Nonconformist buried in my family tree. | The Nosey Genealogist's: Help Me With My Family Tree
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Nonconformist buried in my family tree.

by Nick Thorne, The Nosey Genealogist on June 13th, 2010

As you may know, if you have been following me for any length of time, that Devon is one of the areas of the U.K. that I research my ancestors in. Some of my Devonian forebears turned away from the established Church of England and became dissenters. There seems to be a rather limited number of nonconformist chapel burial records actually surviving within the county of Devon and so this can be a bit of a brick wall for us. Many family historians may well have found that in their own family trees, ancestors left the Church of England to practice their faith in other Christian churches.

By the law of the land, people of each and every denomination could be laid to rest inside their parish churchyard. Although this was the case, however, the relatives of people who were nonconformists were not allowed to have a Church of England burial service at the graveside. This would be fine if all the deceased’s family were no longer C of E, but I would guess it could be upsetting for family members who had not joined their relation in nonconformity and so would have wanted a service conducted by the local vicar!

I was intrigued to find out that people who held offices within the “establishment” were affected by another piece of legislation. I am talking here about Councillors as well as some other municipal officials. These worthy people were not allowed to put on their robes of office to attend the funeral of a non conformist councillor and this would have included the wearing of a mayoral chain etc. Should they rashly have broken this rule then they were liable to a fine of £100 and in addition they would likely end up being barred from civic office throughout the rest of their lives!

Many nonconformists, however, did not wish to be interred within land held by the Church of England. Quakers, most especially, established their own unique burial grounds. In these, the family historian will discover, plots defined by somewhat plain, uncomplicated stones that usually feature only the initials belonging to the departed.

A number of chapels established their own burial grounds, this included the Independents, Methodists as well as the Baptists. Furthermore, if you go researching your nonconformist ancestors in several country places in England, you will find that burial grounds were opened for all those involved with the various nonconformist denominations and would not specifically be confined to only one or other of the particular religious faith traditions. Around 1880 a welcome change, in the laws of England & Wales, granted the possibility for the family of a person, being laid to rest within a Church of England parish graveyard, to opt for a minister from their own religious beliefs to be able to preside over the burial service. This began the downfall in making use of separate nonconformist burial grounds as they were often less popular because of the fact that, in some cases, they were several miles from the particular village or district from where the deceased’s family resided. In 1853 and following on from the considerable overcrowding of church graveyards and burial grounds, due in some measure to the number of cholera fatalities and so forth, Parliament handed down a further law closing a large number of these areas to fresh internments. The result of the law saw many towns as well as bigger parishes setting up cemeteries, to look after the continued burial of the deceased.

To find earlier burial grounds nowadays isn’t always that simple a task. In an ideal world you would be able to find someone who possesses the required local knowledge of their location and is also willing to assist you in your research. I’ve had the happy experience of this while I was researching my family in Cheltenham, England. The local history society, as well as an amateur historian from one of the bigger churches, were luckily able to help lead me in the right direction to find my ancestor, for which I was very grateful. The basic scarcity of registers, nevertheless, will most likely make it tough if you want to research for names.

A further point, that you may need to take into consideration when researching your forebears, is that if the deceased was very poor and given a “paupers” grave, then the name of the unfortunate will not have been marked down in the burial records except for a numbered peg entered to locate the grave.

Lastly, I’d like to pass on this story that I have found reported in various places about a Church of England husband and a nonconformist wife wishing to be buried together. It is mentioned, for example, on the Bristol Times website thisisbristol.co.uk that in Arnos Vale Cemetery there is an elaborate monument raised for merchant Thomas Gadd Matthews (C of E) and his wife Mary (Congregationalist), which famously straddles both Anglican and nonconformist sections. The story seems to be that Matthews purchased a large grave plot strategically placed so that the two, while wishing to be true to their respective faiths, could be buried in a family plot that sits on the boundary line between the C of E and nonconformist parts of the cemetery. A rather lovely tale!

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