Heritage: ‘Cemetery could become Sheffield’s own Highgate’

The Sheffield General Cemetery Trust has got a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for �7,100 to tell the stories of the men who fought and died in the First World War and are buried in the cemetery.
The Sheffield General Cemetery Trust has got a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for �7,100 to tell the stories of the men who fought and died in the First World War and are buried in the cemetery.

Society argues that historic site should be a national - as well as local treasure - as council plans works aimed at seeing it removed from At Risk register

At long last some money is going to be thrown at one of Sheffield’s hidden gems - and not before time.

Steel manufacturer Mark Firth is buried inside the general cemetery. Picture: Andrew Roe

Steel manufacturer Mark Firth is buried inside the general cemetery. Picture: Andrew Roe

We refer to Sheffield General Cemetery which, according to Pevsner, is possibly the best of its date outside London.

It has one of the most fascinating histories imaginable but more of that later.

The current proposals have caused much controversy as they involve the creation of parking spaces which not everyone is happy with. The initial proposals were for 14 parking spaces at the adjacent Montague Street entrance and even though this has finally been reduced to three for disabled users, this is still three too many.

Admittedly it will encroach onto the site, perhaps unnecessarily, but disabled parking on Montague Street is not possible due to a 1:7 gradient.

It has one of the most fascinating histories imaginable

By national standards that is steep but here in Sheffield it’s the norm!

Apparently limited time parking is not feasible with Pay and Display due to the width of the street.

There are other areas which could have been utilised but these have been dismissed so sadly part of this wonderful site will be encroached upon for the sake of the motor car.

On the plus side of the new scheme some boundary walls to the west of the site are to be restored and setts and flagstones will be re-instated.

David Cooper, of Sheffield City Council Parks Department infront of the catacombs at the general cemetery park off Cemetery Road. Picture: Andrew Roe

David Cooper, of Sheffield City Council Parks Department infront of the catacombs at the general cemetery park off Cemetery Road. Picture: Andrew Roe

Gradients are to be improved on this very hilly site which should greatly help wheelchair users and a seating area is to be created amongst the catacombs. Very atmospheric!

Some trees and vegetation are to be lost along the way but new signage and lighting, which will hopefully be of a tasteful nature, should improve things for visitors. The Conservation Advisory Group drew attention to the presence of a weir adjacent to the site and hopefully this will be enhanced in the scheme.

Such is the national importance of this cemetery that one of the 4,000 protestors who signed a petition against the changes suggested that coach parking should be created on Montague Street.

A very valid point, but as with Victoria Quays the powers that be seem to be oblivious to things staring them in the face.

The anglican chapel in the general cemetery park off Cemetery Road. Picture: Andrew Roe

The anglican chapel in the general cemetery park off Cemetery Road. Picture: Andrew Roe

Highgate Cemetery in London attracts thousands of visitors every year and not all of them are pilgrims visiting the final resting place of their hero Karl Marx.

We have done some research into the Sheffield version’s history but such is the wealth of information out there that it would have to be serialised – so here’s a thumbnail sketch.

Between 1821 and 1831 Sheffield’s population increased from 42,000 to 59,000 resulting in more burial spaces being needed. Prior to the new cemetery the main churchyard burials were at St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, St. Philip’s and St. George’s, but a major rethink was obviously needed.

We’ve got our old adversary Napoleon Bonaparte to thank for the solution which was his famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris created in 1804.

This became a prototype for the whole world and was a mind-bogglingly two miles in circumference. It contained 26,000 monuments and as such became a tourist attraction.

Thirty years later Sheffield decided to have its very own (though not quite as large!) and very innovatively utilised a worked-out quarry which occupied a hillside site.

It was laid out by Samuel Worth whose other claim to fame was that two years earlier he had designed the Cutler’s Hall in a joint effort with Benjamin Broomhead Taylor.

In those days, cemeteries were looked upon as business ventures just like the railways and shares were issued at £25 each with a maximum ownership of 25. After the recession of the 1840s they were able to declare a dividend of 5/- (25p) per share.

Not a bad return in those days.

In 1846 the site was extended for Anglican burials by the famous Robert Marnock. Rev’d William Thornhill Kidd from Hull was the first Chaplain and Registrar to reside there on a salary of £70 pa.

You weren’t likely to be buried there if you were poor as Ecclesall Road was a turnpike road which charged tolls even on funeral processions.

Nothing much has changed but they now call them parking charges and parking penalties.

Another thing which has not changed is the congregating of youths and severe vandalism problems. This was before the days of public parks so it was an obvious place to meet up and cause mischief. Such was the problem that at one stage they closed on Sundays but then decided to open between 1pm and sunset with a badged official in attendance. It then became necessary to issue Cards of Admission to friends and relatives of people buried there. Dogs incidentally were banned in 1839!

Two of Sheffield’s major tragedies impacted on the cemetery – the Sheffield Flood and the Sheffield Blitz. Over 60 people were buried here after the tragic 1863 Flood and in the 12th December 1940 Blitz, the Chapel, various memorials and the boundary walls were badly damaged by the Luftwaffe.

To bring matters up to more recent times the cemetery was sold off in 1963 to Boden Developments who intended to develop it for housing, but burials were still taking place there and thankfully Sheffield Council nipped any such ideas in the bud. By 1976 it had become a liability to Bodens so they offered it to the Council free of charge. In 1979 an Act of Parliament changed its status from cemetery to public park, and in the following year the Council cleared 7,800 (!) gravestones and used them as hard-core. Fortunately the then Manpower Services Commission had surveyed them all, including their inscriptions, in one of their job creation schemes. Hopefully this information has survived.

The cemetery was finally declared a Conservation Area in 1986 and quite rightly so as it contains ten Listed buildings and memorials. Many of Worth’s buildings have Greek, Doric and Egyptian features which are quite a rarity in Sheffield and now thankfully protected. Cemetery Avenue itself is also in the Conservation Area but sadly two prominent obelisks, which stood on each corner at its junction with Ecclesall Road, were suddenly removed in 1926 for no apparent reason. They were of a simple design and would be easy to replicate. Any philanthropist or funeral directors out there who would foot the bill for their re-instatement?

This article wouldn’t be complete without a mention and thank-you to FOGC (Friends of the General Cemetery) which was formed in 1989 and has done so much good work since. It has now become Sheffield General Cemetery Trust and deserves all the support it can get.

The current scheme will remove the Sheffield General Cemetery from Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register but it’s not enough. This local treasure could so easily be turned into a national treasure and it needn’t cost a fortune either.