Memorandum by the Friends of the General
Cemetery in Sheffield (CEM 46)
PREPARED BY THE FRIENDS OF THE GENERAL CEMETERY
(A LOCAL COMMUNITY GROUP OF 200 MEMBERS THAT LOOKS AFTER THIS
The friends have had very little notice within
which a report to this Committee and would welcome a more comprehensive
opportunity to respond, and offer their services as oral witnesses
to the enquiry, if required. Meanwhile the Friends felt it essential
to ensure the voice of Cemetery Friends' groups be heard by this
The cemetery remains the last protected area
in the geographical band radiating south-westwards from Sheffield
city and is only half a mile from the centre. It falls within
the Sharrow area of the city, which is very urban, divided by
several major roads, and has only one other area of green space,
so per person there is a marked shortage of green space in this
neighbourhood. It is bounded on two sides by residential areas
(plus a river) and the other two sides by recent office developments.
It is hidden from view by a stone wall and many pass it by, unaware
of this green haven's existence.
The cemetery is a Grade II Listed Garden (English
Heritage Historic Parks and Gardens Register), one of only two
sites within South Yorkshire with this status. The cemetery was
sited in a report to English Heritage in 1998 as one that should
be given a Grade I rate historically speaking, if and when cemeteries
become listed in their own right. The site has the highest concentration
of listings of any site in Sheffield: containing nine listed buildings
and monuments, including three at GradeII*. It is a designated
green space within the currently adopted UDP and a Conservation
ECOLOGY & ENVIRONMENT
The General Cemetery holds the best collection
of weeping trees in the city, and is also planted out with many
unusual hollies. There are some wild brambly areas, that offer
cover for wildlife. Foxes, bats and owls have been seen. There
is a variety of flora in an area within a range on environments,
from wetland to mown grass. There are many trees within the landscape,
including ash, lime and elder. The Friends run flora and fauna
tours of the site, as well as geology and fungal tours.
The Friends have received large scale funding
from the Heritage Lottery Fund for educational work over a three
year period. The Friends already run a comprehensive education
programme which through this funding will be significantly enhanced,
through the provision of a web site with freely available downloading
learning resources and information about the site plus a dissemination
programme, talks, tours and workshops to ensure its effective
use. The Friends have an events programme that includes more than
thirty scheduled events per year, to which an average of 30 people
attend, though our annual event attracts more than a thousand.
In addition to this talks and tours are run on special request
for community school and study groups.
The site offers a wide variety of volunteering
opportunities ad ways for people to become actively involved in
preserving and discovering more about this heritage. The Friends
have an office with one full time paid worker (funded principally
by LTSB and Northern Rock) and another New Deal trainee. These
workers co-ordinate others working on the site and developing
historical material from the raw data provided on the gravestones
and within the burial records. This is then interpreted and published
on the FOGC web site.
Sharrow is a community that is beleaguered by
unemployment and poverty, but which is a vibrant and popular place
in which to live. It is the 97th poorest ward in the country,
having a large number of unemployed people within it and many
indicators of poverty such as a third of all children being on
free school meals. The cemetery is within an SRB4 catchment, within
a region with Objective One Status. The regeneration of Sharrow
has shown improvement in Sharrow's employment prospects, but much
needs to be done. Currently the rate of unemployment is 16.1 per
cent. 41 per cent of its population claims housing benefit. 29
per cent claim Income Support. Nearly 70 per cent of Sharrow's
young people do not achieve five or more Grade C passes at GCSE.
Sharrow has the highest incidence of depression in Sheffield.
It also has the second highest incidence of self-harm in the City.
It has a high incidence of low birth weight (10.6 per cent). Sharrow
enjoys a multi-ethnic community. The predominant minority groups
are principally Muslim Asians, though there is also a sizeable
Chinese and Afro Caribbean and Somalian community.
There has been a fast growing interest in the
cemetery, increased with the advent of the Friends' successful
funding bid for education work. The emphasis on history in national
programming in 2000 has also impacted upon the use of and interest
in the site, and the breadth of types of interest in the site
is enormous. The Friends are, though, aware that ethnic minority
groups do not, on the whole, make use of the site, for a variety
of reasons. This issue is currently being explored but seems to
be for some of the following:
Fear of dogs and a special concern
about the presence of dog waste.
Religious reasons for not entering
a site with bodies buried in it.
