The overall layout of the General Cemetery was finally established by 1856. This was maintained well into the 20th Century. The Cemetery faced ongoing challenges including increasing costs of materials and labour as well as threats both natural and human-made.
A Utilitarian Approach
From 1850 to around 1890, the Cemetery was busy and profitable despite the establishment of Sheffield Parish Burial Board (1852) which opened the first municipal cemeteries at Darnall and Attercliffe (both 1859), and Burngreave (1861). The period also marked a general decline in the site’s upkeep.
Maintenance proved challenging, in part because of the Cemetery’s natural features such as the sloping site and its proximity to the Porter Brook which broke its banks on several occasions (requiring extensive wall rebuilding). Additionally, burial plots remained the property of individual families and were therefore theirs to maintain (or not).
Marnock’s planting and landscape plan for the Anglican area was partially abandoned as early as 1853 when the then Anglican chaplain, George Sandford, financed an avenue of beech and lime trees through the centre of the area. This obstructed several views intended by the Marnock plan. The sections for grave plots were redesigned in a utilitarian style of neat and accessible rows. Gone were the serpentine paths to be replaced by gravelled walks in a more gardenesque style which was being adopted by municipal cemeteries nearby. The rational, grid layout allowed for smaller and more burial plots. This made maintenance easier and increased the opportunity for profit.
Centenary Improvement Works (1935-37)
After the First World War, burial and funerary customs changed and the pomp of the Victorian era was deemed distasteful. Cremation also became an increasingly popular alternative to burial. The Cemetery was facing ongoing maintenance costs and had limited remaining space for interments.
An improvement scheme was devised to celebrate the centenary of the original Nonconformist area. At the same time, it would provide additional burial space. It was installed by local builders merchants Hodkin and Jones, and comprised of raising the main carriageway with a new row of vaults above the existing catacombs. Construction was in prefabricated and in-situ cast concrete. It required the removal of original curved brick roofs from the catacombs below which were broken in during the works. The scheme made dramatic changes to the original design of the Georgian landscape.
Unfortunately, these improvement works were blighted by subsistence issues which caused extensive damage to the catacombs and required additional remedial works. The new catacombs were a commercial failure, with only twelve ever used for burial.
Surviving World War Two
During the Second World War, the Cemetery Office (294 Cemetery Road), then occupied by the General Manager and his family, was used as a local Air Raid Precautions Unit. Reinforcements were added to the cellar of the building as well as a second means of escape through the conservatory. The Office was where Board meetings would be held. A former resident, in childhood, remembers seeing the Cemetery minutes and ledgers in storage in a strong-room there.
As part of the Sheffield Blitz, a bomb fell on Cemetery Road on the 12th of December 1940. This damaged the Anglican Chapel, the boundary wall, and several memorials. Two further bombs fell in the vicinity of the Cemetery during 1940. The Nonconformist chapel roof was caved in. This was restored by the War Damages Commission.
After the War, the Cemetery continued to fall into decline although it was still being used for burials. Attempts were made within a limited budget to maintain the main pathways and cut the lawned areas. Individual plots and sections were left unattended and, in some cases, in a hazardous condition.
Acquisition for Residential Development
Private burial plots at the Cemetery were sold in perpetual freehold to the families of the deceased. This meant that as the Cemetery filled up, more land had to be found for burial or the Company’s business model was no longer viable. During the 1950s, this practice continued although there were on average only twelve burials per year. The site was becoming overrun with rats and badly neglected. The Company offered to sell the site to Sheffield City Council who declined the purchase.
In 1962, Boden Developments Limited bought a thousand (or the majority) shares of the Company for £5 each. They intended to develop the site into housing leaving eight acres as a memorial garden. These developments met with strong local opposition and protest as well as legal problems related to the thousands of freehold contracts covering individual burial plots. The Company was informed officially that planning for the development would never be granted.
Owning the land, but without possibility of proceeding with development, the Company allowed the site to fall into further dereliction, danger, overgrowth, and liability. The City Council felt compelled to act to safeguard against further neglect.