a long way off, dwarfing all other buildings. It is now partly obscured by post-war housing developments to the east.

The Biggleswade History Society’s Drove Road Cemetery Project was begun in 2010, and involved identifying the graves of prominent townspeople, recording and photographing the information on their monuments and recording also the relevant plot numbers so that they could be found easily on the cemetery plans. Another very important aspect of the project was to identify and record the war graves in the cemetery.

Nineteen war casualties are buried in Drove Road Cemetery, nearly all of them from the 1914-18 war. Thirteen of these have Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones and six are in family graves.

The photograph shown here is of a Biggleswade man, Wallace George Albone, and comes from a collection now kept in the county archives in Bedford.

Wallace died on May 15, 1919 after his return from Palestine and is buried close to the former cemetery keeper’s lodge. The cemetery registers reveal that his parents were later buried in the same grave. Wallace was 23 when he died and had been a sergeant in the Machine Gun Corps. Most of his service records were destroyed by fire during the London Blitz.

Wallace is just one of the soldiers in Drove Road Cemetery and each one has a story. Many more of Biggleswade’s WW1 dead lie in graves abroad and many have no known grave.