Formation of the General Cemetery Company

Formation of the General Cemetery Company

The Sheffield General Cemetery Company was formed after a meeting in 1834 by twenty-four of Sheffield’s most influential townsmen. There were several reasons for developing a new cemetery. Firstly, in response to public health needs. One of those involved was Asline Ward, the Chair of the Sheffield Board of Health which had been established in 1831. Secondly, there was the desire to provide a burial space ‘for persons of all rank and denominations’. Thirdly, there was a commercial incentive to establish the scheme.

The Company was set up as a joint-stock company. Shares were sold at £25 each and shareholders could expect to receive an annual dividend. Those involved were from the middle and professional classes including merchants, drapers, and manufacturers.

The newly formed committee quickly set about finding a suitable site. Land was bought for £1,900 from Henry Wilson of Westbrook, who was a local snuff mill owner. It was an inexpensive site near to the town centre. The original plan was to enclose five acres, which was thought to be sufficient for several generations.

Design Competition

The land for the Cemetery was acquired on 17th July 1834. However, the committee had already advertised an architectural competition on 21st June with a closing date of 14th July. The brief was described as follows:

‘The Design will be required to include Plans for Graves, Vaults, Crypts or Catacombs, the laying out, planting, and ornamenting of the Grounds, elevations, and other necessary sections of a Chapel, a Chaplain’s or Registrar’s House, and a Sexton’s House; also an Entrance Road and Bridge. Inclosure Walls, and other suitable Buildings, with an estimate of the whole Expense. The undulating, and, in some parts precipitous surface of the ground, present peculiar advantages and capabilities for the design.’

The competition had a first prize of 20 Guineas and a second prize of 10 Guineas. Several designs were submitted but only the winning entry by Samuel Worth and the runner up’s entry by Benjamin Broomhead Taylor are recorded. Both were local architects who had worked together on the design of the Cutler’s Hall (1832). Taylor worked with Marnock on the construction of the Botanical Gardens. Worth later designed the Moorgate Cemetery (near Boston Castle, Rotherham) with John Frith (1841).

Architectural Design by Samuel Worth (1799-1870)

The winning architectural design by Samuel Worth featured the principal buildings of Gatehouse, Chapel and Offices centrally placed and on an axis up the sloping site. The main entrance was off the Manchester Turnpike Road (now Ecclesall Road) using a new road, Cemetery Avenue. This road was planted with lime trees and marked on the Turnpike Road with two stone obelisks. The buildings, designed in a combination of neoclassical and Egyptian styles, contrasted with sweeping curvaceous pathways and two terraces of catacombs shoring up the main carriageway. The entire site was enclosed by a wall.

The Gatehouse was designed in a neoclassical style and built in Millstone Grit. It functioned as a bridge over the Porter Brook and comprised of two cottages for cemetery workers.

The Nonconformist Chapel (now renamed the Samuel Worth Chapel) was at the centre of the original five-acre site. It had views across the Porter Valley (and indeed, it could be seen from Worth’s principal rooms in Broomhill). It was designed with a Doric portico made of Derbyshire Millstone Grit. The doorway and four simple windows on each side elevation were designed in the Egyptian style (splayed so as the top is narrower than the bottom). Above the door, a sculpted relief of a dove represents the Holy Spirit. Originally, the interior was to be painted but this was never completed due to financial constraints.

The combination of neoclassical and Egyptian style features was continued across other structures on the site, including the Cemetery Office and the surviving Egyptian Gateway. The Egyptian style was increasingly popular at the time due to the growing acquisition of artefacts from Ancient Egypt. It may have also been adopted due to Ancient Egypt’s association with funerary practices. The combination with classical elements from Greek and Rome was quite unusual and not necessarily approved of by contemporary critics.

Constructing the Site

Initial construction work began in August 1834 to establish access to the site. This included major infrastructure such as road building and large retaining walls to create and shore up different land levels. The next phase, from late October 1834, was to construct the enclosure walls, the two terraces of catacombs and the carriage roads. By March 1835, they began works on the Chapel, the Clergyman’s House (later, the Office) and the entrance lodge (Gatehouse). Progress continued slowly throughout 1835.

The project cost around £13,000, which was much higher than originally anticipated. This was due to the difficulties arising from excavations at the site, stabilising the different levels and constructing the catacombs which acted like buttressing walls to the carriageway above. There were some advantages to the excavation work in that it provided several deep burial plots for use as common graves. The deepest of these was eventually used to inter eighty-five bodies. The original 180 catacombs and vaults were initially valued as stock, worth £4000.

The Cemetery was announced as ready for interments on 30th July 1836. However, the first burial was earlier, that of Mary Ann Fish in May 1836.

Landscape Design by Robert Marnock (1800-1889)

The laying out of the grounds began in March 1836 under the design and direction of Robert Marnock, who was the first curator of the Sheffield Botanical Gardens (1834-1840). The landscape was laid out in a picturesque style with serpentine paths. Several existing trees and plants were left undisturbed, supplemented by a planting scheme on which Marnock was consulted. The aim was to create an enchanting and natural-looking landscape, surrounding the graves with reminders of life and the Christian promise of resurrection. Pathways and planting were designed to control the views within and beyond the site.

Marnock further advised on the laying out of the new Anglican area when it was proposed in the late 1840s. His planting plan, submitted in February 1850 with assistance from John Law (a successor as curator of the Botanical Gardens), was tendered for and installed prior to August that year. However, Marnock’s designs were altered during the operation of the Cemetery in the second part of the 19th Century.

