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To Prove I'm Not Forgot
Living and Dying in a Victorian City
By Sylvia M. Barnard
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Sylvia M. Barnard
All rights reserved.
Decline and Fall
Be sure you lay me there he said
In that sweet lovely spot
And strew with flowers my grassy bed
To prove I'm not forgot.
Henry Parker, 1871
On 14 August 1845, a Thursday, a melancholy little group of people gathered behind a baby's tiny coffin in Joy's Fold, Leeds, at the meeting-place of Marsh Lane and the road to York. Half a century before, this had been the foldyard of a farm; now it was a collection of higgledy-piggledy, run-down cottages housing some of the less well-to-do working people of the town.
As they made their way northwards along the road called Burmantofts (named after the plots belonging to the burgesses or 'borough-men' of Leeds long ago), John and Hannah Hirst and their friends passed a few of the regimented brick rows of cramped terraced dwellings known as 'back-to-backs', where industrial Leeds was stretching greedy fingers out into the countryside. Yet there were still good large houses to be seen, standing in pleasant, tree-shaded gardens – Burmantofts Hall and Grove to the left, then Springfield House on the right, where Nippet Lane, dry and dusty, branched off towards the stream called Stoney Rock Beck. Passing the little wood down at the Accommodation Street crossroads, the road, now called Beckett Street, led straight on up the hill, where another short block of working-class homes stood on the left. To the north of Skinner Lane, down in the valley, the Hirsts could see the growing outcrop of housing known as 'Newtown', but along Beckett Street there was open country. True, the site for the new House of Recovery to replace the old fever hospital in Vicar Lane (which had been uncomfortably close to the most unhealthy area of the city) had been purchased, and in due course a dignified building costing £7,000 would rise behind the stone walls, but its completion was still, on that August day, a long way off.
The little procession was now moving along the powdery road past the brickfields which lay to left and right of Beckett Street. Clay had been dug and turned the previous winter so that bricks to fuel the Leeds housing boom could be moulded here, set out in rows to dry, and then taken to be baked in Mr Boothman's kiln, a little further on by the roadside. Beyond the brickfields, at the top of the hill, the end of their journey was in sight. It had taken barely twenty minutes to make the sad, slow passage from Joy's Fold out into the countryside.
Rising out of the fields on the right were the eight-foot high walls of the new Leeds Cemetery, the stones sparklingly clean in the summer air; this was the day of its opening, and the small group of mourners were bringing the body of nine-month-old Thomas Hirst for burial. The first set of heavy iron gates stood open beside the sexton's lodge, but the Hirsts and their little band went on to the further entrance, for they were Nonconformists, and the part of the cemetery nearer the town was for the use of Church of England members only. As they went in past the second lodge, the Dissenters' chapel stood before them, simple, heavy and buttressed, twin to the Anglican chapel which they could see over on the other side. All around was grass, as there had not yet been time for trees to grow or formal planting to become established; but the main avenues and walks had taken shape and the outline of grave plots had been measured and marked out. The grazing at the new cemetery had been let to Mr John Robson, of Thwaite Gate, whose sheep had helped ensure the grass would be trim for the arrival of the first clients.
John and Hannah were met by the Registrar, a Baptist minister in his thirties named Jabez Tunnicliff of whom the city, and indeed the nation, were to hear more. He was a kindly, bespectacled man with a Midlands accent, perhaps a little self-conscious on this, the first day of his new and unusual responsibility. The sexton, William Wright, had dug and prepared the grave, the very first in the cemetery, which lay towards the back, not far from the pebbly track known as Stoney Rock Lane. Of course, it was only a common grave; John earned a meagre living from the cloth industry as a 'stuff singer' and could not possibly have afforded a private grave and a permanent memorial. He had six other children to support, and this simple funeral, with the cheap hearse and small coffin and the various fees, had already taken a huge bite from his week's wages. The ceremony over, and a little bunch of wild flowers, gathered by the wayside, laid down to mark the newly dug grave, a feeling of desolation stole over the Hirsts at having to leave their baby all alone in this empty sixteen-acre field with scarcely any sound to be heard but the sighing of the breeze and the splashing of the neighbouring beck.
Another ten days were to go by before the grave was opened again for the body of six-year-old Mary Ann Atkinson, and yet more before the Anglican section received its first interment. Little did John Hirst think, on that sad day, that less than a year later the eightieth interment in the new cemetery would be of Hannah herself in a neighbouring grave to her son's.
It was a bold, yet necessary step the Leeds Town Council had taken in setting up this cemetery. In common with all other industrial areas, the city had seen a huge increase in population as births outnumbered deaths and as agricultural labourers abandoned the land in search of work in the new factories. In 1801 there were 53,270 people in the borough of Leeds; by the time of the 1841 census there were 152,054. The influx into towns with primitive water supply and sewerage systems, inadequate housing and very limited facilities in their few churchyards for disposal of the dead, brought with it appalling health problems. Many churchyards were in a dreadful state, raised high above ground level by layer upon layer of burials, with the effluvium from bodies seeping into the water supply of neighbouring dwellings, and with the poor remains frequently mangled and disturbed to make room for more. The example most often quoted is that of the scandalous Enon Chapel, opened in 1823 near the Strand, London, where it is said that 12,000 bodies, hacked about to save space, were stacked in the vault, separated by a simple wooden floor from the worshippers in the chapel above – who not infrequently had to be taken, fainting, into the fresh air.
