At the Sheffield General
Today we welcome Gina Bond to our merry band of Cemetery aficionados. Gina studies Human Osteology for her Masters & Funeral Archaelogy; she also works in school/college engagement and volunteers for the Pathology Museum. We venture up north to Sheffield, where the a graveyard that holds the remains of the founder of Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts rests…
I was recently asked to start contributing to this fascinating blog and I jumped at the chance! I felt it was right to make my first blog post about one of my favourite places in the city, Sheffield General Cemetery.
Since moving to Sheffield, I have visited the General Cemetery numerous times, with friends and family, in snow and in sun (the snow was the best!). I even made the Cemetery a big part of my Masters dissertation. It’s a place full of grandeur and interesting stories – there are many books on the residents and I suggest you go pick up a few!- and it’s somewhere I feel content and peaceful. I understand that Sheffield isn’t always a place that people chose to visit or know very much of, I mean I didn’t until I moved there! I felt it was best to put the cemetery in to context and explain how it fits in with Sheffield’s rich history.
The city of Sheffield is well known for its steel industry and in the 19th century, it became one of the fastest growing cities in the United Kingdom. In fifty years (1801-1851), the population of Sheffield grew from 45,758 to 135, 310 people. There was a need to find new burial space and the outbreak of Cholera within the city of Sheffield only confirmed this. 400 individuals who succumbed to the disease had to be buried within a pit above the city.
Contemporary print of the Cemetery in its early days.
A group of Non Conformists created the General Cemetery Company in 1834 and a Sheffield based architect won a competition to design the burial ground. The completed Cemetery was opened in 1836. Classical and Egyptian influences are noted throughout the cemetery and can clearly be seen for example, on the Gatehouse. The Gatehouse has a classical revival influence and with its location above the River Porter Brook, it has been suggested that it was placed there to make reference to the crossing of the River Styx for the Greek afterlife.
Mary Ann Fish, a 24 year old bookkeeper’s wife, was the first burial within the cemetery grounds. It took another six years to bury another 999 individuals. This number may have been lower than expected due to the number of burials still taking place in Churchyards within the centre of Sheffield. Once the Burial Act of 1852 was passed and city centre burials were stopped, the General Cemetery saw rise of interments from 400-500 annually, to almost triple that number between 1855 and 1860.
Now open! Original advert for the opening of the Sheffield general Cemetery on Saturday 6th August, 1836, taken from the Sheffield Independent. © The British Newspaper Archive
The General Cemetery Company gained 5 shillings per pauper burial, and it was these burials that saved the business in the first few years. Many large plots had been dug out previously and the largest contained 96 individuals, including 15 from the workhouse and ten children. Catacombs were incorporated into the slope to the left of the Gatehouse.
These were not as popular as the General Cemetery Company has hoped and in the first 10 years of them opening, only ten internments took place. It may have been because of the price (£5.0s.0p.) but it may have also been because they were an almost anonymous form of burial which did not match the Victorian need for ostentatious display.
© Darren Copley, 2009
Newly renovated Noncomformist Chapel which will be open for public events very soon!
The Nonconformist Chapel, situated on the other side of the cemetery, close to Cemetery Road, was also designed with a Classical influence, often being described as “Egypto-Greek”. It was built solely for the purpose of funerals, but often held Sunday services. In recent excavations, burial vaults were found under the Chapel and many unusual things were discovered…but that’s for another blog post!
The Anglican Church was designed by William Flockton and has a neo-Gothic style. The Anglican side of the Cemetery was a big contrast to the Nonconformist side; burials were set out in rows upon rows, with gravestones lined up, instead of large monuments on winding paths.
Mark Firth’s elaborate memorial
By the 1900’s, burials within the Cemetery slowed down due to a number of reasons. There was a gradual increase in the number of cremations taking place, space for burials was getting smaller and people started to live slightly longer as health bettered. The last burial took place in 1978, within one of the vaults and there is a final number of 87,000 burials at the Cemetery. In 1980, the City Council cleared 7,800 gravestones from the Anglican side of the Cemetery. The cleared space became a Conservation Area in 1986.
© British Newspaper Archive
Since 1989 the Friends of the General Cemetery have been running events for the public, including regular historical tours, conservation work days and family activity days. Currently, the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust has been granted funding to restore the Nonconformist Chapel and this restoration is almost completed! This space is looking to be used to increase engagement opportunities with the public and also can be rented out for exhibition space, parties or even Weddings, if that takes anyone’s fancy – I’d definitely consider it!
So that was a very whistle stop tour of the history of the cemetery that I hold dear in my heart. I wanted to keep this first post very general as I’d like to write separate posts about the weird and wonderful stories that this Cemetery holds in the future!
Pictures 1, 3, 5 & 6 © Gina Bond 2016.
References & source material