Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Friends of the General Cemetery in Sheffield (CEM 46)



  The friends have had very little notice within which a report to this Committee and would welcome a more comprehensive opportunity to respond, and offer their services as oral witnesses to the enquiry, if required. Meanwhile the Friends felt it essential to ensure the voice of Cemetery Friends' groups be heard by this Committee.


  The cemetery remains the last protected area in the geographical band radiating south-westwards from Sheffield city and is only half a mile from the centre. It falls within the Sharrow area of the city, which is very urban, divided by several major roads, and has only one other area of green space, so per person there is a marked shortage of green space in this neighbourhood. It is bounded on two sides by residential areas (plus a river) and the other two sides by recent office developments. It is hidden from view by a stone wall and many pass it by, unaware of this green haven's existence.


  See appendix.


  The cemetery is a Grade II Listed Garden (English Heritage Historic Parks and Gardens Register), one of only two sites within South Yorkshire with this status. The cemetery was sited in a report to English Heritage in 1998 as one that should be given a Grade I rate historically speaking, if and when cemeteries become listed in their own right. The site has the highest concentration of listings of any site in Sheffield: containing nine listed buildings and monuments, including three at GradeII*. It is a designated green space within the currently adopted UDP and a Conservation Area.


  The General Cemetery holds the best collection of weeping trees in the city, and is also planted out with many unusual hollies. There are some wild brambly areas, that offer cover for wildlife. Foxes, bats and owls have been seen. There is a variety of flora in an area within a range on environments, from wetland to mown grass. There are many trees within the landscape, including ash, lime and elder. The Friends run flora and fauna tours of the site, as well as geology and fungal tours.


  The Friends have received large scale funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for educational work over a three year period. The Friends already run a comprehensive education programme which through this funding will be significantly enhanced, through the provision of a web site with freely available downloading learning resources and information about the site plus a dissemination programme, talks, tours and workshops to ensure its effective use. The Friends have an events programme that includes more than thirty scheduled events per year, to which an average of 30 people attend, though our annual event attracts more than a thousand. In addition to this talks and tours are run on special request for community school and study groups.


  The site offers a wide variety of volunteering opportunities ad ways for people to become actively involved in preserving and discovering more about this heritage. The Friends have an office with one full time paid worker (funded principally by LTSB and Northern Rock) and another New Deal trainee. These workers co-ordinate others working on the site and developing historical material from the raw data provided on the gravestones and within the burial records. This is then interpreted and published on the FOGC web site.


  Sharrow is a community that is beleaguered by unemployment and poverty, but which is a vibrant and popular place in which to live. It is the 97th poorest ward in the country, having a large number of unemployed people within it and many indicators of poverty such as a third of all children being on free school meals. The cemetery is within an SRB4 catchment, within a region with Objective One Status. The regeneration of Sharrow has shown improvement in Sharrow's employment prospects, but much needs to be done. Currently the rate of unemployment is 16.1 per cent. 41 per cent of its population claims housing benefit. 29 per cent claim Income Support. Nearly 70 per cent of Sharrow's young people do not achieve five or more Grade C passes at GCSE. Sharrow has the highest incidence of depression in Sheffield. It also has the second highest incidence of self-harm in the City. It has a high incidence of low birth weight (10.6 per cent). Sharrow enjoys a multi-ethnic community. The predominant minority groups are principally Muslim Asians, though there is also a sizeable Chinese and Afro Caribbean and Somalian community.


  There has been a fast growing interest in the cemetery, increased with the advent of the Friends' successful funding bid for education work. The emphasis on history in national programming in 2000 has also impacted upon the use of and interest in the site, and the breadth of types of interest in the site is enormous. The Friends are, though, aware that ethnic minority groups do not, on the whole, make use of the site, for a variety of reasons. This issue is currently being explored but seems to be for some of the following:

    —  Fear of dogs and a special concern about the presence of dog waste.

    —  Religious reasons for not entering a site with bodies buried in it.

    —  A perception that this is not "their" history, something FOGC is attempting to address.


