St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

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



Meet the Authors

Richard Frame

Mike Buckingham


A brief history of Newport
how the town got the first municipal cemetery in Britain
a meeting with Newport character, Les Thomas

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

Casnewydd, or Newport to the English, is a town of some 140,000 souls on the South Wales coast, less than a dozen miles from the principality’s capital city, Cardiff.

Stories as to Newport’s origins are as numerous as the folk who have traded, pillaged, farmed or otherwise settled this shore close to the far western edge of Europe.

This gale-lashed coast was first settled by people of the stone age whose language and culture have long since been enveloped in the mists of time but who in their turn gave way to invading Celts from the continent. When the Roman legions of Augustus arrived it was to find the powerful, proud and prosperous tribe of the Silures already ensconced on the Gaer hill overlooking the site of modern Newport. To this very day early visitors approaching the town from the direction of Cardiff can see the breached but still proud ramparts of the Silures etched starkly against the sunrise.

The story of the founding of Newport as reported by Viking chroniclers is bloody and dramatic, as fits a race which tempered war with a vivid literary tradition.

From the middle of the ninth century the small community clustered on the high ground where St Woolos cathedral church now stands was scourged by the raids of the Norsemen, who sailed up the Bristol Channel leaving a trail of blood and destruction upon whichever shore they chanced to fall.

There are few records of this period. Only a handful at that time had sufficient book learning to write history and after the Norse had descended there were even fewer left alive to write it. But we do have a reminder of the time when the Norse scourged this shore.

Two islands out in the Bristol Channel which once gave shelter to the black-sailed longships retain the Norse names of Flatholm and Steepholm.

Not until the arrival of the Normans, those descendants of the Northern sea pirates who settled first in France and after 1066 in Britain, did a more detailed picture begin to emerge. Norman monks, diligent reporters that they were, record that English merchants working the Bristol Channel during the reign of Edward the Confessor the King of England, made fast at Newport near where the provisions market now stands and arrogantly refused to pay harbour dues.

During the night the native Newportonians cut the ropes which secured their vessel and gleefully watched it float back out into the Channel.

But it was the visitors who were to have the last laugh. As they floated away they angrily swore revenge and it was not long afterwards that the dire threats of the English were fulfilled.

Upon their return to English waters the story was related to Earl Harold, the future King of England, who took umbrage at the doings in Newport and who pledged revenge. A flotilla of English boats echoing the Norse who had gone before descended on the town putting all before them to sword and flame.

At the door of St Woolos Church the priest pleaded with the raiders to spare the church, saying the wrath of St Gwynllyw would befall the Church’s desecrators.

Thrusting him aside the soldiers stormed into the church where they found a large cheese on the altar. Harold himself hacked the cheese in half but recoiled in horror when blood spurted from it.

Terrified by the omen Harold ordered his troops to make good the damage they had inflicted upon Newport and then retreated in great haste, fearing the intervention of some hellish curse.

When Harold later met his death at the Battle of Hastings it was said by the monks that divine retribution had been exacted for the sacrilege implied by the mutilation of the cheese.

The story might be fanciful, but consider the implications of it being true.

Because of what happened in Newport the Saxons lost control of Britain and were replaced by the Normans, the beginning of an accelerated historical process which was to lead to Britain being the mightiest power on earth.

By the middle ages Newport was a well-established borough thriving on the export of wool and leather and the importing of wine and textiles. But as the living population grew so did that of the dead. While the population was numbered in hundreds rather than thousands the dead were interred at the church of St Woolos, then outside the town’s boundary. But the period from the end of the twelfth century to the beginning of the fifteenth was a time of near-constant warfare with the Welsh and the Normans pursuing rival claims.

By the end of this period of brutal warfare it was certain that the dead outnumbered the living many times over.

With the Act of Union between England and Wales in 1536 some political stability came to the area and a calm which was to last until the beginning of the English Civil War when the town was bombarded from nearby Christchurch by Cromwell’s artillery.

But artillery then was nothing like its modern counterpart and even what was for the period quite sustained bombardment left Newport very largely intact.

With the end of the civil war came a long period of peace which allowed for the very gradual expansion of trade.

