St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

From the book "The Haunted Holy Ground" by Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame published in 1988.

About the Authors





The Tale With A Religious Twist

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

Could it have been that the Lord, who had clearly favoured the Roman Catholics over the matter of how the cemetery was to be apportioned, and who had blessed the rise to prominence of the Woollett family thought it was time for a practical joke?

Robert Woollett, brother of Thomas, became so eminent in Newport that some of 10,000 townspeople lined the route from St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church to St Woolos cemetery to watch the passing of his cortege.

The chest tombs of Robert Wollett and his brother Thomas
The chest tombs of Robert Wollett and his brother Thomas.
Location: RC AB2

As it made its way up Stow Hill blinds in houses were drawn and all that could be heard as it passed through the hushed throng was the snorting and stamping of horses harnessed to the many carriages present that cold March morning.

Dr Woollett was the son of an Usk doctor and the scion of an old Monmouthshire family. He had been born in 1818 and it was 21 years later when the Chartist movement was reaching the zenith of its reforming influence in the county that he moved to Newport. His first post was as house surgeon to the newly opened dispensary in Llanarth Street, where the poorer people of the town would go with their aches and pains, and be received with kindness.

The dispensary itself is a small milestone in the history of Newport, the money necessary for its running having been raised from private subscriptions among the more prosperous townspeople.

There is a saying which goes “the more things change the more they stay the same.” It was certainly true in Newport in the 1880s, for just as the health service is now in the middle of a controversy, so it was a hundred years ago.

The good doctor had barely time to unpack his medical bag after arriving in the town before the storm broke.

The Star of Gwent, then a popular newspaper reported: “A considerable amount of bad feeling has been imparted by the ousting of Dr W. Morgan, Dr Gwilliam and Mr O’Reilly from the posts they had occupied in connection with this institution (the dispensary).”

This resentment could have been because Robert had been invited to Newport by his brother, Thomas, who just happened to be the town clerk!

Perhaps after all these years we should draw a discreet veil of silence over the events leading up to Dr Woollett’s arrival. Suffice it to say that his practice prospered, and whatever might have clouded his early years had been dispelled by the time of his death. His principled care for the sick and dying must have atoned for much.

Dr Woollett was in many respects a larger than life character who was present at the time of Chartist uprising in Newport in November, 1839.

As the insurrectionists outside and troops within the Westgate Hotel exchanged fire, Woollett would tell of how he climbed in through the front window to bring medical assistance to those inside.

drawing by David Pow

The doctor, who was a good shot, would in later life tell anyone who cared to listen and quite a few who didn’t that he would have loved to have picked up a weapon and fired on the rioters. We can only assume that his medical ethics forbade this!

There are many men who have lived colourful lives now buried in St Woolos and Dr Woollett was undoubted one of them. But men who tempt fate must expect fate to occasionally bite back.

Because of the good work he had done in the town he had been presented with a banner by, it is thought, the Pope himself.

It was only an hour or so before Dr Woollet’s own interment as his body in its coffin was lying in front of the altar prior to the requiem mass that fate decided to finish his life’s story with a twist.

This large banner flying at half-mast became entangled in one of St Mary’s Church’s four pinnacles and brought the half-ton piece of masonry crashing through the church and into the aisle, just missing the mourners.

An accident, of course. But a reminder perhaps He That Giveth can always take away.