In 2011, a few individuals got together to further their ambitions to protect the fabric of Radnor Street Cemetery, Swindon, and its chapel, which have both suffered from neglect, weather damage and vandalism.
However, we were also driven by the value we put on the heritage associated with the cemetery and the memory of the 33,000 local people buried there, including more than a hundred official war heroes. Having obtained copies of the burial registers, we also had plans to make these available online and free of charge to anyone interested.
During 2011 we conducted a number of very successful guided walks around the cemetery and organised several events at which other local history groups staged small exhibitions in the chapel. The last of these also provided local people with the chance to look up entries in the burial registers, free of charge.
Our organisation was called The Friends of Radnor Street Cememtery, but some parties took this to mean that we were a formal and perhaps funded organisation with a responsibility of upkeep at the cemetery and even individual graves, when in fact we are just a loose band of interested volunteers and local historians with a general interest in the past, present and future of the cemetery.
We had preliminary meetings with other groups and Swindon Borough Council with a view to mounting a bid for a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant so that we could emulate other cemetery preservation groups by turning Radnor Street into an asset in the community, both in terms of an improved environment, but also by releasing some of the potential that we felt the chapel could be as a venue for small events, if given sufficient support.
Despite having planned more guided walks for 2012 and with the intention of opening up the chapel for more events, all our efforts were put on hold when Swindon Borough Council suddenly raised doubts over the viability of conducting walks and staging events without special publlic liability insurance cover.
At the same time, a number of pews were removed from the chapel, which we had been unaware of until we arrived one day to find them gone. We consider the pews to be an integral part of the design and the heritage of the chapel at Radnor Street.
Furthermore, when news of the problem with the insurance appeared in the local press, we were disappointed to find that statements were made that did not fit with our experience.
As a very small organisation that survives on the enthusiasm, the will and indeed the goodwill of a tiny number of people who are trying to improve Radnor Street Cemetery on community, heritage and environmental grounds, as well as to honour all those people buried here, including more than 100 who lie in Commonwealth War Graves, the financial burden of insurance policies and the potential risk of being personally liable for claims meant that we did not see how we could continue.
Worse still, it is extremely demoralising to find that when you are trying to put something back into your community in your spare time and at your own expense, obstacles appear to be put in your way.
We were particularly concerned and upset to find that even the annual Remembrance Service seemed to be in jeopardy, despite having been safely held here since 2004 and having been regularly attended by the Mayor of Swindon and, indeed, an increasing number of local supporters.
It was also a shame that while we had developed an excellent working relationship with a number of different people employed by the Council, in particular the extremely helpful and conscientious Ranger Service, it seems impossible to please all of the people all of the time at the Civic Offices.
Now, thanks to offers of support from Daniel Rose, Chairman of the Mechanics' Institution Trust, and the Swindon History Coalition, who have worked hard to find a solution to our insurance dilemma, plus a new local undertaker, who has kindly offered sponsorship and other help, we are thinking again.
We have also been encouraged by a recent, more encouraging meeting with an official of Swindon Borough Council.
Our understanding now is that while we apparently cannot avoid having to find money to maintain a public liability insurance if we want to organise more activities at the chapel, we do not require insurance to conduct guided walks, although to do so would be at our own risk, even though we have never and will never charge a fee for attending the walk.
We therefore hope to stage some more walks soon, but we are not undertaking any further look-ups of the registers, and plans to organise more events at the chapel are also on hold, perhaps indefinitely. We are now beginning to clear the backlog of register look-up requests already received, and if you have contacted us, we will get back to you shortly.
We are no longer calling ourselves The Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery because this title does not seem to reflect the informal arrangement among volunteers, but we are still working towards making the registers available online. This will necessarily be a 'labour of love', so we cannot estimate when this will be complete.
If you have any queries, please contact us.