Burial grounds: churchyards and cemeteries

Holywell Cemetery Holywell Cemetery


On 18 September 1841 a letter appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal advocating a new cemetery for Oxford, and stating:

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. (Oxford at this time did not include the present-day suburbs of Summertown, Cowley and Headington, while Botley and the south part of the Abingdon Road were not even in the same county.)

There were at this time the following fifteen churches within the boundary of the City of Oxford:

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. As for the other two, St Clement's Church (covering an area that had been taken into the city only seven years before in 1835), had a new church, built in 1826, with a large and expandable churchyard; and 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.

1848: Three new parish cemeteries

Three newcemeteries 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
  • Holywell (or Holy Cross) Cemetery (Wikipedia) for the six ancient parishes of All Saints,
    St Cross (Holywell), St John the Baptist, St Martin, 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 its parishes were all in the centre of Oxford where the population was dropping, whereas the parishes covered by Osney and St Sepulchre's Cemetery stretched into the suburbs and were growing.

When new churches were built to in these parishes because of the growing population, their dead were buried in the section allocated to the mother church, e.g.:

  • The dead of Ss Philip & James's parish were buried in the St Giles's section of St Sepulchre's Cemetery
  • The dead of St Margaret's Church whose parish was taken out of Ss Philip & James's parish were also buried in the St Giles's section of St Sepulchre's Cemetery
  • The dead of St Barnabas' Church (which originally covered an ecclesiastical district of St Paul's district chapelry) were buried in the St Paul's section of St Sepulchre's Cemetery
  • The dead of Holy Trinity parish in St Ebbe's were buried in the St Ebbe's section of Osney Cemetery.


Orders in council instructed that burials should cease in

  • all the ancient 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


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 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.

1894: Three new municipal cemeteries

In 1889 and 1890 the new Oxford Corporation bought land for three new municipal cemeteries outside the city, and they were all dedicated in 1894 under the Interments Act:

  • 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: A 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 but is generally regarded as being in Headington

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

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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