Horton Cemetery contains burials of mental health and epileptic patients, soldiers and asylum born children from 1899-1955.

When formed in 1888, the London County Council took over responsibility for thousands of the mentally ill. Their families could no longer look after them or had never done so. Many of these people were elderly, and some had been living in workhouses. The LCC needed new buildings to house them, and in 1896 its Asylum Committee bought some land at Horton. It was a large area of land, capable of supporting five or six mental hospitals which came to be known as The Epsom Cluster – the largest concentration of them in the country.

By 1898 it was clear that the Asylums Committee meant business. The hospital at the manor was almost finished, and plans were under way for another at Horton. The Epsom Council was most alarmed at this. The asylums were growing much faster than they had expected – soon there would be up to ten thousand people, a second town almost the size of Epsom itself. Some of them would be discharged after a short stay, but the hospital regime was set up to look after people rather than cure them. Many – perhaps most – would remain at Horton until they died. What then?

Epsom’s Ashley Road Cemetery

It was not so long ago – 1871, in fact – that the council had opened its own cemetery in Ashley Road. This replaced the parish graveyard at St. Martin’s church, where generations of the dead had been laid, ever since the days when Epsom was a Saxon village. Now it was a thriving Surrey town with a growing population, and room was running out, the land at Ashley Road was purchased just in time. The councillors were rather proud of their new cemetery. It had a porter’s lodge beside wrought iron gates, and the architect had given it two fine chapels, one for the Church of England and one for dissenters.

In short, Epsom did not want the peace and dignity of its cemetery to be spoilt by an influx of pauper lunatics. For the winter of 1898, the councillors allowed a few burials on the uphill side, away from the gates, charging the usual fee of £1 per burial which was made for people who came from outside the town. But the Asylums Committee were told, firmly but politely, that they would need a cemetery of their own. And in the following spring Mr. Clifford Brown, the Asylums Engineer, came down to find a site.

Asylum Cemetery

Clifford Brown was looking for a small plot of land, away from the hospitals themselves, but easy to get to. The corner of Hook Road and Horton Lane seemed to fit the bill; it was already owned by the LCC and stood at some distance from the existing asylums at the Manor and Horton, as well as the proposed site of Long Grove. There was only one problem – unlike the Ashley Road cemetery, which was on a chalk slope, this site rested on the sticky clay soil of Horton. Water bubbled up in holes almost as soon as they were dug. The Borough Surveyor and the Medical Officer insisted that drains should be laid below the level of the graves to clear the water, running off into a holding pond on the other side of Horton Lane.

Throughout 1899, Brown was kept busy planning the new cemetery. It would hold 900 graves in rows on either side of a central path. Like the hospital grounds, it was to be marked off from the road by an iron fence, behind which there would be a raised bank planted with a privet hedge. Works cost £869, rather less than half what was originally budgeted, and the cost included £252 for a chapel provided by Messrs. William Harbrow. This was what used to be called a tin tabernacle: it had a wooden framework fitted with corrugated iron sheets to keep off the rain and lined on the inside with felt and match boarding. Pointed windows and a little turret gave it an ecclesiastical character, but it was still a marked contrast with the detailed Gothic stonework of the Ashley Road chapels.

On 31st July 1899 the cemetery received its first burial – Annie JAMES, who had been at the Manor. Her shroud cost 8d, the gravediggers were paid 10/6d, and James Ockenden the undertaker received £1/12/6d. The Asylums Committee were anxious to keep down costs. They did not put-up memorials, although they had no objections to these if they were provided by relatives. Sarah HUBBARD was admitted to the Manor in August 1901 and died a month later; her brother put up a headstone shortly afterwards. Others were to follow, perhaps thirty or forty over the next five decades. This was a tiny proportion of those buried there, but many families were too poor to afford a memorial or had lost touch altogether with their relatives at Horton.

The building of the Epsom Cluster of mental hospitals went on apace – the Epileptic Colony (afterwards St. Ebba’s) in 1902, Long Grove in 1907 and West Park at last in 1924. The Manor continued to manage the cemetery, supported financially by the other hospitals. They were quite conscientious about its upkeep; double rows of poplar trees were planted in 1901, and two years later the cemetery was enlarged. When the chapel became dirty or untidy, the Asylums Engineer was told to sort it out. But things were still being done on the cheap. Several funerals were in the hands of Simpsons of Walworth, who sent down their hearse in charge of a shabby and unwashed driver. In 1906 he turned up with his two small children riding on the hearse. It was all rather lax, and not what one expected for a funeral.

