Also known as the 'Congregationalist' or 'Independent' cemetery, the burial ground at Ponsharden was opened in 1808 for the exclusive use of the Dissenting Christian congregations of Falmouth and Penryn.
Up until the early 1900s the cemetery experienced intensive use. Surviving burial registers indicate that over 580 bodies lie beneath the surface of this small graveyard. These interments include the mortal remains of Packet Ship officers, surgeons, ministers, lawyers, wealthy merchants and of course many normal folk from across Cornwall.
Falmouth and Penryn's Dissenters acquired their first (and only) dedicated burial ground in early 1808, when they were given a plot of land at Ponsharden ‘through the kindness and liberality of Mr Samuel Tregelles, a reputable Merchant in Falmouth’. The new burial ground stood adjacent to an older Jewish cemetery ‘in the corner of the lower field, adjoining the Turnpike Road’. It was given to the Dissenters free of cost ‘on the simple condition of the ground being enclosed by a good stone wall, to encompass the Jew’s Burial Ground’.
It appears that the Dissenters began using the new cemetery almost immediately after enclosing it (building work probably taking place over the spring and summer of 1808). The first of Penryn’s congregation to be buried was Abia, the daughter of John and Dolly Nicholls of Gwennap. Abia died on 18th August 1808 and was buried ‘amid a vast concourse which had filled the Ground from the novelty of a Burial amongst Dissenters’. Church records list Falmouth’s first burial as Mrs Christiana Daubuz ‘a Lady of eminent piety & one of the chief supporters of the Independent Chapel’ who in November 1808 was interred ‘amid a very large concourse of persons'.
Whilst the cemetery’s usage is well documented, details of its decline and neglect remain unclear. By the 1890s the number of burials was starting to slow, and there are only seven inscriptions dating from the early 20th century. The last known interment is that of Mary Elizabeth Newcombe, who was laid to rest in an old family plot in April 1935. Not long after this the cemetery appears to have been abandoned, although there are no records indicating it was ever officially closed.
In early 2012 two friends from Falmouth (Rob and Tom) read about the plight of the burial ground in an archaeological assessment produced by Cornwall Council. [CLICK HERE TO READ IT] The report highlighted the fact that almost nothing was known about the monuments at Ponsharden, which were deteriorating so rapidly that it was likely their inscriptions would be irretrievably lost before anyone had ever recorded them. A full survey urgently needed to take place, but this was hampered by the sheer scale of work involved in slowly clearing and then logging the site metre by metre.
Such a challenge appealed to Rob and Tom, who had grown up locally, were interested in the area’s history and were still clinging on to the vestiges of youth (and therefore felt able to take on the physically demanding work). It was a unique opportunity to explore a piece of forgotten history (a mini Lost Garden of Heligan) whilst gradually rediscovering and restoring a site that was on the brink of total loss.
But what was a Dissenter...? From the 16th century, English Dissenters were Christians who refused to join the established Church of England, instead seeking religious freedom to worship in their own way. From very early days, Falmouth and Penryn both supported a significant number of nonconformist religious groups, including Congregationalists (also known as Independents), Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers.
Dissenting Christian congregations often had their own place of worship, but unless they owned a private burial ground they were usually interred in the local parish churchyard (often in unconsecrated ground).
The remainder of the 20th century saw the cemetery deteriorating into a deplorable state. Invasive self-sown trees, extensive root damage and unchecked scrub-growth wreaked havoc on the graves and monuments. Mindless vandalism became commonplace, with numerous headstones being snapped, graves dug up and several family vaults smashed open.
The mortuary chapel at the northern end had been almost entirely destroyed, the boundary walls had collapsed in many places and the original ornate entrance (complete with cut granite steps) was subsiding, unstable and extremely dangerous.
The friends forwarded a proposal for their work to the relevant organisations. In addition to a survey, they volunteered to stabilise the cemetery’s decline by tidying broken glass and scattered litter, picking up used hypodermic needles, ridding the entire site of its thick scrub, seeding the freshly cleared-soil with grass and encouraging the reappearance of native wild flowers. Permission was granted and work commenced.
The entire cemetery was cleared by hand; machinery risked damaging hidden monuments, of which there were many. The survey work was completed within 12 months, taking approximately 370 hours. Another 1,780 hours were then spent researching the lives of those persons found interred at Ponsharden and preparing a book all about the site (which can be purchased by clicking HERE).
Since completing the book Rob & Tom have been appointed custodians of the burial ground and still maintain a regular presence on site, working carefully with English Heritage and Falmouth Town Council to monitor and protect the graveyard and ensure its survival is no longer in doubt.
Some of Falmouth's diverse religious community seen the town's guide book dated 1827
The Dissenters' Burying Ground, seen on a map dating from 1814.
Note the older Jewish cemetery adjacent.
[Reproduced with permission of the Cornwall Record Office]
Interestingly, there are also many non-Cornish burials here, reflecting the cemetery’s close proximity to a busy international port. In 1839 Walter Morris (of Wales) died at the Greenbank Hotel after a voyage from Madeira, where he had been trying to restore his ailing health.
Another headstone records the life of Thomas Cooke, a young man from Liverpool who died in Falmouth after a “long illness”. The site also contains the vault of Alexander Robinson, a Wine Merchant from London who died in Falmouth in 1849.
The Revd Richard Cope, born in London and later the minister of the Independent chapel in Penryn. His headstone (right) was recently rediscovered at Ponsharden.
The burial ground in 2004, whilst still abandoned. The site was so overgrown, no one knew how many graves there were.
ABOVE: Smashed headstones were scattered across the cemetery by vandals. LEFT: A damaged headstone can be seen in the foreground.
A corner of the cemetery... Gloomy, vandalised and overgrown with brambles and ivy
The scrub has been cleared by hand, damaged graves rebuilt and new grass sown on the bare earth.
Nature is left to reclaim the corner, but regular care ensures it does not fall into disrepair again.
The cemetery today