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St Bartholomew's Cemetery

St. Bartholomews Cemetery St Bartholomew's Cemetery was established because the city's burial grounds at Bartholomew Yard and Southernhay had become full, and could not cope with the 60% rise in Exeter's population between 1801 and 1831.

New cemeteries were established outside the built up areas, where there was space to expand, and where the "vapours rising from the corpses" could blow away on the breeze.

The cholera epidemic, which led to the death of 402 people in Exeter between July and October 1832, made the problem of finding space for new burials worse, and fear of infection led to violent public protests. Two new temporary cemeteries were established outside the city walls in Bury Meadow and off Old Tiverton Road.

New cemetery and catacombs

The crisis brought things to a head, and led to the decision in 1834 to build the new cemetery and catacombs, at an estimated cost of £2,300. The Exeter catacombs were built within St Bartholomew's Cemetery in 1835-37, against the city wall. Designed by Thomas Whitaker for Exeter's Improvement Commission, they were the first cemetery buildings to be built in Britain in an Egyptian style. The entrances are in the style of Egyptian tombs, and the pointed granite gate pillars reflect Egyptian obelisks.

The construction was dogged with problems, such as the foundations failing and disputes between Whitaker, the builder, and the Improvement Commissioners. New plans increased the number of catacombs from 8 to 20 - more than doubling their original capacity of 1,400 - and a dividing wall was built between Anglican and Nonconformist to satisfy the Bishop. This caused a lot of bad feeling, which carried on well after the official opening of the cemetery in 1837.

Despite all the fanfare and expense - the final cost was £6,000 - the Catacombs were a failure. By the time the last person was buried in the cemetery in 1946, only 11 out of the 17,552 burials there had been interred in the Catacombs. This was probably because it cost more, and those who could afford it did not want to be laid to rest near their poorer cousins in the cemetery below.

Today the cemetery is a park, although part remains consecrated ground. The wall dividing the Anglicans from Nonconformists can still be seen, as can the Egyptian-style architecture and the gravestones of many of the thousands of people buried here and in the earlier Bartholomew Yard cemetery behind.

Guided tours

The Red Coats provide a free tour of the Catacomb three times a week between April and October- this being the only opportunity that the public have to see inside them. Contact the Tourist Information Centre for further details.


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