The cemetery’s Gothic-style buildings – one designed by renowned architect Sir George Gilbert Scott –
added greatly to its grandeur and historic impact.
The original cemetery design allowed for two buildings, a custodian’s lodge facing the main entrance, and a central chapel where funeral services were to be held, to be built when funds allowed.
The Gothic-style lodge was built before the consecration of the cemetery in 1848. It stands at the end of the Avenue of limes, the narrow walkway from Mill Road. The building is faced in knapped flint with limestone quoins and dressings, with a gabled roof and a clustered chimneystack. There is a stone plaque above the front door which reads ‘Parochial Burial Ground Consecrated November 7 1848’. Wrought iron gates and railings were designed and installed in front of the lodge (though these were subsequently removed).
For 10 years after the cemetery opened, the lodge was the only building on the site and was used as the mortuary chapel, where funeral readings took place. It also contained a committee room and living quarters for the cemetery’s custodian. Today, the lodge is in private ownership and has Grade II Listed Building status. It was extended in 2001-2 and iron railings now separate the garden from the rest of the cemetery.
By 1850, over 700 burials had taken place in the cemetery. The lodge was generally considered too small and cramped to accommodate larger funeral parties with any comfort and the CPBG Committee reported that ‘a very general and increased desire prevails that the erection of a chapel should no longer be deferred’. A fundraising appeal reached £965 and it was decided to appoint ‘some architect of high standing’ to design the chapel.
George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), then well-known for his Gothic Revival churches including St Giles’ in Camberwell and St Mark’s in Worsley as well as the 1849-50 restoration of St Michael’s church in Cambridge, was approached to prepare a design.
His first 1851 plans would have cost £1,800 so he resubmitted a less ambitious design which omitted the tall spire and replaced it with a lead turret.
But Reverend Professor William Whewell (1794-1866), philosopher, historian and Master of Trinity College, wanted the chapel and cemetery to resemble a parish church and churchyard. He made a generous donation to the fund following the death of his wife Cordelia Whewell in 1855, and subsequently donated £250 to pay for a tower and spire to be put on to Scott’s ‘reduced’ design. It’s likely he was also involved in further alterations. For further information about the history of the chapel, see Roger Wolfe’s ‘Quite a Gem’: an account of the Former Mortuary Chapel at Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society LXXXIV pp. 143-53
‘Quite a Gem’ An account of the Former Mortuary Chapel at Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge – Roger Wolfe
Contracts were signed in 1856 and the modified version of the chapel was built and fitted out internally with another donation from Professor Whewell. The chapel was finally opened on 28 May 1858, almost ten years after the cemetery opened.
In the CPBGC records over the years, there are many references concerning the repair and upkeep of the chapel. In 1904, some parish areas of the cemetery were declared full and officially closed to new burials, except for family graves, so the chapel was used less frequently. In 1938, it was suggested for the first time by the Committee that the chapel should be closed rather than repaired (see download ‘1938 review’). However, it was still used until 1949, when the remainder of the parish areas were closed to new burials, except family graves.
The chapel’s condition continued to deteriorate and after substantial damage by a fire, it was considered unsafe and demolished in 1954.
In November 2009, an archaeological investigation was carried out into the foundations, to establish the extent and the state of preservation of the remains of the mortuary chapel.
Two contemporary reviews of the chapel
Review 1 (1857):
‘Cambridge.- The new chapel at the parish burial-ground is fast approaching completion. It was originally intended to consist of a nave and chancel, but through the munificence of the Rev. Dr. Whewell, Master of Trinity College, a tower and spire 100 feet in height have been constructed in the centre of the building. The materials employed are Casterton freestone for the exterior quoins and dressings, the walling being filled with split flints from Norfolk. The style of the building is Early Second Pointed or Decorated Gothic. The four circular pillars and their capital [sic], supporting the tower, indicate that the architect has carefully studied Ruskin’s ‘Stones of Venice,’ and has carefully carried out the opinions of that poetical writer. The roof is open timbered, with nicely moulded principals, and is covered with Collyweston slates, the tint of which will harmonise with the building. The ridge has an ornamental wrought-iron cresting. There is a vestry on the north side, under which is a crypt, used as a tool-house, and which is approached by steps from the exterior. – Local Paper’
Source: Review of the Mill Road Cemetery Chapel, in Building News 3 July 1857, p. 697
Review 2 (1858):
‘CEMETERY CHAPEL, CAMBRIDGE
This chapel, as originally designed by Mr. Scott, consisting of a nave without aisles and a chancel with five-sided apse of Early Middle Pointed with two-light windows, was a pretty and rather spacious structure of its class, but was destitute of any very marked character. However, the Master of Trinity College having offered the gift of a steeple, an experiment has been tried which, for its originality and ability, deserves particular mention. The credit of the invention, we believe, belongs to the Master, while Mr. Scott carried out the details of the execution. It was thought desirable first to make this steeple central, and secondly, not to embarrass the structure with heavy buttresses. It remained, therefore, to build it up from the ground internally; in fact, to adopt in solid stone a device similar to that which in timber was not unfrequently made use of in the Surrey-Sussex bellcots. Only for this case the belfry has had to be constructed between the nave and chancel so as to form a kind of lantern.
