Brent Elliott 2023

Formerly Royal Horticultural Society

Disaster memorials in British cemeteries

Britain has a long history of memorials for battles and martyrdoms, erected for celebration rather than mourning. The first war memorials dedicated to the ordinary soldiers (Waterloo and the Crimean War) were erected in cemeteries, with the themes of celebration and mourning mingled. But in the 1860s, a decade after the Crimean War monuments, memorials began to be erected in cemeteries to commemorate lives lost in maritime disasters, followed by the end of the century by commemorations of purely civilian landbound disasters. By that time the tradition of heroic commemoration was taking a new turn, in large part thanks to George Frederick Watts and his call for the public commemoration of heroic self-sacrifice by ordinary people – a demand that he eventually met with his project of Postman’s Park.  During the years he was promoting his cause, a new type of memorial began to appear, geared to Watts’ theme: lifeboat disaster memorials, which proved the most popular examples of the genre. The claims of celebration and mourning competed in the development of memorials for mining disasters, and for the victims of munitions works explosions in the First World War.  But the commemoration of heroism ebbed away during the twentieth century, leaving the mourning of loss as the major theme, as reflected in the memorials for Lockerbie and Aberfan. Today the placing of disaster memorials in cemeteries has yielded to the desire to place them at the site of the disaster.


The Cemetery Research Group runs two events a year: in May and in November. Follow the links and send in an abstract