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Wisbech General Cemetery
Outside the restored chapel.

Wisbech General Cemetery an Unlikely Gem

Situated along North End, abutting Asda’s car park and adjacent to Nixon & Son the timber merchants, Wisbech General Cemetery is an unlikely gem set on the outskirts of town. It opened in 1836 as an early non-conformist cemetery and gained a chapel in 1848. It then remained active until 1972, when it closed to further burials. However, an exception was made for the interment of Basil Lambert who was buried alongside his parents in 1994.

Lambert had been an enthusiastic supporter of local organisations, including the Wisbech Society & Preservation Trust. He left the residue of his estate to be divided equally between St Augustine’s Church, the National Trust’s Peckover House, the Wisbech & Fenland Museum, and the Wisbech Society.

Wisbech General Cemetery
A walk round Wisbech General Cemetery is enchanting, whatever the weather.

The restoration begins

By the time of Lambert’s burial, the cemetery was severely overgrown and the chapel in ruins. But, 20 years later, his bequest to the Wisbech Society enabled the opening of a new General Cemetery entrance, known as Lambert’s Walk, as well as some chapel restoration.

Indeed, local people and Fenland District Council (FDC) had expressed concerns over the cemetery’s condition long before Lambert’s interment. In 1991, FDC recommended the demolition of the chapel and the formation of a volunteer organisation to manage the site as a pocket park. Consequently, the Friends of Leverington Road Cemetery group was established in 1992, and by 1995 it was making significant headway. However, it always struck a careful balance between the cemetery’s historic importance and its significance as a wildlife haven.

The Wisbech Society took an interest in the General Cemetery and its chapel as early as 1972. Its members, supplemented by volunteers, conducted some clearance and survey work prior to 1992. After that, they continued to support the Friends, primarily through financial donations for specific projects. Then, in 2014, the society turned its full attention to the site.

A workshop, yard and bungalow had been erected between the road and cemetery soon after World War II. These all but blocked access from North End and effectively hid the chapel from the view of busy shoppers. As a result, many of them never realised a site of such historic importance was there. The Wisbech Society purchased the workshop and yard using its own funds, with the support of local businesses and in conjunction with the bungalow owners. They then demolished part of the property to create Lambert’s Walk.

Heritage Lottery Funding

Next, the committee began the long process of preparing a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) bid. This was to cover the chapel restoration, the initial costs for its use as a public amenity, and works to the monuments and other cemetery features. The bid’s successful conclusion in March 2017 released £303,800 of funding. Building work began on 3 January 2018, and by summer the work was essentially complete. For the first time in decades, the chapel was secure. It also had a roof, heating, beautiful newly commissioned windows, and everything required of an accessible community space.

In the cemetery itself, there was funding for work to restore key monuments, while four years of painstaking research by the Friends resulted in the erection of Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones at the graves of ten World War I soldiers and a World War II airman. The stones were fixed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, on 11 November 2018.

The project also offers a digitised catalogue of burials on the website.

The chapel is available for hire – details are on the website – and it was quickly put to community use. However, the society’s trustees have made the difficult decision to temporarily close it to visitors during the coronavirus pandemic. Wisbech General Cemetery, on the other hand, is open every day. Its pathways link North End and the Harecroft Road playing fields, and a walk through or around the site is always rewarding. Thanks to its abundance of wildlife, historic headstones, and monuments that effectively trace the town’s social history, and the continuing efforts of the Friends and Wisbech Society, no two visits will ever be the same.

WORDS Paul Eden PHOTOGRAPHS Wisbech Society

Read other articles from Paul Eden here

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