John Peck
John Peck

The role of a Sexton

‘Sexton a church officer having the care of a church and its contents, and the duties of ringing the bells and digging the graves’ (Oxford English Dictionary)

Among the duties of the Custodian of Mill Road Cemetery as published in 1848 is a telling clause:
That the Custodian have power to enter on the various portions of ground for the purpose of exercising his office as constable.
This tells us that as Custodian he had no powers to stray from the paths of the cemetery into the 13 parish burial areas. Only as a special constable, for ‘maintaining order in the grounds’, was he allowed to enter such areas, which were the preserve of the incumbents (i.e. the rectors and vicars) of the various parishes.

79 Norfolk Street
79 Norfolk Street

This explains why there is no appointed sexton of Mill Road Cemetery: because there were 13 sextons – the sextons of the individual parishes, all charged with siting and digging the graves in their respective areas.

79 Norfolk Street, beside the ‘Barnwell entrance’ to the cemetery, was the residence of John Peck (pictured above), who was the Sexton of St Andrew the Less in the early 20th century.

By Ian Bent

Duties of a sexton

There is no single set of duties for a sexton operating in Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge. Each of the 13 separate parishes prescribed its own duties for the sexton of that parish.

Duties of a typical sexton

The following list of duties of the sexton of St Botolph’s Church, dating from 1877, is representative of the work that a sexton in the 19th and early 20th centuries performed within his parish:

◾To attend at all services and ring the bells for the same
◾To light the fires and attend to the opening & closing of windows so as to keep the Church warm and airy. Gas & candles
◾To clean the Church regularly. This cleaning to include sweeping the church dusting the chairs beating the Mats & cleaning out the Stoke holes & fire grates & small fire outside, and cleaning the belfry
◾To attend generally to the Churchyard
◾To wind up the Clock
◾To Clear Pavements in Snow & whenever necessary
◾Digging graves


The following statement of the wages and extras is also that of St Botolph’s Church

Payment for the above to be:

General salary per annum £12.0.0
Allowance for Clock £1.10.6
Allowance for the ordinary sweeping dusting & beating mats, etc. £4.0.0
For extra cleaning each month including washing down the floor etc., each time £2.8.0

Special general cleaning by arrangement where req[uired]

N.B. The sums given here are expressed in pounds (£), shillings and pence

(Two men who served St Botolph’s as sextons between 1881 and 1924 can be found elsewhere on this site: Thomas Stanbridge, senior and Thomas Stanbridge, junior)

Source: Cambridgeshire County Archives, KP26/7/1 (St Botolph church records)

Transcribed by Ian Bent