In Leeds itself, the parish churchyard was said by Town Councillors 'to have induced relatives to commit atrocities that would disgrace the most barbarous people'. An energetic and humanitarian surgeon and factory inspector named Robert Baker, who supplied a good deal of material from Leeds for Edwin Chadwick's great Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, wrote in 1842 that the burial-grounds of the Parish Church were overfull and in a disgusting state, and condemned unreservedly the unhealthy practice of interring the dead near the habitations of the living. He later laid evidence before the Burial Grounds Committee, which was debating whether to order the final closure of the old churchyards:
I was in the ground last Wednesday collecting information, and the sexton took me to a grave which they were then digging, for the interment of a female; two feet below the surface they took out the body of a child, which was said to be an illegitimate child, and it had been buried five years; below that and two feet six inches from the surface, were two coffins side by side, the father and the brother of the person who was then going to have the inter-ment; the father was buried in 1831; the coffins were opened, the bones were in a state of freshness ... they were thrown on the surface, and at that time, the person came in who was going to have the interment; he spoke to me about it, and made use of this expression, 'Look! These are the skulls of my Father and my Brother, and the bones of my relations, is not this a bad business? It cannot, I suppose, however, be helped; I must have a family grave.' He was very much shocked; he stayed there a short time, and then went away a little distance ... He knew they were the skulls of his Father and Brother, because it was a family grave; – the bottom part of the Coffin was chopped up and thrown on the surface, and I examined it. The residue was in an effervescent, putrescent state; after the bottom part of the Coffin had been taken out, a little soil was taken out again, and there were two other coffins side by side, containing the mother and grandmother of the same person. These coffins were broken up in my presence and thrown out, and then there was gravel underneath; all these bodies had been buried at the short distance of two feet six inches; and then, at a depth of one foot six inches more, lay others below them, on gravel, and they were thrown on to the grave side, in the way I have described to the Committee. I asked the sexton whether it was absolutely necessary that this should be, and his answer was, that it was quite impossible it should be otherwise; that it was not a single occurrence but was an every day occurrence, when they had to inter in that ground.
Since the graveyards of the churches could no longer cope, it was clear that new and separate burial-grounds would have to be set up. Cemeteries (the name is taken from a Greek word meaning 'dormitory') had existed in Britain well before the nineteenth century. The Dissenters, who strongly objected to having to be buried in consecrated Anglican ground, had had their own cemetery in London, Bunhill Fields, as early as the seventeenth century; Edinburgh's citizens were buried from the eighteenth century in the cemetery on Calton Hill. In Norwich a far-sighted Nonconformist clergyman had established an undenominational cemetery, 'The Rosary', in 1821, which, however, was slow to capture custom.
Influential voices, particularly that of London barrister G.F. Carden, were raised during the 1820s and 1830s in support of the establishment of cemeteries, and their arguments quickly won support. There was a rush to promote joint-stock companies which would not only provide for the hygienic and acceptable disposal of the dead, but would also put healthy dividends into the pockets of the shareholders. The Liverpool Necropolis of 1825 was soon followed by the dramatic St James's Cemetery, also in Liverpool, scenically laid out in a disused quarry; Glasgow's Necropolis (1832) was high on a hill, and its commanding situation and splendid monuments earned the praise of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert when they visited the city. In London, Kensal Green Cemetery, also opened in 1832, and patronised by royalty, was the first of a string of great cemeteries which included Highgate, Nunhead and Abney Park. Leeds also had its private General Cemetery Company, which in 1835 laid out St George's Fields at Woodhouse with an imposing portico and a mortuary chapel in the Grecian style.
What did the early Victorians want of their last resting-places? Hygiene, aesthetics and security all played a part – well-drained soil, pleasingly landscaped grounds (if possible on a sloping site which would give interest to the scene), safety from the feared body-snatcher, the dignity of a permanent memorial. The cemetery was considered an ideal place for a Sunday afternoon stroll, combining good views (especially in such places as Highgate, where one could see right across London, and Undercliffe, perched on an escarpment in Bradford) with an uplifting moral experience: 'And when you come my grave to see, Prepare yourselves to follow me' ... 'Praises on gravestones are but vainly spent; A life of goodness is a lasting monument' ... 'Pause! Reflect! Pass on!' Yet the majority of city-dwellers were in no financial position to purchase fine private graves, nor was the idea of making a profit out of death wholly approved of, and it was not long before Acts of Parliament passed in the 1850s made it possible for parishes and towns to set up Burial Boards and establish municipal cemeteries. Appendix A demonstrates the enthusiasm with which local authorities grasped at this new solution to an old problem. From 1860, says Dr Curl in A Celebration of Death, 'most cemeteries in Britain were established by public authorities, and were utilitarian, hygienic, and for the most part uninteresting'.
