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History of the British Cemetery

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There are several written histories of the British Cemetery in Lisbon, the most learned being that of Robert Howes of King's College, London published in 2005 by The British Historical Society of Portugal. This 227 page volume goes into a great deal of detail which is overly long for a shortish website history like this one. So I am taking the liberty of selecting highlights from his work, and others, and if you are interested to read further, I urge you to contact the Historical Society by email  ) to purchase a copy of Mr. Howes' work.


There have been merchants, of course, living and working in Lisbon since the medieval period. All was well until the reformation and the adoption of a protestant faith in Britain. Portugal, as a Roman Catholic country, had a church which regarded all protestants as heretics and so extraordinary measures had to be taken to bury the protestant dead. Either they were buried at sea or, in Lisbon, packed into sugar boxes and ferried across the River Tagus and buried on the south bank, often at night, to avoid the attention of church authorities. If this was not done it invited desecration of the graves.


In 1654 a treaty was negotiated between Oliver Cromwell and King João IV of Portugal. Part of the terms were that English subjects, residing in Lisbon, should have a plot of land allotted to them "fit for the burial of their dead" situated in the Lisbon area. No action took place for sixty years owing to the objections of the Portuguese Inquisition. Then, in 1717, the Consul,

W. Poyntz, was able to report to Lord Methuen in London that he had been able to lease a suitable piece of ground for the burial of the dead. An adjacent piece of land was subsequently leased by the Dutch in 1723 with the same landlord as the British. Whereas the original British lease was lost in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the 1723 Dutch leases survives. Subsequent joint leases to the English and Dutch Factories ( a Factory describes a grouping of merchants in a particular foreign locale ) were made in 1729 and 1733. The triangular section at the bottom of Fig. 1 was the joint leased area ( See also Fig 2 ).

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Fig 1: 1779 Plan of Cemetery { placed on the side to show its usual north/south orientation }

Fig 2: Plan of Cemetery showing English, Dutch and joint lease areas



The first Parish Registers began to be kept in 1721, so 2021 is the tercentenary of these valuable volumes detailing the baptism, marriage and burial of British protestants in Lisbon.


Fig. 1 shows the Cemetery as it was in 1779 and the plan has been rotated to show the view as it would appear from the present entrance on Rua São Jorge. However originally the main entrance was on the Travessa dos Ladrões, or Thieves Alley, on the right hand side of the figure ( this then became known as Rua Nossa Senhora dos Milagres and now as Rua da Estrela ). The Mortuary Chapel was located by this gate into the Cemetery in 1794. The inscription over the door of the Mortuary Chapel makes reference to this collaboration between the British and Dutch ( see Fig 3 below ).


Fig 3: Inscription over door of the Mortuary Chapel


One tradition says that the Cemetery had to be completely surrounded by trees on the insistence of the Inquisition "to hide the graves of heretics from the eyes of the faithful". Cypress trees also bordered the main path shown on Fig.1, a few of which still survive.


The earliest, still extant, headstone in the Cemetery is that of Francis La Roche who died on 5th February 1724 and was buried on the following day.

Fig. 4: Headstone of Francis La Roche 1724



One of the most notable graves in the Cemetery is that of Henry Fielding. This English magistrate,  novelist and playwright 

( author of 'The History of Tom Jones' ) came to Lisbon in 1754 because he had gout, asthma, cirrhosis of the liver and other complaints and it was thought that the climate in Portugal would somehow bring about a cure. He wrote a journal of the trip entitled 'Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon'. Unfortunately it would be his last trip and he died in Lisbon on 8th October 1754. However all pages of the burial register are missing between June 1754 and August 1762, for an unknown reason, so no record of burial survives. In 1830 the monument below was erected by subscription. The location of Fielding's actual grave plot is unknown, however it is thought to be in the vicinity of this memorial.