A perception that this is not "their"
history, something FOGC is attempting to address.
From July to October 1998 FOGC carried out an
opinion poll of cemetery users and potential users. In all 170
people were interviewed. The following is a brief summary of the
the User Profile showed that compared
to the census data for the catchment area, users were significantly
more female than male (63:37 per cent) and that their reasons
for visiting indicated some gender bias (eg more men came to walk
their dogs (75 of 25 per cent);
the vast majority of local visitors
came on foot;
the three most popular reasons for
coming were to walk (with or without dogs), to jog, or (children)
to play games;
respondents valued the tranquil nature
of the cemetery and considered the best features of the cemetery
were its gravestones and monuments. There was a high awareness
of the cemetery's historic significance;
many people were interested in the
work of FOGC in general terms.
The worst feature was considered to be the level
of vandalism which most people believed would be alleviated by
the employment of staff on a permanent basis, increased security,
and better lighting. Nearly everyone agreed that CCTV and protective
gates would be beneficial. Other aspects of the site viewed negatively
were personal security and unmanaged dog waste.
Thereafter the results of the survey indicate
a wide cross section of interests and give indicators that the
target audience includes: people who come on monthly tours; staff
and students from the local universities engaged in academic research;
students of art; photography and the performing arts; schoolchildren
engaged in a range of national curriculum subjects; people visiting
the cemetery to trace/visit the graves of family or for other
sentimental reasons attached to the site; people who are seeking
a place of quiet solitude to reflect; people who wish in some
way to commemorate loved ones; people, no longer living in Sheffield,
anxious to trace/record their family connections with the city.
Since this opinion poll was carried out there has been a dramatic
increase in the number of businesses close to the cemetery. There
is as a result of this a significantly greater use of the site
at the beginning and end of the working day and at lunchtime by
The site has, within the last two
years, become a target for graffiti, as well as being a target
for the theft of monument parts a couple of years ago.
The site is used by some drug users,
and handbag thieves dump spoils on the site.
Dog waste is a major issue for non
dog walkers, and stops the local school from using the site.
Health and safety is a major issue
with parts of the site fenced off because of the instability of
monuments and the unevenness of surfaces. This has created a conflict
of interest for those wishing to visit family graves, or with
an interest in the site, wishing to access the closed off areas.
This seems to be an extremely cautious line taken by the Health
and Safety department of the City Council, which does not embrace
the needs of the community. However, in order to open these areas
up again would imply a very large sum being spent on the monuments.
Physical security in the site is
an issue as it is a thoroughfare from one part of the city to
another and after dark there is no lighting.
When the General Cemetery was purchased by Sheffield
City Council (by Act of Parliament in 1978) it was owned by the
Property Services Department of the Council, and managed by Leisure
Services. It was not until FOGC set up in 1989 that the cemetery
gradually began to be managed to any positive effect. Leisure
Services mowed designated areas and fenced off dangerous zones
while FOGC increasingly began to manage the site in all other
respects, on an informal basis with no formal agreement in place
between the Friends and the Council. The Friends gradually gained
the respect of the City Council for their work and the Friends
increasingly began to ask for advice and support from the manager
of Bereavement Services in the city (as the expertise for the
management of cemeteries resided in this department rather than
Leisure Services). At the beginning of 2000 the Friends requested
that the ownership and management of the cemetery be moved formally
to Bereavement services because the Friends felt that they could
build a good partnership with this department of the City Council.
This happened in April 2000. Then negotiations took place to formally
establish a management agreement between Bereavement Services
and the Friends. Under this agreement responsibility for the site
is divided up in a way that suits both parties. The Friends have
agreed that they will purchase leases on each of the areas of
the cemetery that they wish to restore, over a period of time.
Hence a lease request for first zone earmarked for restoration
is in progress.
Some parts of the cemetery are fenced off as
they are regarded as unsafe for members of the public. The Council
does not have the funds to make these areas safe, and the Friends
do not have the expertise or funds to do this. However, many people
do enter these areas in search of interesting graves, and increasing
access to these areas is considered important by the Friends.
The Friends recognise the issue of taking ownership of an area
with regard to the onerous implications from a health and safety
perspective. For this reason the agreement with the Council will
be worded such that the Friends will only take on leases for areas
that they are targeting for funding, and hence will ultimately
be able to make safe and open for access to all. Ultimately the
Friends hope that they will gain leases on every section of the
site, and that the site will be made completely open and safe,
although to do this will be extremely costly.