Several years before this legislation, however, Leeds Town Council, prodded by Robert Baker, had made its own far-sighted move. Although White's Directory of 1837 describes the new privately owned General Cemetery as 'for persons of all religious denominations', Baker did not agree: 'It is true that in Leeds we have a large and excellent cemetery, founded by a company of proprietors a few years ago, and situated out of the town; but it is only used by the Dissenters, no part of it having been consecrated for the use of the Church.' Clearly, Leeds needed burial-grounds which anyone would feel able to use, and which would accommodate the poor as well as the rich. The Leeds Burial Bill, passing through Parliament along with the public health reforms of the Leeds Improvement Bill, was commended by the Leeds Mercury on 11 July 1842 as an innovatory measure ('This is, we believe, the first bill that has passed in England conferring upon the Town Councils the power of imposing rates for the purpose of the general interment of the dead'). On 2 July the same newspaper had emphasised both the philanthropic and practical purposes of burial-grounds on the rates; 'a certain source of revenue to the Town Council', the measure also formed 'a precedent for providing Burial Ground in all parts of the kingdom for persons of all religious persuasions on equitable terms, protecting all just rights, without inflicting injury on any denomination'. On 16 July 1842 the Council obtained its Act of Parliament 'for Providing Additional Burial Grounds in the Parish of Leeds in the West Riding of the County of York', and the way was open for new cemeteries to serve the townships of Leeds and Hunslet. It took just over three years from the Act of Parliament to the opening of those iron gates in Beckett Street.
The Burial Act Committee set up on 3 August 1842 consisted of seventeen aldermen and councillors, and their deliberations make fascinating reading. The first task was, with the help of Mr Child, the Borough Surveyor, to fix upon a suitable site. After several had been considered, tested and rejected, they had what they wanted in two adjoining fields belonging to the MP William Beckett Esq., one of eleven acres and one of five, the price asked being some £210 per acre. On 22 September 1843 there was a site visit to York Cemetery to get ideas on the layout, the buildings, the format of the registers, the costs and charges, and soon advertisements were being placed in the Leeds Mercury and Leeds Intelligencer, inviting firms to tender for the various works.
Long and agonised arguments took place over what to us today would seem relatively trivial matters. What, for instance, was to be done about the mortuary chapels? Since the burial ground was to consist of two separate portions, one for Anglicans and one for Dissenters, there must be two chapels; but should they be separate buildings, or two chapels under one roof? After changing their minds several times, the members of the Committee opted for the former, commissioning Chantrell and Shaw as architects, and although the buildings were identical, local custom referred to them (incorrectly) for ever after as 'the Church' and 'the Chapel'. The Bishop of Ripon, whose ancient see included what had once been a tiny settlement by the Aire and was now the major industrial city of Leeds, had to approve the plans for laying out the Consecrated portions of the Leeds and Hunslet grounds; in January 1844 a deputation of councillors waited upon him and were 'much pleased with his Lordship's courtesy and urbanity', so much so that they felt themselves able to agree to most of the small alterations which he proposed, such as the lengthening of the chapel windows – although 'in the opinion of this Committee the Act of Parliament does not provide for the expence of a Bell'! On 20 September 1844 Mr Jacob Verity was paid the sum of seven guineas for work which included 'setting boundary stones' between Consecrated and Unconsecrated portions.
Social divisions which make a modern reader feel slightly uncomfortable were also incorporated into the layout – first-class graves on top of the hill, fifth or lowest at each end. Fees were constantly revised before the cemetery opened, but show a wide range. The charge proposed on 6 December 1844 for a Nonconformist pauper, for instance, 'buried at the expense of the Township', was a mere 3s 6d, but an Anglican in a private grave in Ground 1 would pay £2 for the land and 16s for the interment – 50 per cent more for non-residents. Even between the tiny corpses of the stillborn there was discrimination – 5s in Ground 1, only 1s in Ground 5.
Excerpted from To Prove I'm Not Forgot by Sylvia M. Barnard. Copyright © 2013 Sylvia M. Barnard. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One Decline and Fall,
Chapter Two Down Those Mean Streets,
Chapter Three Saving Souls,
Chapter Four A Chapter of Accidents,
Chapter Five The Great and the Good,
Chapter Six Architect, Lawyer, Left in the Lurch,
Chapter Seven Better Dead than Red,
Chapter Eight Just a Song at Twilight,
Chapter Nine Gone to the Bad,
Chapter Ten In Loving Memory,
Death Notices, Obituaries and Inquest Reports,
Appendix A: Mid-century burial law and the development of municipal cemeteries in England and Wales,
Appendix B: The Cost of Death,
Appendix C: Morbidity and Mortality,
Appendix D: Victorian Institutions,