Radnor Street Cemetery Society was founded in February 2015 by Swindon Heritage founders Frances Bevan, Graham Carter and Mark Sutton, and our plans for the society were laid out in the Spring 2015 edition of our magazine. Here’s what we said:
Swindon Heritage is leading a project to breathe new life into Radnor Street Cemetery, the last resting place of 33,000 Swindonians, including 104 war heroes.
With a new focus on the cemetery this year, thanks to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the time is ripe for co-ordinating efforts to restore it to its former glory – and secure its long-term future.
So we have formed a new group called – not surprisingly – the Radnor Street Cemetery Society (RSCS).
In recent years we’ve run lots of guided walks in the cemetery and organised events in the chapel, including local history displays, burial register look-ups, a rededication of the Sanford Street School war memorial, and more, including, over many years, organising the annual Radnor Street Remembrance service.
We have always been encouraged by the great attendances we get whenever we run events there, so we want to step things up and do still more.
As local historians we are always interested in uncovering the stories behind the people who are buried in the cemetery – such as ‘Raggy’ Powell, whose story is told in the following pages – but the cemetery is about more than history.
It’s a rare green space in the town centre, with all the benefits that come with such a place.
It’s just a stone’s throw from thousands of homes, so we want to encourage more people to come up to Radnor Street and enjoy it on a regular basis, including those who work in town and can come up in their dinner hour.
So many of the people we meet tell us they have never visited it, and a few say they didn’t even know it existed, which is a shame. However, our experience tells us that when people do come up to the cemetery, they soon see its potential.
So far, all our activities at the cemetery have been done with no outside funding, but RSCS will bid for grants to improve the chapel, provide new facilities, and even encourage school trips.
We are concerned there is something of a crisis in heritage circles, especially in Swindon, because most of those interested in local history are older people, and there is little engagement with children.
Yet, once engaged, young people are often fascinated by history, and we think it’s important to instil some pride in them by showing what was achieved close to home, including by many of the people who are buried at Radnor Street.
If we could fill Swindon with people who are proud of their heritage and their town, it would benefit us all.
Ironically, our unsuccessful bid to re-open the railwayman’s cottage in the Railway Village has spurred us to shift attention to the cemetery. We were disappointed not to be recommended to reopen the cottage, because our plan was to relaunch it as a heritage asset for the whole of Swindon, and – even more importantly, we felt – attract school parties to it.
But it takes more than one setback to change our minds, so we are sticking with our view that heritage can be really valuable to Swindon if promoted properly, including to young people.
A few years ago we also ran into negative attitudes from Swindon Borough Council about the cemetery, which prevented us holding events, and caused the Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery to fold, but we hope attitudes are changing.
It’s going to be much more of a challenge to attract people to visit a cemetery, rather than a cosy cottage, but it can be done, and we are going to try. We have wasted no time in arranging a series of guided walks that will take in some of the interesting stories about people buried at Radnor Street, and whereas these were previously organised ad-hoc, they will now be held regularly – on the second Sunday of each month, at 2pm, starting on March 8 and continuing until October.
There will be no need to book, but watch this space because some walks will coincide with other events at the cemetery.
As for the format of the new society, we are anxious for it not to have a formal membership, with members who pay a fee, and that’s the extent of their involvement.
RCSC will not be something to join, but rather something to join in with – a focus for people to rally round, and we’re already working closely with friendly groups such as the Kingshill Area Residents’ Association (KARA).
The best way to support us is to turn up to events and simply get into the habit of visiting the cemetery. The more it is used, the easier it will be to keep it smart and keep it as an asset for all of Swindon.
History of the Cemetery
Radnor Street Cemetery is the final resting place of 33,000 Swindonians, including 104 who lie in official Commonwealth War Graves. However, the focus is on the present and the future, as well as the past, and it is a place for the living as well as the dead. And these things have happened by design.
When it became Swindon’s first municipal cemetery in 1881, its designer was already planning for the day when it would be closed to new burials, and that is why it is laid out on the principle of a country estate. The chapel, built in the then popular Gothic Revivalist style, occupied the central position, with meandering paths in-between the five burial sections. Trees and shrubs were planted around the edges to complete the country park theme.
The idea was that when all the burial plots were full, the cemetery would remain as a public park where people could walk and relax – and since the cemetery closed in the 1970s, this was pretty much how things panned out.
It is, after all, a rare green space in Swindon Town Centre, amid the terraces of redbrick houses put up by the Victorians to accommodate the constantly expanding – and sometimes rapidly expanding – workforce of the Great Western Railway Works.
After the burials largely stopped – although family plots meant that a few burials continued into the 1980s, 1990s and beyond – groundsmen employed by the local authority kept the grass mown and the brambles at bay. In 2005 the modern role of the cemetery saw it become a designated nature reserve, and rangers held events and activities to encourage families and children to visit the cemetery, and care for the birds and bats and foxes and badgers who live there.
Sadly, more recently the cemetery has suffered from local government cost-cutting initiatives, neglect and vandalism, but things are looking up for this important heritage site in the centre of Swindon. The founders of Swindon Heritage have had a soft spot for the cemetery in the last few years, and as well as organising an annual Remembrance service there every November, we have also held events associated with local history and family history, including guided walks; burial record look-up days; small local history fairs; a rededication event for the Sanford Street memorial, which has found a new home in the chapel; and helped to organise and carry out essential maintenance and repair work on the chapel and the grounds.
We’ve set-up some useful links with other voluntary groups, including the Kingshill Area Residents’ Association (KARA), and in February 2015 founded the new Radnor Street Cemetery Society.