The birth of the cemetery was a troubled one. A group of leading citizens had met as early as August 1842 for the purpose of forming a cemetery company for the towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse. They were deeply concerned at the scandalous state of the overfull churchyards and other burial grounds. Public health, not profit, was their motive.
The proposed cemetery was to be sited outside the built up areas with ample space for burials and landscaped with fine trees and shrubs. It was to be a place of resort for the townspeople as well as a place of burial and it was also to be a general or public cemetery serving all denominations as well as those of no religious belief.
Local opinion showed little enthusiasm for the project but its supporters persisted. In June 1846 the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Cemetery Company was incorporated and in the following October it purchased 18 acres for £7,000. This land today forms the southern half of the cemetery. The price of nearly £390 per acre was high for land which had no access by road but this was only the start of the company’s problems.
The site posed a number of difficulties. It was crossed by the Stonehouse leat which had to be diverted from the burial area and piped underground in iron pipes.
To obtain access to the land it was necessary to build a road from close to the present Pennycomequick roundabout to the Lodge Gates and then along the southern boundary of the land to its south east corner. And to ensure security, the whole had to be enclosed by stone walls up to 8 feet high in places.
The cemetery experienced financial difficulties to begin with. Building the chapels and lodge went over budget and there was a shortfall in share subscriptions which led to one of the directors making personal loans to meet the difference and cover liabilities.
However things began to look up when the General Board of Health decided to close all churchyards and burial grounds in Plymouth on the grounds of public health. This decision was later extended to Stonehouse and the impact was immediate. Burials at Ford Park steadily rose from 600 in 1853 to over 1900 in 1870.
The cemetery prospered for the next 50 years, having a virtual monopoly of burials in the three towns and in 1872, the company purchased a further 16.5 acres of land which make up the northern half of the cemetery today.
However, Weston Mill cemetery opened in 1904, Efford in 1907 and by 1918 the competition was causing concern. Also there was a growing interest in cremation, with interest really taking off after WWII. By 1960, cremation of deceased persons was about 35%, by 1980 it was 66% and today it is around 70% and, with no crematorium, figures for burial at Ford Park declined from around 1600 in 1940 to less than 200 by 1980.
With income falling, the end was in sight. The final straw was the ending of the naval graves contract by the MOD and the company went into liquidation in the Spring of 1999.
In April 2000 and with encouragement of Plymouth City Council, the Ford Park Cemetery Trust was established as a company limited by guarantee with charitable status.
At this time the cemetery was virtually derelict. Brambles and weeds covered the cemetery to a depth of about 3 feet so most tombstones were almost completely covered. On the plus side, the area was a perfect setting for blackberry picking in the autumn and it was an excellent area for the wildlife.
But as you can imagine it was a major task requiring a large body of volunteers to tackle the task of returning the cemetery to its former glory, although we have continued to promote it as an area for wildlife to thrive.
So the Trust runs the cemetery in the following way. There is a Board of Trustees who are all unpaid volunteers. There are two office staff and one part time book-keeper. We have a grounds manager with four grounds maintenance staff and everyone else involved with the Trust gives their time on a voluntary basis.
We have a Friends of Ford Park Cemetery group, who were formed to bring together those who know and love the Cemetery and to raise funds to help ensure its long term survival. The Friends Committee works closely with the Trust and its volunteers to support the various events held within the Cemetery.
The Friends have been able to support many of the projects within the cemetery including:-
Raising funds towards the restoration of the Victorian Chapel and giving money towards improvements such as tarmac for driveways and signposts in the cemetery.
Donations towards the conversion of a machine store to provide better facilities for the grounds staff which includes providing special clothing and equipment.
We have an Events Committee who organise fund raising events, such as concerts and quiz nights and talks and we have a Heritage team which is responsible for researching the people who are buried in the cemetery and who also put on regular exhibitions at the Visitor Centre and organise guided walks around the cemetery grounds.
The Visitor centre and offices was originally built as a Nonconformist chapel. It was completely destroyed by enemy air action in October 1940 and rebuilt after the war. When the Trust took over the running of the cemetery, it was this building which was used for burial services as the chapel opposite was in a poor state of repair. However with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and donations from many companies and individuals, we have been able to restore that chapel as an interdenominational chapel and this allowed us to develop the other chapel as a visitor centre.
As part of the restoration we have included a memorial to all the civilians in Plymouth who died during the blitz.
The Visitor Centre is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10.30 to 3.30 and on Saturdays and Sundays from 12.30 to 3.30 and there is a small cafe there where you can buy teas and coffees, home-made cakes and toasted teacakes.
We have also published three Heritage Trail booklets which have information on many of our prominent citizens and the booklets include maps to enable the visitor to find their graves. Also there is a Nature trail leaflet and a leaflet giving children things to discover as they wander around with their parents.
The Trust has been well supported by the Evening Herald and other local newspapers over the years. They are always happy to publicise our events and we also receive a small annual grant from the City Council but the majority of funding comes from burials and internments or is to be raised by our volunteers.