Conversion to a Public Park
In 1974, Sheffield City Council attempted to take over the site and end its use as a burial site. This attempt was further complicated by the problem of private grave ownership. In 1976, Evans Limited (the parent company of Boden) offered the Cemetery for free to the Council. An Act of Parliament was required to regain ownership of the land, remove its consecrated status and convert it to public green space. The last burial was conducted in 1978. In the end, over 87,000 people had been interred at the Cemetery.
The Council planned to conserve the Nonconformist area while clearing most of the Anglican side to produce an open space for ‘passive and informal recreation’. This plan met with some objections from plot owners, but most agreed to see the site improved and not developed further. The Act was approved in 1979.
Works included the clearing of 7,800 gravestones from the Anglican area as well as emergency repairs to the perimeter walls, the catacombs, and other dangerous structures. Rubbish and overgrown vegetation were removed, and the site made safe for public access. Large sections of the Cemetery were fenced off with rough palings and allowed to thrive as undisturbed ecological habitats.
Clearing the Stones
The clearance of the Anglican area of the Cemetery took place in 1980. As part of a ‘Manpower Services Commission Job Creation Scheme’ the memorials across the entire site were documented for family and local history research. This involved the transcription of epitaphs, names, and dates on all gravestones. The Council photographed the site prior to the clearance of the Anglican sections. These photos show the overcrowded, compact rows of gravestones which once covered the area. A representative group of stones were salvaged and used as paving above the 1930’s vaults in the Nonconformist part of the site.
The clearance left the interred bodies undisturbed. However, it led to the creation of a huge amount of material, most of which needed to be used or disposed of on site. Some of the stones were crushed to make bedding material for new and reinstated paths. Others were broken up and used as edging material. Some of the material was buried onsite by breaking into the 1930s catacombs from above, filling them in and re-covering them.
Recognising Historical Value
The Cemetery as a whole landscape is now listed Grade II*. It is one of 116 registered cemeteries which are protected from alteration, inappropriate development, or demolition by Historic England. Nine buildings and structures within the site are also subject to additional statutory protection such as the Gatehouse (Grade II*), the Egyptian Gate and enclosing walls (Grade II*), the Samuel Worth Chapel (Grade II*) and the Anglican Chapel (Grade II). The registered site includes Cemetery Avenue, which had been sold off by the Company in 1907.
The reasons for its listing are:
- As an early example of a Garden Cemetery, in a complex design by a notable local architect, making dramatic use of a former quarry site; the landscape as designed by Robert Marnock.
- The historical core of the Nonconformist area being largely complete
- The social and artistic interest of monuments and gravestones
Sheffield City Council designated the General Cemetery as a Conservation Area around October 1986. This is due to its historical significance and its vital role as an open green space and habitat for wildlife. The existence of many mature trees contributes to its distinct character.
The Friends of the General Cemetery were established by local residents in 1989. Their charitable aims were to raise awareness of the site, encourage its use for educational purposes, and to develop restoration and regeneration projects. In 1990, they were succeeded by the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust which has been instrumental in securing funding and resources to conserve the site.
On a day-to-day basis, the Trust engages in maintenance and planting works, leading tours, and other publicly accessible events. They have taken a long lease of the Nonconformist Chapel and the Gatehouse from the Council. In 1998, Heritage Lottery funding was used to restore the Gatehouse for use as the Trust’s Offices. It also has some rental accommodation which provides income for the Trust. Between 2014 and 2016, the Nonconformist Chapel was restored in collaboration with the South Yorkshire Buildings Preservation Trust. It is now renamed the Samuel Worth Chapel and is used as a venue for public events and activities.
The Company Office was restored by a local architecture firm in 1987. It is now privately owned and used as a nursery school. The Anglican Chapel is leased from the Council. Planning approval was granted in 2012 for conversion to residential use.
Restoring the Landscape
There have been several projects to restore aspects of the original Georgian landscape design of the Nonconformist area. A 2002-2004 Heritage Lottery Fund scheme cleared the eastern end of the catacombs of overgrowth and material to re-establish original pathways and encourage more public use of the site.
Unfortunately, the catacombs, although integral to the original design, have always been blighted with problems. They were expensive to build in the 1830s and proved unpopular with the wealthy classes they were intended for, being used as public graves from 1884. The entranceways were blocked up in the late 20th Century. Subsidence has caused structural issues on several occasions. A partial collapse in 2013 of the lower terrace made public access to them unsafe.
A project is currently underway to restore the landscape further. The proposal involves remedial work to the upper catacombs terrace and the main carriageway. It will remove the 1930s cast concrete balustrade and re-grade the land, planting low maintenance shrubbery on the new embankment. Conservation and structural repairs will be made to the stone catacomb walls, the lower-level steps, the pylon, and the Egyptian doorway on the mid-catacomb terrace. One of the 1937 panels will be retained as a record. The surviving Anglican gravestones which were placed in the area in the 1980s will be more appropriately displayed elsewhere on the site.
Sheffield City Council obtained a grant in 2016 from the National Lottery Fund Parks for People project in order to improve the site’s facilities and widen its use and appreciation. Major structural repairs to the catacombs and other retaining structures and the improvement of footpath surfaces should ensure that the Cemetery’s character will be conserved and continue to be enjoyed well into the next century.