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, which still belonged to the United Reformed Church, which needed to divest itself of the responsibility.
A sharp-eyed member of the Upper Wincobank Chapel, a historic independent congregation located a couple of miles away, spotted the sale notice, which led to the formation of the Friends of Zion Graveyard who cleared sufficient clutter to reveal that this place is freighted with historic significance,
With the help of a crowdfunding campaign and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the Friends have bought the graveyard and, in co-operation with its neighbours, made it accessible on specified open days.
Among the graves 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) – whose daughter Martha was assistant 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, buried with their two infant children in an tomb surrounded by iron railings that were once painted gold, alongside the graves of their daughter Catherine and her husband Frank Barnsley, and two grandchildren, aged one year and two months, close by.
Most important of all, the Friends located the burial 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. He contributed to the cost of building Zion Chapel and his daughters ran the Sunday School. The family continued to attend Zion after they moved from Royds Mill to Wincobank Hall in 1814
One of Joseph Read’s daughters, Mary Anne 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). Cecil’s sister Dr Helen Mary Wilson was the first woman medical doctor in Sheffield and president of the Sheffield Suffrage Society.
In this nonconformist, Radical, individualistic town, this self-made dynasty is working-class aristocracy and Mary Anne 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.