Burngreave Cemetery is at the heart of our city's history

“Archaelogists love wells and cesspits,” said Douglas Johnson. “Because they fill up with things over time, you see the basics, like what people were eating. But they’re really hard to excavate.”

By David Bocking
Tuesday, 4th June 2019, 10:39 am
Updated Tuesday, 4th June 2019, 5:39 pm
Burngreave Cemetery: the Green family enjoying their 'big lunch'
Burngreave Cemetery: the Green family enjoying their 'big lunch'

The now regular Burngreave well dressing which opened to the public last Saturday originally had no visible wells to celebrate, explained Saleema Imam of the Friends of Burngreave Cemetery. “There were wells on the 1800s map, but nothing here now. Until the council were digging one day and one of the workers fell down one.” Up to his knees anyway, she clarified.  Since then the small well site has been fenced off and covered in old gravestones, but it will be marked for the next week or two by a locally made floral well dressing celebrating Burngreave and ‘water, the source of life’  - water still hidden underground, for now. Sheffield University would love to excavate the well and find out more, Saleema noted, “but it would need paying for.” Which is the current story of the cemetery, it seems.  Local resident and city councillor Douglas and Saleema were reflecting on the grand 35 acre hillside of trees and woodland (and over 180,000 graves) a mile from the city centre. “The problem is no-one knows we’re here,” said Saleema.   Saleema and the seven or so regular weekly attendees from the Friends help visitors from as far away as Canada, China and Australia to find graves of ancestors. They also photograph the graves and are in the process of digitising the burial records.  Over recent years the cemetery and chapel have hosted arts and community events including film shows, a reconstruction of the infamous Burngreave Zeppelin of 1916, a bike workshop and more recent gravestone-inspired artworks by current artist in residence Victoria Smith. There are also nature walks around the cemetery looking for moths, fungi and bats, for example. “That bat walk was wicked,” said passerby Razia.  But the pressing need now is a refurbishment of the listed chapel building to provide a kitchen and a full set of toilets, which would cost around £50,000, said Saleema. Yet a small team of volunteers can only do so much, she sighed.  Along with the well dressing launch on Saturday, the Friends and adjoining Pitsmoor Adventure Playground were hosting a ‘Big Lunch’ day for local families to get together and explore the site.  Douglas Johnson said the cemetery ground had huge potential.  “It’s a fantastic space, and there’s so much scope for people to get involved with their own ideas,” he said. The cemetery was opened with some urgency in 1861, when the growing city was outgrowing its churchyards, said Saleema, on a hillside where iron ores had been mined since medieval times - the name Pitsmoor came from the village’s site above a series of ore pits, she added.  Saleema recalled her grandma talking of the area’s affluence in Victorian times, where every morning coaches and horses waited on Burngreave Road to take managers down into the city. “This place is at the heart of so much of Sheffield’s history,” said Douglas. “In Victorian times the population just grew and grew, and under the ground here is where that population is.” A population mirroring Burngreave’s always diverse community, he added, pointing out graves of people with Indian descent dating back to the 1920s.  The cemetery is now also a quiet space for people and wildlife, Douglas said, with wildflowers and productive bee hives, a mixture of planted and self seeded trees and paths where walkers can link to the countryside of Parkwood Springs and the rest of northern Sheffield. An eagle owl passed through a few years ago, said Saleema, and recently there have been deer sightings. New toilets and a kitchen would allow more groups to make use of the site, said Saleema.  “We could do with a few more people coming in,” said Douglas, noting that Friends groups in other parts of Sheffeld are “awash with retired professionals” to help fundraise for parks, woods and historical sites.  “Burngreave cemetery is such a beautiful place,” said Saleema. “Sheffield should be proud of it.” More information at www.friendsofburngreavecemetery.btck.co.uk

Burngreave Cemetery: Douglas Johnson checking a grave among the cemetery's wild roses
Burngreave Cemetery: Douglas Johnson checking a grave among the cemetery's wild roses
Burngreave Cemetery: Saleema Imam showing the 2019 well dressing to Dean Barrett and Alex Lamb

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Burngreave Cemetery: Richard Malone of the Sheffield Academy of Martial Arts warming up
Burngreave Cemetery: Douglas Johnson walking round the cemetery
Burngreave Cemetery: Isaac Green practising his martial arts moves watched by dad Jay