Graves of the Great and Good

Graves5I had been meaning for ages to visit the Ascension Burial Ground in north Cambridge, and a tweet from Zoe Cormack about the grave of J.G. Frazer and his wife finally got me off the sofa and out of the house. I caught the bus from the city centre (thinking gratefully – as so often – about the wise advice of my classics teacher when I was applying to Cambridge: ‘Remember that two of the three women’s colleges are up the only hill in East Anglia’), and got off in the dizzying, oxygen-deprived heights of Huntingdon Road.

Road sign

The burial ground is down a lane, with houses on either side, dwindling into a shaded distance. Having got to the entrance, I was disconcerted at first at how overgrown it was – but this is intentional, as the ground (still used for cremation burials and memorials today) is a designated City Wildlife Site.

Down the lane

Down the lane

The burgeoning growth of Victorian Cambridge led to a need for extra cemetery space, and the tiny churches of St Peter and St Giles on the slopes of Castle Hill acquired this new site in 1857: the first burial took place in 1869. In 1971, St Peter’s and St Giles’ churches were both brought into the new parish of the Ascension (the largest in the diocese of Ely), along with the relatively new church of St Augustine in Richmond Road and St Luke’s, now a Local Ecumenical Partnership with the United Reformed Church, on Victoria Road

St Peter's church, Cambridge

St Peter’s church, Cambridge

St Giles' church, Cambridge

St Giles’ church, Cambridge

General growth of the town coincided with the University reform of 1860 which enabled fellows of colleges to marry (though not all colleges adopted it immediately), and many university members and their wives and families were buried here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among the other people of the parish. (Six colleges of the university now fall inside the parish boundary.) There are 1,500 graves (containing 2,500 people) in all – and this is where I have a problem. I don’t like walking on graves. I don’t think it’s a superstition, it’s just always seemed to me to be very rude, and the graves here are packed so closely together that it’s difficult to avoid doing so.


I was armed with a list (here) of ‘notable individuals’, but instead of seeking out any particular notables, I wandered round the paths, admiring the wildflowers and butterflies,

A peacock butterfly on a pine wreath

A peacock butterfly on a pine wreath

and pausing at the occasional familiar name. Here is Dr Peck, editor of Aristotle, enthusiastic Morris dancer and fully paid up Cambridge eccentric, whom I remember at Christ’s in my distant youth:


and the remarkably lumpen great stone marking the grave of A.C. Benson, son of an archbishop of Canterbury, Master of Magdalene, author of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and editor of the first three volumes of Queen Victoria’s letters.


Down the hill, Benson left his mark on his college in a rather more graceful style:

Benson Magdalene

The chapel mortuary chapel is the last surviving one in Cambridge (those of Histon Road and Mill Road cemeteries having been demolished), and is now the workshop of stone-cutter Eric Marland.

The mortuary chapel

The mortuary chapel

Chapel front

I’ll just mention of few of the people buried here who I quite unreasonably regard as ‘mine’: for a start, there is a clutch of Darwins, including Francis, his daughter the poet Frances Cornford, and Horace (founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company); Sir James Frazer and his wife (they died within hours of each other in May 1941); W.E. Heitland and his wife Margaret; H.R. Luard, University Registrary, bibliographer and contributor to the Rolls Series; Sir Richard Jebb, J.E.B. Mayor, J.E. Sandys and A.W. Verrall, a fine clutch of classicists; Denys Winstanley, historian of Cambridge, and William Aldis Wright, Shakespearean, classical and biblical scholar.

The tradition of the burial ground has always been to accept non-conformists as well as Anglicans: and, according to the ODNB, Wittgenstein was given a Catholic service. The limit of space has meant a real democracy in death: no fenced-off (with the exception of Benson), high-rise monuments, just rows of stones, some starting to lean, some adorned with a lacy pall of lichen, surrounded by flowers and grasses and hovered over by bees and butterflies, in a secluded and tranquil God’s acre (and a half).


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5 Responses to Graves of the Great and Good

  1. Angus Murray says:

    It’s a terrifying thought that when I was interviewed by Dr Peck for admission to Christ’s, he would have been only a year older than I am now!! He seemed so ancient!!



  2. Well, even allowing for young perceptions of the old, he was in a bit of a timewarp, I think?


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