How to Make a Churchyard Plan

on Wednesday, 18 October 2017. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire Places

One of our most frequent enquiries at the History Centre is along the lines of ‘I’m trying to find out where my great aunt is buried; her death was registered in Salisbury in 1923…..’ We can usually help them track down the place of burial, but what they really want is to find the plot to visit. People assume that all churches have a plan of their burial ground, when the reality is that most don’t.

My interest in this subject began as a small child when I accompanied my father, who mowed the grass in our village churchyard. While he was busy mowing I was busy wandering around looking at all the grave stones. Who were these people, where did they live, what did they do? Horningsham also has a number of listed tombs which are bigger and grander than a headstone and often commemorate whole families. I was fascinated by all these people and wanted to find out more about them.

Many years later I found two friends who were happy to help me survey the churchyard and this was the beginning of my project. Horningsham is a challenge geographically, as the church is on a hill and the burial ground is divided into three sections, all on different levels. I soon realised that this was not going to be straight forward! However, with the help of my friends (I couldn’t possibly have done it on my own), and countless visits to check my drawing, I have at last finished. It has taken me years and five attempts at drawing a map I am happy with, but it is a huge sense of achievement to have finished at last. Along with the map I have also transcribed the inscriptions and photographed all the stones.

Is this something that might interest you? There are countless parishes still to be done and the staff here are always happy to help you. The archaeology team will be able to provide you with a large copy of the ordnance survey map, to give you an accurate ground plan to work from. The first thing I did was to draw an outline of the church, as I used the row of pillars on the south wall as fixed points from which to measure the stones. The scale I used was 1:100. The graph paper was marked in millimetres.

Copy of the 1844 outline


From here I began plotting each stone from two fixed points.

Plotting a stone

On a 1:100 scale, 145cm and 130cm reduce to 14mm and 13mm. You then draw two arcs (using a compass), and where the two arcs meet is the centre of your headstone. A cross will probably suffice to mark a headstone, but a tomb will need a square.

Examples on your plan of a tomb & crosses

Fortunately, I had the church on one side of the square and a wall on a second side which gave me a straight line of graves that were easy to plot. Together, these gave me two sides of fixed points that helped me plot the remaining graves.

Small plan including the church & the wall

The one major mistake I made, which I didn’t spot until it was too late to correct, was drawing the church on a straight line instead of at an angle – this is where a large ordnance survey copy will help you. However, I concluded that although an accurate map is preferable, what is important is being able to find the grave you are looking for. As long as you can achieve this, that should be sufficient.

The next stage is to photograph and transcribe all the stones. I used abbreviations for commonly used words to save time; for example, I.L.M for In Loving Memory. When this is complete you can type them all up.

Lastly, you will need to create a spreadsheet index of all the burials. The information you will need to include is the plot ref. no, surname, Christian names, address, age, date of internment & possibly whether it is a burial or ashes, as you may have a separate area in your burial ground for cremations.

This is only my approach to the subject and there are other ways of doing it. There are websites giving detailed explanations of the work done by others, and there are also lots of books about churches and churchyards if you are interested in exploring the subject further. I really enjoyed this project; the field work can be done in the summer and the research in the winter. Why not give it a go? Your vicar and churchwardens will be very grateful and hopefully you and some friends will discover a new hobby.

Helen Taylor, Senior Community History Advisor


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