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A Brief Photo Essay: Sheffield General Cemetery

26 Jul

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Sheffield to take part in an archaeological excavation in the nearby Peak District but, after hearing about the beauty of the Sheffield General Cemetery at the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014 conference, I thought it was time to give the cemetery a visit whilst I was down.  With a good friend and my trusty old Pentax S1a camera loaded with black and white film, I set off to take a look.

The fully landscaped Sheffield General Cemetery was opened by the Cemetery Company in 1836, a year before Queen Victoria took the throne of Great Britain, in the south-west part of the city on a patch of steeply rising land.  It was closed for burial by Sheffield City Council in 1978.  It was constructed in response to the overcrowding and poor conditions that haunted many of Sheffield churchyards in this period of rapid economic and population growth of the city during the industrial revolution, and subsequently extended on the east side in 1846 at the request of the Anglicans (Hartwell 2009).  It is a cemetery that is noted for its unique history and architecture – being home to (the unfortunately unpopular) two terraced catacombs, a Gothic-style Anglican chapel, a two-storey Non-conformist chapel with subterranean burial vaults (which was built in the classical style with Egyptian features), and a prominent gatehouse alongside other interesting features (McIntyre & Harvey 2012).  It remains an overgrown and poignant home to around 87,000 or so Anglican (Church of England) and Non-conformist inhumations.  Individuals were buried throughout the span of the cemetery lifespan, with the majority being buried after the 1855 Burial Grounds Act was passed (Sayer 2012: 29).  Today the cemetery is open to all to explore the interesting architecture, beautiful grounds and the famous individuals from Sheffield’s past.

Although this is just a brief post I highly recommend taking the time to read the sources below and to give the cemetery a visit if you are in the area.  It is really is beautiful and serene – perfect for a summer stroll if you are not on an excavation!

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A moment to pray.  A particularly elegant statue on the top of a grave plot commemorating a family.  During the Victorian period it was the vogue for memorial sculptures to hark back to classical antiquity and the Sheffield General Cemetery has many monuments with obvious architectural motifs and influences from the Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures.  Unlike modern cemeteries, and indeed some of the more recent 20th century gravestones at the General Cemetery, Victorians tended to elect for elaborate memorials that commemorated family ties, christian values and the remembrance of the individual; essentially mourning was not hidden from the actual burial or commemoration site (Sayer 2010).

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A moment to commemorate.  This now crumbling monument was installed in the cemetery to honour George Bennet (1773-1841), who was sent around the globe by The London Missionary Society to report and discover the state of ‘Godliness’ around the globe.  He spent 8 years (1821-1829) covering the far reaches of the globe, making a total journey of around 90,000 miles before returning home.  Although the monument is a dedication to him he was not buried in the cemetery itself (SGCT website).  The majority of the monuments at the cemetery can be found in the western Non-conformist area, where many notable citizens of 19th century Sheffield can be found.  This includes the grave of Mark Firth (1819-1880) who was a steel industrialist, philanthropist, and the founder of Firth College in 1870 (which later became the basis for The University of Sheffield).  Many of the monument’s fencing in the cemetery is made of Sheffield steel and remain fairly intact to this day, although larger monuments themselves and the Non-conformist chapel have suffered damage and neglect (McIntyre & Harvey 2012: 2).

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The fenced off plots of Non-conformist graves awaiting restoration and conservation.  In this particular area  many of the gravestones and monuments have been crowded together and are slowly being covered by vegetation.  Although closed for burial in 1978 Sheffield City Council still own the site and it became run down in the 80’s and 90’s, however it is now managed by the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust (formerly known as the Friends of the General Cemetery).  The Trust is a charity organisation which was formed in 1989 and its aim is to help conserve the cemetery, run educational tours and workshops, and help in the historical research of the cemetery’s architecture and occupants.  The cemetery and the landscape is listed as a Grade II* building environment by English heritage, and it is also home to a designated Local Nature Reserve.

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A different view of the above, showing an uphill shot of crowded monuments and gravestones that mark burials.  A portion of the Anglican area of the cemetery was leveled of gravestones and markers in 1980, which cleared some 800 markers, to make a playing field (Hartwell 2009).  A number of these, and some of the older gravestones that had fallen or become rubble, were used in the construction of rain clearways or pathways.  The cemetery is also home to individuals who have died during pivotal points in the city’s history.  This includes victims from the great Sheffield flood of 1864 when 270 people were killed when a reservoir dam breached uphill, soldiers from the First World War (a war which helped influence a change in style towards simpler memorials in the western world), and people killed during the blitz from the Second World War where a total of 700 people died in Sheffield, some of whom were buried in the General Cemetery (SGCT).

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Silently guarding his home.  This bear doesn’t belong in the Sheffield General Cemetery but comes from the nearby Sheffield Botanical Gardens, which was founded in 1836, the same year as Sheffield General Cemetery.  The Anglican side of the Sheffield general Cemetery (designed and extended in 1846) was designed by Robert Marnock, who also designed the Sheffield Botanical Gardens (Hartwell 2009).  The botanical gardens hosts a wide range of flora from each corner of the globe and covers a grand total of 19 acres.  The bear pit in the botanical gardens was home to a duo of brown bears that entertained the public from 1836 until the 1870’s when a tragic accident involving a boy falling into the pit and being killed resulted in their removal from it (source). The pit itself was particularly small and I can only imagine the stress that the bears themselves must have felt.  Today the botanical gardens remain open and free to the public and are a popular attraction on a summer day.

It is worth mentioning here that during the Victorian and post-Victorian periods there were many different Burial Act Laws initiated and implemented, which have subsequently heavily influenced the approach and actual access that archaeologists have during planning processes and exhumation of human remains in many of the UK’s urban areas.  This is an ongoing source of contention and conflict between heritage bodies, contractors, the public and the government, and it remains likely to continue to be so in the future (Parker-Pearson et al. 2011: 819, but also see here with regards to exhumation and burial law).

Unfortunately I only had one roll of black and white film and I wanted to save some film for something else which, tantalizingly, will follow this post!

Learn More

  • The Sheffield General Cemetery Trust website can be found here, where a record of both the history of the site and of the individuals buried at the cemetery can be accessed.
  • The Urban Ghosts website has a fantastic selection of photographs, including of the Non-conformist chapel and views of the terraced catacombs, and information on the cemetery here.
  • A list of common symbols on Victorian graves and their meanings can be found here.
  • Read about just why the cemetery and park is listed as a Grade II* building by English Heritage here.
  • Delve into the delights of the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, where the bear pit and curvilinear Glass Pavilions are also Grade II and II* listed buildings, here.
  • Over at Spoilheap Sue Anderson has a very considered and enlightening range of issues that should be taken into account regarding the legal aspects of burial archaeology.

Bibliography

Hartwell, C. 2009. Sheffield General Cemetery (List Number 1001391), English Heritage List Entry Summary.  Accessed 25th July 2014. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Conformist Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield. Report No. GCN01. The University of Sheffield. Unpublished report. (Open Access).

Pearson, M.P., Schadla-Hall, T. & Moshenska, G. 2011. Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. 21: 5-9. (Open Access).

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.

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