The cemetery has had various titles including The Cemetery by the Common, Hill Lane Cemetery and is currently known as Southampton Old Cemetery. An Act of Parliament was required in 1843 to acquire the land from Southampton Common. It now covers an area of 27 acres and the total number of burials is estimated at 116,800. Currently there are 6 to 8 burials a year to existing family plots.
An Act of Parliament was passed in 1843 which gave control of 15 acres of Southampton Common to the Corporation. By 1846, 10 of the 15 acres had been laid out and formed the new Cemetery, the remaining 5 acres becoming used for burial purposes from 1863
Decisions about the new cemetery were made by the Cemetery Committee, while overall co-ordination of the work was done by John D Doswell, the borough surveyor.
The town council approached John Claudius Loudon, a well known landscaper, designer of arboreta and cemeteries including Histon at Cambridge and Bath Abbey. Loudon normally based in London had been staying on the Isle of Wight whilst his wife was writing a book. The damp sea air had a debilitating effect on his health and he moved to take temporary lodgings in Southampton. Southampton Town council had no previous experience of laying out a cemetery and was pleased that Loudon was conveniently available. They paid him £37 for his services but decided not to use his proposed layout, and in fact, Loudon died at the end of 1843, long before the Cemetery was laid out. The Bishop of Winchester was not willing to concede that the proposed Anglican chapel would adjoin a non conformist chapel, which was another objection to the Loudon design.
After Loudon's death , the council held a competition and asked for alternative layouts. Two designs were received, and that of William Rogers a local nurseryman and councillor was accepted and he was awarded the contract. The runner up, Mr Page, received £5 compensation.
The cemetery, one of the earliest to be owned by a local council, opened in May 1846 as a 10 acre site. In the 1860's it was expanded by 5 acres and in the 1880's a third phase with an avenue of yew trees the main feature, was added.
A vital first step was to ensure adequate drainage of the cemetery, and the contract for this work in accordance with Loudon's original plan, was awarded to Arthur Few and William Capon.
Responsibility for building the walls surrounding the cemetery was given to Arthur Few.
The Cemetery was originally to be provided with two chapels - Church of England and Nonconformist, and a Lodge for the curator. Later a Jewish chapel was added, to adjoin the Lodge. These all still exist, with the difference that the C of E chapel is now used by an artwork design studio, the Nonconformist chapel for a charity's storage area, and the Lodge together with the Jewish Chapel is now a privately owned house.
The council advertised in February 1844 for designs for the set of three buildings, to be built in Gothic, Norman and Elizabethan styles, to cost under £2000, and by June they had received 25 tenders. The winner was by the London architect Frederick John Francis of Bruton Street, who thereafter supervised the actual construction, the contract for which went to local builder John Foot with a tender of £1943.