Category Archives: Cemeteries & Sewerage (2021 Sheffield tour)

The Great Sheffield Flood

Dale Dike Dam, South Yorkshire: marker ‘Centre Line Old Bank’
Dale Dike Dam, South Yorkshire: memorial

Sheffield has a poor track-record for civic monuments.

Apart from the statue of King Edward VII standing in recently spruced-up surroundings in Fitzalan Square, most of the other monuments that once graced the centre have been shipped off to suburban parks or, in the case of the Crimea Monument, dismantled:  https://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/sheffields-missing-crimean-war-monument.

Indeed, until recently there was no monument of any significance to those who lost their lives in the most dramatic incident in the history of Sheffield, the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864.

The Sheffield Waterworks Company, desperately trying to keep up with accelerating demand from the rapidly growing steel industry and the expanding population, devised a scheme to capture the waters of the Loxley Valley, north-west of the town.

The first of three planned reservoirs, Dale Dyke, was begun in 1859 and, after its alignment had been altered to avoid unexpected disturbed strata, was completed and filled by early 1864.

No sooner had the waters reached within two feet of the lip of the dam than cracks appeared and, within a day, the dam collapsed at 11.30pm on March 11th 1864, sending 700 million gallons of water down the Loxley Valley at a speed of around 18 miles an hour.  At least 250 people were killed, including 27 whose bodies were never recovered.  Around 800 houses were destroyed or abandoned and well over 4,000 flooded.

There was no firm agreement over the cause of the disaster, at least partly because of the Coroner’s intemperate handling of the inquest.  Among the possible contributory causes were –

  • slippage of unstable strata beneath the embankment
  • poor construction of the embankment surrounding the clay core
  • inadequate thickness of the clay core
  • settlement or undue pressure leading to fracture around the outlet pipes and consequent leakage

The jury’s verdict was that “there has not been that engineering skill and that attention to the construction of the works, which their magnitude and importance demanded…” and they went on to propose that “the Legislature ought to take such action as will result in a governmental inspection of all works of this character;  and, that such inspection should be frequent, sufficient and regular…”

Such legislation was eventually passed – the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act (1930). 

Although designed in the same way as the failed dam, Agden Dam was resumed and its 629,000,000-gallon reservoir completed in 1869.  Further upstream, the Strines Reservoir (513,000,000 gallons) was finished in 1871. 

The new Dale Dyke Dam, a quarter of a mile upstream from the site of the original, was completed in 1875, though the reservoir was not brought fully into use until 1887.   It holds 446,000,000 gallons.

The final Loxley valley reservoir, Damflask, which holds 1,158,000,000 gallons, initially intended for use as compensation water, was constructed in the late 1870s but because of leakage through the strata at one side was not fully operational until a wing-trench was completed in 1896.

For many years the only physical memento of the original Dale Dyke Dam was a marker stone inscribed “CLOB” – Centre Line Old Bank – indicating the alignment of the 1864 dam.

For the 150th anniversary of the disaster, the Bradfield Historical Society cleared a trail around the reservoir and put up a memorial to the victims of the flood:  https://www.joinedupheritagesheffield.org.uk/content/organisation/bradfield-historical-society.

The Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour follows the course of the Great Sheffield Flood from the site of the original Dale Dike Dam through to the Lower Don Valley downstream of the centre of Sheffield.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Rivelin Valley cemetery

Cemetery of St Michael, Rivelin Valley, Sheffield: chapel interior

On the north-western outskirts of Sheffield, a short walk up the Rivelin Valley from the Supertram terminus at Malin Bridge, a gateway leads to the Roman Catholic cemetery of St Michael, opened in 1862 and still in use:  https://www.saintmichaelscemetery.org.

After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the first parish church in the area was St Bede’s, opened at Masborough on the then outskirts of Rotherham in 1842.  It was followed by the parish church of St Marie in Sheffield (1850), now the cathedral of the Diocese of Hallam, and another large church, St Vincent’s (1853 onwards) was started in The Crofts, an overcrowded area north of the town centre where Irish Catholics settled after the Potato Famine.