The General Cemetery Company sold plots to families
in perpetuity. The result of this short sighted choice, in common
with most cemeteries in the country, leaves the 21st century with
a problem. The vast majority of these graves, all owned by families
and hence their responsibility to maintain, are uncared for. The
Friends have a record of only a dozen graves that are tended by
families, and one or two others are tended not by a family relation,
but simply an individual that has adopted a grave via FOGC, and
has an interest in the preservation of the site. When the City
Council cleared the Anglican half of the cemetery the Council
attempted to trace owners of graves to alert them to the fact
this was going to happen. The task proved very difficult, as council
records show. Ultimately only a handful of families were contacted
and a few of those chose to have the bodies of their relations
exhumed and moved elsewhere. Otherwise the gravestones were crushed
and the bodies left in place.
FOGC's plan for the site is one of sensitive
enhancement and restoration. The plans for the site include the
removal of no further graves, indeed it is planned to identify
monuments in dangerous conditions and plan for their restoration.
For each area of land that FOGC takes responsibility for, the
individual grave plots will still, in theory, be the responsibility
of the grave owners. The reality however, is that the vast majority
of graves will not be maintained unless FOGC takes action. This
parallels the action that other cemetery Friends groups have taken,
though several have not troubled to attempt to contact families
first. FOGC therefore propose to follow the procedure below in
1. Attempt to contact the grave owners' families
to alert them of the change of ownership of the land around the
2. If work is required on a grave FOGC will
attempt to inform the families of this, and ask for their support
on this task.
3. If no communication is established FOGC
will proceed with restoration work in their stead.
The Friends regard large scale funding for the
Sheffield General Cemetery as essential to preserve the integrity
of the site for recreational purposes, as well as to ensure this
heritage is not finally lost for future generations. The Friends
have spent much time and energy gaining funds and developing a
bid to put to HLF for capital works on the site. It is the Friends'
view that the City Council view the cemetery as a significantly
lower priority for funding than other parks in Sheffield. For
this reason it has fallen to the friends to single handedly put
together a bid for its future, in the early years with little
support from the Council, though this has thankfully changed now
that the Council recognise the value of the work of the Friends.
However, the process to gain funds is slow, expensive and arduous
for a small community group and FOGC feels that a simpler funding
formula with higher recognition of the value of these spaces should
History of the General Cemetery
The population of England doubled during the
first half of the nineteenth century. In Sheffield there was dramatic
population growth, trebling from 45,758 in 1801 to 135,310 by
1851. In 1834, the General Cemetery Company was formed, in the
district of Sharrow in Sheffield, to address problems raised by
body snatching, health hazards of overcrowded graveyards and the
growing reaction of Dissenters against the monopoly of the established
church. Its creation reflected the major social trends of that
time, trends typical of all the main towns in England, a time
of civic improvement and the rise of the middle classes. New conditions
of wealth and opportunities emerged from industrial expansions.
Several epidemics had swept the town in the early 1830s, and burial
space by the mid 1830s was at crisis point. The Sheffield Independent
of March 1834 stated that:
the very inadequate Provision, which is made
in Sheffield for the burial of the Dead, has for a long time engaged
the public attention.
The article goes on to explain that
The general features of the country immediately
surrounding the Town of Sheffield, are in a remarkable degree
favourable to the establishment of a . . . place of interment.
By the time the Smith report was written in
1845 he was able to report that:
A cemetery has just been established at some
distance by a Joint Stock Company, under good regulations. It
is beginning to be restored to and it is hoped that the bulk of
the interments will hereafter be made in this and some other similar
place; for whether we consider the health and comfort of the inhabitants,
or the softer feelings of the relatives of the dead, or generally
feelings of public decency we must approve of the arrangement
of having burial places in a remote and undisturbed locality.
The cemetery was enlarged to meet the needs
of the Anglican population in 1850:
The New cemetery for the establishment, now in
course of formation beside the original cemetery at Sheffield,
approaches towards completion. The improvements comprise a new
carriage road, 45 feet wide, passing the cemetery and in connection
with which a bridge has been erected over the River Porter. The
church, with its tall spire, is nearly finished.
