Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

 Southend convent

My research into the cemetery at New Hall, has led me to uncover other similar cemeteries, and today's post will focus on another convent cemetery in Essex, proposed by Sr Mary Rudolph of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Southend, in 1887, nearly 100 years after the creation of the New Hall cemetery in 1799.

On 5 September 1887, Mother Superior Sr Mary Rudolph wrote to the Southend Local Health Board regarding her application "concerning the projected small Cemetery in our own grounds, to use exclusively for our community." Although this is the first surviving letter from this exchange, it appears that Sr Mary Rudolph had been in discussion for some weeks regarding this proposed cemetery. In her letter, she refers to a certificate of approval given by a Dr Hoffmann of the Burial Acts Office in Westminster, which highlighted the reasons to approve the cemetery. Although this certificate does not survive, the letter draws the attention of the Health Board to clause 7, for which she "humbly asks for your Sanction."

The law at the time, much like today, required any such proposed changes to be publicly advertised, to allow any complaints or problems to be discovered before planning permission is given. Although little evidence of this part of the proceedings survive, we do have a bundle of complaint letters, sent to the Southend Health Board, in protest at the proposed new cemetery, despite its private and inherently enclosed settings. Sr Mary Rudolph and her plans caused quite a stir…

On 22 September 1887, a Mr William Wilson, resident at 12 Queen's Road, Southend, wrote to the Sanitary Committee in disgust at the new plans. He noted that the planned site for this new cemetery was near the Water Works, commenting "I trust you will strongly oppose the application as the construction of a burial grounds would certainly tend to depreciate the value of property in the immediate vicinity", suggesting that "there is ample opportunities for the convent authorities to acquire land suitable for their purpose at such a distance from dwelling houses as not to be objectionable." Similarly, Mr George Ryan, a local landowner but resident in London, wrote to the Board on 24 September, complaining  that "if such application be granted it will greatly deteriorate the value of the property & I therefore strenuously appose a Cemetery being established in such a position and trust your Honourable Board will not give your permission as requested." A third resident also complained about the affect on property values, a Mrs Rosa Willoughby, who lived at Cheshunt Cottage. Mrs Willoughby seems to have been something a neighbourhood spokeswoman, claiming that she and her neighbours "strongly oppose" the planned cemetery.

Others complained that the proposed new cemetery was uncecessary, helpfully pointing out nearby existing cemeteries that could be used by the Notre Dame sisters instead. Mr Moxton, of nearby Rosedale Villas, notes that as well as being a great source of annoyance, the convent cemetery is unnecessary given that "there is ample space in the cemetery in Prittlewell Road", a point supported by Miss Mary Jacobs, resident in Lansdowne Villas. Miss Jacobs comments "there being a portion allotted to the Catholics in the Prittlewell cemetery it must be granted unnecessary" and Amelia Carter, of Leith Cottage, notes her protest agains the opening of a public burial ground so close to her house, commenting "We have a cemetery so near that I consider it quite unnecessary and would urge the board to withhold their sanction to the project."

It is quite easy to imagine that similar protests would have been raised, had the creation of the cemetery at New Hall been subject to the same level of public scrutiny. The process with which we are all now so familiar, of applying for planning permission and allowing the general public the chance to object to the planned changes, simply did not exist when the Community arrived at New Hall in May 1799.

Similarly, the Burial Acts, which had been passed between 1852 and 1885, allowed for the creation of public cemeteries not attached to any particular faith or denomination, and were a direct response to the huge changes in living conditions within towns and cities in previous decades.

Intense industrialisation, the building of new factories and production sites plus an influx of migrant workers resulted in overcrowding and disease epidemics on a scale never seen before. A direct outcome of these changes was a huge shift in the practicalities of dealing with the burial of the dead - city churchyards quickly became full, and new methods of dealing with burial on a large had to be found.

None of these concerns were a factor when the Community created their cemetery at New Hall in 1799 - no planning permission had to be sought, there was no legislative mechanism for the creation of a new burial facility, and there certainly was no nearby public cemetery that could be used for the burial of Catholic nuns! Specifically Catholic cemeteries were not legally allowed until 1852, whether created as part of a church, or as a separate burial ground, as at New Hall, and it is very likely that the New Hall cemetery is the oldest Catholic cemetery in the country as a result of this.

Sr Mary Rudolph was not so lucky -  on 30 September 1887 the Southend Local Board reported that they "express disapproval of the proposal and withold consent" for the creation of a cemetery for the Sisters of Notre Dame in Southend. Reasons given varied from the sanitary effects upon nearby houses and the main supply of drinking water, as well as "considerable depreciation" of local property values, and "that there are two public burial grounds (one being a cemetery) within 1/2 a mile of the proposed burial ground."

We certainly are very lucky to have the beautiful and peaceful cemetery at New Hall!

The convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame is now St Bernard's High School, Southend. All documents and quotes above can be found in Essex Record Office reference D/HS/45 (1887): Bundle of docs from Southend board of health re application from Sr Mary Rudolph to convert ground into burial ground.