A Journey Through Time
A guide through the Cemetery is a guide through life over a span of 150 years. It is the story of the people of Sheffield. Their struggles, their strengths, their poverty, their wars.
During the Cemetery’s lifetime, great social and political change swept through Britain and the world – the residents of our Cemetery were caught up in those events.
And now they have, unknowingly, become actors playing their part in the unfolding of this history. Their real lives will provide an insight into the drama of the past.
There are some common themes that link the story of the Cemetery. They are:
- Social Conditions – that determined the way people lived and the way people died.
- Divisions – that dictated the roles and status of men and women, religions and cultures.
- Symbols – the cemetery’s gravestones, monuments and architecture that reflected the beliefs and attitudes of the time.
- everyone should have the right to vote
- the working class should have the right to elect Members of Parliament who would look after their interests
Just as the General Cemetery has developed, crumbled, and then been transformed, so other things have changed – symbols have altered, conditions improved, divisions been eroded.
We start our time travel in 1815. The Duke of Wellington has defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and the whole of the country celebrates the victory over France and its allies.
Sheffield had suffered badly during the war because many of the European countries had stopped buying its goods. This caused terrible poverty in the town. Out of a population of 31,000 there were over 10,000 people in need of help from the parish.
When the European trade started again the population of Sheffield grew rapidly, mainly because of its steel industry. By 1841 there would be 110,000 people within its boundaries, and hardly any sanitation.
For thousands and thousands of people, there were no toilets, no clean water. All household rubbish from these overcrowded dwellings, including extrement, was dumped in the street and flowed through an open sewer.
These living conditions meant that disease was common and people did not live long. At this time the citizens of Sheffield died at an average age of just 27.
It is no surprise that, in July 1832, there was a cholera epidemic in Sheffield. Cholera thrives when water is polluted by sewage.
The standards of sanitation were so low – virtually streams of raw sewage in the streets – that many people, forced to live in these appallingly unhygienic conditions, were bound to catch the deadly disease. Records show that 1,347 people caught the disease and 402 died.
~ Cholera Gardens on Norfolk Road ~
Most of these victims were buried in mass graves in the Cholera Gardens on Norfolk Road.
The symptoms of cholera are like those of food poisoning: dreadful stomach pains, terrible vomiting, severe diarrhoea. Without proper medical care it is frequently fatal. The victim can die of dehydration within just two days of the first symptoms appearing.
This epidemic lasted for six months from July until December 1832, but cases of cholera were common during the rest of the century.
Cholera, as well as other diseases such as typhoid, is mainly spread by infected water. Towards the end of the century, the provision of pure water for the cities began to bring about a dramatic improvement in public health.
The huge number of deaths at this time meant that the churchyards in Sheffield were becoming full to overflowing. The dead were often kept under the floor of the church, and sometimes in these places you could really smell death.
Foul liquid from the rotting bodies leaked out through the thin soil – and it was not unknown to see bits of corpses sticking out from the overfilled graves. People became disgusted with these gruesome sights and the revolting stench.
One writer described a Sheffield graveyard:
“Complaints are made of the offensive nature of the interments within the town. One churchyard in the middle of the town is peculiarly offensive. It is very much crowded with bodies and as the soil is considerably above the level of the surrounding street, the exuding of putrid liquid from the soil is visible to the eye and offensive to the smell.”
New burial grounds were needed!
Industrialisation had given rise to new opportunities and new professions. Now people like shopkeepers, bankers and engineers, through hard work and enterprise, became wealthy. They chose to live on the pleasant outskirts of the town away from the dirt and smoke of their factories and workplaces.
This new middle class, with its new money, was set apart from the world of inherited wealth (the gentry) above them, and the working class below them. They were set apart from the gentry not only in status but also in politics and religion. The Church of England (also called the Anglican Church) is the Established Church, or official religion, in England.
However, the people in the new middle class were mainly Nonconformists, that is, they were Protestants who were separate from the Church of England. They were also known as Dissenters. Nonconformists had their own churches and worshipped in their own ways.
They did not want to be buried in Anglican cemeteries presided over by Anglican priests. In addition, this newly evolved and empowered middle class wanted changes in society : for example, they wanted conditions for the working class to improve.