Of these, only St Bede’s had a burial ground, until in 1862 the priest at St Vincent’s, Father Burke, purchased eight acres of steeply sloping land in the Rivelin Valley from the snuff-manufacturer Mr Wilson, whose family had also provided the land for the General Cemetery nearly thirty years before.

The cemetery, with a temporary chapel, was dedicated on Michaelmas Day, September 29th 1863.

The present chapel was built in 1877, financed by a gift of £2,000 from the Sheffield tailor and gents’ outfitter, George Harvey Foster, and designed by the father-and-son practice Matthew Ellison and Charles Hadfield.  This new chapel is 72 feet long and 22 feet wide, built in the Early English style.  It has an apsidal east end, a sixty-foot-high bellcote above the west door, and the south-west porch is embellished with a statue of St Michael slaying Satan as a dragon.

The interior, restored in 2005, is distinguished by the work of an impressive group of contemporary artists.  The marble and alabaster altar, with its figure of the dead Christ, is from the Cheltenham workshop of the sculptor Richard Lockwood Boulton. 

Further decorations were funded by a gift of £430 by the Foster family in 1884 – wall paintings by Charles Hadfield and Nathaniel Westlake, who also designed the west window, and the three east windows, designed by John Francis Bentley who later became the architect of Westminster Cathedral and manufactured by Nathaniel Westlake’s stained-glass company, Lavers & Westlake.

The two most prominent monuments in the cemetery stand above the family vaults of George Harvey Foster (1829-1894), and the department-store proprietor, John Walsh (d1905), respectively gothic and neo-Classical and constructed within a decade of each other. 

The sharp gradient makes exploring the cemetery a strenuous activity, and visitors are advised not to stray from paths because gravestones may be unstable.

Higher up the valley side are two more burial grounds, a very small Jewish cemetery and the Church of England Walkley Cemetery, both opened in 1860.

Chris Hobbs’ local-history website has a feature on Walkley Cemetery:  https://www.chrishobbs.com/sheffield/walkleycemetery.htm.

The Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour includes a visit to St Michael’s Cemetery.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Steel workers’ resting place 3

City Road Cemetery, Sheffield: Catholic Chapel of St Michael (2014)

When the very last Sheffield tram came off the streets in October 1960 an assiduous member of its load of enthusiasts made sure that, as the gates of Tinsley Tram Sheds closed behind it, its destination indicator showed ‘CEMETERY GATES’.

The cemetery gates at which Intake trams sometimes turned back was City Road, established by the newly-formed Sheffield Burial Board on a site east of the town-centre purchased from the 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1881. 

The original buildings – Church of England and Nonconformist chapels, a gateway and lodge on Manor Lane and a gatehouse and offices on City Road, all in late Perpendicular style – were designed by the Sheffield architects Matthew Ellison Hadfield & Son.

The initial apportionment of land was between the Church of England (slightly over 20 acres), the Nonconformists (13 acres) and the Roman Catholics (7 acres), leaving 9 acres to allocated as required in future.

There was no Roman Catholic chapel at the cemetery until 1898, when the Duke of Norfolk commissioned a design with a hexagonal sanctuary and a central lantern above the altar, 60 feet long, by Matthew Ellison Hadfield’s son Charles.  Dedicated to St Michael, the foundation stone was laid on July 22nd 1899, and it was consecrated on October 11th 1900.

A subsequent resolution by the Burial Board allowed the space in front of the chapel to be used for burials of Catholic clergy, and it became known as the Priest Vaults.

In 1901 Sheffield Corporation, having taken over the functions of the Burial Board the previous year, gained legal powers to construct one of the first municipal crematoria in Britain, and commissioned Charles Hadfield and his son Charles Matthew Ellison Hadfield to design an octagonal structure alongside the Nonconformist chapel, based on the Abbot’s Kitchen at Glastonbury so that the steel exhaust from the cremator could pass through the Gothic lantern which provided light and ventilation to the space below. 

Charles M E Hadfield’s bronze catafalque was constructed by the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts and installed in the chapel, and a columbarium was installed in the south side of the City Road entrance range.

