Oxford burial grounds: From churchyards to cemeteries

Holywell Cemetery Holywell Cemetery

Until 1848 most Oxford people were buried in the churchyard of their parish church (or in that of a nonconformist chapel) and are duly recorded in the relevant register. Although their burials continued to be listed in Oxford parish registers after that year, nearly everyone who died in Oxford (excepting those living in the new suburb of St Clement's) was buried in the section allocated to that church in one of the three parish cemeteries that covered the whole city. (Note that the City of Oxford:at this time did not include the present-day suburbs of Summertown, Cowley, Headington, and Wolvercote, while Botley and the south part of the Abingdon Road were not even in the same county.)

As this letter in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 18 September 1841 advocating a new cemetery for Oxford shows, people were then being buried on top of each other in the small and overcrowded city churchyards:

As an admirer of the ceremonies of our church, I cannot but witness with regret the crowded state of the churchyards of this city, so much so that the remains of a deceased friend or dearest relative seldom are seen to remain undisturbed till mouldered into dust before the ground is again moved to become the receptacle of another corpse

A committee reported in 1843 that every churchyard in the City of Oxford was full. There were at this time the following fifteen churches within the city boundary as it then was:

All Saints, High Street
St Aldate’s
St Clement’s
St Cross, Holywell
St Ebbe’s

St Giles
St John the Baptist
St Paul’s, Walton Street
St Martin’s at Carfax
St Mary Magdalen

St Mary the Virgin
St Michael-at-the-Northgate
St Peter-in-the-East
St Peter-le-Bailey
St Thomas’s

Thirteen of these were the ancient parish churches of the city, and their churchyards were all in a critical state. The other two were:

  • St Clement's Church (covering an area that had only been taken into the city seven years before in 1836), had a new church, built in 1826, with a large and expandable churchyard. The earlier St Clement's Church up to 1826 stood on the Plain, and some of the burials that took place there are now under the Plain roundabout.
  • St Paul’s Church, built in 1836, was a district chapel with no parish of its own, covering an area split off from the enormous parishes of St Thomas and St Giles.

The need for new burial grounds became more and more urgent, but the clergy opposed the opening of a general cemetery open to all creeds, and so Oxford had to wait nearly fifty years for its first municipal cemetery.

Christ Church and all college chapels of the University of Oxford were all still non-royal peculiars in 1848, and were not subject to the jurisdiction of the diocese.

1848: Three new parish cemeteries

Three new cemeteries costing upward of £6,000 were consecrated in 1848 for the thirteen ancient parishes of the city of Oxford:

Osney Cemetery (or St Mary's Cemetery, Osney) (Wikipedia)
for the four ancient parishes of St Aldate, St Ebbe,St Peter-le-Bailey, and St Thomas,
and one relatively new one of 1845 (Holy Trinity)
The churchyard of the original St Peter-le-Bailey Church (demolished in 1873) was at Bonn Square, and when
this was paved over in 2008, the bones that were unearthed were appropriately buried in Osney Cemetery

Holywell (or Holy Cross/St Cross) Cemetery
for the six ancient parishes of All Saints, St Cross (Holywell), St John the Baptist,
St Martin at Carfax
, St Mary the Virgin, and St Peter-in-the-East

St Sepulchre’s Cemetery in Jericho
for the three ancient parishes of
St Giles, St Mary Magdalen, and St Michael-at-the-Northgate,
plus an area for the district chapelry of St Paul which included parts of the parishes of St Thomas and St Giles.

Holywell Cemetery covered more parishes than the other two, presumably because it was less densely populated. The parishes covered by Osney and St Sepulchre's Cemetery stretched into the suburbs and were growing. When new parishes were created within these parishes because of the growing population, their dead were buried in the section allocated to the mother church. Hence

  • The St Giles's section of St Sepulchre's Cemetery was used by the parish of St Margaret from 1896
  • The St Paul's section of St Sepulchre's Cemetery was used by the parish of St Barnabas from 1869
  • The St Thomas's section of Osney Cemetery was used by the parish of St Frideswide from 1873