The Church of England, to which most of the gentry belonged, was very powerful and the Nonconformists saw the Church of England and the gentry as barriers blocking the way to reform.
The growing reaction of the Dissenters movement against the monopoly of the Established Church was a significant factor in the establishment of the new cemeteries, such as the Sheffield General Cemetery.
They did not wish the Anglican Church and its politics to control their lives or their deaths. The new Cemetery would also be a symbol of Nonconformist independence and power.
In 1834 the General Cemetery company was formed to create a Cemetery on nine acres of land in the Porter Valley.
The idea of a Cemetery as a profit-making organisation was new. However, its backers, the Nonconformists, were eager to be part of a modern, ambitious project that would reflect their importance in society.
‘The undertaking is of no ordinary magnitude’, said the shareholders.
They hired Samuel Worth to design a Cemetery that met their high expectations. He used the sloping land and the views over the Porter Valley to great effect, creating a space that has more in common with a botanical garden than a graveyard. This was in line with the principles of the new Cemetery movement, which was becoming popular in England at that time.
Social reformers were concerned about the worsening conditions in the expanding industrial towns, and the Cemetery movement encouraged communities to create new burial grounds that could also be used as places where everyone could gather and go for walks.
~ Queen Victoria’s Coronation ~
The Cemetery company has been operating for one year. There have been a few private burials. These include the first three burials, all of whom were young women, all just in their twenties. The three died of common Victorian causes. Mary Ann Fish died of consumption, as did the second Mary Ann Wheelan. The third died in childbirth.
At this stage the Cemetery was a romantic, classical landscape with few monuments and this year it was enhanced by the addition of a memorial to William Parker, a cutlery exporter.
His monument was in the style of the Choragic monument to Lysicrates in Athens and is still one of the most striking monuments in the Cemetery. It is listed as a Grade II monument.
~ Choragic Monument, Athens ~
The first occupant of the Cemetery was Mary Ann Fish who died of consumption (now called Tuberculosis) in 1836 at the age of 24. There is no doubt that the Cemetery was a success with the local community.
It was a popular place to stroll, meet and pass the time. However, as a commercial company it was less successful. It took six years to sell the first one thousand burial plots and because sales were slow the shareholders did not see a fast return on the £13,000 they had invested.
Body-snatching was also a major concern. Even though laws had been passed to prevent surgeons from illegally acquiring bodies for dissection (the Anatomy Act 1832), people still were afraid that graves would be robbed.
A rumour went about that a tunnel from the General Cemetery to the surgeon’s house at the top of the hill had been created for just this purpose. Security was, therefore, of prime importance at this time and a certain amount of policing took place in the grounds.
The paupers were the poorest of the poor. They had little dignity in life and were certainly given no dignity in death. One way for the company to make more money was by burying paupers for the Poor Law authorities.
They charged five shillings (25 pence) for each pauper. Then they waited until they had a cartful of them and saved space by burying them all in a single plot.
This Cemetery has one plot in which there are as many as 96 bodies! To be buried in a pauper’s grave was considered to be one of the saddest and most shameful ways end to a life
The working conditions in Sheffield at this time were desperate. There was much unemployment, and those who could find jobs often had to work twelve hours a day on very low wages. Trade unions did exist to protect the rights of the workers, but they were illegal, and so had to operate as sick clubs and benefit societies. Some workers believed that their plight would only improve when the political system changed. In 1838 the People’s Charter appeared, which demanded, among other things, that:
At this time the working class could not vote, and no women were allowed to vote, and only men with property could stand for Parliament. Those who supported the People’s Charter were called the Chartists.
The Chartists held a number of protest meetings between 1835 and 1839, which became increasingly violent as their opinions were ignored. In August 1839, the First Royal Dragoon Guards were called out of their Hillsborough barracks to put down a riot in Sheffield.
The Chartists became more desperate and arranged a rising that would take place on 12 January 1840. Their plan was to plunder the gun shops, seize the Town Hall and kill all the policemen and troops who opposed them.