The crematorium opened on April 5th 1905.  The first cremation was of Eliza Hawley of Upperthorpe, on April 24th 1905, in the presence of her family, the architect and the Town Clerk.  A further six cremations took place in the following six months to November 1905.

The Church of England chapel was demolished in 1982, having been made redundant by the construction of a modern chapel to the north of the crematorium.  All the other original buildings on the site remain, though the Catholic Chapel has been derelict for years.

City Road Cemetery is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For further details of the tour please click here.

Temples of Sanitation – Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester

Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester Museum of Science & Technology

While Burton Corporation was building Claymills Pumping Station to rid the town of brewery and household effluent, sending the ordure and the smell to the unsuspecting village of Egginton across the county border in Derbyshire, their colleagues in Leicester were also catching up with the effects of rapidly expanding population on their town’s limited sanitation.

Sewage-disposal had been a problem for the expanding borough from the 1850s onwards. 

The civil engineer Thomas Wicksteed (1806-1871) designed a scheme for his Patent Solid Sewage Manure Company to drain the town and purify the resulting solid matter as manure. 

Though the scheme markedly improved the condition of the River Soar, the manure failed to sell and the enterprise failed. 

Indeed, pail closets continued in the poorer districts of the town and the removal of ordure by carts, canal barges and railway wagons was a continuing nuisance.

A new scheme was devised in 1885 providing two arterial sewers linking to a sewage farm on the outskirts of the borough and the Abbey Pumping Station was constructed between November 1887 and May 1891 to pump sewage 1½ miles to Beaumont Leys. 

The imposing Elizabethan engine-house, begun in 1889, was designed by the Leicester architect Stockdale Harrison (1846-1914).

The four pumping engines, very like the slightly earlier ones at Claymills and by the same local firm of Gimson & Company, are now the largest surviving Woolf compound steam-engines in the United Kingdom, and Abbey Pumping Station is one of the few places where four steam pumping engines can still be seen within one engine house. 

The high-pressure cylinders are 30in × 69¼in, and the low-pressure cylinders are 48in × 96in.  Each flywheel is 21 feet in diameter, and the beams are 28 feet long.

Leicester’s population grew more than threefold between 1861 and 1901 and continued to expand through the first half of the twentieth century. 

At Abbey Pumping Station settlement tanks and an electric pump were installed in 1925, and capacity was reinforced by the installation of a ram pump in 1939. 

The station continued to steam until the opening of the Wanlip Sewage Treatment Works in 1964.

The site was then converted into the Leicester Museum of Science and Technology which opened in 1974.  

The original eight Gimson Lancashire boilers had been replaced in 1925:  of these replacements only one survives, and the boiler house now contains other museum exhibits.  Two of the engines are restored to working condition, though limited boiler-capacity prevents them both being steamed simultaneously for longer than a very short time. 

There are other sewage-related experiences in the Museum. 

The site railway, first installed in 1926 and operated by a small petrol locomotive, has been adapted for passengers.  Trains are hauled by a restored steam locomotive, Leonard, from the Birmingham Tame & Rea District Drainage Board’s Minworth sewage treatment works.

A display entitled ‘Flushed with Pride’ (a title borrowed from Wallace Reyburn’s inimitable 1969 biography of the water-closet manufacturer, Thomas Crapper) includes a lavatory with see-through bowl and cistern, into which visitors can drop artificial faeces and watch them journey from the U-bend to the main sewer. 

Such rare delights are not to be missed.

Details of public openings at Abbey Pumping Station are at http://www.abbeypumpingstation.org/default.asp.

Abbey Pumping Station is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour, based in Sheffield.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Temples of Sanitation – Claymills Pumping Station

Claymills Pumping Station, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire

By coincidence two of the three pumping stations we’re visiting on the grandly but accurately titled Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness have similar steam engines – Woolf compound pumps built by Gimson & Co of Leicester.  In other respects the two sites offer very different experiences.

Claymills Pumping Station, which stands beside the Midland main line from Derby to Birmingham, was built for Burton-on-Trent Corporation in 1885.

