Wardsend Cemetery

Wardsend Cemetery, Sheffield

Wardsend Cemetery, Sheffield

Behind Owlerton Greyhound Stadium, not far from the Sheffield Wednesday ground, a long road called Livesey Street leads eventually to a bridge over the River Don – a recent replacement for a much older bridge washed away in the 2007 flood.

On the other side of the bridge lies Wardsend Cemetery, last resting place of nearly 30,000 Sheffield people, forgotten until a group of Friends rescued it and drew attention to its fascinating history.

It was established in 1857 as a churchyard extension for St Philip’s parish church, Shalesmoor, one of four “Million Act” churches in Sheffield, opened in 1828, bombed in 1940 and demolished in 1952.  The church’s location, now unrecognisable because of road improvements, was opposite Green Lane Works, near to the Shalesmoor tram stop.

The vicar of St Philip’s, Rev John Livesey, bought five acres of land alongside the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, and – largely at his own expense – built a lodge and an attractive little chapel designed by the Sheffield architects Weightman, Hadfield & Goldie.

Rev Livesey had been minister since 1831 and vicar since the parish was created in 1848, “a tall man of fine presence, very active… genial, benevolent and kind hearted”.

He bit off more than he could chew when he opened Wardsend Cemetery.

The original sexton died shortly after the cemetery opened, and his successor, Isaac Howard, quickly made the place notorious.

In 1862 the tenant occupying the lodge, Robert Dixon, complained of unpleasant odours from the floor of his coach-house and accused the sexton of disinterring corpses to sell to the Sheffield Medical School.

Word travelled quickly and a crowd entered the cemetery on the evening of June 2nd to find a pit containing coffins, some containing corpses, one of which had clearly been dissected.  They burnt down Howard’s house, and over the next few days obliged the authorities to arrest him.

He in turn implicated the vicar, who had carelessly signed a burial certificate for a dissected corpse that remained unburied until discovered by the rioters.

In fact the medical school obtained corpses legally from the Sheffield workhouse, but had transported them in sacks rather than coffins and allowed Isaac Howard to take them to the cemetery illegally in plain packing cases on a wheelbarrow.

The real disgrace of Howard’s actions was that he exhumed corpses, particularly of children, to resell burial plots, a practice made easier by an unwise allocation of public graves beside the main pathway.

Howard was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, and the Rev Livesey to three weeks, but the judge, ruling that the vicar was only guilty of trusting the sexton’s word, back-dated his sentence to the opening of the assizes a fortnight previously.

When Howard admitted his perjury Rev Livesey was pardoned.  He returned to his benefice and served until his death in 1870, a total of thirty-nine years.

Contemporary accounts of this notorious affair are at https://www.chrishobbs.com/sheffield/agraveaffair1862.htm.

There’s more to the history of Wardsend than the often-told story of the 1862 riot.  The cemetery is a chronicle of ordinary and extraordinary Sheffield people.

While the movers and shakers of Victorian Sheffield were interred in the General Cemetery, pillars of Nonconformity gathered in the Zion Graveyard, and ordinary folk rested in municipal cemeteries such as Burngreave and Tinsley Park, Wardsend provided rest to a cross-section of society – soldiers from the nearby Hillsborough Barracks including George Lambert VC (1819-1860) who died of a burst blood vessel on the parade ground, victims of the Great Sheffield Flood which rushed past the site on the night of March 11th-12th 1864, and such fascinating characters as George Beaumont (died December 25th 1877, aged 23 years), killed during a football match when he climbed a wall to retrieve the ball and fell down a quarry face, Kate Townsend, Mrs Tommy Dodd (1849-1886) who with her husband travelled as show-people billed as “The King & Queen of the Lilliputians” and Tom Wharton (died 1933) – a life-long, celebrated Sheffield Wednesday fan, who missed only one home match in forty-six years [https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/heritage-veteran-owls-fan-was-the-happiest-man-in-sheffield-1-8995148].

The Friends of Wardsend Cemetery [https://wardsendcemetery.wordpress.com] have rescued the place from decades of neglect after its formal closure in 1988, and they welcome visitors to a regular programme of events and tours.

I admire the volunteers who devote their time to preserving an unassuming burial ground and keeping alive the memory of “the short and simple annals of the poor”.

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

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