|The One Certainty of Life|
|In 1801 the population of Leeds was 53276. The 1841 census took account of 152054 souls.|
This massive influx, generated mainly by many
leaving their agricultural lifestyles for a 'better' life in
industry, created many problems for Leeds.
Leeds was ill-prepared for the rise in population. Primitive water and sewage systems and inadequate housing all combined to make the town , as in many other major industrial areas, a very unhealthy place to be.
|These conditions, coupled with limited burial space, presented the authorities with major problems concerning the disposal of dead bodies.|
|The graveyard in Leeds, at the Parish Church, St Peter's, was almost overflowing. The graveyard had risen well above ground level due to layer upon layer of burials. The rotting matter was seeping into the water supply and with a heavy rainfall the topsoil could be washed away creating many distressing sights. So little room was available that the gravediggers were forced to 'disturb' the contents of a grave to make room for the next occupant. Family graves suffered the same difficulties. In an age when death was never far away corpses were still recognisable when they too were disturbed to make room for the 'next of kin'.|
A town councillor said ,of Leeds Parish Church,
to have induced relatives to commit atrocities that would
disgrace the most barbarous people.'
This disgrace was not confined to Leeds but was prevalent across the country. The 1820-30s saw a rush by investors to promote joint-stock companies which would provide dignified, and hygienic, burials. Also, perhaps, a nice profit. St George's Fields at Woodhouse (1835) was one such cemetery resulting from these financial schemes, created by the General Cemetery Company.
|In todays world the majority of dead bodies are to be found in hospitals, efficiently processed so as to provide as little contact between the deceased and bereaved as possible. Deaths at home, although still quite common, result in a discrete vehicle arriving to remove the body. The occasional body in the street is whisked away as quickly as possible so as not to cause offence and to keep traffic flowing.|
The Victorians took a different view. The
bereaved removed their dead from hospitals and took them home.
Bodies were kept at home in the coffin for all the family to
see. Small-roomed accommodation meant that the dead, for a few
days at least, were very close to the living.
A Sunday afternoon stroll in a graveyard was considered an excellent way to reinforce moral values. The majority of gravestones carried dire warnings of the uncertainties of life and that the reader should reflect on his life before his time, too, ran out.
|In the 1850s Acts of Parliament allowed for local authorities to establish cemeteries at public expense. Leeds Town Council, being unusually far-sighted, had, in 1842, managed to get the Leeds Improvement Act through Parliament . At the same time was also enacted the Leeds Burial Bill. This Act, the first in the country, allowed the Council to levy rates for the purpose of burials. This measure also created,' a precedent for providing Burial Grounds in all parts of the Kingdom for persons of all religious persuasions on equitable terms, protecting all just rights, without inflicting injury on any denomination.' (Leeds Mercury July 2 1842)|
The Council may have been irritated by the
fact that the graveyard at St George's Fields was being solely
used by the Dissenters - the ground not having been consecrated
for Church of England use.
The Council obtained its burial Act of Parliament on 16th July 1842. It would take just three years, a very short time in Council terms, to the opening of the new cemetery.
The Burial Act Committee, set up on 3rd August
1842, considered several sites on which to locate a cemetery.
The site chosen was purchased from MP William Beckett, consisting
of two fields in Burmantofts with a total area of sixteen acres.
Moving quickly, the Committee paid a visit to York cemetery, in September, to get ideas for layouts, building and the general running of a cemetery.
Long arguments ensued as to how the Anglicans
and Dissenters could be accommodated. Dissenters refused to enter
an Anglican building and Anglicans returned the compliment. Eventually
it was decided to have two chapels. Local custom, erroneously,
referred to the Chapel and the Church.
Social divisions were incorporated into the design - first class graves at the top of the hill - the lower classes at the bottom.
The good Bishop of Ripon played his part - Leeds falling within his See - by suggesting the chapel windows should be lengthened. Tenders and contracts followed.
Mr Charles Drury received the contract for
the ,masonry work on the chapels and lodges.
Mr John Walsh got the contract for erecting the outer wall to a height of eight feet. It was going to be just seven feet but the Bishop made a suggestion.
Mr Walsh did not prove entirely satisfactory. It was discovered that he had not used mortar in certain parts of the wall. A deduction of five pounds marked the Committees displeasure.
Mr Henry Woodhead Waller produced the registers, all bound in best Russia leather, surmounted with brass at the top corners and costing between eleven and sixteen pounds each. These prices, when suggested costs for a burial were £2-16s-0d - at the top of the hill that is - and 3s 6d for someone at the bottom of the hill.
On 14th August 1845 a sad group of people
gathered in Joy's Fold, a group of cottages at the junction of
York Road with Marsh Lane.