Burton-on-Trent had begun to install effective street sewers from 1843 but did nothing to deal with the liquid waste of its principal industry.

One of the major disadvantages of the nineteenth-century brewing process was the considerable quantity of hot, foul-smelling effluent, rich in sulphate and suspended vegetable matter, that was discharged into local streams. 

A sewer constructed in 1866 to carry industrial effluent, domestic sewage and rainwater to sediment tanks at Claymills, near the village of Stretton, simply moved the problem further from the town:  the offensive material was separated and discharged into the River Trent.

The population of Burton-on-Trent – 9,450 in 1871 – was expected to produce about a million gallons a day, but when the town became a borough in 1878 the outfall was between five and six million gallons. 

The new council included a number of prominent brewers and in 1880 promoted an Act of Parliament to build a pumping station at Claymills to pump the effluent 2½ miles to a 300-acre sewage farm at Egginton – a vertical lift of seventy feet.

Though lime was added to the material, offensive smells remained a problem around the village of Egginton and as far away as Repton and Calke until the farm closed in the 1970s.

The paired engine houses each contain two mirror-image engines, designated A and B, C and D, with the boiler house between. 

The beams are each 26 feet 4 inches between their end centres, and weigh thirteen tons.  The flywheels are 24 feet in diameter and weigh twenty-four tons each. 

In normal circumstances two engines worked at a time, running at ten revolutions a minute.  In periods of high demand, a third engine would be engaged.

The five original Lancashire boilers were renewed in 1937, and the replacements incorporate Green’s economisers and Meldrum’s mechanical stokers.  Two boilers operated at a time, with a third on standby.

The steam engines were replaced by electric pumps in 1971, and when Burton Corporation’s sewerage system was transferred in 1974 to the Severn Trent Water Authority, the new owners enlisted the assistance of industrial-archaeology groups to take over Claymills Pumping Station as a preservation project. 

Once practical repairs and asbestos-removal work was completed, the Claymills Pumping Engines Trust took over the site in 1993. 

Steam was first raised in 1998 and ‘C’ engine ran in May 2000, followed a year later by ‘D’ engine.  ‘B’ engine returned to steam in 2017.

Claymills Pumping Station is magnificent in the way of such places – a grand complex of buildings, huge beam engines – but it has a special appeal to engineering enthusiasts because most of the steam-powered ancillary equipment is preserved and restored. 

Much of the auxiliary machinery was stripped out to create storage space, and has been gradually repatriated by the Trust. 

The 26-foot-long bed lathe had been scrapped, but the Trust identified and acquired a near equivalent machine from Bamford Mill, Derbyshire.

The blacksmith’s forge, which had been demolished after the station closed, was rebuilt by the Trust in 2005. 

Claymills has a welcoming atmosphere, and it’s always heartening to see young people involved in heritage industrial archaeology.

The photograph I wish I’d captured but missed was of a youth in full Victorian workers’ rig of flat cap, waistcoat and muffler, tapping into his smartphone.

Details of public openings at Claymills are at http://www.claymills.org.uk.

Clay Mills Pumping Station  is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour, based in Sheffield.  For further details of the tour please click here.

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”.

Wardsend Cemetery  is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For further details of the tour please click here.

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

Mark Firth’s monument

Sheffield General Cemetery:  Mark Firth monument

Sheffield General Cemetery: Mark Firth monument

Mark Firth (1819-1880) was a significant figure in the life of Victorian Sheffield.  His father had been head smelter of the long-established steel manufacturer Sanderson Brothers, but Mark and his brother Thomas Jnr set up their own works in 1842 and ten years later moved to Savile Street, where the Sheffield & Rotherham Railway entered the town along the flat flood-plain of the Don Valley.

Their Norfolk Works quickly built a reputation for building armaments:  indeed, a veritable arms race took place on Savile Street, as Sir John Brown’s Atlas Works next door developed armour plate to resist the Firth company’s shells.  Though John Brown & Co acquired a majority shareholding in Thomas Firth & Sons in 1902, the two companies operated independently until 1930 when they became Thomas Firth & John Brown, commonly known as Firth Brown Ltd.