Then there were problems with the drainage. More than a thousand grave spaces were available, each one ticketed with a metal marker, but more room was needed. The coffins were wood, of course, and wood floats; if the grave filled with water, there could be distressing scenes. Alfred Hillier, who turned in his job as farm labourer in 1925 and applied for cemetery keeper (58/6d for a 47 hour week) had a tough time ahead of him.

If the Asylums Committee economised on graves, they were positively lavish when it came to places of worship. Each of the hospitals had a commanding chapel, large enough to accommodate most of the patients each Sunday. Church attendance was to be a soothing and orderly part of their routine, with the music of the hymns bringing back memories of a time before they were hospitalised. But funerals were held at the tin tabernacle and were much smaller affairs. The chaplain or the free church minister would walk over – it was agreed that on wet days he could be driven at the asylum’s expense – and would conduct a brief service. The coffin would already be waiting in the chapel, having been wheeled down the lane on a small bier. Normally each individual received their own funeral service, but often they were buried in batches.

Before this, the dead would have been resting in the mortuary chapel which was attached to each hospital. These had begun as annexes to the post-mortem rooms. It was part of a nurse’s job to go round the wards in the morning and see if any patients had died during the night; then they could be removed with minimal fuss from their neighbours on either side. But later these buildings were fitted up as chapels of rest, with their own lying-in coffins. People who had no friends outside the hospital could be passed on for dissection – one shilling per body was the going rate in 1903 – although at the request of their community, the bodies of Jewish patients were not sold.

War Time

The First World War saw an upheaval in the life of the Epsom Cluster. Horton Hospital was closed, and its 2,100 patients were transferred to other institutions. In 1915 Horton reopened as a war hospital, treating wounded soldiers who had been brought back from the horrors of the Front. The hospital was run by Lieutenant-Colonel Lord – Dr. Lord, as he had been when he was in charge of the asylum. One of his many duties was the burial of soldiers who had died of their wounds. Epsom Council were approached, as they had been in 1898, but this time the response was much more sympathetic and a small area within Epsom Cemetery, Ashley Road, was set aside for such burials. Soldiers who died of their wounds in Epsom’s War Hospitals were buried here rather than in the Horton asylums cemetery, with inmates who had died in the asylums. This was and still is maintained to a very high standard by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now Commonwealth War Graves Commission CWGC). Of the 148 men named, 59 are Canadian, six are Australian, two are Gurkhas, one is from Burma and one is from India. The other 79 are from a variety of units from the UK, mainly army but there are three from naval forces and two from the RAF.

It is interesting to note that all the 59 Canadian burials are in individual plots as are the two Gurkhas and the two from Burma and the one from India. Of the six Australians, three are buried indivdually but the other three are buried together. However, of the 79 from the UK, only four are buried individually, the other 75 being buried in 12 plots with up to nine in a single plot. There are two special memorials in the CWGC plot to men buried in Horton cemetery, one from the First world War and one from the Second World War. Why they were buried in the Horton Asylum cemetery and not the CWGC plot in Epsom cemetery is a mystery.

During World War II, Horton was once again made into a war hospital. In addition, the other hospitals catered for a number of soldiers, mostly foreign nationals, whose mental health had suffered under the stress of war. Those who died at Epsom were buried at the Hook Road cemetery, their graves marked by wooden crosses. There were other patients like George Saunders, an ambulance driver who worked through the Blitz until he was injured and had to be hospitalised; he was buried in 1942 with a small headstone.


The 1950s transformed the Epsom Cluster of hospitals. They were no longer supposed to be isolated, self-sufficient communities; now it was hoped that patients would stay for shorter periods, and that there would be fewer of them. Numbers fell from the thousands to the hundreds, and in 1955 the Hook Road cemetery was closed. The grounds continued to be maintained as a garden of rest, although the tin chapel disappeared. In its place was a small paved area, where the few headstones were set under a weeping willow tree, after being removed from their proper graves. The rest of the cemetery was maintained as a lawn under the trees.

It continued in good order until the 1970s, but meanwhile national attitudes to the great mental hospitals were undergoing a change. They were no longer seen as the answer to mental health problems, and a regional working party recommended that the Horton property should be sold to defray the expenses of care. The authorities had already lost interest in the cemetery and the remaining headstones were being vandalised. In 1983 the Regional Health Authority sold the land to Michael Heighes of Marque Securities in Kingswood. Mr. Heighes seemed to have no interest in maintaining the land as a cemetery; he was a property developer. The condition of the grounds grew worse with time. In 1996, when redevelopment of the hospital cluster was imminent, the first attempts were made to bring Hook Road cemetery back into the public memory.

Text courtesy of Jeremy Harte
Curator Bourne Hall Museum