One of the first “landscape cemeteries” in the country, Sheffield General Cemetery was designed as a place for both the living and the dead, enjoying a hillside spot between Ecclesall Road and Cemetery Road. Rich in history, wildlife, geology and architecture, it’s not just for goths.
Kept up by hardworking volunteers, the sprawling site – which enjoys listed landscape status – has its pleasant, birdsong-filled sitting places like the Geology Circle and the Memorial Garden. But it still feels excitingly abandoned in most parts; the serpentine paths are overhung with weeping branches while the sun-dappled and ivy-strewn gravestones jut wonkily from the ground. Symbols abound, with guarding lions and self-devouring snakes alongside the angels and veil-covered urns. Strange Egyptian and Gothic buildings appear – one being the Grade II listed Nonconformist Chapel, which is in the final phases of restoration to open as a venue later in 2016.
The site was once divided in two by the Dissenters’ Wall – which you can still follow today – separating the Anglicans from the Nonconformists. Now the cemetery is a wide open museum telling the story of the people of Sheffield between 1836 and 1978. From its beginnings as a picturesque answer to Sheffield’s pungent cholera-boosted body count, through world wars, the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, and the great industrial and societal advances of the 19th century, the people who ended up in this cemetery saw it all. Paupers are buried here, in mass graves and in the catacombs – neighbours in death to mayors, industrialists and merchants with their expensive stones and listed monuments.
“Vanished is the feverish dream of life:– the rich and poor find no distinction here” reads the grave of one of the cemetery’s most famous residents, the Chartist martyr Samuel Holberry. His funeral was attended by 50,000 people. Other notable burials here include the Cole Brothers, sweet maker George Bassett, and the philanthropist, Lord Mayor and Master Cutler Mark Firth. Holberry's wife, political activist Mary Cooper, is also buried in the cemetery, though her name isn't engraved on any headstone; local historians Julia Duggleby and Jean Lees have since memorialised the forgotten women who abide here in the book She Lived Unknown.
Take a short historical tour on the first Sunday of each month to learn more about the cemetery’s story or take your pick from the busy calendar of events organised throughout the year by Sheffield General Cemetery Trust, from bat detecting to family craft days; mushroom tours to RSPB-led walks; Halloween lantern making to Christmas wreath making. Most events cost a minimum donation of £3 and you even get a cuppa at the end. The Trust have also been researching the history of the cemetery for years and have published several books on different aspects of the grounds, and even provide a burial research service for anyone looking into their family history.
- Words by
- Nat Loftus