White's Directory for 1849 refers to the new
"handsome church in the decorated style of architecture,
with a lofty spire and tower", and makes reference to the
beauty of the valley:
The chapel . . . and the church, standing near
the crown of the acclivity, form conspicuous objects in the beautiful
vale of the Porter, on the opposite side of which are the Botanical
Gardens and many handsome villas.
By August 1850, the company reports indicate
that the planning "may be seen to full advantage". The
the beauty of its scenery, when taken in connection
with the adjacent Botanical Gardens may be considered unrivalled
in this or any other country.
Despite the Burial Board Acts and the consequent
establishment of the early Burial Board cemeteries in Sheffield,
the General Cemetery continued to grow in popularity. This new
more utilitarian approach to burial undoubted influenced the Cemetery
Company's decision to alter part of the layout of the Anglican
Cemetery, in line with the style of the Burial Board Cemeteries.
The flowing lines of footpaths designed by Marnock that echoed
the contours of the site were to be replaced by a grid system
of footpaths, making the cemetery more utilitarian and creating
more space for burial. This was to be the start of a gradual erosion
of historic landscape character that would continue for some time.
Because the Company was busy, it appears that
it overlooked the fact that the grounds were not being looked
after properly. In 1898 the minutes record complaints being received
about the state of the grounds, and a five-page report was submitted
on the state of the Company. From the turn of the century onwards,
the Company minutes document many repairs to the grounds.
A landslide took place the year after a concrete
addition to the main path (1937). It cost more than £3,000
to carry out the necessary repairs, and it was economically impossible
to reconstruct the destroyed catacombs so they were converted
into small vaults. The Second World War was on the horizon. When
it came it added directly to the Company's problems. Damage occurred
in 1941 when Sheffield was the target for German bombs. Throughout
the war fees for repairs to bomb damaged areas of the cemetery
are documented. The last minute of the General Cemetery Company,
in 1949 ominously reads:
war damages claim still outstanding
In the 1950s the Cemetery Company was still
selling burial plots in perpetuity although very few burials were
taking place (an average of about 12 per year) and most were burials
in existing family plots. The Cemetery Company offered to sell
the General Cemetery to the City Council, but after an examination
of accounts the Corporation decided it was not financially viable,
so the offer was declined. The Cemetery by this time was in a
very poor state of repair and was overrun with rats. Martin Flanery
(an MP in the 1960s, a former teacher) taught in a school overlooking
the cemetery in 1954. He reported that a child was badly bitten
by a rat and another was badly injured by a fall in the cemetery.
He added "it was so dreadfully overrun and so wild, it was
not only an eyesore, but the city had a sense of shame about it".
In 1963 Boden Developments Ltd bought the majority
of the shares of the Cemetery Company; they intended to use the
cemetery for a housing development, although they also planned
to retain a small area as a memorial garden. This news caused
a great deal of local opposition and protests from owners of plots,
and it became rapidly clear that development could not be allowed.
Boden Developments were informed officially that a planning application
for the site would not succeed. The plan was abandoned and the
site became even more derelict, dangerous and overgrown and more
and more a liability.
In 1974 Sheffield City Council made moves to
take over the site with a view to considering alternative uses.
To do this the cemetery would have to be closed by the grant of
an Order in Council (Burial Act 1853). This was complicated by
the fact that plots had been sold by a Deed of Grant in perpetuity
and could be inherited as such through wills.
In 1976 the City Council took action under Planning
Acts powers to secure urgent maintenance works on the gatehouse.
At the same time Evans Ltd (the parent company for Boden Developments)
approached the Council and indicated that they would be willing
to transfer the General Cemetery to the city free of charge. They
indicated that if the Council refused this offer it would be likely
Evans would consider the voluntary liquidation of the Cemetery
Company. The Cemetery had become too much of a liability. The
Council then set about gaining an Act of Parliament to provide
a much needed green space for the local community. What this meant
in reality was the clearing of the Anglican cemetery. To do so
the Council first had to hold a Committee of Enquiry, which involved
listening to the views of affected people: plot owners, local
residents and community groups. At this time there was no "Friends
of the Cemetery" group, but there was opposition which was
documented in the Enquiry.