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Fig 5: Memorial of Henry Fielding


On 1st November 1755 the Great Lisbon Earthquake occurred. Although much of the city and the Benedictine monastery next to the Cemetery were devastated, the Cemetery was largely undamaged. However in the course of the new grave inscription survey I am carrying out, I have noticed areas where the land surface appears to have been raised, often obscuring parts of inscriptions. Sixty eight British people perished in the earthquake.


In 1779-80 a dispute arose between the British and the Dutch. It seems the British wanted to create a separate entrance on the eastern side of the Cemetery. At the same moment the Dutch consul Daniel Gildemeester decided to erect a large tomb to his son Jan Gildermeester in the British part of the Cemetery, just where this new entrance would have been constructed. He refused point blank to move the monument. Members of the British Factory became most irate about this but the British Consul-General had to intervene and remind the merchants that they had never specifically asked that their members have pre-eminence in that area. So Gildermeester's monument remains to this day at the end of a nicely paved path (  see Fig 6

below ).

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Fig 6: Tomb of Daniel and Jan Gildermeester



On 12th November 1807 the French General Junot invaded Portugal and occupied Lisbon on 30th November without opposition. The Royal family had narrowly escaped, with the help of the British, and were on their way to Brazil. The occupation of Portugal lasted until 1808 when the French forces were allowed to leave Portugal under the Convention of Cintra. From 1807 until 1811 there are no extant Parish Registers. There are theories as to what happened to them. One theory says they were sent to England and either lost in a shipwreck at sea or survive in an English repository. It has to be said that there is no record in the National Archives or any other British archive of these registers nor is there conclusive proof of either their shipment or loss at sea. They may lie hidden somewhere in Portugal but that is a task for any budding Sherlock Holmes out there willing to take on the challenge. The Registers, when they resume in 1811, are fragmentary for a number of years but I have tried to piece together information from other sources, such as The Gentleman's Magazine, to fill in detail throughout these lost years. Also the graves themselves provide detail of those buried in this period. However many graves will have been unmarked, especially for combatant casualties in the Peninsular War. There are thought to many soldiers buried under the present church of St. George.


In 1814 notice was given to the British Chargé d'Affaires, Louis Casamajor, that the owner of the Legation House, where services had been held up until then, wanted to repossess it that year. Therefore a new building had to be found. From 1815 to 1816 a building was leased for this purpose near the Necessidades Palace but it soon proved insufficient for the purpose. Various plots of land were considered for building a chapel but in 1819 it was decided to erect such a chapel on the military burial ground within the British Cemetery instead. The first chapel of St. George the Martyr was therefore dedicated in 1822.

Fig 7: The First Chapel


There must have been a lack of maintenance because by 1835 the chapel was in such a bad way that extensive repairs had to be carried out on it at a cost of around £215. in 1836 an organ was installed at a further cost of 600,000 Réis or around £150. One joyous occasion happened in July 1859 when the Prince of Wales ( later King Edward VII ) visited the Chapel for Matins. However a mere three months later another earthquake rocked Lisbon and serious damage was done to the Chapel, Parsonage and Cemetery boundary wall.


Then, on 8th April 1886, a fire started in the Chapel and within twelve hours the building was burned to the ground. Perhaps one of the greatest Chaplains in the history of the Cemetery, Canon Thomas Godfrey Pembroke Pope, came to the rescue and raised £1000 towards rebuilding within a month ! This, with the insurance compensation, allowed the start of rebuilding and a contract was placed on 20th April with Messrs. Medland & Powell. The building work took three years to complete with services being held, in the meantime, in the ballroom of the British Minister's house. The new Church  of St. George was finally consecrated in 1889. This is the church you visit in the cemetery today.

Fig 8: Canon Pope


During the 1899-1902 Second Boer War, Boer prisoners of war were sent to Portugal. Some died and although only one is buried in the Cemetery, a monumental cross was erected in 1913 to commemorate all who died whilst held in Lisbon, with inscriptions in both English and Dutch. Johannes Christoffel Nel is buried beneath the monument.