  From July to October 1998 FOGC carried out an opinion poll of cemetery users and potential users. In all 170 people were interviewed. The following is a brief summary of the main findings:

    —  the User Profile showed that compared to the census data for the catchment area, users were significantly more female than male (63:37 per cent) and that their reasons for visiting indicated some gender bias (eg more men came to walk their dogs (75 of 25 per cent);

    —  the vast majority of local visitors came on foot;

    —  the three most popular reasons for coming were to walk (with or without dogs), to jog, or (children) to play games;

    —  respondents valued the tranquil nature of the cemetery and considered the best features of the cemetery were its gravestones and monuments. There was a high awareness of the cemetery's historic significance;

    —  many people were interested in the work of FOGC in general terms.

  The worst feature was considered to be the level of vandalism which most people believed would be alleviated by the employment of staff on a permanent basis, increased security, and better lighting. Nearly everyone agreed that CCTV and protective gates would be beneficial. Other aspects of the site viewed negatively were personal security and unmanaged dog waste.

  Thereafter the results of the survey indicate a wide cross section of interests and give indicators that the target audience includes: people who come on monthly tours; staff and students from the local universities engaged in academic research; students of art; photography and the performing arts; schoolchildren engaged in a range of national curriculum subjects; people visiting the cemetery to trace/visit the graves of family or for other sentimental reasons attached to the site; people who are seeking a place of quiet solitude to reflect; people who wish in some way to commemorate loved ones; people, no longer living in Sheffield, anxious to trace/record their family connections with the city. Since this opinion poll was carried out there has been a dramatic increase in the number of businesses close to the cemetery. There is as a result of this a significantly greater use of the site at the beginning and end of the working day and at lunchtime by office workers.


    —  The site has, within the last two years, become a target for graffiti, as well as being a target for the theft of monument parts a couple of years ago.

    —  The site is used by some drug users, and handbag thieves dump spoils on the site.

    —  Dog waste is a major issue for non dog walkers, and stops the local school from using the site.

    —  Health and safety is a major issue with parts of the site fenced off because of the instability of monuments and the unevenness of surfaces. This has created a conflict of interest for those wishing to visit family graves, or with an interest in the site, wishing to access the closed off areas. This seems to be an extremely cautious line taken by the Health and Safety department of the City Council, which does not embrace the needs of the community. However, in order to open these areas up again would imply a very large sum being spent on the monuments.

    —  Physical security in the site is an issue as it is a thoroughfare from one part of the city to another and after dark there is no lighting.


  When the General Cemetery was purchased by Sheffield City Council (by Act of Parliament in 1978) it was owned by the Property Services Department of the Council, and managed by Leisure Services. It was not until FOGC set up in 1989 that the cemetery gradually began to be managed to any positive effect. Leisure Services mowed designated areas and fenced off dangerous zones while FOGC increasingly began to manage the site in all other respects, on an informal basis with no formal agreement in place between the Friends and the Council. The Friends gradually gained the respect of the City Council for their work and the Friends increasingly began to ask for advice and support from the manager of Bereavement Services in the city (as the expertise for the management of cemeteries resided in this department rather than Leisure Services). At the beginning of 2000 the Friends requested that the ownership and management of the cemetery be moved formally to Bereavement services because the Friends felt that they could build a good partnership with this department of the City Council. This happened in April 2000. Then negotiations took place to formally establish a management agreement between Bereavement Services and the Friends. Under this agreement responsibility for the site is divided up in a way that suits both parties. The Friends have agreed that they will purchase leases on each of the areas of the cemetery that they wish to restore, over a period of time. Hence a lease request for first zone earmarked for restoration is in progress.


  Some parts of the cemetery are fenced off as they are regarded as unsafe for members of the public. The Council does not have the funds to make these areas safe, and the Friends do not have the expertise or funds to do this. However, many people do enter these areas in search of interesting graves, and increasing access to these areas is considered important by the Friends. The Friends recognise the issue of taking ownership of an area with regard to the onerous implications from a health and safety perspective. For this reason the agreement with the Council will be worded such that the Friends will only take on leases for areas that they are targeting for funding, and hence will ultimately be able to make safe and open for access to all. Ultimately the Friends hope that they will gain leases on every section of the site, and that the site will be made completely open and safe, although to do this will be extremely costly.


