Monday, 22 August 2011

Event - In praise of buried treasures (Sheffield General Cemetery)

THE quick as well as the dead will be in Sheffield General Cemetery next month. Stephen McClarence reports. Main picture by Chris Lawton.

andrew Whitham scrolls down a list of the 87,000 long-term residents of Sheffield’s General Cemetery. He’s looking for his great-grandfather, Charles Henry Whitham, file-cutter.

“There’s a whole city of people in here,” says Andrew, who remembers Charles Henry’s grave from childhood – “one of those pink granite crosses; my grandmother always used to say that you could see it when you went past the cemetery on the bus... Ah, Whithams! Loads of them... Here he is. Charles Henry, died 12 July 1915.

“But look at this: Henry Whitham, died 1913. That must be my great great-grandfather. He set up the business, Henry Whitham and Son. So he’s buried here too. Well, I never knew that.”

Everybody who was anybody in Victorian Sheffield was buried in the General Cemetery, along with quite a few who’d have said they were nobody. Spread over a steeply sloping hillside near the city centre, with a grieving angel at every turn, this was one of the first and most important of Britain’s landscaped “garden cemeteries”. It celebrates its 175th anniversary this year with Heritage Open Days tours next month and has landed a grant to explore the future of one of its finest buildings, with Andrew Whitham at the centre of the plan.

Andrew, project development manager with South Yorkshire Buildings Preservation Trust, points out the paths that sweep magisterially up the hill, past catacombs, urns, broken columns, obelisks and acres of human mortality. “It’s pure theatre,” he says. “This is one of the most complete Victorian cemeteries outside London.”

Among the people here who “fell asleep”, “departed this life” or simply died is a survivor of Waterloo, two of Balaclava (one from the Light Brigade; one from the Heavy, nursed by Florence Nightingale), sundry Lord Mayors, 96 paupers somehow squeezed into one plot, an alderman who changed his name to inherit his father-in-law’s fortune, and the baby daughter born to the wife of an African “warrior dancer” touring England in 1902.

Probably the most nationally significant grave is that of Samuel Holberry, a revolutionary Chartist, whose sturdy gravestone, now leaning uncharacteristically to the right, is an eloquent tribute to a man who became a working class martyr and “at the early age of 27 died in York Castle. Some 50,000 people turned out to watch his 1842 funeral procession and his grave still attracts admirers (mainly left-leaning).

The lower part of the cemetery was controversially cleared and turned into parkland by Sheffield Council. Andrew Whitham’s family graves were among those that, as he puts it, “took the wrath of the JCBs”, many of them crushed and used to fill pathways. For many years, poignant fragments of inscriptions – “Peace”, “Memory”, “Beloved” – would catch the evening light. All the inscriptions were transcribed, however, and people now turn up from all over the world to root among the graves that remain “in loving memory” or “in affectionate remembrance” of their ancestors.

Before and during the clearances, I spent many Sunday afternoons photographing it in a slightly obsessive way. Where some saw grim, morbid squalor and potential danger, I saw grand romantic decay. It was an Edgar Allan Poe of a cemetery with a jungle of vegetation threatening to swallow it completely. After the clearance – which thankfully didn’t affect the cemetery’s grandest monuments – a Friends of the General Cemetery campaigning group was set up, and it eventually became a Trust, with an active programme of conservation, tours and talks.

Now, thanks to an Architectural Heritage Fund grant, the South Yorkshire Buildings Preservation Trust has been commissioned to find possible new uses for the most striking and solid of the cemetery’s buildings: a long-disused and bricked-up nonconformist chapel with a bit of an architectural identity crisis.

“I’ve always thought it would be a great exhibition space, or a place for concerts,” says Andrew Whitham. “Some people might like to have civil ceremonies there.” Previous suggestions for new uses have included turning it into a cafe, called Angel Delight.

We’re standing in front of the chapel’s towering portico as Michael (“Spike”) Steadman, the cemetery trust’s landscape co-ordinator, unlocks a small metal door to let us look inside. He turns a key, pulls a metal shield aside and a vile musty smell hits us. “Pigeons,” says Spike. On cue, one of them perching overhead drops a small comment splat on my notebook.

It was other birds that first alerted Spike to the cemetery’s charm. “I moved to Sheffield as a student in the early 1990s and I remember coming in here one evening. There were at least eight owls calling to each other across the park. I thought it was quite a magical place.”

He talks of its present importance as a green space, in an inner-city area lacking them, and as an urban nature reserve with waxwings, greater spotted woodpeckers and three species of bat. The cemetery’s landscape has been listed ( Grade Two starred). “From it being a no-go area in the Seventies, we now have 500 visitors a day and our tours and events attract 5,000 people a year,” he says. “There’s a bullfinch on that branch over there.”

The cemetery – some of which looked stark after the clearances – now has attractive pockets of woodland and, here and there, is dense with blackberry bushes, ash and sycamore saplings, bindweed and rose bay willow herb. The gravestones near the chapel are cloaked in ivy. It’s like an environmental sculpture park.

We walk back to the gate, talking about Robert Marnock, who laid out much of the cemetery. “Marnock would have loved to have seen this landscape now,” says Spike. “He returned to the cemetery before his death and wasn’t too pleased that it was covered with graves. So he decided to be cremated.”

Sheffield General Cemetery Trust: 0114 268 3486 ( The tours are on Sunday September 11, noon to 4pm.

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