Mark Firth and Sir John Brown were also domestic neighbours in Ranmoor, up on the western hills away from the smoke and dirt of Sheffield’s east end:  Mark Firth lived at Oakbrook (c1860) and Sir John lived next door at Endcliffe Hall (1863-5).

Mark Firth enlarged Oakbrook in 1875 when he entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (latterly King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) on their visit to open the 36-acre Firth Park, his gift to the city at Page Hall, just over the hill from the Don Valley.

Mark Firth dominated civic life in the years before Sheffield became a city:  indeed, some of his munificence may have made civic status a possibility.  He served as Master Cutler in 1867 and Mayor in 1874.  As well as Firth Park his name is linked to Firth College, opened in 1879, which ultimately became Sheffield University, and the thirty-six Firth Almshouses at Hangingwater, near to his Ranmoor home.

A modest and devout member of the Methodist New Connexion, he retained his links with his working-class roots to the end of his life.  Travelling daily by carriage from Oakbrook back to the works on Savile Street, he lunched on pies cooked by his foreman’s wife.  He was at the Works when he suffered a fatal stroke.

When he died the whole of Sheffield shut up shop for the day, and the funeral procession from Oakbrook stretched two miles to his grave in the General Cemetery, where his monument is now restored and listed Grade II.

The Firth Almshouses continue to operate as a registered charity [http://www.sheffieldhelpyourself.org.uk/full_search_new.asp?group=17923], and Oakbrook has been part of Notre Dame High School since 1919:  http://www.notredame-high.org.uk/index.php/information/item/161-history-of-notre-dame.

The Sheffield General Cemetery is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For further details of the tour please click here.

Steel workers’ resting place 1

Anglican Chapel, Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield

Anglican Chapel, Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield

The great company cemeteries of the early Victorian period attract a great deal of attention, but the major push to bring decent burial to Britain’s industrial towns and cities followed the Burial Acts of 1852-7, which recognised that most people couldn’t afford the fees of the cemeteries companies, and empowered local authorities to provide dignified burial facilities for all.

In most towns this led to the establishment of an elective Burial Board, backed by the power to levy rates and led by local figures who knew, and felt a responsibility to, their local community.

This meant that overcrowded, insanitary churchyards could be closed.  It also enabled Roman Catholics and Nonconformists to be interred by their own clergy, rather than by the local Church of England priest.

I recently visited my local Victorian municipal burial ground, Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield, which has a small but active Friends’ group:  http://www.friendsofburngreavecemetery.btck.co.uk.

The cemetery was opened in 1861, and extended by Sheffield Corporation when they took over from the Burial Board in 1900.  It’s still open for burials in existing graves, and the magnificent chapels by Flockton & Son are intact and listed, but in urgent need of weather-proofing and restoration.

In more prosperous times a company called Creative Outpost devised a grandiose restoration scheme but it seems to have closed down:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Creative-outpost-sheffield-located-at-Burngreave-chapels/166750873081.

This leaves the Friends seeking fresh support, expertise and – most of all – funds.  They’ve digitised the cemetery records to provide an invaluable service locating graves for relatives and descendants, and they’ve begun a detailed study of some of their more celebrated “residents”:  http://www.friendsofburngreavecemetery.btck.co.uk/Residents.

They open the chapels as often as possible on Sunday mornings, and they serve as a link between the local community and the council’s Bereavement Services department.

Their existence is the vital factor that keeps Burngreave Cemetery safe and civilised, and encourages its use as a place to walk, jog and enjoy the fresh air in a built-up area that is not blessed with many amenities.

Every cemetery deserves friends like the Friends of Burngreave Cemetery.  The co-ordinating body for such organisations is the National Federation of Cemetery Friends:  http://cemeteryfriends.org.uk.

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

Burngreave Cemetery is included in the itinerary of the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ tour, based in Sheffield, September 16th-20th 2021.  For further details of the tour please click here.

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 (September 16th-20th 2021) tour.  For further details of the tour please click here.