  The General Cemetery Company sold plots to families in perpetuity. The result of this short sighted choice, in common with most cemeteries in the country, leaves the 21st century with a problem. The vast majority of these graves, all owned by families and hence their responsibility to maintain, are uncared for. The Friends have a record of only a dozen graves that are tended by families, and one or two others are tended not by a family relation, but simply an individual that has adopted a grave via FOGC, and has an interest in the preservation of the site. When the City Council cleared the Anglican half of the cemetery the Council attempted to trace owners of graves to alert them to the fact this was going to happen. The task proved very difficult, as council records show. Ultimately only a handful of families were contacted and a few of those chose to have the bodies of their relations exhumed and moved elsewhere. Otherwise the gravestones were crushed and the bodies left in place.

  FOGC's plan for the site is one of sensitive enhancement and restoration. The plans for the site include the removal of no further graves, indeed it is planned to identify monuments in dangerous conditions and plan for their restoration. For each area of land that FOGC takes responsibility for, the individual grave plots will still, in theory, be the responsibility of the grave owners. The reality however, is that the vast majority of graves will not be maintained unless FOGC takes action. This parallels the action that other cemetery Friends groups have taken, though several have not troubled to attempt to contact families first. FOGC therefore propose to follow the procedure below in this situation:

    1.  Attempt to contact the grave owners' families to alert them of the change of ownership of the land around the grave.

    2.  If work is required on a grave FOGC will attempt to inform the families of this, and ask for their support on this task.

    3.  If no communication is established FOGC will proceed with restoration work in their stead.


  The Friends regard large scale funding for the Sheffield General Cemetery as essential to preserve the integrity of the site for recreational purposes, as well as to ensure this heritage is not finally lost for future generations. The Friends have spent much time and energy gaining funds and developing a bid to put to HLF for capital works on the site. It is the Friends' view that the City Council view the cemetery as a significantly lower priority for funding than other parks in Sheffield. For this reason it has fallen to the friends to single handedly put together a bid for its future, in the early years with little support from the Council, though this has thankfully changed now that the Council recognise the value of the work of the Friends. However, the process to gain funds is slow, expensive and arduous for a small community group and FOGC feels that a simpler funding formula with higher recognition of the value of these spaces should be sought.


History of the General Cemetery

  The population of England doubled during the first half of the nineteenth century. In Sheffield there was dramatic population growth, trebling from 45,758 in 1801 to 135,310 by 1851. In 1834, the General Cemetery Company was formed, in the district of Sharrow in Sheffield, to address problems raised by body snatching, health hazards of overcrowded graveyards and the growing reaction of Dissenters against the monopoly of the established church. Its creation reflected the major social trends of that time, trends typical of all the main towns in England, a time of civic improvement and the rise of the middle classes. New conditions of wealth and opportunities emerged from industrial expansions. Several epidemics had swept the town in the early 1830s, and burial space by the mid 1830s was at crisis point. The Sheffield Independent of March 1834 stated that:

    the very inadequate Provision, which is made in Sheffield for the burial of the Dead, has for a long time engaged the public attention.

  The article goes on to explain that

    The general features of the country immediately surrounding the Town of Sheffield, are in a remarkable degree favourable to the establishment of a . . . place of interment.

  By the time the Smith report was written in 1845 he was able to report that:

    A cemetery has just been established at some distance by a Joint Stock Company, under good regulations. It is beginning to be restored to and it is hoped that the bulk of the interments will hereafter be made in this and some other similar place; for whether we consider the health and comfort of the inhabitants, or the softer feelings of the relatives of the dead, or generally feelings of public decency we must approve of the arrangement of having burial places in a remote and undisturbed locality.

  The cemetery was enlarged to meet the needs of the Anglican population in 1850:

    The New cemetery for the establishment, now in course of formation beside the original cemetery at Sheffield, approaches towards completion. The improvements comprise a new carriage road, 45 feet wide, passing the cemetery and in connection with which a bridge has been erected over the River Porter. The church, with its tall spire, is nearly finished.

  White's Directory for 1849 refers to the new "handsome church in the decorated style of architecture, with a lofty spire and tower", and makes reference to the beauty of the valley:

    The chapel . . . and the church, standing near the crown of the acclivity, form conspicuous objects in the beautiful vale of the Porter, on the opposite side of which are the Botanical Gardens and many handsome villas.

