There’s not a lot left of the vibrant community that existed in Sheffield’s Lower Don Valley until the late 1950s. Two ancient structures – Carbrook Hall and Hill Top Chapel – survive from the seventeenth century. There are some twentieth-century buildings, such as Banners Department Store and the former Adelphi Cinema. Other, less prepossessing buildings have become significant simply because they survived – a number of banks and pubs, two Burton’s tailors, a chapel, a swimming baths and a library.
In a corner behind the remaining shops on Attercliffe Road is a historic discovery.
Parallel to the main road runs Zion Lane, a narrow alley still paved with bricks and stone setts. It takes its name from the former Zion Congregational Church, a place of worship since 1793, the site ultimately occupied by a grand Romanesque chapel with a tower and spire, opened in 1863.
Inevitably, as the houses were cleared in the 1950s and 1960s the church became unsustainable. The building was sold in 1976 and the church became a furniture store until it burnt down in 1987 and was afterwards demolished. The Zion Sabbath School across the lane survives as a motor-repair business.
Through all this, in the graveyard behind the church generations of Attercliffe people slept undisturbed. I photographed it in 1977, and another photographer recorded it in 1994, when it still looked like a burial ground. Eventually it became a jungle.
The graveyard still belongs to the United Reformed Church, which needs to divest itself of the responsibility. A sharp-eyed member of the Friends of Wincobank Hill, an energetic conservation body operating a couple of miles away, spotted the sale notice, which led to the formation of the Friends of Zion Graveyard who have cleared sufficient clutter to reveal that this place is freighted with historic significance.
Among the graves so far uncovered and identified are Mark Oakes (died September 19, 1856) – assayer, refiner and crucible maker, John Pearson of Hall Carr House (died January 14th 1877) – organist to Zion Church, buried with his wife and sister in an elaborate grave marked with iron posts and railings, and Jonathan Wood (died October 20th 1848), – owner of Wood’s (or Bridge) Foundry, member of the Zion Church choir, and his wife Catherine Wood (died September 12th 1873) – buried with their two infant children in an tomb surrounded by iron railings that were once painted gold, and two other children with the same family names, aged one year and two months, close by.
Most important of all, the Friends have located the family vault of the Read family.
Joseph Read (1774-1837) established the Sheffield Smelting Company (which is still in operation as Thessco Ltd) at Royd’s Mill, Washford Bridge, half a mile away from the Zion Church. They lived at Wincobank Hall.
One of his daughters, Mary Ann Rawson (1801-1887), was a notable anti-slavery campaigner who with her sister Emily Read was a founder-member of the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society and its successor, the Sheffield Ladies Association for the Universal Abolition of Slavery.
Another of his daughters, Elizabeth “Eliza” Read (1803-1851), married William Wilson (1800-1866), a nonconformist Radical who was chairman of the Nottingham Anti-Slavery Committee.
Their son, Henry Joseph Wilson (1833-1914) was the “stern and uncompromising” Liberal MP for Holmfirth (1885-1912).
His teetotal, non-smoking younger brother, John Wycliffe Wilson JP (1836-1921) became Lord Mayor of Sheffield (1902) on condition that alcohol should be banned at the Town Hall during his term. As Chairman of Sheffield Board of Guardians he instigated the development of cottage homes for orphaned children.
Henry Joseph Wilson’s son, Cecil Henry Wilson (1864-1945) was Labour MP for Attercliffe (1922-1931 and 1935-1944).
In this nonconformist, Radical, individualistic town, this self-made dynasty is working-class aristocracy and Mary Ann Rawson’s campaigning career entitles her to national recognition.
Their unassuming, long-forgotten burial place deserves to be treasured and celebrated.
It commemorates what made Sheffield.