History of Churches and Burial Ground
History of the Parish of the Ascension
The Parish of the Ascension was formed in 1982 from two benefices in north west Cambridge; St Giles’ with St Peter’s, and St Luke’s Chesterton, which comprised St Luke’s and St Augustine’s.
We do not store the old parish registers – these are kept now in the Cambridgeshire County Records Office and not in our churches. They have a search service for people who cannot visit to search their archives online, but there is a charge for this.
We hold a list of known burials and memorials at St Giles’, St Peter’s, St Luke’s and the Ascension Burial Ground in the Parish Office, but these are incomplete.
St Augustine’s of Canterbury
St Augustine’s was built in 1898 to serve the expanding population in this part of the city, which then lay within St Luke’s parish. From the outset, the plan was to construct both a mission church and a school for this new community, then on the edge of the city. The land chosen was that between Histon, Huntingdon and Oxford Roads. Rev’d Puckle bought a piece of land in Oxford Road and then with Rev’d Micklethwaite bought an adjoining piece of land in Richmond Road – large enough to house a school, church and playground – land prices and therefore construction costs were low enough then for humble vicars to afford to buy.
The church’s name was probably chosen as the building work started on St Augustine’s Day, 26th May 1898. Local builders Coulson and Lofts won the contract to construct a single, dual-use building for a cost of £1,140, which they finished in time for it to be consecrated by the Bishop of Ely on 21st November 1898.
Struggles with funding were there right from the start of St Augustine’s life and it relied on ordained University Fellows and students from the Westcott House, a theological college in Jesus Lane, to provide unpaid ministers. The area was a relatively poor one in those days – the residents of Richmond Road over the early years, listed as their professions carpenters, cooks, coal merchants, cashiers, bricklayers. If the church struggled to find clergy and money, the school based there thrived though school records show problems in retaining staff and keeping schoolrooms warm with coal fires.
St Augustine’s lived a pretty much hand-to-mouth existence for quite a while, relying on ordained University Fellows and then students from the Westcott House, a theological college in Jesus Lane, to provide unpaid ministers. The area was a relatively poor one in those days – the residents of Richmond Road over the early years, listed as their professions carpenters, cooks, coal merchants, cashiers, bricklayers, but St Augustine’s struggled along with the help of dedicated women such as Ethel Croxall who ran the Sunday School and Barbara Webb who offered her home on Oxford Road for church activities and of whom Canon Tibbatts said ‘she was as valuable as a couple of curates’. If the church struggled to find clergy and money, the school based here was thriving, though school records show problems in retaining staff and keeping schoolrooms warm through coal fires.
The two room school continued to run in the building until 1962 when children went to new local primary schools St Luke’s and Mayfield. When Mayfield School was destroyed by fire in 2004 children from there used St Augustine’s as a temporary school base until their school was rebuilt. The building has recently undergone extensive refurbishment and redevelopment and St Augustine’s today offers its community modern, accessible meeting and recreation space as well as continuing to be a place for worship and spiritual reflection.
St Giles’ church was founded in 1092. A C16th map shows a simple rectangular building without a spire sited below the castle. The original Norman building underwent various transformations until 1875, when a new St Giles’ church was built on the same site and the old St Giles’ was demolished. Externally simple and austere in style, without a spire, internally the building is richly furnished in the style favoured by the Oxford Revival movement. Some parts of the old building were incorporated into the new, Victorian church, including the 11th century former chancel arch (now the entrance to the Lady Chapel) and a 12th century doorway..
A short booklet History and Guide to St. Giles’ is available.
“The Nave Windows of St. Giles Cambridge”, a fully illustrated booklet in colour with the story of the saints depicted in the stained glass, is available in church or from the Parish Office.
There is a secular charitable group of Friends of St Giles’ Church Cambridge that aims to preserve and enhance the historic heritage of the building, for the whole community regardless of their faith.
The former Cemetery of St Giles’ with St Peter’s was renamed the Ascension Burial Ground in 1982, and was closed in 2020. It is now maintained by Cambridge City Council in partnership with a group of volunteers, the Friends of the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground, who always welcome new members. You can read more about the burial ground below on this page.
