Steel barons’ Valhalla

Nonconformist Chapel, General Cemetery, Sheffield (1976)

Nonconformist Chapel, General Cemetery, Sheffield (1976)

When I first knew the Sheffield General Cemetery in the late 1960s it was an undignified, sometimes frightening eyesore.

It was hard to believe that when it was opened in 1836 the Porter Valley was Sheffield’s classical Elysium.  On the north side of the valley stood the classical terrace The Mount (William Flockton c1830-2), the Botanical Gardens (Benjamin Broomhead Taylor & Robert Marnock 1833-6) and the Palladian Wesley College (William Flockton 1837-40, now King Edward VII School).

Opposite, the General Cemetery was laid out in terraces by the designer and curator of the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, Robert Marnock, with Greek Revival buildings, the Lion Gate, the Nonconformist chapel and the Secretary’s House, all designed by Samuel Worth, the designer, with B B Taylor, of Sheffield’s Cutler’s Hall (1832).

The original nine acres were extended by a further eight in 1850 to provide a consecrated section, dominated by William Flockton’s fine Gothic Cemetery Church.

The valley became built up in the later nineteenth century.  The turnpike road became a tram-route and Cemetery Avenue, originally built across open fields, is now one of the very few streets of terraced houses in the city with trees on either side [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sheffield_General_Cemetery_1830s.jpg].

The Cemetery is now recognised as one of the finest provincial company cemeteries in England, built in response to the 1832 cholera epidemic (which in Sheffield killed 404 people, including the Master Cutler), founded as a joint-stock company by Nonconformists, with picturesque landscaping and a fondness for Egyptian detail on otherwise classical buildings.

It is the resting place of many of the great names of Victorian Sheffield – Samuel Holberry (1816-1842), the Chartist leader;  James Montgomery (1771–1854), newspaper editor and hymn-writer – now reburied at Sheffield Cathedral;  Mark Firth (1819-1880), steel magnate and philanthropist and the brothers John, Thomas, and Skelton Cole, founders of the Sheffield department store.

Like all early-Victorian company cemeteries it fell into ruin as the income streams of plot-sales and burial fees dried up after the Second World War.

A development company bought the cemetery company, but gave up on the idea of building apartments on the site when they realised they’d have to exhume up to 77,000 corpses.

Eventually, in 1978, Sheffield City Council took it over, secured an Act of Parliament to extinguish burial rights, and perhaps ill-advisedly cleared eight hundred gravestones to create a green recreational space.

In 1989 a Friends’ group, now reconstituted as the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust [http://www.gencem.org/index.php], took on a voluntary role as custodians of the place, encouraging conservation, preservation and appropriate use of a fine amenity that at one time seemed an insoluble liability.

There is still much for the Trust and the City Council to do:  the Lion Gate and the Dissenters’ Chapel have been fully restored, but the Cemetery Church is an empty shell awaiting a creative and sympathetic use.

In the meantime, the Trust works constantly to “encourage everyone to enjoy this historical site by walking its paths, learning its history or simply as a quiet place to sit and contemplate”.

Without their voluntary labours, the place would simply slip back into dereliction.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

The Sheffield General Cemetery is included in the itinerary of the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ tour, based in Sheffield, September 17th-21st 2020.  For further details of the tour please click here.

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