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Fig 9: The Boer War Monument



During the Second World War many servicemen who lost their lives were buried in the British Cemetery. Their graves come under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who help fund their maintenance. These headstones are of an iconic nature and will be recognised by any who have visited other war grave sites around Europe and beyond ( See Fig 10 below ).

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Fig 10: Commonwealth War Graves in Section G1


The Chaplain during this period was Harry Frank Fulford Williams. For anyone interested in the history of the British Cemetery, Fulford Williams is of immense importance. Although a survey of headstone inscriptions had been carried out in 1824, Fulford Williams set to complete a new survey in 1943. Until 2019, when I started my own inscription survey, this work was an essential tool to any church officer or researcher wanting to know who was buried in the Cemetery. His work has been an invaluable aid to me where stones have become worn over the decades to the point where they are very hard to read any more. Although he had his quirks and sometimes wrongly recorded inscription content ( he had a real desire to record 'correct' latin even if that was not how the actual inscription read ) he is considered a giant in the historical record of the Cemetery. He also recorded graves where no headstone had been erected and so provides detail to the grave markers with just a number written upon them. In my survey I am recording these people so visitors might know who is buried there.


He also left a record looking forward to the next event in the Cemetery's history, of graves due to be moved in years to come. Why? Well in 1942 it was decided, after the construction of a new monument to Pedro Álvares Cabral, to cut a new road along the southern boundary of the Cemetery north of the Estrela Gardens. The Council did not want to take much land from the gardens so they opened negotiations to purchase or expropriate a large area of the southern part of the British Cemetery. The contemporary plan of this area below show the parts envisaged to be lost. Many Jewish graves would have to be moved as well as British ones. The old entrance would have to be relocated and the Mortuary Chapel reconstructed in another location. In all 777 square metres would eventually be lost. Much argument resulted and agreement was not reached until 1948. The sums gained were used to buy the freehold of land in Rua da Estrela and Rua Saraiva de Carvalho including what till recent decades were the British Hospital and Estrela Hall. During this major alteration to the Cemetery, the Mortuary Chapel had to be moved from one end of the Cemetery to its present position, brick by brick. An amazing feat. A new caretaker's house was also constructed at the same time.


There was an ancient superstition that anyone who touches a Jewish grave is himself liable to suffer a violent death, and strangely, Duarte Pacheco, who first put forward the enterprise, died in a car crash within twelve months of his original proposal.


This new road became Rua São Jorge and the present entrance was erected fronting that road, preserving the carving which had been over the original entrance on Rua da Estrela, now proudly positioned over the new gates.


Fig 11: Plan showing the lost parts of the Cemetery when Rua São Jorge was constructed

Fig. 12: Original Carving from above the old entrance to the British Cemetery


If you walk around the British Cemetery today, which is a very pleasant experience with its many trees, plants and wildlife, you will see monuments to many nationalities and faiths. There are British, Dutch, Portuguese, American, German and many other nationals buried here. There are not only Protestants but Catholics, Jews and Baha’i as well. It is a sanctified space where you truly feel at peace.


In 2019 I started a completely new grave inscription survey, which not only includes updated records ( with photographs ) of graves featured in the 1824 and 1943 Surveys, but will bring the record of graves up to the present date. It is a work in progress but can be seen, with permission, at the Cemetery. Below are plans showing the sections of this survey in the Northern and Southern parts of the Cemetery ( See below Figs: 13 & 14 ).


Fig 13: Northern part of Cemetery

Fig 14: Southern part of Cemetery

It has been a great pleasure not only become acquainted with the personalities buried in the Cemetery, but also with all those who freely give of their time to administer, care for, and help in the running of both the Cemetery and the Church of St. George. It is to them that I dedicate this short history and this website in honour of the truly beautiful and historic British Cemetery in Lisbon.


                                                                                                                        John Pead BSc.

                                                                                                                        April 2021.

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