John and Hannah Hirst were to bury their son, 9 months old Thomas.
John earned a poor living as a 'stuff singer' in the cloth industry. With six other children to support he could ill-afford the cheap hearse and coffin.
The little procession made its way towards Burmantofts - picking flowers from the roadside as they went. Some of the cramped terraced houses, that would characterise the face of Leeds, had appeared in the area but the area along Beckett Street remained rural in nature. To the right of the dry, dusty road could be seen the brickfields. Clay bricks sat , row upon row, drying before being taken to be baked in the nearby kiln. At the top of the hill could be seen the walls of the new cemetery. Being Nonconformists the cortege ignored the first set of gates, that entry was for Church of England members, and moved on to the gates higher up the hill.
The Registrar, a Baptist minister called Jabez Tunnicliff, met them. His sexton, William Wright, had dug and prepared the grave. The common grave was at the back of the cemetery near the track known as Stony Rock Lane. With the ceremony over, the Hirsts looked back at the empty site with just one small occupant. Grave plots had been outlined, the walkways and avenues established and spindly young trees dotted the grassed area. John Robson, of Thwaite Gate, had obtained the contract for grazing in the cemetery. His sheep provided the only signs of life in the quiet walled area.
It would be just ten days before Thomas's rest was disturbed as the grave was re-opened to admit six year old Mary Ann Atkinson.
Little did John Hirst know that the eightieth interment, less than a year later, would be Hannah, in a grave neighbouring her son's.
Thus, young Thomas became the first entry in those very expensive , leather-bound, registers. Of which, a little more...
|The first clerk of the Consecrated section kept his records orderly and well-written whereas his counterpart, further up the hill, presided over an untidy mess of illegibility, corrections, erasures and imaginative spelling. The duty of keeping the registers fell to the Registrar but this task seems to have been delegated to the sextons. It may have been that the sextons were overworked. Their duties included all the paperwork when a grave was ordered, receiving and accounting for payments, digging the graves, with assistance when necessary, cleaning the chapel windows, cleaning and dusting the furniture, keeping the grass avenues and walkways clear and locking and unlocking the gates.|
The keeping of the registers became so bad
in the consecrated section that, in 1885, Arthur Foster, a clerk,
was employed to correct the errors in them.
For several months Mr Foster busied himself checking receipts, original orders, and even checking the plots against blanks in the register to ensure that what was empty in the book was also empty in the ground.
Mr Foster apologised to the Burial Committee for the length of time it had taken him to complete his task. He may have been excused when he explained that the incumbent sexton, William bates, had made 1065 errors in just fifty months of office.
One clerk, Robert Sinclair, had made interments without entering any details in the Grave Register.
Some years later the Committee decided to do a similar exercise at the unconsecrated side of the cemetery, but by that time the situation there had deteriorated so badly, with many books simply missing, that the task was not even attempted.
|Robert Sinclair was appointed as clerk and gravedigger of the consecrated section on 28th December 1875. His tenure was dogged by inefficiency, complaints from all and sundry and financial irregularities.|
In May 1877 a complaint of overcharging and
abusive language; in January 1878 , insolence and neglect of
duty; later that year charging for the use of the public toilets
and removing flowers from graves and offering them for sale at
the gates; and in 1879, Mrs Edith Chapman accused him of not
having constructed the vault foe which she had paid him.
Hauled before the Committee Sinclair was requested to resign within one month. Sinclair was not one to go gracefully and as his month ebbed away he wrote an apologetic letter to the Committee which was successful in that he retained his post.
The complaints continued.
Sinclair was finally discharged in January 1881. Part of the evidence against him came from another gravedigger, Thomas Scruton, in that on, or about, the 3rd June 1880, at about 2.00am he had assisted Mr Sinclair to open the grave (No.2638) belonging to E.Gaines and raised the coffin therein about two or three feet.
|In 1832 the first wave of Asiatic Cholera hit Britain. Those afflicted lost fluid by vomiting and diarrhoea, their bodies becoming dehydrated and their vital organs damaged beyond recovery. The reasons for the infection were not understood and there was no known cure.|
When, in 1849, the cholera returned the cemetery
proved its worth.
The speed at which those infected succumbed was terrifying.
Dorothy Shepherd, 59yrs, who kept a cook-shop in the cellar near to the Royal Hotel in Briggate, felt ill in the afternoon of August 22nd and was dead by 5.00am the following day. A young man at Hunslet fell ill during a cricket match. He was dead before the last over.
Ellen Craven, of Cavalier Street, woke feeling poorly at 3.00am on 6th August - dead by mid-afternoon. Her husband, John, succumbed the following morning, quickly followed by the child who had been sent to get the doctor for Ellen. Ellen's sister, Sarah Tempest rapidly joined her ancestors. John's brother took in one of the orphaned children. Uncle, aunt, orphan and a 19yrs old nephew rapidly left this life.
