Call for memorial at site of unmarked grave of 700 youngsters near Sheffield
The bottom corner of a Penistone cemetery looks like an unremarkable patch of land to the naked eye.
But the land is the final resting place of approximately 700 children under the age of 10, many stillborn babies, which were taken from their grieving parents who were given no information about where they were laid to rest.
Now, a fund-raiser has been launched to give the babies their identity back – and provide a place for families to remember them by.
The public grave at the Penistone-Stottercliffe cemetery is the final resting place of youngsters born from the late 1800s, right up until the 1970s, with no memorial in place – not even a gravestone to mark the youngster’s short lives.
In the early 19th Century, right up until the 1970s, a baby that was stillborn or died shortly after birth was usually buried in a communal grave with children and adults, and the bereaved family were often not told of their whereabouts.
Barnsley councillors are now fund-raising for a memorial at the site after Richard Galliford, 71, brought the area to their attention.
Richard found out he had a sister buried at the site, who was stillborn in 1949, which led him to post about the overgrown area of the cemetery on Facebook.
Penistone councillors Hannah Kitching and David Greenhough saw the post, and contacted bereavement services at Barnsley Council, who cleaned up the site, and are now trying to raise £5,000 for a permanent memorial for families with a loved one buried there – and to give the children their identities back.
Richard said: “It was so untidy and overgrown. [The children] are unknown and unforgotten.”
Richard only found out about his sister in 1986, when his father pointed out the site.
“After my mother died in 1985, I went to the cemetery with my father. He said ‘I think your sister is buried in there’. He was upset still.
“They just took the baby away, wrapped in a towel without being seen [by parents].
“He must have been heartbroken. I could see the sadness in his eyes.”
After wondering about the site for years, Richard contacted Peter Shields, a retired solider living in Thurnscoe who had raised money for a number of similar memorials across Barnsley and Doncaster.
Peter has spent the best part of 20 years cataloguing graves in South Yorkshire, and set up the Dearne Memorial Group in 2002, which is still running in the form of a website, where people contact him to help find a loved one’s final resting place.
Peter Shield was personally affected by such a tragedy – he and his wife Betty’s daughter, Dawn, died of congenital difficulties at just three weeks old, and their son died of spina bifida during the 1970s.
Peter said: “We experienced not knowing where our children were buried – it took 30 years to find them.
“It was nice to find them. Back then we were told they told us they’d ‘sort things out’.
“My daughter is buried with 42 others in Thurnscoe, my son is in City Road in Sheffield with the war graves, surrounded by soldiers.
“It’s not just for one child, it’s for all the children.”
Peter says people who have come to him for help are “over the moon” when they can finally visit their child, sibling or relative’s resting place.
“They just want to know where their babies are. It’s rewarding but it’s sad.
“In 1960 it was three shillings for a baby’s grave – people couldn’t afford to bury them.
“I’ve had people from New Zealand, America and Australia come to see where their babies are.”
The group raised £1,600 in 2008 for engraved Yorkshire stone tablets to remember the babies in a similar grave in Thurnscoe cemetery, and a memorial at Bolton on Dearne cemetery, to mark the 750 babies buried in unmarked graves.
Councillor Hannah Kitching, Lib Dem member for Penistone West, said that the shared graves was a common practice, and similar public graves can be found across the country.
According to stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands, it was only in the mid-1980s that the death of a baby around the time of birth began to be recognised as a major bereavement.
Until then, a baby who was born dead at any gestation was usually removed from the labour ward, without giving parents the chance to hold their baby or say goodbye.
Families were usually expected to carry on, as though nothing had happened.
“Thankfully, that wouldn’t happen anymore, but we’re hoping this will bring some closure for people who never knew what happened to their baby,” said coun Kitching.
“We’re also hoping to create a database to track down family members. It’s a sad project, but a nice project.”
Councillor David Greenhough, who set up the gofundme page, added: “It’s a public plot where, over 100 years, babies died in infancy.
“A lot of these parents were separated from their babies, and never seen again, and the parents simply didn’t know where the babies had ended up.
“It’s important to acknowledge the fact that all these babies are here, and this memorial will signify the fact that these babies do have some dignity and recognition.”
Councillor Chris Lamb, cabinet spokesperson for environment and transport, said: “Our bereavement services are pleased to be working with Richard and local councillors to put together a fitting tribute for those buried at Penistone-Sottercliffe Cemetery.
“We’ve agreed to clear the area ready for installation, and this clearance work has already begun. We’ll be working closely with residents and local councillors to design and install the memorial, and we hope it’ll be installed soon.”
You can see Peter’s work cataloguing graves here: https://www.cemeteries.org.uk/
To donate to the memorial, see: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/penistonebabiesmemorial?fbclid=IwAR0xLixbpsh904f8KShxnG8ed_b8kooIa_iX386fDGDXnxxbghBcTtN-FL4
If you have been affected by the issues in this story, you can contact Sands here: https://www.sands.org.uk/