The burial of strangers

Walking in the Clifton area of Bristol recently, I came across a small piece of ground almost hidden behind a hedge. It was being tended by the man pictured below, who did not tell me his name but explained that he had decided to restore and maintain a burial-ground that had been used for nearly a century until 1871. The Historic England record confirms that it was an ‘overflow graveyard for St Paul’s, Clifton (demolished), much used by visitors to the Hotwells. Closed 1871’. 

The picture above comes from the 1990s and shows the state of the burial-ground more than a century after it was closed.

I was moved by the restoration, which, the attendant explained, was in remembrance of hundreds of unknown people buried there during the 18th and 19th century who had come to the Bristol Hot Wells for cure. As they were not local to Bristol, they were buried outside the parish in the strangers’ burial-ground.

The hot wells were owned by the Merchant Venturers, a Bristol business association which still exists, and were central to the development of Clifton as a genteel resort in the early 18th century. Hotwells’ popularity lasted about a century. Sewage from the river seeped into the springs, which became toxic. Pleasure-seekers went elsewhere for their fun and Hotwells gained the reputation as a last resort for the incurable, many of whom are buried in the Strangers’ Burial Ground at the bottom of Lower Clifton Hill.

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