Four pillars were accordingly erected so as to form a parallelogram – with a wider interval between each pillar of the two pairs north and south respectively than between those of the east and west pairs – or in other words, with the east and west sides of the parallelogram longer than the north and south sides. The pillars stand so near the wall that a narrow passage only, not broad enough to be called an aisle, is left between these pairs and the internal walls. Over the central span or lantern a stone barrel vault is fixed with ribs dying away similar to those in the side chapels of Scarborough. The lateral walls are respectively pierced with short vaults at right angles to the main vault, and with their crowns below the spring of the main vault. On the east and west faces respectively these walls are returned and bonded into the main walls of the chapel, but as the space between the pillars and the chapel walls is so narrow no arch is turned, but the return walls are carried on horizontal trabeation.
The whole detail of these pillars, capitals, trabeation, etc. is that massive Early French Pointed with corinthianising foliage which Mr. Scott has lately been fond of employing. All this bears the octagonal spire. But this spire, being of a diameter less than the width of the chapel would, if unsupported, rise from the roof like a fleche too large for the pile on which it is superimposed. This difficulty has been cleverly met by raising at this point quasi-transeptal gables (invisible of course from within) abutting against the base of the spire. One of them affords access to the ringing chamber. The lower stage of the spire itself is enriched with eight acutely pointed gablets of which the four cardinal ones are pierced with two-light openings. The four others are decorated with a kind of pilaster ornament abruptly and rather unpleasantly terminating in a horizontal line. The roof of the chapel is enriched with a lofty iron cresting.
The whole design, it will be seen, is one of striking originality, while the effect it produces is very unlike anything found in English Pointed, but rather resembles the early work at such churches at Iffley or those cavernous-looking churches of the Continent which Mr Petit is so fond of sketching. In the present instance we think the experiment has been legitimately tried, but we should doubt the practicability of the expedient in small parishes, destitute of aisles, where so ponderous a construction would infallibly be considered as unduly intercepting the sight and hearing of the congregation. We trust that a cemetery chapel of so much capacity, and now of so much dignity, as this one, will not be used for the exclusive performance of the burial service. We have always advocated on grounds of common sense and common economy, that cemetery chapels ought to be so built and so used as to assist in that too often mis-managed work, “Church Extension” – a work which it is generally take to mean the extension, not of services and priests, but of bricks and mortar, stone and wood. We were glad to observe – among too many broken pillars, veiled urns, etc., – that memorials of a Christian character had begun to find a place in this cemetery.’
1. Unless the main lateral walls of the chancel are included, the apse was three-sided, as shown on large scale OS plans of the area and as revealed by recent archaeology (2009) of the site of the chapel. [But see David Cole, below.]
2. The strained relationship between Scott and The Ecclesiological (late Cambridge Camden) Society is discussed by Gavin Stamp in his essay ‘George Gilbert Scott and the Cambridge Camden Society’. See A Church as it Should Be, ed.C Webster and J Elliot (Shaun Tyas; Donnington 2000).
3. ‘Construction with horizontal beams or the like, as opposed to arches or vaults’. OED
Source: The Ecclesiologist, vol. 19 (1858) CXXV (April 1858) (New No. LXXXIV), pp. 107-9
‘A characteristic of this time is the provision of apsidal chancels, often of a French character, and not infrequently polygonal, rare in English mediaeval work, in restorations as well as in new churches. After such early examples as Bradfield, Kiddington, Hamburg and Alderney, such apses became more common: Scott used about forty between 1852 and 1867, starting with that, pentagonal and French, at the now demolished Cambridge Cemetery Chapel.’
1. Source not stated; perhaps The Ecclesiologist’? [See above.]
Source: The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott, chapter ‘Success, 1851-56’, pp. 59-60. (David Cole: Architectural Press, London 1980)
Transcription and notes by Roger Wolfe