Oral History

My Arnos Vale

Contributors’ stories of Arnos Vale Cemetery cover a cross-section of time and experiences from childhood memories through to individual and collective action.
Here, for the first time, they tell their stories:

Arthur Usher

Arthur Usher was one of the first volunteers to join the campaign to save Arnos Vale in 1987, and recalled visiting his family graves as far back as the 1940s. Until recently, Arthur was a familiar face at Arnos Vale, helping wage war against the brambles and supervising tea-time! Sadly, Arthur passed away on September 1, 2014, aged 94. Arthur uses some strong language to tell his story. Duration 4.17 minutes

Joyce Thatcher

Joyce Thatcher has been visiting the cemetery for over 60 years.  Shortly after her mother’s burial in 1986, she read press reports about the cemetery owner Mr Towner’s plans for redevelopment and rang him up to protest down the phone. Like many others, she responded to a public call from Arthur Usher to ‘do something about it’. Duration 3.55 minutes

Terence Elstone

Terence Elstone courted his wife in Arnos Vale when he was a teenager. He loved the woods and sense of space. Later his brother, a soldier killed whilst on duty in Northern Ireland, was buried in the cemetery. Terence attended a heated public meeting at Holy Nativity Church in 1987, which resulted in the formation of a campaigning group, the Association for the Preservation of Arnos Vale Cemetery – known as APAC. Duration 3.14 minutes

Fay Bittner

Fay Bittner grew up in Knowle and has relatives buried in Arnos Vale. Discovering the threat of housing development to their family grave in 1987, she pledged her support to save the cemetery and became active in the early campaign, when APAC meetings were held in local pubs around Brislington village. Duration 3.55 minutes

Malcolm Blackmore

Malcolm Blackmore’s father was buried in Arnos Vale in the mid 60s. Malcolm became a member of APAC, attended meetings when he could and recalls the peaceful march to the Council House to highlight the plight of cemetery in July 1998.  Duration 3.19 minutes

Anne O’Donaghue

Anne O’Donaghue’s son is buried at Arnos Vale. She and her husband chose the cemetery because they thought he would have loved it – wild, beautiful and romantic.  Anna joined the campaign in 1998, but later moved away from Bristol. On returning to the City, she was amazed at what had been achieved at Arnos Vale since its restoration in 2010.  Duration 3.08 minutes

Joyce Smith MBE

Joyce Smith MBE and her late husband Richard were instrumental in saving Arnos Vale Cemetery. Joyce was born nearby and loved the place from an early age. She not only played a crucially important role in APAC and later the Friends, but was also responsible for recruiting her husband Richard to the cause. Their extraordinary joint efforts and dedication were rewarded with a victorious result in the High Court and MBEs from the Queen for their services. Duration 4.30 minutes

Rob Stokes

Rob Stokes is the Deputy Editor of the Bristol Post. Rumours about the future of Arnos Vale had begun circulating by the time he started at the newspaper in 1990. When the Post backed the campaign to save the cemetery in 1998, it was hit by a tidal wave of support from around the world. Duration 4.11 minutes

Jim Neale

Jim Neale first came into conflict with cemetery management after his father died and two days before the funeral, Jim discovered that someone else had been buried in the family plot. Like other families outraged by the owner’s notice to ‘Dig up your dead’ in 1998, Jim was determined that the cemetery would not be sold, and was one of the ‘Arnos Army’ of volunteers who maintained the site. Duration 3.12 minutes

Rodney Jones

Rodney Jones was greatly angered to be told he must dig up his daughter’s ashes. He responded by raising a petition which within days drew press attention to the plight of the cemetery. After a confrontation between the owner and a large crowd of concerned locals, Rodney and other volunteers took responsibility for opening the cemetery gates, which would continue for many years. Rodney accepted a Gold Star award from the Bristol Post on behalf of the achievements of this ‘Arnos Army’. Duration 4.20 minutes


‘Sid’ was given her Arnos Vale nickname after an encounter with a rude passer-by in the cemetery when she was clearing rubbish. She has worked tirelessly with the Arnos Army since 1998, including opening and shutting the cemetery gates on a daily basis for 11 years. She still works as a volunteer today. Duration 4.35 minutes

Lorna Lee

Lorna Lee has many relatives remembered in Arnos Vale and remembers visiting with holly wreaths at Christmas and her bridal bouquet after her wedding. She was very upset by  the ‘Dig up your Dead’ headlines and what would happen to her family’s ashes and supported the campaign to save the cemetery in any way she could for many years. Duration 3.12 minutes

Charles Howlett

Charles Howlett was working at South Bristol Cemetery when he first visited Arnos Vale in the early 1980s. He was struck by the state of decline, the air of sadness and the antiquated crematorium infrastructure of the cemetery which was now well past its hey-day. Duration 4.31 minutes 

Peter Marsh

Peter Marsh was responsible for repairing the crematorium burners at Arnos Vale in the early 1990s, when the cemetery was in serious decline. It was a tough and sometimes harrowing job and his description of working in the furnace contains some sensitive material. Duration 4.00 minutes 

Rodney Drew

Rodney Drew was a musician who often played the organ in the chapel at Arnos Vale during funeral services. He grew up locally and first visited the cemetery in the 1940s to visit the graves of his ancestors and grandparents.  Duration 4.04 minutes 

Elaine Harris

Elaine Harris moved to Totterdown in 1992 and joined the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery in order to meet new people and get involved in her local community. She later joined the Friends Committee as secretary and editor of the newsletter during the final years of the campaign and the beginning of restoration project. Duration 3.38 minutes  

Stephen Barrow

Stephen Barrow was recently awarded honorary life membership of the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery after serving as their Chairman for 6 years in the later stages of the campaign and restoration. Over the years, the Friends raised more than £100,000 funds, and gave hundreds of hours of volunteer time to the restoration project. His early memories of the cemetery include watering flowers on his grandmother’s grave in the 50s, and attending his father’s grave in the late 60s. Duration 3.49 minutes

Carla Contractor

Carla Contractor’s early involvement was through her connections to the tomb of Rajah Rammohun Roy and her efforts to ensure public access to it. Carla joined the Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust board of trustees at its formation in 2003 and describes their shared ‘mission’ to preserve Arnos Vale. Duration 4.10 minutes

Why an Oral History project?

Volunteers who recorded and transcribed interviews explain the importance of this project:

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Contributors to the project have also had personal motivations for taking part:

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