A visitor to Newport in 1780 would have seen the town much as it had been long before even Cromwell. But the same person returning just 20 years after that would have been confronted by a greatly altered scene.

In 1796 the Monmouthshire canal linking Newport to its increasingly industrial hinterland finally cut through to the sea at Town Pill, ironically near to the site where the early merchants had moored their ship and from where they had hurled curses at Newport and its inhabitants.

With the canal came an unprecedented expansion of trade which was to launch Newport into its golden age of commerce. Thousands of migrants from all parts of Britain came to the town to work, to live - and to die.

As the population burgeoned so did the diseases to which they were prey. Cholera and typhoid stalked the people who lived near the canal where drinking water filtered through raw sewage. A horrible cycle of death began. The burial places at the beginning of the nineteenth century were by misfortune near to the source of the town’s drinking water which was in turn fouled by seepage from the rotting corpses. As the dead were buried in the already overcrowded graveyards so their putrefaction further poisoned the water supply.

An undertaker, Mr Palmer, is recorded in 1848 as complaining that water in part of Llanarth Street was so noxious he could not wash down his hearse.

That same year Newport, along with other overcrowded towns and cities throughout Britain, was smitten by a particularly serious outbreak of cholera. The scenes in those dark days were like those taken from a horror film.

A stench of death hung over the town as a continual shuttle of carts ferried the pathetic corpses to their shallow graves. A contemporary report describes graveyards brimming with dead buried layer upon layer; the top layer so near the surface that scavenging dogs would dig up and gnaw bones. So dire was Newport’s plight that the town’s aldermen pleaded with the government for assistance. In response to their urgent message a government inspector, one Mr George Thomas Clark, was dispatched that same year.

The punctilious Mr Clark sat in the town hall throughout three mornings in August hearing evidence. In the afternoon he would don his stovepipe hat and pressing a scented handkerchief to his nose in an attempt to smother the stench of corruption, undertake a tour of the town.

What he heard in evidence is truly horrifying to modern ears. One submission said: “Sir, we beg to call your attention to the state of the burial ground in St Woolos churchyard which has for a considerable period been very much overcrowded; so much so that they hardly knew where to find room for a grave which has not been previously occupied.

“While the interments in one week lately has been from 20 to 25, and that they are likely in ordinary times to average from 300 to 400 per annum without taking into account the rapidly increasing population; that the smell at certain states of the weather on passing through the churchyard is so pungent as to be very offensive an injurious to the public health, and the situation of the burial ground (being on top of the hill surrounded by dwelling houses) through which there are two public pathways will doubtless if these things are allowed to continue prove most injurious to the health of the town generally.

“We beg further to call your attention to the fact that by far the greater number of burials on the old ground are made in ground sloping upwards from the pathway towards the church at nearly an angle of 45 degrees. Consequently the dead are placed in numerous instances considerably above the level of the pathways all around the church of St Woolos.

“In the lower part of the burial ground gravediggers are positively prevented from digging to a greater depth than five feet in consequence of obstructions caused by water, and in many instances graves have been cut where the coffin of the adjoining grave has been exposed to view, of course highly revolting to the feelings as well as highly injurious to the health of the public.

“Most of the wells in the immediate neighbourhood are more or less affected by the overcrowded state of the burial ground.”

The above was not the fulminating of idle complainers. Heading the list of signatures was that of the mayor, followed by that of James Rennie, (descendents of whom are still respected estate agents in the town); the editor of the Monmouthshire Merlin Edward Dowling, James Cathcart, assistant county court clerk and surgeon Robert Woollett and Charles Napper, a confectioner, who plainly wished that the air and water of his home town would be as sweet as his own comestibles.

With commendable speed the report of Mr Clark was published and two of his most important recommendations taken up. Firstly, it was decided that a complete new system of water supply and main sewerage be installed. The second - and more interesting for our purposes - was that a new cemetery be established well away from the town.

Deeds followed fairly quickly on the heels of the words and within five years St Woolos cemetery was opened. In Victorian times what we would now call the private sector was vibrant and a private cemetery had already been opened (it is now the site of a playground opposite St Woolos Cathedral) but Newport’s new burial ground was to be the first municipal cemetery in Britain.

