Tradition suggests that those who were unbaptized, excommunicated, had committed suicide, had died violently, or were strangers (and sometimes the poor), were not buried with the majority of graves. Some of these were buried on the north or west side of the church and some beyond the churchyard.
One argument against the burial of the majority of parishioners on the north side was that if the gate was on the south, people would not pray for the deceased on the north because they would not pass their graves. Once a few respected people were buried on the north side, others followed suit.
The absence of graves, or at least grave markers, on the north side made it free for other activities, including sports (see activities in churchyards)
After 1823, an act enabled suicides to be buried in consecrated ground but only between 9 pm and midnight, and without ceremony.
None but excommunicated, or persons executed, or very poor, and friendless people are buried on the north side of the churchyard.
NLW ms 2576 A manuscript copy of a document once in the possession of the Bishop of St Asaph which is thought to date to about 1735. The copy is in a notebook from the Thomas Pennant collection.
An infant, [murdered by his mother] is to be interred in the churchyard, having been baptised.
Diary of Eleanor Butler, one of the Ladies of Llangollen, NLW Ms 22971C; Bell, G.H., (editor), Hamwood Papers of the Ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton, (1930)
In no distant time the north side, like those of all other Welsh churches, was thought by some superstition, to be occupied only by persons executed, or by suicides. It is now nearly as much crowded as the other parts.
Pennant, Thomas, History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell , (1796), p. 102
Whilst my driver was refreshing his horses at Gwyddelwen [Gwyddelwern, Denbighshire?] I visited the church yard. Here the custom of not burying on the north side is scrupulously adhered to. On the other sides the graves are crowded.
Colt Hoare, Richard, Journal of a tour in 1801, NLW 16489, p. 65
I have observed that, in most parts of North Wales, the same practice prevails which is common in England, of crowding all the bodies into that part of the church-yard which is south of the church. The only reason that I heard the Welsh people give for this custom is, that the north is the wrong side. The true reason, however, is, that formerly it was customary for persons, on entering a church-yard, and seeing the grave of a friend or acquaintance, to put up to heaven a prayer for the peace of their soul; and since the entrances to churches were usually either on the west or south side, those persons who were interred on the north escaped the common notice of their friends, and thereby lost the benefit of their prayers. Thus the north side becoming a kind of refuse spot, only paupers, still-born infants, or persons guilty of some crimes, were buried there. (Grose’s Olio, 222)
Bingley, W., Rev, A Tour round North Wales including its Scenery, Antiquities, Customs and some Sketches of its Natural History; Delineated from two Excursions through all the interesting Parts of the Country, during the summers of 1798 and 1801, (1804),
According to the superstitious notions tenaciously retained in almost every district in the Principality, the custom of never interring the dead on the north, or wrong side of the church, is here most scrupulously observed. The graves lie invariably on the south side, or at the east and west extremity of the church, where the burial ground displays all the neatness and simplicity of a rustic flower garden.
Donovan, Edward, Descriptive Excursions through South Wales and Monmouthshire, in the year 1804 and the four preceding summers (London, 1805)
The custom of dancing in the churchyard, at their feasts and revels, is universal in Radnorshire, and very common in other parts of the principality. Indeed, this solemn abode is rendered a kind of circus for every sport and exercise. The young man play at fives and tennis against the wall of the church. It is not however to be understood that they literally dance over the graves of their progenitors. This amusement takes place on the north side of the churchyard, where it is the custom not to bury.
Malkin, B.H., M.A., F.S.A., (1769-1842), The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography of South Wales from materials collected during two excursions in the year 1803. Embellished with views drawn on the spot and engraved by Laporte and a map of the county, (London: 1804), p. 270
According to the superstitious notions tenaciously retained in almost every district in the Principality, the custom of never interring the dead on the north, or wrong side of the church, is here most scrupulously observed. The graves lie invaably [sic] on the south side, or at the east and west extremity of the church,
Donovan, Edward, Descriptive Excursions through South Wales and Monmouthshire, in the year 1804 and the four preceding summers (London, 1805, 2 vols.), p. 303
1807 Llanbedr church yard, Breconshire
The church yard being thrown open to the front – kept very clean – planted and surrounded with a gravel walk, has all the air of a pleasure ground to the house, a fortunate prejudice preventing the parishioners from burying on the north side of the church. The lower Welsh are said still to retain many of the ancient Superstitions of their Fore fathers, and this among the rest. A late Traveller (Carrs, Stranger in Ireland) [Carr, John,The Stranger in Ireland or, a Tour in the Southern and Western Parts of that Country, in the Year 1805, (1806)], remarks that in some parts of our sister island, the same prejudices are entertained. The [parochial] [the writer’s square brackets] dead being buried only on the south and east sides: the north is looked upon as the Devil’s side and the west for unbaptized children, for soldiers and strangers.
