Words by Chris Horton. Photos: Sarah Brown
There is a rather peaceful place in Southsea where you might see a green woodpecker, or even an albino squirrel. A place where, in the summer, sunlight streams through the chestnut trees. It couldn’t be further away from the bustle of Albert Road. A place to walk the dog, a wildlife habitat, or a place of quiet contemplation.
Highland Road Cemetery is one of those places where it feels as if only you know of its existence. An important historical and cultural treasure as well as resembling a beautiful city park in its own right. The cemetery was created in 1854 with 8 acres of land being bought from the renowned Southsea architect Thomas Ellis Owen, who eventually went on to design its layout and the buildings that reside there. Closed for burials since the 1950s, the cemetery fell somewhat into disrepair throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Step forward Helen Strange and The Friends of Highland Road Cemetery, a group of volunteers dedicated to the upkeep and promotion of the cemetery.
The group offer guided walks on several weekends each year, and carry out research into the people buried there. Although she has no family connection to the cemetery, Helen’s passion for history has been a real driving force in helping to maintain and promote the cemetery, “It has so much history that I want to uncover and preserve” she says, “I research the lives of those interred, not only the great and the good, but also the ordinary people whose lives and deaths made up the rich diversity of the area”.
Another ‘friend’ of the cemetery, Sandy Butler, has lived opposite for over 50 years, and after being encouraged to attend a meeting, has been hooked on helping out whenever she can. Sandy takes me on a mini tour of some of the more famous graves, revealing a whole host of amazing stories about the occupants and their various lives. From 8 Victoria Cross recipients, to a Hungarian prince and even a mistress (or two) of Charles Dickens, many fascinating backstories, often humorous, are revealed – the man who is buried with wives one, two and three, with each wife having increasingly elaborate eulogies. There are so many interesting stories here, but she must have a favourite, I ask. “That has to be William Johnson, a powder monkey in the Royal Navy.” she replies. Sadly, after decades of loyal service he spent his last years in a workhouse where he eventually died. Thankfully, someone dignified his life by placing his coffin on a gun carriage covered in the Union Jack, with sailors drawing him to his place of rest.
Information Days take place on the 3rd Sunday of each month April to September, 12noon to 4pm. Tours start at 2pm £3 per person.