On July 1, a day uncommonly cold for the time of year, the body of Alexander Cooper, a sailor who had been found drowned in Newport docks was laid to rest in a pauper grave, the first person to be buried in the new St Woolos cemetery. Unmarked and now forgotten the grave of the sailor about whom we know nothing other than his name is now a dip in the grass. In the absence of all else this book will have to serve as his headstone.

We shall describe the final resting places of the late and the great; the people who powered the commercial giant which was to be Victorian Newport.

But the forgotten and the desolate, those who left no epitaph are also our subjects.

But first let us introduce a Newport character who made his living carving the headstones and monuments which mark the resting places of the dead.

It was a late autumn day when we called upon Les Thomas, who has been following his trade in a tucked-away corner of Newport. A chestnut arched over the entrance to his little workshop and even before you passed through it you could hear the ring of chisel on stone and smell the acrid dust.

The wind was blowing chill, rattling the leaves along the path which leads between completed and half-finished statues to the workshop entrance, and we were glad of the piping hot cups of tea Les pressed upon us.

Stonemason Les Thomas
Stonemason Les Thomas

It was quite a joy just to sit there, warming by the old cast-iron wood-burning stove and soaking up the stories Les had to tell about Newport in general and the mason’s craft in particular. The workshop was like no other place in town. A patina of dust covered all reducing objects to their most basic shapes. There were rarely-used tools, newspapers, fragments of stone and even a soldier’s cap which must have remained in the same place since the war. In the light that filtered into the workshop new specks of dust spiraled downwards, each microscopically adding to the soft envelopment.

But as soon as a virgin block of stone was placed on the scarred and battered bench the place was transformed: it became a studio and as each chisel stroke carved its precise line you could imagine the hand of a Leonardo at work.

Les loved stone with a passion that had been inherited from his father. Edgar, Les’s father, was the first mason in the family who after serving his apprenticeship went on to help build Newport’s cenotaph in Clarence Place which commemorates the dead of the two world wars. Edgar’s apprenticeship was five long years and he had been at his bench many years when the young Les, who had often watched his father at work first took a chisel in his own hands.

The previous generation of stonemasons - Edgar Thomas, Les Thomas' father on extreme right
Edgar Thomas, Les Thomas' father on extreme right

“It was around 1939 when I started doing a bit of stone masonry and some cemetery work, just to help out. My father was a great worker in stone and there is no doubt his enthusiasm was catching. He loved working away with his hammer and chisel and I’ve inherited his feeling for the job.

“There was a call for quality things in those days but even then the production line was not a new thing. Many of the gravestones came from Italy with pre-carved figures and all we had to do was to put the lettering on. The war put an end to that of course. Many headstones have lettering cut by machine these days but there is still nothing like hand-cut lettering.

“Lots of things have changed, you only have to walk around St Woolos and see the memorials put up in Victorian times compared with the modern ones to see that. Heightwise, you can’t go over a metre nowadays. Everything is on a smaller scale, the stones and the lettering.

“There is a certain atmosphere about St Woolos but it is not frightening or gloomy at all. After all, we have to remember that the people who established it meant it to be a place for the living as well as for the dead. The idea was that people would walk and take in the calm atmosphere and think on higher things.

“Amusing and interesting things can happen there. Not long ago I reopened a vault to find a hammer and trowel I had left there 20 years before; little things like that.

“The cemetery is a history of the town filled with stories that which are sometimes strange, moving, frightening and even funny. I’ve got my favourites, of course. I like the column furled around with the Stars and Stripes that was put up by Captain Barzula Cousins in memory of his wife, Armenia, while his ship was berthed at the Old Town Dock. She was only 24 and it was probably her first trip abroad. Rather sad to think of her in a corner of a strange country but the column is still there and you can still see where red stone has been let into it to form the stripes on the American flag.

“Anyway, rather than me go on about the stories go and have a look for yourselves... ”

So we did. And the first story we began to uncover was the tale of a Newport policeman who died while on duty.