In the early 1800s, the city of Exeter in the South west of England saw a significant rise in population, and as a result, the city’s cemeteries began to rapidly fill up. Although there was concern about this, it wasn’t until the cholera epidemic in 1832 that something had to be done in order to halt the public protests that were taking place. People were naturally concerned for their safety and absolutely terrified of infection.
When over four hundred people died from the epidemic in under a three month period, two temporary cemeteries were built outside of the Roman city walls, however this did little to assuage the problem. It was decided that a new cemetery was desperately needed, and with an estimated cost of £2,300, building commenced in 1835. Things didn’t go quite to plan though, and due to a whole host of problems including failing foundations, the price rose significantly to £6,000.
The cemetery and catacombs were designed by Thomas Whitaker and built by Henry Hooper – the first cemetery buildings in the UK to be built in an Egyptian style. Dividing the cemetery and the catacombs was a wall – a visual representation of the divide between the rich and the poor of the city.
It was expected that the affluent people in society would choose to be interned within one of the 2800 coffins that were housed within the walls of the catacombs; however this didn’t quite work out either. The fee of 20 guineas for internment proved to be far higher than people were willing to pay, and as such, they chose to be buried elsewhere. The price was dropped by more than half, but it still wasn’t enough. In a twelve month period, only a handful of people had been interned and the entire project had been a complete disaster; in fact in the 1940s, when the last person was buried in the cemetery, there had still only been sixteen people interned in the catacombs.
In 1887, when there was a fire in the Theatre Royal, the catacombs were used as a temporary morgue to house the unidentified bodies. Later, during World War 2, the dank passageways were used as bomb shelters, and only a few years ago, the local newspaper for Exeter – The Express & Echo – reported that the Council had suggested the catacombs could possibly be used to temporarily store victims of the swine flu epidemic, should the need arise.
Although the cemetery is now a park and the catacombs are closed, people continue to be fascinated with the history and the stories surrounding them. There are regular guided tours of the old, crumbling building and its surroundings, and weaved between the facts are the tales we all love to hear about – the ghosts that haunt the corridors and the treasure buried deep beneath the walls.