Marnock went on to develop a national reputation as a designer of the Royal Botanical Society Gardens at Regent’s Park, London. He designed several significant gardens throughout England and continental Europe. He was also commissioned by Sheffield Council to create Weston Park (1873-1875).

Monuments and Stone Masonry

The first mason’s workshop was opened at the Cemetery in 1838. The Company recognised that additional money could be made through the supply of onsite stonework as well as introducing a system of charges for using external stone masons. As the cemetery business evolved, monument design was commercialised and standardised with increasing use of memorial templates. Theophilus Smith (died c.1882) was a Sheffield-born monumental sculptor who published several catalogues on the subject, particularly regarding the use of wrought ironwork. The variety of stone used in monuments was evidence of the increasing transportation offered by the growing railway network. Today, the Stone Spiral (installed 2004) highlights the geological interest of the stone used as grave monuments.

A stone yard and expanded mason’s workshop was later built on Cemetery Road and even had its own Egyptian style gateway. It became the main source of income for the Company in the mid-20th Century. The workshop diversified to make fire surrounds and other marble products. This part of the site was sold off in the 1960s. The gateway and other buildings were demolished, and now the site is used as a car repair garage.

Influence on Cemetery Design

The General Cemetery was one of the earliest commercial cemeteries in England, opening in 1836. The buildings in the original Nonconformist area were designed in by Samuel Worth. Robert Marnock contributed to the design of the picturesque landscape and planting scheme.

During the 19th Century, the picturesque style was adapted and replaced with gardenesque design. Naturalistic features such as serpentine paths, groves of trees and artificial ruins were replaced with gravelled walks, formal tree plantations and flower beds.

At the same time, gardening itself was becoming professionalised. One of the key figures in this professionalisation was John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) who also championed the parks movement. Loudon was a landscape gardener who published several influential encyclopaedias related to landscape architecture and design. He visited the Sheffield General Cemetery in May 1839 and went on to propose a similar general scheme for a ‘cemetery on hill ground’ in his 1843 publication ‘On the laying out, planting, and managing of cemeteries’. He believed that the best cemeteries could function as botanical gardens, sculpture galleries, places of leisure and education and should be conserved as public parks once burial plots were fully occupied.

In the later part of the century, the ‘lawn cemetery’ became the preferred design model for municipal cemeteries as its rows of grave plots and neatly aligned pathways were easier and cheaper to maintain.

Early Commercial Operation & Expanding the Cemetery

On opening, the Cemetery attracted crowds of visitors. However, as the initial construction costs were well above what was anticipated, its commercial viability was not guaranteed. A general economic downturn in Europe and America began in 1837, further increasing costs and uncertainty in operating the site. Artist Thomas Christopher Hofland (1777-1843) painted the cemetery in 1840. This was used as the basis for a promotional engraving.

William Chadwick had been appointed at  as the first Sexton, gatekeeper, gardener, and manager of the grounds. The Cemetery was popular with visitors, particularly with groups of young people in 1843. Visitors brought with them several problems such as vandalism to planting and monuments. This became worrying for both the long-term maintenance of the site and protecting its atmosphere as a place of reverie and reflection. In 1844, entry tickets were introduced. A security person was engaged to guard the site and Sunday admission was restricted to only those who were visiting graves.

The Cemetery, used as a burial space, was not proving as popular with Sheffield’s wealthy classes as had been hoped, and maintenance costs were increasing.

It took six years to sell the first one thousand private burials, even as prices were revised downwards. The cost of interment in the catacombs proved restrictive and unpopular at 5 pounds, 5 shillings and 0 pence, compared to a private grave which cost 1 pound, 10 shillings and 0 pence. Only ten were sold in the first decade. Common burials were those paid for privately, but in plots which were used for multiple interments. The business was helped substantially by pauper burials. These cost 5 shillings and were paid for by the Poor Law authorities.

The committee noted that there was some prejudice against the Cemetery because it was not consecrated. At the AGM of 1843, an initial plan was mooted to create a new consecrated area. In 1845, legislation changed requiring that pauper burials had to be in consecrated ground and so that aspect of the business was threatened. A special meeting was held on 29th August 1845 to approve the plan for expansion, for which an Act of Parliament was required. The Company also became incorporated at this time.

Anglican Chapel Design by William Flockton (1804-1864)

Following economic and social challenges, the General Cemetery was expanded to include a consecrated area in the late 1840s. Prominent local architect William Flockton designed the Anglican chapel. Robert Marnock proposed the landscape and planting scheme.

The Anglican area of the Cemetery was built on around 7½ acres of land to the east of the Nonconformist area. Additional land was purchased and fundraising from local landowners was required to improve the access lane which would become Cemetery Road. The original perimeter wall of the Nonconformist area marked the boundary with the new Anglican area and became known as ‘ The Dissenters Wall’

Locally renowned architect, William Flockton, was appointed to design and construct the Anglican chapel. He chose to do so in a Neo-Gothic and ornamental style which created a striking contrast with the neoclassical style adopted by Worth. The spire was deliberately out of proportion to make it more visible within and beyond the site. The interior of the chapel was simpler, with flagstone floors, plain walls, and pine benches, accommodating around 200 people. The rest of the scheme, including entrance gates and perimeter walls was modest compared to the original Nonconformist area. Despite attempts to minimise expenditure, this phase cost £25,000 and Flockton could not be paid immediately.

The new area was consecrated, and the Anglican chapel was opened on the 27th of June 1850 by the then Archbishop of York. A special hymn was written by the Scottish-born, Sheffield-resident, hymn-writer, and poet James Montgomery (1771-1854).