  By August 1850, the company reports indicate that the planning "may be seen to full advantage". The report continues:

    the beauty of its scenery, when taken in connection with the adjacent Botanical Gardens may be considered unrivalled in this or any other country.

  Despite the Burial Board Acts and the consequent establishment of the early Burial Board cemeteries in Sheffield, the General Cemetery continued to grow in popularity. This new more utilitarian approach to burial undoubted influenced the Cemetery Company's decision to alter part of the layout of the Anglican Cemetery, in line with the style of the Burial Board Cemeteries. The flowing lines of footpaths designed by Marnock that echoed the contours of the site were to be replaced by a grid system of footpaths, making the cemetery more utilitarian and creating more space for burial. This was to be the start of a gradual erosion of historic landscape character that would continue for some time.

  Because the Company was busy, it appears that it overlooked the fact that the grounds were not being looked after properly. In 1898 the minutes record complaints being received about the state of the grounds, and a five-page report was submitted on the state of the Company. From the turn of the century onwards, the Company minutes document many repairs to the grounds.

  A landslide took place the year after a concrete addition to the main path (1937). It cost more than £3,000 to carry out the necessary repairs, and it was economically impossible to reconstruct the destroyed catacombs so they were converted into small vaults. The Second World War was on the horizon. When it came it added directly to the Company's problems. Damage occurred in 1941 when Sheffield was the target for German bombs. Throughout the war fees for repairs to bomb damaged areas of the cemetery are documented. The last minute of the General Cemetery Company, in 1949 ominously reads:

    war damages claim still outstanding

  In the 1950s the Cemetery Company was still selling burial plots in perpetuity although very few burials were taking place (an average of about 12 per year) and most were burials in existing family plots. The Cemetery Company offered to sell the General Cemetery to the City Council, but after an examination of accounts the Corporation decided it was not financially viable, so the offer was declined. The Cemetery by this time was in a very poor state of repair and was overrun with rats. Martin Flanery (an MP in the 1960s, a former teacher) taught in a school overlooking the cemetery in 1954. He reported that a child was badly bitten by a rat and another was badly injured by a fall in the cemetery. He added "it was so dreadfully overrun and so wild, it was not only an eyesore, but the city had a sense of shame about it".

  In 1963 Boden Developments Ltd bought the majority of the shares of the Cemetery Company; they intended to use the cemetery for a housing development, although they also planned to retain a small area as a memorial garden. This news caused a great deal of local opposition and protests from owners of plots, and it became rapidly clear that development could not be allowed. Boden Developments were informed officially that a planning application for the site would not succeed. The plan was abandoned and the site became even more derelict, dangerous and overgrown and more and more a liability.

  In 1974 Sheffield City Council made moves to take over the site with a view to considering alternative uses. To do this the cemetery would have to be closed by the grant of an Order in Council (Burial Act 1853). This was complicated by the fact that plots had been sold by a Deed of Grant in perpetuity and could be inherited as such through wills.

  In 1976 the City Council took action under Planning Acts powers to secure urgent maintenance works on the gatehouse. At the same time Evans Ltd (the parent company for Boden Developments) approached the Council and indicated that they would be willing to transfer the General Cemetery to the city free of charge. They indicated that if the Council refused this offer it would be likely Evans would consider the voluntary liquidation of the Cemetery Company. The Cemetery had become too much of a liability. The Council then set about gaining an Act of Parliament to provide a much needed green space for the local community. What this meant in reality was the clearing of the Anglican cemetery. To do so the Council first had to hold a Committee of Enquiry, which involved listening to the views of affected people: plot owners, local residents and community groups. At this time there was no "Friends of the Cemetery" group, but there was opposition which was documented in the Enquiry.