Recollections of a visit to Llanbeder [Llanbedr] in the County of Brecon with remarks on an excursion down the River Wye from Rhos to Chepstow including Abergavenny, Monmouth, Piecefield, Raglan etc by A.M.Cuyler 1807, NLW mss. 784A, pp. 30-31 Actually written by Henry Thomas Payne, the rector of Llanbedr for A.M.Cuyler.
In many parts of Wales the relations most ridiculously crowd all their kindred into that portion of the church-yard which is south of the church, the north, or as they term it, the wrong side, being accounted unhallowed ground, and fit only to be the dormitory of still-born infants and suicides.
Bruce, William Joseph, A Peregrination through part of the Counties of Somerset, Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire with a portion of South Wales and a tour round north Wales as performed in the Autumn of the Year 1810, to which is subjoined a brief History of the Principality of Wales … and a tour [of part of England] during the summer of 1809, pp. 299-300
They have another singular custom in Radnorshire; that of dancing in the church-yards at feasts and revels; though not exactly over the graves of their fore-fathers; the amusement being always on the north side of the church.
Newell, Robert Hasell, Rev, (1778-1852), Letters on the Scenery of Wales; including a series of Subjects for the Pencil, with their Stations determined on a General Principle; and Instructions to Pedestrian Tourists (1821), p. ?
John Davies a slaterer from Wrexham was executed for highway robbery. When about to be executed, Davies still declared his innocence and foretold that grass would not grow on his grave for a generation. He was buried in un-consecrated ground on the north side of Montgomery churchyard. Rev Elias Owen noted the grave without grass in 1850 (not published until 1884), and there were subsequent reports of the lack of grass over it.
Owen, Elias, Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd, (1886), p. 197
Lloyd, John David Knatchbull, The Robber’s Grave in Montgomery Churchyard, (n.d.)
based on Lloyd, John David Knatchbull, [Title] Montgomery Collections, vol. 56 (1959), pp. 21-44 based on stories published in 1852 by a local cleric and another in 1945, based on the recollections of a woman whose father had witnessed the execution in 1821.
1839 Newport, Monmouthshire
Ten of the Chartists killed during a riot at Newport in 1839 were buried in an unmarked grave at dead of night on the north side of St Woolos’ church. (source: Jeremy Knight) There is an inscribed stone on a wall in the graveyard commemorating these men.
1840 Newport, Monmouthshire
Last Sunday, vulgo “Flowering Sunday,” the graves of the Chartists slain at the Westgate on the 4th of November, were decked with flowers and laurels, and surmounted with the following lines:-
“May the rose of England never blow,
The Clyde of Scotland cease to flow,
The harp of Ireland never play,
Until the Chartists gain the day.”
It maybe presumed that the enthusiast who made this metrical exhibition, considered himself doing honour to the manes [sic] of the unfortunate victims of misleading and revolutionary men but it were better far not to distinguish the resting-places of those who died in a murderous attack upon their fellow-subjects.
Monmouthshire Merlin, 18.4.1840; Cambrian, 25.4.1840
Confirmed that north side of churchyard was restricted to suicides, unbaptized infants and executed people.
Rev Elias Owen (1833-1899), Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd, 1860
So the baby was carried in a small deal box, under an ancient woman’s shawl, to the churchyard that night, and buried by lantern-light, at the cost of a shilling and a pint of beer to the sexton, in that shabby corner of God’s allotment where He lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptized infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid.
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (serialised in 1891), chapter 14
FURTHER READING (by no means an exhaustive list)
Westwood and Simpson, The Lore of the Land, (2005), p. 195
Whyte, The deviant dead in the Norfolk Landscape in Inhabiting the Landscape. Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800, (2009), 157
Silvester, Robert J., The North Side of the Churchyard, in Britnell, William J., and Silvester, Robert J., (editors) Reflections on the past : essays in honour of Frances Lynch (date), pp. 432-451
Gittings, Clare, Death, burial and the individual in early modern England London : Croom Helm, (c. 1984), p .72-73