A brighter future for Sheffield Victorian cemetery

Sheffield General Cemetery trustee Hilary McAra and volunteer Claire Bygate
Sheffield General Cemetery trustee Hilary McAra and volunteer Claire Bygate

A Victorian cemetery where thousands of Sheffielders are buried is getting a new lease of life with plans to attract more visitors to enjoy its beautiful surroundings.

Sheffield General Cemetery in Sharrow was opened in 1836 and was established to cope with the problem of overcrowded graveyards on a site that at the time was in the countryside in the Porter Valley overlooking the city.

Volunteer Wingfield cutting back overgrown foliage

Volunteer Wingfield cutting back overgrown foliage

As the city’s principal Victorian cemetery, the last resting place of both Anglican and non-conformist Christians, it contains the graves of famous Sheffielders such as steel boss Mark Firth, John Cole of Cole Brothers department store fame and sweet manufacturer George Bassett.

But death is the great leveller, so it’s also the burial place of imprisoned militant Chartist leader Samuel Holberry and many ordinary Sheffielders, including 96 paupers who lie in a mass grave.

The cemetery closed to burials in the late 1970s and the Friends of Sheffield General Cemetery was set up by a small group of local residents in 1989

Now the much larger Sheffield General Cemetery Trust works at the site to help preserve it, make it more welcoming to visitors and wildlife and run events celebrating its unique heritage

Sally Puddifoot hard at work

Sally Puddifoot hard at work

One of the trustees Hilary McAra said: “I got into it by volunteering on the research team.

“We get lots of inquiries from members of the public, trying to do their family history.

“We have 87,000 burials here and a database that gives information for every one of them.

“I started about eight years ago.”

Sheffield General Cemetery general manager Alex Quant

Sheffield General Cemetery general manager Alex Quant

Sheffield City Council owns the cemetery land and maintains all the structures and conservation area.

The trust manages the Samuel Worth Chapel and the gatehouse lodge and promotes the cemetery as a place of historical interest and a wildlife haven.

The trust was overjoyed to hear last summer that the city council had won more than £3 million of Heritage Lottery Fund money towards restoring and improving the site but Hilary was keen to point out that this money goes to the council, not the trust.

So when a funding crisis meant that the jobs of the only two paid members of staff, general manager Alex Quant and landscape organiser Sally Williams, were under threat, it was the trust that had to find the funding to keep them on, with some support from the council.

Guide Jean Lees showing visitors Frank and Brenda Warrington around at a recent Heritage Open Day, with the Samuel Worth Chapel in the background

Guide Jean Lees showing visitors Frank and Brenda Warrington around at a recent Heritage Open Day, with the Samuel Worth Chapel in the background

Hilary said: “We have a good relationship with the council and long may it continue. We want to work with them to make sure to see through the work that needs to be done.

“We have regular meetings with them to discuss things as they go along.”

She added: “We have four new trustees and one who resigned. We’ve suddenly become an awful lot more active.

“There was a point when two members of staff were about to be made redundant and so a group of volunteers got together and agreed to help more with the management of people.

“The plan of the trustees was agreed by the majority.”

Hilary said that the future of the trust is now looking very positive, with more people coming forward to help out.

Sheffield General Cemetery, last resting place of 87,000 Sheffielders

Sheffield General Cemetery, last resting place of 87,000 Sheffielders

“It’s serendipity, everything has come together at the right time,” she added.

“We feel like we’ve got some sort of ownership of the place and some sort of say in it. We’re starting to come together.”

The council says that the lottery money will be used to repair the Egyptian gateway, catacombs, Dissenters Wall and other key monuments and memorials.

It will improve access and pathways around the site, the history of the site will be better interpreted and shared, and the landscaping will be restored.

Volunteers who work at the site include litter pickers and landscape workers who come twice a week.

They include Peter Wingfield, who visited with his wife one Sunday and decided to volunteer 13 years ago.

He said: “I’m quite proud of the fact that we work well together as a team. We all get on and try to make everybody feel welcome.”

Fellow volunteer Claire Bygate said: “I’ve been coming for nearly two years, after I’d retired. I was looking for something I could walk to.

“I do litter picking and every week in the afternoons I do landscaping as well. I like being outdoors in every weather.

“It’s just a beautiful place we want to keep beautiful. I get lots out of it including the camaraderie of people.”

There’s a chance to do some birdwatching while they work and the group spot residents such as treecreepers, winter visitors including waxwings and the occasional sparrowhawk hunting. Peter also checks the nest boxes in spring.

Peter said he thinks the cemetery is a hidden gem: “It’s surprising how many people I have talked to who have lived in Sheffield all their life and don’t even know this place exists.

“There are thousands coming up and down Ecclesall Road each day but they don’t even see it.”

In order to attract more visitors Sally Williams, who has a background in design, has been working on new leaflets, posters and visitors’ guides, there’s a new website, www.gencem.org, and an active Facebook page.

Regular events include a history walk on the first Sunday of the month and the Samuel Worth Chapel can also be hired out for events and parties. More details on the website.

Sheffield General Cemetery trustee Hilary McAra

Sheffield General Cemetery trustee Hilary McAra