Monday, 9 November 2015

Arboretum @ Dissenter of Sidmouth >>> tree planting Tues 10th November: the history of the garden cemetery

Tomorrow, some trees will be planted in the small cemetery garden at the Unitarian Church in the centre of Sidmouth:
Futures Forum: Arboretum @ Dissenter of Sidmouth >>> tree planting Tues 10th November

The building and garden have been featured in the Herald:

Breaking news & sport in Sidmouth | Sidmouth Herald

Here is the complete text:

A short history of the Cemetery Garden at Dissenter of Sidmouth

Dissenters’ Burial Grounds

With the Restoration of the monarchy, the Crown asserted control over religious observance through the 1662 Act of Uniformity, leading to the “Great Ejection” of some 2,500 parish ministers who refused to conform.

These “non-Conformist” ministers and their congregations met for worship, more or less in secret, until the 1682 Act of Toleration permitted public meeting houses to be established at a specified distance from the parish church with a licensed minister, who must swear an oath of allegiance. They were forbidden to use bells to summon their congregation but could signal their presence for worship by lighting a lamp.

A deceased dissenter could usually be buried in a Church of England burial ground, but this depended on the vicar, who would often not allow a memorial stone at the grave. Hence the appearance of “Dissenters’ Burial Grounds” in or near their places of worship. There has recently been growing interest in these historic sites.

The Sidmouth Dissenters’ Meeting House and Cemetery

Early in the 18th century, the non-conformist congregations of the Sid Valley built a meeting house, at the corner of what is now called the High Street and All Saints Road, by the White Horse Inn where they had previously worshipped. This Grade 2 listed building is believed to be the oldest non-conformist place of worship in East Devon. The burial ground was on the south side of the church by the main entrance. This doorway was closed off when the building was “improved” in the 1880s with a porch and entrance to the north. The cemetery fell into disuse, parts of it were sold off, and it was deconsecrated. The twentieth century saw the installation of a boiler in an underground bunker, and a lavatory for the Schoolroom.

By the early twenty-first century the cemetery was overgrown with elder bushes, thistles and dandy-lions, the railings and gate were rusting, the retaining wall and path had become hazardous, and the site was becoming little more than an eyesore at the top of the High Street. In 2011 the Trustees of the Unitarian Dissenting Meeting House decided to take it in hand. With donations from current users of the buildings (East Devon Dance Academy and other community groups) as well as financial help from the Unitarian congregation and endowments from previous generations of Unitarians, and employing the skills of local builders, decorators, botanists and gardeners, the site was restored, old gravestones were uncovered and a “memorial peace garden” was planted with advice from the Sidmouth Arboretum, who also made a gift of a crab-apple tree. The cemetery site will be formally dedicated with the re-planting of a fig tree and a rose at sunset on November 10th 2015.

A spokesperson said: “The identities of those whose memorial stones remain have yet to be investigated. Future plans for the site include the commissioning of a sculpture recalling the Great Ejection and a memorial to Hugh Barlow, chair of the Unitarian congregation who died on August 27th 2015. As part of our commitment to inter-generational justice, we aim to make the entire complex of buildings and gardens at Dissenter of Sidmouth self-sustaining and carbon neutral over the coming decades. Fifteen meters above sea-level, it has the potential to endure as a community facility for another three centuries of change. All offers of help will be gratefully received. Contact dissenterofsidmouth@gmail.com

Unitarianism in Exeter

Initially a 16th century mid-European free Christian movement which worshipped God in the spirit of Jesus but rejected dogmatic teachings such as a belief in original sin or that Christ is the one God, the Unitarian movement was imported to England during the upheavals of the 17th century. The first use of the term in England dates from 1673. Shunned by the established church, Unitarians were not allowed to attend Oxford or Cambridge, nor were they allowed to participate in local civic affairs until the Toleration Act of 1813. Discouraged from the professions, the Unitarians directed their energies towards commerce and banking. As prosperous leaders of the rising middle class they were committed to social progress.

By the mid 18th Century, the Unitarians were well established in Exeter, recruiting local dissenters, and immigrants such as Johan Baring, a Lutheran wool merchant from Bremen, ​whose family founded Barings Bank on Cathedral Green. Exeter's Dissenting Burial Ground contains the tomb of the Kingdon family. Others buried there include members of the Kennaways, Bowings, Treadwins, Merivales, and Bowrings. It is now being refurbished by the Exeter Dissenters Graveyard Trust (see www.edgt.org.uk) with financial assistance from Exeter Civic Society, Devon Gardens Trust, the heritage lottery fund, Exeter Historic Buildings Trust and others.

Sidmouth Unitarians

In the Regency period, the Sidmouth Meeting House congregation and their Minister, the Reverend Edmund Butcher, author of Sidmouth’s first guide book, joined the Unitarian church, whose local  members over the next hundred years included the Carslake family and the Lockyers, and the nationally renowned suffragist Annie Leigh-Browne who, with her partner Mary Kilgour, achieved the 1907 Act permitting women to be represented in local government. Their philanthropic work for the town included the Byes, the Victoria Hospital and Woolcombe House. Later ministers included the Reverend William Heineken, mentor and fellow-investigator to Peter Orlando Hutchinson the Sidmouth antiquarian and chronicler, and Sidmouth’s first woman minister Constance Harris, who was appointed in 1931, by which time the Unitarian church had become a centre for the socialist movement in the valley. (See www.unitarian.org.uk)

Though the congregation for Sunday worship has now dwindled, the Sidmouth Unitarian church remains open to ideas from different traditions and continues to offer people varied opportunities to pursue their own path, free from dogma and imposed creeds. The restored memorial garden, 15 metres above sea level, points the way to another three centuries of work for creativity, compassion, peace and social justice, at “the centre of Sidmouth”.

Unitarian Chapel in the Garden, Bridport

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