Visit to Mendip Hospital Cemetery, Wells, 17 October 2016

Report by Bernice Lashbrook

On Saturday 15th October, on a glorious warm sunny morning, a few members from our Group paid a visit to the Mendip Hospital Cemetery, Wells. We were warmly welcomed by Mr. Tony Cavill, Chairman of the Friends of the Cemetery together with colleagues.

Firstly, prior to the visit, we were interested to know the meaning of the inclusion of the word 'Hospital' in relation to the name of the Cemetery. Secondly, on arrival, we were surprised by the lack of headstones and other memorials. We were soon to learn the reasons for both!

To help us work through the story of the Cemetery's inception, the following chronology might be helpful:

The Cemetery
1844. A session was held prior to the Lunatic Act being implemented as to the provision and care of those with mental disorders.
1874. The Asylum Cemetery created.
1921. The Cemetery was extended by one acre.
1948. The NHS took ownership and still remain the owners.
1963. The Cemetery was closed to further burials.
1985. Somerset Trust for Natural Conservation manage the Cemetery.
2000. The Cemetery was put up for auction at a price of £5,000.
2002 The Cemetery was saved by The Friends of Mendip Hospital, Wells.(A wonderful achievement)

The Mendip Hospital
1848. The 'Somerset County Asylum for Insane Paupers' was opened.
1923. The establishment was re-named 'The Wells Memorial Hospital'.
1991. The hospital closed its doors for the last time.
1997. The village of South Horrington was born.

Just inside the entrance to the Cemetery is a beautiful little Chapel which the Friends' group have maintained. We were very pleased to see this since we have long mourned the demolition of the two Chapels in our own Cemetery over the years.

The Hospital had been situated adjacent to the Cemetery. Mr. Cavill paused alongside the Chapel by a large grassed area under which are buried members (at their request) of the former Hospital staff; nurses, doctors and so on. There were no memorials apart from 3-4 on the perimeter of the area. Burial plots were only marked out by metal place markers.

The Friends have discovered 2,900 burials and are in the ongoing process of researching the records.

The remainder of the Cemetery sits on a gentle downward slope with a magnificent view of trees in the distance. Again apart from 25 headstones located, it is simply an open space of grassed land which is regularly meadow cut. There are beehives in the Cemetery which are owned by a local Beekeeper from whom the Friends purchase honey which they sell to assist with funds and they also sell bee boxes. They endeavour to continue to create a haven of benefit to wild life.

Having discovered the history of the creation of the Cemetery, its name and for whom it had been created and who had died whilst patients in the Hospital with no means to afford a burial, our questions were answered. Clearly the few memorials that were standing had been erected by those family members who could afford them.

We were completely enchanted by the wood 'Sculptures' situated in various parts of the Cemetery (a work in progress above). They had been created out of felled fir trees by local man Peter Bolton with a chain saw; a beautiful way to create 'new life' from a felled tree. Each sculpture was accompanied by a quotation. It isn't possible to list them all here, but the following examples will give an idea of what he has achieved.

Two figures
'And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.'
(Friendrick Nietzschke (1844-1902) German philosopher.

Figures laying in rest.
'A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist.'
Stewart Alsop (1914-1974) American Newspaper Columnist.

There was also a third, a man holding a child on his shoulders.
'It is easy to tell the toiler how best he can carry his pack. But no one can rate a burden's weight until it has been on his back.'
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) American Author and Poet

We were all agreed that, despite at first sight, appearing a sad place to be, it was in fact a wonderful, special place. Those who lay there, having gone through personal trial and despair in their lives were at last at rest in peaceful and beautiful surroundings

We were glad for the opportunity to exchange thoughts, experiences and other ideas between our two groups. We congratulate the Mendip Hospital Friends for their hard work and dedication in continuing their work to preserve this special place. We wish them every success in all that they do. And we thank them for sharing with us.