A fine plan in General

Cemetery gem: Alex Quant and Catie Evans at the old chapel in Sheffield General Cemetery which may be turned into a visitor centre. pictures: sarah washbourn
Cemetery gem: Alex Quant and Catie Evans at the old chapel in Sheffield General Cemetery which may be turned into a visitor centre. pictures: sarah washbourn
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IT is one of Sheffield’s most magnificent architectural gems, a stunning grade II* listed 19th Century chapel which, when opened in 1836, was considered one of the grandest buildings in the city.

“We can’t go inside,” says Alex Quant today, peering through a small entrance in the bricked-up door. “There’s so much bird poo in there the ammonia makes the air poisonous.”

Ah.

You join us, reader, outside Sheffield General Cemetery’s stunning Non-Conformist Chapel.

For some 60 years this incredible building – opulently modelled on a mix of ancient Greek and Egyptian architecture – has stood empty and unused; left to the birds and to the vandals.

But things, it seems, are changing.

An ambitious £400,000 restoration plan is set to once more transform this hidden jewel into a visitor attraction and central feature of the Sharrow cemetery, itself a grade II listed landscape and no longer a working graveyard.

The massive two-stage revamp – to be funded through heritage grants – will see the chapel made safe, cleaned up and eventually reopened as a combined education complex, community centre and function suite for private parties such as wedding blessings.

“When you think the chapel has been left untouched since the Fifties, it’s such a shame,” says Catie Evans, of the South Yorkshire Building Preservation Trust, which has been commissioned by the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust to work on the plans. “The potential for it is huge.”

Indeed, it was that potential which inspired the SGCT, the charity which manages the cemetery on behalf of Sheffield City Council, to bring the chapel back into use. “This is key to our plans,” says Alex, office manager of the trust. “We are not doing this just to restore an old building, although that in itself is worthwhile. Rather, we believe there is a genuine and much-needed end use.

“We are getting increasing numbers of school groups coming to the cemetery for the day to study, and they have nowhere to go. What this restoration would do is give them an on-site classroom and meeting point and shelter if the weather turns.

“It would also be available to the community to use for neighbourhood meetings; and it would allow the cemetery to host income-generating events so we could hire it out for corporate parties or wedding blessings. It’s an unusual building in a magnificent setting, and we’re sure that would attract people.”

Those alterations, then, will take place over two phases.

The first £200,000 stage will see the building secured, reopened and access improved while it remains internally as just a single large room.

A second phase, pencilled in to take place 18 months later, would potentially see sympathetic alterations made inside, including the installation of a kitchen and mezzanine floor with office space.

“The plans are ready to go,” says Catie. “We’ve applied for funding from two grant bodies and if and when that comes through we can start working more or less straight away.”

In an ideal world, she adds, that process will have started by the end of 2012.

And if it sounds ambitious, don’t worry, the SGCT have got form.

Eight years ago the group of two staff and more than 50 volunteers oversaw the restoration of the site’s Egyptian gate and office into a snug administration space, which itself has helped improve the running of the cemetery.

“We’re confident we can deliver this too,” says Alex. “And we’re confident it would be another step in improving the cemetery.”

The General Cemetary -a few general facts

Sheffield General Cemetery was opened in 1836 and at the time was one of the largest commercial cemeteries in the UK.

It was designed by Sheffield architect Samuel Worth in the style of a botanical garden.

Some 87,000 bodies were interred there before the last, Margaret Norah Wells, was buried on December 21, 1978.

Rumours of body snatching dominated its early history. Some believed an underground tunnel ran from the heart of the cemetery to a local surgeon’s house.

Confectioner George Bassett, steel manufacturer Mark Firth and revolutionary Samuel Holberry are among those buried there.

It is listed in the English Heritage Register of Historical Parks and Gardens and is home to 10 historic monuments including the Nonconformist Chapel.