As Cambridge expanded in the second half of the 19th century, there was a perceived need to provide services in the parish of Chesterton for those living in the west of the parish. The first services took place in the Industrial School on Harvey Goodwin Avenue from 1851 and progressed to a temporary wooden building from 1863. A public appeal for a new permanent building was launched in 1872 and the foundation stone of St Luke’s church on Victoria Road was laid on 18 October 1873, St Luke’s Day. By 1874 the first phase of building had been completed and worship could take place. The building acquired its tower and steeple in 1885 after further fund-raising.
Following the First World War the fields and orchards to the north and west of St Luke’s were built on, St Luke’s School increased in size and the church became a centre of social life with various parish events and clubs of all kinds. There was a thriving Sunday School, Church Lads Brigade, football, cricket and tennis clubs, seaside outings and much to engage children.
After a period of sharing St Luke’s buildings, during which time substantial changes were made to the internal spaces of the traditionally Victorian building, St Luke’s Parish Church and Victoria Road Congregational Church formalised their partnership as a Local Ecumenical Partnership in 2005. In 1993 a history of the two churches was written by members of the congregations of both churches, several of whom attended St. Luke’s Church of England schools in Victoria Road. It contains personal memories as well as a brief history of the area from early times and an account of the building of the two churches in the nineteenth century. Photographs of the churches and the schools will be available in the photo gallery soon.
St Peter’s Church
St Peter’s Church was originally built in the eleventh century, and traces of its Saxon past survive in the form of two lovely carved doorways and the stone font, decorated with four mermen grasping their split tails. The church is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, managed jointly by the CCT and Parish of the Ascension. Seasonal and occasional services take place in its small interior, and they are announced in our calendar.
Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground
Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground was formerly known as the Cemetery of St Giles’ with St Peter’s. Since 20 May 2020 the graveyard has been closed for burials, although there are limited exceptions (for further information contact Revd Dr Janet Bunker). The burial ground continues to be open to visitors and remains consecrated land in the ownership of the parish, but the closure now transfers all the maintenance responsibilities to the City Council. It is a ‘hidden’ part of the busy and rapidly expanding city and remains little known even to people who have lived all their lives in Cambridge.
The one and a half acres of the burial ground were established in 1857 when extra burial space was needed as the city of Cambridge expanded in Victorian times. Today some 2,500 people of every religious denomination and none are buried in 1,500 plots. Many city and university dignitaries, scientists and scholars are buried there including Nobel prize winners. Perhaps one of the burial ground’s most famous graves is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher (1899-1951).
In 1997 Dr Lucy Joan Slater, a renowned pioneer of computing in Cambridge and enthusiastic genealogist, completed a remarkable listing of all the graves and their inscriptions in the burial ground; she herself was buried there in 2008. Dr Slater’s listing was exhaustively checked again in 2016 by a group of the Friends of the Ascension burial ground.
In 2000, Mark Goldie of Churchill College compiled a list of the more famous people buried in the cemetery, along with a brief biography of each person. As he says, “
Their lives provide vignettes of Cambridge, snapshots which tell stories of Victorian scholarship and college life and which trace the growth of new disciplines in the sciences and the humanities“. (A Cambridge Necropolis, Mark Goldie, March 2000; copies are available from the Ascension Parish Office)
Today the burial ground is a designated City Wildlife Site and is part of the Storey’s Way Conservation area. In 2005 the plant species present were catalogued and the site is now managed so as to encourage wildlife and habitat diversity, as well as to care for the graves themselves. The Conservation Management Plan can be downloaded and viewed by clicking on the link.
The former chapel of rest within the burial ground is now the workshop of the letter-cutter, Eric Marland, who often holds workshops and public events as part of the Open Studios scheme.
The burial ground is accessible to visitors during daylight hours via All Souls Lane, which is a private road. Please be aware that for reasons of safety the gates may be closed during the day. There is no access for vehicles, except for those with mobility problems and in the case of funerals, so please do not bring your car down the lane but park elsewhere. Be aware that the ground throughout the cemetery is uneven and there is limited accessibility to some areas, so keep to the paths as much as possible.
If you have a query concerning the burial ground then please contact the Parish Office in the first instance.
There is a group of Friends of the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground that aims to protect and enhance the site for the public benefit as a place of remembrance, spirituality, history and nature. They welcome new members and are happy to answer enquiries about Friends’ activities, so please visit their website or take a look at their brochure which gives all the details of how to join or support this group. The Friends hold regular work parties, on Saturday mornings once a month, to clear graves and keep things tidy. The dates of the monthly working party meetings are shown in the calendar.