Mass grave containing dozens of babies found in Plymouth after 50 years
A "MASS grave" thought to contain the bodies of dozens of babies has lain forgotten in a Plymouth cemetery for more than 50 years.
An area of Ford Park Cemetery which is overgrown and neglected is believed to contain the bodies of more than 40 babies who were stillborn or died within hours of birth in the 1950s.
The discovery was made by Wendy Sophola while she was searching for information about her sister Mary, who was born on January 1, 1955, and died just a few hours later.
She obtained documents from the cemetery showing the bodies of 41 babies are contained in a small plot of land at the north end of the site.
Mrs Sophola, 55, told The Herald: "I was shocked to think that there is that number of babies in one mass grave.
"I have asked questions like 'How are they presented? Are they side by side or what?
"Were they in little coffins, or were they just wrapped in muslin?
"The cemetery staff said they are not quite sure but there are some on top of each other.
"I just said 'Oh my God.'
"It's quite disturbing really."
Mrs Sophola is hoping to cut the overgrown bracken and branches back to allow access to the graves.
She said: "I want to do this not just for Mary but for everyone else. It's so sad.
"There must be lots of parents out there still alive whose babies are in there.
"I think if people were to read this in the paper it might trigger some memories.
"There might be a mother reading thinking 'I had a baby in that year, I never knew that happened'."
The cemetery opened in 1848 and was run by the Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport Cemetery Company until 1999.
When the company went into liquidation the Ford Park Cemetery Trust was formed to manage the site.
Trust chairman John Boon said records indicated that several babies were buried together in the same plot of land in the 1950s.
"There are a number of graves in that area that the previous company used to bury babies who were stillborn or suffered neonatal death," he said.
"They dealt with it in a different way to how we would probably do it these days, there is a greater awareness now."
Mr Boon said the area Mrs Sophola was asking about has been maintained as a wildlife reserve, but said he would discuss the issue with her and possibly allow her to cut the area back.
Mr Boon added: "I don't think this is any different to what other cemeteries do in terms of attitudes towards the burial of babies, all cemeteries back in that day did the same sort of thing.
"It was just a question of attitudes towards things in that day.
"We now have a dedicated area for the burial of babies where parents can buy freehold graves."
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE SISTER SHE NEVER KNEW
WENDY Sophola grew up knowing she had a sister called Mary, who was born on New Year’s Day in 1955 and died just 16 hours later.
Mrs Sophola, who lives in Longstone Avenue, Southway, had no other information until last month when her father revealed that Mary had been buried in Ford Park Cemetery.
Mrs Sophola said: “We always asked questions about Mary but never really got any answers.
“Then, on New Year’s Eve last year, I went to visit my dad, who is 83 and in a residential home.
“He started talking about Mary and he said ‘I got her buried in the proper manner.’
“I said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said ‘I can tell you the name of the cemetery’.
“I started looking into it and I came here and gave them the story.”
Staff at the cemetery looked at old records and pointed Mrs Sophola towards a corner of the 34-acre site where her sister – named as Mary Lewis – was supposedly buried.
But she found the whole plot was overgrown with brambles and branches and she was not able to access Mary’s grave.
“I was quite sad really, quite shocked,” she said.
“I would really not expect to see this amount of overgrowth on people’s graves.
“I would expect them to try to keep it nice.
“I had been so excited that we found her but coming up here and seeing it in that state was disappointing.
“I find it quite disturbing really. There is no respect there for the dead.”
Mrs Sophola, whose mother died about 18 years ago, was always told her sister had been placed between the legs of an unnamed woman and buried with her.
But Mary’s birth and death certificates, which Mrs Sophola was able to obtain last week, show this was not the case.
THE Herald has decided not to publish the babies’ names.
However, according to the forgotten cemetery documents, 41 newborns are thought to be buried in the mass “stillborn grave” at Ford Park Cemetery.
All were laid to rest between January and December 1954 after being born at the city’s Freedom Fields Hospital or the Alexandra Maternity Home – except one, apparently born at home.
If you believe a family member may be among them and wish to see the list of names, please contact The Herald on 01752 765529.