But the police found out about the plot and arrested the Chartist leader, Samuel Holberry, at midnight on the eve of the rising.
Samuel Holberry was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and sent to Northallerton prison. Prison conditions were very harsh and even though he was not sentenced to hard labour, spent five weeks on the treadmill. He also spent many months in solitary confinement and had to work to earn his food
Holberry did not serve his full sentence because he died of consumption at York Castle in June 1842. He was given a martyr’s funeral in the Sheffield General Cemetery.
A law was passed in 1845 that forbade paupers to be buried in ground that was not consecrated. Consecrated ground is set apart for holy use and has a special legal status. The graveyard of an Anglican church, for example, was consecrated ground but Nonconformist burial grounds were not.
Pauper burials were an important part of the Cemetery’s income so the shareholders had to do something. They decided to create an Anglican Cemetery alongside the Nonconformist site. This would also mean that they could gain much needed income by burying members of the established church as well as paupers.
Robert Marnock and William Flockton were commissioned to build the new Anglican site. The new Dissenters’ wall became an important marker between the old and the new sites.
However, the division was mainly symbolic because the architects skilfully created a new site that was in keeping with the ideals of the original design. There was still an emphasis on creating a natural space that could be enjoyed by the community, which you can see in the way the paths thread through planted gardens in both sites.
~ the Dissenters wall today ~
1853 saw the start of the Crimean War, as Britain and France went to help Turkey, who was threatened by Russia. This was a bloody war that cost thousands of lives. The soldiers followed their inexperienced and unskilled officers into the Battle of Balaklava, the Battle of Inkerman and the Siege of Sebastopol.
Generally, the officers in charge held their position because they were born in the upper social classes, not because they understood how to make war. The result was disastrous – confusion and death.
The Crimean War is usually remembered for the Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place in 1854.
A mistake by the officers started the advance of 670 cavalry against the cannons of the Russians. The horsemen had nowhere to hide so the cannons just mowed them down.
They retreated while the Heavy Brigade defended them, but only 195 of the 670 men of the Light Brigade returned to their lines. The charge had taken only twenty minutes, but it would be remembered for the poor leadership given by the officers and the bravery of the men.
~ fighting in the Crimea ~
In 1856, the British and their French allies won the war, but politically nothing really changed – and the two countries which had started the war, Turkey and Russia, were at war again twenty years later.
The only real good to come out of the Crimean war arose from the actions of Florence Nightingale. The conditions for the soldiers were terrible. They were poorly equipped, ill and badly fed.
During the winter of 1854 the army was losing nearly 1,000 soldiers a week due to sickness. The army of January 1855 had 20,400 men fit for duty and 16,200 sick. In fact, more British soldiers died from cholera and starvation than were killed in battle.
Florence Nightingale wanted desperately to improve things. Despite huge official opposition she reformed the way the army hospitals were run and invented the nursing profession.
The part that Florence Nightingale and her nurses played in this war started to change attitudes towards women and women’s work. It was one of the steps which would eventually lead to political and social change at home.
~ Florence Nightingale ~
In 1864, 700,000,000 gallons of water flooded down from Bradfield reservoir into Sheffield, causing the greatest disaster that England had ever seen.
The water cascaded down the eight miles from the reservoir to Sheffield at midnight on 11 March while most people were asleep in their beds. It killed 270 people, destroyed 798 homes and flooded another 4,357.
The Sheffield Water Works Company had just completed the Dale Dyke dam on the reservoir, which was nearly full. At 10pm that night a dam worker was leaving when he noticed a crack in the dam wall. He told the chief engineer, John Gunson, who set about trying to lower the level of water in the dam, but it had little effect. An hour later the dam breached and John Gunson scrambled up the embankment and out of the path of the wall of water that rushed down the valley. The houses around Kelham Island and Green Lane suffered the worst of the destruction.
~ contemporary maps showing the course of the flood ~
A total of 77 flood victims were buried in the Cemetery in this year. The Cemetery is also the resting-place of John Gunson the chief engineer and Samuel Harrison, who wrote the first account of the disaster. It is thanks to Samuel Harrison that we have the vivid eye-witness accounts of the flood that exist.
