Anyone walking through St Peter’s churchyard in the middle of Barnstaple will be aware that the ground level is around chest height and that there is robust stone walling lining the pathways.
How many passers-by, however, realise that these walls help hold in the approximately 25-30,000 dead bodies that have been buried there over the 550 years at least that the graveyard was in use?
From the first opening of the area around the beginning of the 14th century bodies began to be interred here – and not unexpectedly, over the centuries the ground became vastly overcrowded.
In November 1849 the government sent down an inspector who held a five-day public investigation into the state of public health in Barnstaple – with its focus being mainly on the graveyard.
He heard from various witnesses including Alderman Cotton who said ‘When I was churchwarden, 19 years ago, a portion of the wall of the yard was raised 18 inches in order to prevent human bones from falling out with the soil onto the path, as they had done’.
Even more disconcerting was Cotton’s next revelation when he talked of the ‘last funeral he attended in the parish churchyard some five or six years ago, where the corpse, (that of a former mayor of the town) was placed within six inches of the surface’.
If that is how a mayor’s remains were treated one has to wonder what they did with everyone else’s?
He went on to point out that several wells near the graveyard from which local brewers drew their water were contaminated by fluids from the bodies.
William Whitefield, the town crier, who lived next to the graveyard, gave evidence that ‘When the sextons were digging graves the stench was often very bad’.
Following this horrific evidence, the government ordered the closure of the churchyard but local political and ecclesiastical wrangling meant that this didn’t occur until seven years later when the new borough cemetery in Bear Street was opened - obviously not before time!