  The City Council agreed to take on the conservation of the older nonconformist cemetery while clearing the Anglican side. It proposed a maintenance programme and some enhancements to the older cemetery for recreational purposes. This plan of action culminated in an Act of Parliament in 1977. A programme of work began. First the memorials in the cemetery were documented so that the information was available to families wishing to do research. This work included transcribing the epitaphs, names and dates of all gravestones (including the nonconformist cemetery) and was carried out as part of a Manpower Services Commission job creation scheme. The information that was gathered is now held in the Sheffield Archives. The last burial, that of Margaret Norah Wells, aged 76, took place on 21 December 1978. Although her name was never added to the stone, burial records indicate that she was the last person to be added to a vault, in perpetuity, despite the destruction that was taking place in the cemetery at the time.

  Next came the exhumation of bodies from the Anglican cemetery. The Council had been obliged to advertise their plan to clear the graves and some relatives requested exhumations and reburial elsewhere. If no requests were forthcoming bodies were left in position. In 1980, in the face of considerable local opposition from relatives and grave owners, the bulldozers moved in and the demolition of 7,800 gravestones went ahead.

  Some gravestones in the Anglican cemetery were left in place. The gravestones that were removed were either crushed and used as bedding material for paths, cut and used as edging for paths, or simply buried on site 105. The ones that were left were not necessarily the most spectacular. The plan was to leave a representative group of monuments. At this time the City Council was suffering severe financial difficulties. The landscaping plans for the nonconformist cemetery 106 drawn up by the Planning Department were as a result never carried out, although the cemetery did become a designated Conservation Area in 1986.

  It was in this climate of destruction, decay and lack of maintenance that the Friends of the General Cemetery (FOGC) was established in 1989. The group was set up by a number of concerned residents on Cemetery Road following a well attended public meeting. The aims of the group were to raise awareness about the value of the site, to encourage its use for educational purposes, to protect and ultimately restore and regenerate the site. FOGC became a registered charity in 1991. The group is a community-based organisation with strong local membership.

  The group immediately began to research the history of the site. Despite the lack of readily available information, the Friends began to conduct tours of the site every month from 1989. The numbers attending these tours have gradually grown as has the Friends' knowledge and understanding of the site. Tours are now regularly conducted for groups with special interests in geology, flora and fauna, the environment and local history. The universities, Sheffield College and local schools all use the cemetery as a resource, and most call on the Friends for help, advice and information, for talks, tours and workshops.

  Shortly after FOGC was formed a local businessman took out a lease on the Anglican chapel and submitted a planning application for its conversion into offices. Despite objections from FOGC and others, approval was given. This allowed car parking within the cemetery and creation and the creation of a new access into the site. Fortunately, the development never took place, and permission has lapsed although the church remains in the hands of the developer.

  In the meantime FOGC itself took leases on the nonconformist chapel and the gatehouse. This afforded them protection from inappropriate development. In 1992 the Council undertook some maintenance on the site. A health and safety review led to the removal of some of the historic landscape elements of the cemetery, including the destruction of the retaining wall behind the nonconformist chapel. Large areas of the cemetery were fenced off with wooden paling to protect the public from danger and to protect the Council from possible claims. The paling has remained despite being breached in many places. There is considerable public feeling that the fencing is inappropriate, both visually and because it does not allow access to parts of the site people wish to visit.

  In the mid 1990s FOGC received several grants for restoration work as well as donations from various sources. This enabled the restoration of the surviving Egyptian gate, Mark Firth's memorial railings, and maintenance work on footpaths and planting. FOGC now has a regular arrangement with Sheffield Conservation volunteers, BTCV, Sheffield Wildlife Trust and other groups. Despite this positive work, a spate of serious thefts took place in 1998, and features from many of the historic monuments were stolen.

  FOGC began negotiating with the Council in the early 1990s to raise the profile of the cemetery on the Council's agenda. With the advent of a new chief executive, the Council began to work positively with the Friends and in 1998 a Council committee agreed in principle that FOGC could submit a bid for the restoration of the site to Heritage Lottery Funds. All through 1998 and 1999 the bid has been developed with the help of consultants. The Friends have submitted bids for temporary office accommodation on the site, and a small exhibition area. They also have plans for a full-time site supervisor to oversee volunteer work. The site gained national recognition in 1998 through its inclusion in the National Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest. This followed Chris Brooks report to English Heritage in 1994 in which he cited the cemetery as of national significance. The listing of buildings and monuments were also increased and upgraded in 1998. FOGC also gained funding in 1999 to employ its first paid worker.

December 2000

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