~ John Gunson ~
By 1867 the Chartist movement was defeated. These social and political reformers had not achieved all they set out to do but they had had some victories, not least the setting up of the first town council in 1843 (and eventually all but one of the points on their charter became law).
However, social and working conditions were not improving and the unrecognised trade unions struggled to protect the interest of their members. This gave rise to great unrest.
Occasionally, workmen used violent methods to punish unpopular employers or workers who wouldn’t join the union. In 1867 there was a Commission of Enquiry into these outrages, with a promise of immunity for all who gave evidence.
The secretary of the Sawgrinders’ union, William Broadhead, was one of those who gave evidence to the commission. He described how he had paid two workmen £5 to murder a man called Linley who had taken on too many apprentices; a method of acquiring cheap labour. Broadhead went to live in the USA after the enquiry into the outrages.
This meant that there was a direct connection to St Pancras, which opened two years earlier. An objector to the St Pancras development was John Fowler, the son of another John Fowler, who is buried in this Cemetery.
John Fowler junior, the Metropolitan Railway’s engineer, attacked the proposal which cut through St Pancras graveyard. In fact the burial ground was cleared away but the process was distasteful for workers. The ground was foetid and saturated with decomposing matter, skeleton parts were scattered and the inhabitants of coffins could be seen.
The writer Thomas Hardy was moved to write a poem “The Levelled Churchyard” which included the verse:
We late-lamented resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each exclaims in fear
“I know not which I am”!
~ Thomas Hardy ~
The Sheffield Outrages were widely reported across England to newspaper readers who were shocked at this lawlessness. However, in reality there were few violent crimes and very few murders. The most common crimes were burglary, common assault, vagrancy and drunkenness.
The death of Queen Victoria marked the end of the Victorian cult of death. From Prince Albert’s death in November 1861 till her own death, Queen Victoria insisted that his shaving equipment was brought daily to his bedroom. She had started wearing mourning clothes when he died, and wore the trappings of grief for 40 years.
~ Queen Victoria in mourning ~
Since child mortality rates were high, and life expectancy short, mourning was a common Victorian experience and there was an elaborate set of rituals to be adhered to. For a set period the bereaved were expected to be in full mourning, then could move on to half mourning. A widow would go into deep mourning for one year for her spouse, babies would be entitled to a nine month period of mourning, followed by a further three months of half mourning. Soon after a death mirrors would need to be covered in black crepe, and clocks stopped.
The trappings of mourning were a source of income to retailers throughout the country. These include such items as jet jewellery, black parasols and lace, handkerchiefs, armbands and mourning cards. Retailers of course did good businesses in supplying these items, including the Sheffield department store Cole Brothers.
In 1902 the British Empire was at its height. School children were taught from maps that showed foreign lands coloured red to show that they ‘belonged’ to Britain. Five years earlier, Queen Victoria had celebrated 60 years on the throne by parading an army of the Empire; soldiers from all parts of the world. So it’s not surprising that there was a growing curiosity about the people from other countries.
It seems that a showman had seen the chance to make money and had brought, from Ghana in Africa, 100 villagers. This Ashantee village would tour Britain, staying in a city for a month before moving on.
Britain had suppressed an uprising by the Ashantee people in the previous year – Ghana would not become independent until 1957, as the Empire died.
The visitors to the village gathered round and watched while the villagers danced and carried out their work. Craftsmen made silver and golden rings, wove baskets, carved wood and ivory, and the women cooked dinner for the whole village.
The Wright Brothers are normally credited with the first powered flight, but a Sheffielder may have a prior claim. This was John Stringfellow, born in 1799 in Attercliffe, Sheffield. As an adult he developed amazing skill at making steam engines, and went on to design his own aircraft.
In 1848 he tested his aeroplane. He launched the aircraft by allowing it to run for ten yards down a wire. This ensured that the machine started flying in exactly the right direction, and at a reasonable speed.
According to his son Fred’s eyewitness account, the first flight was a bit of a disaster. But a later flight was a spectacular success; the plane flying for more than 10 yards!
