New COLAS member, Emma, talks about her first experience of volunteering at Leavesden Hospital’s East Lane Cemetery and how it led to a passion for archaeology.
On 12th January 2020, Leavesden Hospital’s East Lane Cemetery came to life. It is true, and I was there to witness it. I was lucky enough to be part of a team of volunteers put together by Martin Brooks, a man with a wealth of knowledge on the Hospital and it’s 150 year history from when it first opened as an Asylum to when it closed in 1995. He has spent many years working hard to get the cemetery tidied up and remembered, and finally it was happening on a cold and wet January day.
Some of the volunteers had family links to the cemetery and the psychiatric hospital it served. Others, like me, just had a great interest in this neglected corner of the hospital site. I have loved cemeteries since I was a child, looking at the headstones and reading the inscriptions. I also loved archaeology and history, so combine them altogether and I was in my element.
We thought we would find 30-35 cremation markers, possibly a few more. The place had been neglected over the years and nothing could be seen except for trees, grass and mud.
In our small groups we were given areas to uncover. I worked with Vanessa where I dug, and she kept a record of our findings. As I found a new cremation marker, I said hello to every one of them. I just wanted them to know they would not be forgotten anymore. I found memorials for a 2-year-old little girl and then a baby girl of 3 1/2 months old. I cried then. I cried for the little girls and I cried for their mummies. As a mum of four myself, I couldn’t imagine how or why they were placed in a hospital like Leavesden.
Over the next couple of weekends, the group found just over 500 markers. These patients and members of staff buried here can now be given the respect they deserve, and the cemetery will be re-dedicated in October. On a personal note, something happened to me during this project. The fire in my belly ignited, I found something that I was passionate about and I could be a part of. I have recently started an Archaeology for Beginners course online and I have joined COLAS after my new friend, David Wellings, suggested I join. I want to learn and discover, and I know I can do it now. I have to thank everyone in the group, but especially Martin and David, they will never know what an impact they have had on me. Leavesden Hospital Cemetery was not the only thing bought to life that day in January. I was as well.