The Cemetery Mess House and Other Memories
by Adrian Bean
People sometimes ask about the strange little brick building covered in ivy that’s hidden at the southern edge of the cemetery bordering on Bedford Park. You can see it from the Park, but it doesn’t stand out, so you might visit many times and not notice it till it’s pointed out to you.
What is it? Why is it there? What went on there? Whoever decided to put it in a cemetery of all places?
Perhaps the most outlandish theory I’ve heard was that it was a secret source of special underground water used by Charles Wells for making beer, giving it a particular taste. But no, the truth is much more mundane, though if you are interested in the Charles Wells story, you might like to check out the building at the end of Park Road North. In fact, it was built and used for many years as the Mess Room for cemetery staff who worked outside (as opposed to the clerical staff in the chapel building).
In the good old days of the 50’s and 60’s, before mechanisation and computers, working life at Bedford Cemetery was very different from today. Most of the staff worked outdoors, with just the Registrar, Mr Aichison, and his assistant Mr Bartram being in the office. In 1960, there were nine outdoor staff and a cremator operator. Graves were dug manually, and because of the clay soil, it could be very hard work, so very often gravediggers were transferred to working as gardeners when they reached 50.
Grass was cut using scythes and shears until the early 1960’s, and it was all put in a haystack at the top of the cemetery. Graves could be maintained and kept tidy for £1 2/6 a year, or for £75 it would be maintained for 75 years …I wonder if that promise was kept. Graves were dug in the shape of a coffin, not the rectangular shape of nowadays.
Staff in 1960 were: Reg Duncombe 57 (foreman), gravediggers Fred Fox (37) and Bill Lovell (50), gardeners Jack Fensome (57), Archie Kirby (47), Dick Peat (50), Oliver Baldwin (63), Eric Far (27) and David Ashman (17) and the cremator operator Ernest Jefferies (57).
In Literature, gravediggers are often characterised as being down-to-earth, with a certain sense of humour, and photos from the 1960’s show the staff as being a happy crew, enjoying the work…especially the one of Fred Fox treating a young woman to a ride in his wheelbarrow.
There was only one pair of doors to the chapel building, just the inner ones. There were toilets, which were free for men, but women had to pay 1d (about half a New Pee). At the side of the porch were the door and a very narrow staircase up to the belfry. By the 1960’s the bell was used only occasionally, whereas in years before it was always tolled as the funeral cortege came slowly up the hill…it would have been a striking part of a proper send-off in those days.
In the belfry, long-forgotten cemetery workmen from the previous century had carved their names and a few details about their service, as did the men who had regularly serviced the clock mechanism. The names are still there, complete with the dust and cobwebs from long ago. A Mr Dann’s name is there, but it’s “The Cemetery Man’s” son, not the first Superintendent himself who carved it. How I wish it had been an act of harmless vandalism by that serious figure of Victorian respectability!
But what about the mysterious building? The Mess House was probably built sometime just after the turn of the century, and was certainly in use in the 1920’s. It was where the men met at 7.30 each day, complete with lunchbox and flask, for the foreman to arrange the day’s work. Everyone would come back at 10.00 for a tea break, and then dinner break was at 12.30 for most, though some would go home to eat. Work finished at 5.00 or 4.45 in winter if no one was looking.
The hut had a fixed wooden bench running the length of the building on the window side where the men would eat, looking out onto the Park, together with some broken park benches for seats. There were mugs and a kettle, but this could only be used for the 12.30 break. Water had to be collected in a metal can from the tap near the office. At one time there was a well close to the Mess House, and another near the far eastern boundary; presumably they were filled in at some point. Washing up was done with some water from the kettle and rubbed down with an old rag or just fingers (probably quite dirty). There was always a tablecloth, made from old newspapers.
There was no heating, so in cold weather a fire would be started and someone would have to keep an eye on it all day to keep it going with logs. In about 1966 the area became a smokeless zone, and the hut was heated by an electric fire.
The building hasn’t been used for decades, not needed for workmen any more as most funerals took place at Norse Road after 1987 and Foster Hill Road Cemetery became “closed” in 1995. The window and door were bricked up and ivy covers the walls and chimney. There’s no vandalism or graffiti, but some slates on the roof have started to slip. It’s an unremarkable building, now on the way to becoming a ruin, and those who for generations worked, joked, told tales about long-forgotten people, and set the world to rights there, are almost all gone.
(Written using recollections by Friends member and former employee at cemetery, David Ashman. Photos kindly given by Fred Fox’s wife, originally included in Newsletters from 2013/14)
April 19, 2021
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