~ Stringfellow’s aircraft ~
The steel industry of Sheffield prospered during the First World War. This was the first mechanised war and it created an unstoppable demand for weapons, ammunition and men’s lives. Sheffield provided all of these commodities. During the First World War, Sheffield manufactured 7 million steel helmets for the troops.
Society must change when major world events happen, and this time it was women that benefited. Women had to replace the men who had left for the war by working in the factories. This gave them an independence they had never had before. Prior to the war suffragettes had been campaigning to give women the right to vote, with no results. But in 1918 their war work was recognised when government passed a bill allowing women over the age of 30 to vote. Eventually, in 1927, women were given the same voting rights as men.
Victorians were willing to spend a great deal of money on funerals and burial monuments. But attitudes towards funerals changed after the First World War.
The design of gravestones and monuments became simpler, and the symbols and decorations that were often carved in stone became less common.
Victorian attitudes to women had been overthrown by the experience of the first World War, which proved that women were competent in the workplace. This, together with improved health and contraception, meant that no longer did most women have to choose between career and family.
~ Votes for all, which had been fought for by so many, was finally achieved ~
~ Sylvia Pankhurst addresses a crowd ~
The General Cemetery Company was now no longer economically viable. There was a lack of burial space, and anyway cremations were becoming increasingly popular.
In 1936, in an attempt to provide additional burial space, it had built an additional level above the catacombs, edged by an ugly concrete balustrade.
Additionally there were several landslides in the Cemetery as a result of serious flooding which caused some of the catacombs to collapse and damage the carriage road into the Cemetery.
Britain declared war against Germany on 3rd September 1939, and war came to Sheffield on 12th of December 1940: the first night of the blitz. The air raid sirens sounded at 7pm and the people of Sheffield made their way to their shelters. The German aircraft bombed Sheffield until 4am but by this time the city was on fire and badly damaged.
The people who survived the raid emerged from their shelters in the early morning to find many parts of the city centre destroyed. Trams and buses littered the streets and rubble covered the roads.
The aircraft returned on the 15th December but this time they bombed the east end of the city where the steel works are clustered.
More than 700 people were killed during these two raids, and some of these are buried in the Cemetery. There are also nine soldiers buried here from this war.
High mortality rates in the 19th century soon filled most of the available burial plots, and new plots were needed as early as 1916. The Cemetery Company was forced to think of ways that they could use all the available space.
But the shortage of plots available in the Cemetery and changing attitudes towards funerals meant that the Cemetery Company struggled to make a profit during the 1930s. In 1936 (the Cemetery’s centenary) the company built a set of new vaults over the catacombs to create more burial space.
During the 1950s and 60s an average of 12 burials per year were taking place, and most of these were in existing family plots. This was simply not enough to ensure that the Cemetery Company continued to operate. The Cemetery would soon be unable to accept any more burials.
The last burial took place on 21 December 1978. Margaret Norah Wells, aged 76, was interred in one of the vaults beneath the retaining wall, although her name was never added to the stone.
By this time the council had taken over the ownership of the General Cemetery from the Cemetery Company. The council immediately began to think of alternative uses for the Cemetery, especially as there was a need for green space for the local community.
Few people in the sixties placed much value on cemeteries. The Victorians were despised because the prevailing view of them was that they were conservative socially, and their decorative style was heavy and over-ornamented.
The focus was on the future, the "white heat of technology", with the pinnacle of the decade’s achievements being exemplified by the first man on the moon.
Thus the General Cemetery’s fortunes were at an all-time low and the site was completely derelict, dangerous and overgrown. Martin Flannery MP said:
"It was so dreadfully overrun and wild, it was not only an eyesore, but the City had a sense of shame about it"
~ overgrown graves ~
The council gained permission with an Act of Parliament to move the bulldozers in. In 1980 they cleared 800 gravestones to make a recreation area.
~ part of the Cemetery before being cleared ~
Some of the gravestones were left in place but most were destroyed and some were used to repair the paths in the Cemetery.
By this time the council had taken over the ownership of the General Cemetery from the Cemetery Company. The council immediately began to think of alternative uses for the Cemetery, especially as there was a need for green space for the local community.
~ site today overlooking cleared space ~