21 December 2022

How Stony Stratford came
to have not one but three
traditional lychgates

The lychgate on London Road Cemetery, or Galley Hill Cemetery in Stony Stratford was designed by the architect Edward Swinfen Harris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

There were four churches in my last parish, and I proposed using funds in a churchyard account to build a lychgate at the entrance to one of those churches, in the heart of a pretty rural village in the west of Ireland.

There was little enthusiasm for my proposal. But here, in many towns and villages in England, people would be happy to have a lychgate at the churchyard or cemetery.

Stony Stratford, a market town on the fringes of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, has not just one but three lychgates at its churchyards and cemeteries.

The lychgate on Calverton Road dates from 1856-1857 and was designed by the Northampton architect Edmund Francis Law (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The oldest lychgate is at Stony Stratford Cemetery on Calverton Road. This small, one-acre burial board cemetery dates from 1856-1857. The site was designed by the Northampton architect Edmund Francis Law (1810-1882), with a typical collection of cemetery structures, including two separate chapels and a stone boundary wall with a lychgate.

Law’s practised in Northampton from 1837, based in Priory Cottage in the town. He was Northamptonshire County and Northampton Town Surveyor and was Mayor of Northampton in 1859. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA) in 1862 on the proposal of George Gilbert Scott. His son, Edmund Law (1840-1904), was an architect in his practice, and he too was Northamptonshire County and Northampton Town Surveyor.

The cemetery on Calverton Road is now in a residential area but was originally in a partly rural setting. In the early 19th century, the site was in agricultural use, lying in a rural area to the south of the town near the River Great Ouse.

With the introduction of the Burial Acts in the mid-1850s, the Burial Board of the United Parishes of Saint Giles and Saint Mary Magdalene, Stony Stratford, was formed and directed a cemetery to be laid out.

The cemetery was laid out on an agricultural close with fruit trees that was formerly the property of the Bell-Rope Charity. There are no surviving documents for this charity, but local tradition says it was the gift of an individual who lost his way but was rescued by hearing the clock of Stony Stratford Church strike the time. He left his land to perpetuate his deliverance, the rent to be applied forever in tolling a bell in the church early every morning.

Law’s design for the cemetery included two chapels in Gothic style. The Anglican chapel was more elaborate than the Early English-style Dissenters’ chapel and included a small tower with a bell cote. Other details included a dividing line with boundary markers between consecrated ground to the south and east and unconsecrated ground to the north.

Law’s estimates were for two chapels £600, fittings £50, boundary walls £150, and fence and lychgate cover £70, but this did not include laying out the ground. The cost of the land was £175 and the total estimated cost was £1,250. The builders were Thomas and William Fisher of Northampton.

The main entrance is off Calverton Road with a gateway set centrally in the south-west boundary. The gateway is framed by a timber lychgate with slate roof surmounted by an iron cross. It is supported by flanking stone walls that also support the elegant fleur-de-lis spear-tipped iron gates.

The two former Gothic-style stone mortuary chapels that formed the focus of Law’s design have been demolished, although their sites can be seen. The lychgate, stone boundary walls, ornamental railings and main paths to the sites of the former chapels designed by Law survive. The place was originally ornamented with conifers, probably largely Irish yew, planting that continues to evoke the 19th century character of the cemetery design.

This is a typical example of successive burials in a rural market town since the 1850s, including war dead, with a collection of modest memorials. The memorials includes Commonwealth War Graves for over 20 casualties from the two World Wars. The layout survives largely intact, although the markers between the consecrated and unconsecrated ground have gone.

The cemetery was extended in 1927, or perhaps in the 1930s, to the north-east with a rectangular area of similar size. The chapels were demolished in the 20th century. The cemetery is closed to new burials and is managed by Milton Keynes Council.

The lychgate at the London Road Cemetery, or Galley Hill Cemetery, was designed by Edward Swinfen Harris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The second lychgate in Stony Stratford is at the London Road Cemetery, also known as Galley Hill Cemetery.

The John Radcliffe Trust bought a parcel of land measuring two roods and four perches on London Road in 1870 for use as a cemetery for the new-built Church of Saint Mary the Virgin – now the Greek Orthodox Church.

The local architect Edward Swinfen Harris (1841-1924) was commissioned to design and lay out the cemetery.

Swinfen Harris was also the architect for Wolverton End School, now the Old School House. His other designs in Stony Stratford include Rothenburg House at 107 High Street, built as his family home, Repton House on Wolverton Road, the Retreat almshouse on High Street, alterations to the Vicarage on Wolverton Road, the Swinfen Harris Church Hall on London Road, and alterations to Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church.

The first burial in the London Road Cemetery was recorded in 1871. A second area of the cemetery was bought by Milton Keynes Council in the 1980s. This pleasant tree lined area offers multi-faith burial plots.

In recent times the lychgate and memorial cross designed by Swinfen Harris fell into disrepair and the cross was considered unsafe. Following a concerted effort from members of Stony in Bloom, local tradesmen, finance from the Stony Stratford Futures Group and money from Milton Keynes Council Heritage Projects, the lychgate and cross were restored to their former glory in 2011.

The lychgate at Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church was erected in 1931 in memory of Arnold Steer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Stony Stratford has a third and more recent lychgate at the north-east side of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church.

The lychgate and calvary facing on to the High Street were erected in 1931 in memory of Arnold Steer by his wife Clara and children, Eric, Gwen and Wilfrid.

Canon Eric Steer had been a curate in Slough before becoming a naval chaplain during World War I. In all, three Steer brothers were priests in the Church of England, and Arnold Steer came to Stony Stratford to live in the vicarage in his old age and died in 1930.

The lychgate was made from an old oak tree that once stood on the same site, and remains an attractive feature on the High Street, next to where I am living.

The lychgate at Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church was made from an old oak tree that once stood on the same site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.