SIGHTINGS of a headless woman in South View Cemetery could well be the start of a ghoulish story.

But in this case the story is true. It concerns the Howat family tomb and has a reasonable explanation.

Debbie Reavell, the secretary of Basingstoke Heritage Society, has been involved with volunteers from South View Residents Association.

Many members have formed The South View Conservation Volunteers and, along with borough council staff, they have been busy clearing away overgrown vegetation in the cemetery.

Mrs Reavell said: "I was going to give a talk to the South View residents about the work we have been doing at the cemetery and to discuss the Howat tomb, which had been headless for many years.

"But the very morning I was going to do the talk, a member of the residents association, who walks his dog in the cemetery, said the head had turned up at the foot of the tomb.

"Perhaps it had been hidden in the undergrowth all these years, or, more likely, it had been in someone's garden and they thought I'd better put that back now'.

"It was a lovely surprise when the head was brought into the talk."

Mrs Reavell said that with the ivy, brambles and yew trees being cut back and cleared, several monuments of real interest and quality have been revealed.

The Howats' final resting place is a case in point and stands out from the other tombs and headstones in its vicinity.

It is in the non-conformist part of the cemetery and, by comparison, is rather ornate.

"John Howat was a draper with a business in Church Street," said Mrs Reavell.

"The family lived in Essex Road, in a house called Summerbrook, which is still there today.

"I remember going there for piano lessons as a teenager as, at the time, it was the home of Hilda Price, who was a music teacher."

The tomb is the grave for several members of the Howat family, which in itself shows how vicarious life was during Victorian times, even for relatively prosperous families.

Mrs Reavell added: "John Howat died suddenly when he was 57, and his wife Fanny carried on the business. She didn't die until 1916, when she was 83.

"The base of the tomb shows the names of three daughters, two who died quite young - Fanny was 16 and Eugenie was 19, while Margaret made it to 63."

It also mentions the names of three baby girls.

Mrs Reavell does not know what kind of non-conformists the Howat family were as, during Victorian times, there were many different churches.

She explained: "When you go through the census records, you find so many ministers and different kinds of congregational churches - Methodists, Baptist and all kinds of chapels."

Another family buried in the non-conformist section of the cemetery is the Burberrys, including the founder of the famous fashion house, Thomas Burberry, who was an Ebenezer Strict Baptist. His headstone is a simple boulder.

Nearby are various graves of the Wallis and Steevens families, who ran an important local business manufacturing a wide range of agricultural machinery and road-making equipment.

Mrs Reavell said that during Victorian times, although chapels and congregations that did not follow the tenets of the Church of England were tolerated, when these people were buried they chose to have their final resting places kept separate.

The Quakers had a section in the non-conformist burial ground, but a railing further separated it from the rest of the cemetery.

By contrast, the tombs of the May family, in the main part of the cemetery, are more ornate. These include that of Lieutenant-Colonel John May, who was Basingstoke's greatest benefactor.

It was he who paid for the bandstand that used to stand at Fairfields Recreation Ground, which was later moved to the town's War Memorial Park, as featured recently in Memories on Monday.

Elected mayor several times, the head of brewing company John May & Co was also responsible for May's Bounty cricket ground.

Nearby is an obelisk marking the burial ground of John Burgess Soper, the founder of an iron foundry on Basingstoke Wharf. He, too, was a mayor of Basingstoke.

Describing South View Cemetery as Basingstoke's answer to London's famous Highgate, Mrs Reavell said: "These non-conformists made Basingstoke. The railway came and these businesses arrived, and it's really what made the town into what we have today. I think that's when the new town of Basingstoke really started - not the 1960s."

Commenting on the cemetery now being full, Mrs Reavell said: "The gravestones that you see don't represent anything like the amount of burials here. Most people wouldn't have been able to afford a headstone - they would have just been buried."

Work on clearing the cemetery has been spurred on by the borough council deciding to reuse it for cremation burials.

The South View Conservation Volunteers have applied for a grant from the council to restore some of the headstones, including the Howat family's mourning lady.

"We want to do some repairs and stand up some of the stones that have fallen over or tilted," added Mrs Reavell.

"Where crosses have come off, we would like to have them spiked into place.

"Many of the headstones were not necessarily done very well in the 1880s. Some of them were cemented onto a base, and they tilt quite naturally and then slide off."