The City Council agreed to take on the conservation
of the older nonconformist cemetery while clearing the Anglican
side. It proposed a maintenance programme and some enhancements
to the older cemetery for recreational purposes. This plan of
action culminated in an Act of Parliament in 1977. A programme
of work began. First the memorials in the cemetery were documented
so that the information was available to families wishing to do
research. This work included transcribing the epitaphs, names
and dates of all gravestones (including the nonconformist cemetery)
and was carried out as part of a Manpower Services Commission
job creation scheme. The information that was gathered is now
held in the Sheffield Archives. The last burial, that of Margaret
Norah Wells, aged 76, took place on 21 December 1978. Although
her name was never added to the stone, burial records indicate
that she was the last person to be added to a vault, in perpetuity,
despite the destruction that was taking place in the cemetery
at the time.
Next came the exhumation of bodies from the
Anglican cemetery. The Council had been obliged to advertise their
plan to clear the graves and some relatives requested exhumations
and reburial elsewhere. If no requests were forthcoming bodies
were left in position. In 1980, in the face of considerable local
opposition from relatives and grave owners, the bulldozers moved
in and the demolition of 7,800 gravestones went ahead.
Some gravestones in the Anglican cemetery were
left in place. The gravestones that were removed were either crushed
and used as bedding material for paths, cut and used as edging
for paths, or simply buried on site 105. The ones that were left
were not necessarily the most spectacular. The plan was to leave
a representative group of monuments. At this time the City Council
was suffering severe financial difficulties. The landscaping plans
for the nonconformist cemetery 106 drawn up by the Planning Department
were as a result never carried out, although the cemetery did
become a designated Conservation Area in 1986.
It was in this climate of destruction, decay
and lack of maintenance that the Friends of the General Cemetery
(FOGC) was established in 1989. The group was set up by a number
of concerned residents on Cemetery Road following a well attended
public meeting. The aims of the group were to raise awareness
about the value of the site, to encourage its use for educational
purposes, to protect and ultimately restore and regenerate the
site. FOGC became a registered charity in 1991. The group is a
community-based organisation with strong local membership.
The group immediately began to research the
history of the site. Despite the lack of readily available information,
the Friends began to conduct tours of the site every month from
1989. The numbers attending these tours have gradually grown as
has the Friends' knowledge and understanding of the site. Tours
are now regularly conducted for groups with special interests
in geology, flora and fauna, the environment and local history.
The universities, Sheffield College and local schools all use
the cemetery as a resource, and most call on the Friends for help,
advice and information, for talks, tours and workshops.
Shortly after FOGC was formed a local businessman
took out a lease on the Anglican chapel and submitted a planning
application for its conversion into offices. Despite objections
from FOGC and others, approval was given. This allowed car parking
within the cemetery and creation and the creation of a new access
into the site. Fortunately, the development never took place,
and permission has lapsed although the church remains in the hands
of the developer.
In the meantime FOGC itself took leases on the
nonconformist chapel and the gatehouse. This afforded them protection
from inappropriate development. In 1992 the Council undertook
some maintenance on the site. A health and safety review led to
the removal of some of the historic landscape elements of the
cemetery, including the destruction of the retaining wall behind
the nonconformist chapel. Large areas of the cemetery were fenced
off with wooden paling to protect the public from danger and to
protect the Council from possible claims. The paling has remained
despite being breached in many places. There is considerable public
feeling that the fencing is inappropriate, both visually and because
it does not allow access to parts of the site people wish to visit.
In the mid 1990s FOGC received several grants
for restoration work as well as donations from various sources.
This enabled the restoration of the surviving Egyptian gate, Mark
Firth's memorial railings, and maintenance work on footpaths and
planting. FOGC now has a regular arrangement with Sheffield Conservation
volunteers, BTCV, Sheffield Wildlife Trust and other groups. Despite
this positive work, a spate of serious thefts took place in 1998,
and features from many of the historic monuments were stolen.
FOGC began negotiating with the Council in the
early 1990s to raise the profile of the cemetery on the Council's
agenda. With the advent of a new chief executive, the Council
began to work positively with the Friends and in 1998 a Council
committee agreed in principle that FOGC could submit a bid for
the restoration of the site to Heritage Lottery Funds. All through
1998 and 1999 the bid has been developed with the help of consultants.
The Friends have submitted bids for temporary office accommodation
on the site, and a small exhibition area. They also have plans
for a full-time site supervisor to oversee volunteer work. The
site gained national recognition in 1998 through its inclusion
in the National Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest.
This followed Chris Brooks report to English Heritage in 1994
in which he cited the cemetery as of national significance. The
listing of buildings and monuments were also increased and upgraded
in 1998. FOGC also gained funding in 1999 to employ its first