All the colleges of the University were covered by the cemeteries as follows (with modern colleges added later). This had a big effect on the number of famous people buried in each cemetery, with Holywell Cemetery having 87 full burials and 8 cremation burials of people with entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography::

  • Osney Cemetery: Pembroke and St Peter's Colleges. In addition Christ Church, which was ex-parochial, was by the twentieth century allocated a portion in the St Thomas's section
  • St Sepulchre's Cemetery: Balliol, Exeter, Jesus, St John's, Trinity, Worcester, and (after 1870) Keble College
  • Holywell Cemetery: Brasenose, Corpus Christi, Hertford (Magdalen Hall to 1874), Lincoln, Magdalen, Merton, New College,   Oriel, Queen's, St Edmund Hall, University College, and Wadham College (Christ Church being extraparochial).

When chapelries were formed, burials were recorded in two burial registers: e.g. the burials of those people who lived the chapelry of Ss Philip & James (formed in 1863) and whose funeral service probably took place there are recorded in the parish registers of St Giles as well as in those of that church. Chapels of ease, however, such as St George's Church in George Street, did not have their own registers.


Orders in council instructed that burials should cease in:

  • all the parish churchyards listed above (except in existing vaults or walled graves)
  • the graveyards of the Roman Catholic, Baptist, Wesleyan, and Congregational chapels
  • the workhouse
  • the Radcliffe Infirmary
  • the castle gaol.

In addition, burials in Holywell, St Sepulchre and Osney cemeteries (all of which had only opened seven years earlier), as well as in Summertown churchyard which was just outside the city, were only to take place in plots already reserved.

See the full Order

In practice, however, burials continued in the four parish cemeteries, and most prisoners who had been hanged at the Castle Gaol in Oxford were buried there (in the Deputy-Governor's garden under the Castle Tower) until the end of the nineteenth century.

Oxford Colleges were exempt and continued to bury their dead within their walls: for instance the last burial in the All Souls' College Chapel was of Warden Leighton in 1881.


The Cemetery Committee of the Local Board reported that the above orders of 1855 could not be complied with, and that St Thomas’s and St Clement’s churchyards were still being used occasionally. As a result the Local Board was constituted a Burial Board, and negotiations started to purchase land from Christ Church at Rose Hill.

1878: A new church with a large churchyard

St Mary & St John churchyard was consecrated in 1878, and this would have eased the problem in what was then Cowley but is now part of east Oxford


An article in the New York Times of 8 May 1887 stated that the “disgraceful state of St Sepulchre's Cemetery”, where bones of people buried thirty or fewer years before were lying around on the surface of newer graves, was “the latest scandal at Oxford”.

1885: A cemetery for Headington

Headington Cemetery opened in Headington Lane (which consequently acquired the name Cemetery Road, and has now been renamed Dunstan Road). Old Headington was then a village outside Oxford, and this cemetery was a replacement for St Andrew's churchyard, which was full.

When Headington was taken into Oxford in 1929, the city council took this cemetery over from Headington Parish Council, and it became a public burial ground for the whole city.

This cemetery is still open: City Council information

1894: Three new municipal cemeteries

In 1889 and 1890 the new Oxford Corporation bought land for the city's first three municipal cemeteries outside the city, and they were all dedicated in 1894 under the Interments Act. They are all still open for burials and are linked to their details on the Oxford City Council website. If you have know the plot number of a grave e.g. via Ancestry) note that the Cemeteries Service will send you a plan of each of these cemeteries if requested by email.

  • Rose Hill Cemetery (11 acres). This contains 19,743 burials, and has been full for some years.
  • Wolvercote Cemetery at Cutteslowe (13 acres). This is the largest cemetery in the county: about 16,700 people are buried here, and it was expected to be full by 2015.

1939: Oxford Crematorium

Oxford Crematorium opened in Bayswater Lane (now called Bayswater Road) in 1839. It is on the outskirts of the parish of Stanton St John and comes under South Oxfordshire District Council, but is generally regarded as being in Headington

Oxford City Cemeteries Service
This covers the four Oxford municipal cemeteries that are still open (Botley, Headington,Rose Hill, and Wolvercote)

Information about all the churches of Oxford in the Victoria County History

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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