Missing Burials in your Family History Research?


Bunhill Fields Burial groundHave you searched for an ancestor’s burial and been frustrated by not finding them anywhere?

I know that I have!

For a very long time I couldn’t find the burial of my 2x great-grandfather and great-grandmother who had originated in Edinburgh and Fife respectively. They had, however, died in the English spa town of Cheltenham in the 1850s.

I had been shown a plaque, on the wall inside an Anglican church, that commemorated them; but Christ Church itself did not have a graveyard with any headstones. I discovered later that it was, in their time, a chapelry to the main St Mary’s Church – though later it would become a parish of its own.

Some years ago I checked with the local Family History Society, to see if they knew where my ancestors had been buried. I got a polite email back saying that they couldn’t find them in the records that they had available. I had gone down this route, as very often FHSs run small projects to transcribe records that don’t make it online with the main data websites on account of their limited audience.

Having drawn an initial blank in Cheltenham, and as my ancestors were Scots, I began looking in Edinburgh and Fife where many of their family were to be found in the various burial grounds there. It is often worth seeing if a lost ancestor has returned “home” after their death. Even if they haven’t done, there is always the possibility that they will be mentioned on a headstone of a family grave. I have found this especially happened when a spouse, or child, died abroad, though it can be simply in another part of the country that they are interned. In my experience, of looking at memorials in graveyards, I have seen a fair number of people that died and are laid to rest in India or other parts of the Empire, during the time these lands were under British rule, and then recorded on loved one’s memorials at home.

Returning to my brick wall in Cheltenham and still having not found my lost ancestor burials elsewhere, I thought about my options.

The Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers

– First was to check the parishes in a radius around the area. For this I used The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers Atlas (you can get a print copy of this book from S&N Genealogy Supplies)

– I could also use the handy maps tool on familysearch.org (maps.familysearch.org) to find contiguous parishes

– I would make a search of the National Burial Index

– On my next visit to the Society of Genealogists, in London, I could see what they had in their library

Society of Genealogists

– If I travelled to the county I could go to the Gloucestershire Archives (the county record office for Gloucestershire) and search their collections to see if if I could find any other records that may help, though in the intervening years some have been made available on ancestry to search online.

Gloucestershire Archives
Gloucestershire Archives housed in a former school off Alvin Street. © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In the end it was this last option of the Gloucestershire Archives records that solved the problem of where my ancestors had been buried. In the Bishop’s Transcripts I found that my great-great-grandfather was buried in Cheltenham’s New Burial Ground in August 1858, as was his wife in May 1851. Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs), a copy of the entries in the parish register and sent annually to the diocese by the parish, can be a really helpful set of records to use. This is especially when the original parish record has been damaged, lost, stolen or simply isn’t clear to read.

From a document that I also found at the Gloucestershire Archives, I discovered that there were 4 main burial grounds in Cheltenham.

– The first was the churchyard attached to St Mary’s Church

– The second was a burial ground opened nearby on High Street in 1831, although the churchyard continued to be used. This new burial ground had a small chapel – St Mary’s cemetery chapel, that later became St Mary’s Mission

– There was also a small burial ground for Holy Trinity church. A few non-conformist churches also had burial grounds, e.g. St Andrews Congregationalist Church

– In 1864 the Civil Cemetery was opened at Bouncers Lane and both previous burial grounds were closed to new burials. Burials still took place in pre-purchased or used graves, i.e. a family grave

It is probably in the second burial ground that my ancestors were laid to rest. Unfortunately the area is now known as the Winston Churchill Memorial Garden and the headstones have been removed. I find this sad as I shall never be able to find their actual graves, but at least my brick wall has fallen and I know where they are buried.



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