Many local doctors, using guesswork, offered
Remarkably, George Wormald, a baby from Cavalier Street, survived Dr Horton's remedy - large doses of capsicum, small doses of calomel (a purgative ), blankets wrung out in boiling water, hot sandbags and mustard poultices.
The practical Bishop of Ripon organised a Day of Humiliation on 19th September. Places of business closed so that the public could take part in public and private worship imploring Him to cease his chastisements. Strangely, it didn't help.
|Susannah Brown gives us, perhaps, the saddest story of the epidemic.||
Susannah was aged about 26yrs and lodged in
York street. She made a small living by making velvet purses
which she hawked about the town.
Prior to Wednesday August 22nd 1849 Susannah had suffered from 'purging'. On that day she wandered through the town out to Horsforth and then on to Guiseley. She then turned south and headed for Bradford. She reached Eccleshill at about 3.30pm and began to feel very ill.
Susannah called at a beerhouse and had a glass of beer but immediately brought it back. Local surgeon, Mr Newstead, and overseer Mr Baxter were summoned and found Susannah on the steps of the beerhouse.
As the surgeon examined her the rumour flew around that a woman from Leeds had brought the cholera into their midst. Children were taken indoors, curtains drawn and doors locked.
Now Mr Baxter was in a quandary. The obvious course of action would have been to take Susannah to the local workhouse but that was five miles away and besides, the cost would fall on the people of Eccleshill, a cost that Mr Baxter was anxious to avoid.
Susannah was anxious to return home and Mr Baxter, after conferring with Mr Newstead, decided to take her to Apperley Bridge railway station and escort her back to Leeds. Susannah was given a glass of brandy before Baxter took her in a spring cart to the station. They arrived at about 5 o'clock.
As they waited for the train Susannah grew steadily worse. They reached Leeds at twenty to six. There was just one cab at the station and the driver took one look at Susannah and declared himself engaged.
Baxter began the walk towards York Street with Susannah leaning on his arm and he carrying the basket of velvet purses.
They got as far as Duncan Street when Susannah collapsed in a doorway. A crowd quickly gathered. Susannah was carried to a nearby doctor's surgery where cholera was diagnosed. Susannah completed her travels that day on a spring cart to the local Poorhouse. She expired the following morning at 9.30. Later that day Susannah took her final journey, to a common grave at Beckett Street.
|In the first forty years of the cemetery's existence the vast majority of burials were in common graves. A grave was dug and for the next week or so whomsoever arrived for a burial went in, irrespective of age or sex. No memorial was provided.|
As a cost cutting exercise incredible numbers
were crammed into each grave.
For example, Grave 6631 - opened on 5th July 1856 for an adult male, Ebenezer Kitchin and 16yrs old Elizabeth Graham, then five more adults, and then some tiny ones; Alice Lord 10yrs, Rachel Schofield 1½ days, Hannah Holt 18 months, George Smith 11 months, Joseph Binns 1 month, Sophia Penny 6 days, Josephine Malthouse 7 weeks, and on and on and on until on August 14th, 7 months old Patrick McAnnalys. In a grave, theoretically 12 feet deep, 38 persons now rested (in peace?). How this was physically done is open to speculation. It may be that someone made a small profit on re-useable coffins!
There appears to have been keen rivalry as
to just how many one could fit into one grave.
Registrar, Reverend John Bell boasted of the first seven graves opened under his jurisdiction and the first seven of his predecessor; 'Mine hold 32 adults and 55 children . Hannam's holds 19 adults and 39 children.'
The Guinea Graves
Cemetery visitors, even today, are struck
by the rows upon rows of bleak headstones surrounding some of
the more ornate memorials. Simple upright slabs with very little
difference to the basic shape. Carved on each, in small type,
are the names, ages and dates of death of those resting below.
Turn to the back of the slabs and you'll find more names and
|Those who were penniless still looked towards a paupers grave but if the family could scrape together a pound or so they could have a share of the headstone and up to 36 letters of inscription. Each stone served two graves. Leeds was famous for its back-to-back housing!|
|Finally, a short look at some of those resting in Beckett Street;|
|1865 Young John Jenkins, Napier Street, woke up hungry one morning and called to his father for some bread and butter. His elder brother took John his food. The father had, the night before, used the knife to spread some bread with 'Battle's Vermin Killer'. The knife remained unwashed.|
|1865 Mary Kirk, 16yrs, left home about 7 o'clock to look for work. Outside the Robin Hood in East Street she stood for a moment to warm herself by the brazier of a coffee stall. Her ragged petticoats were too close to the brazier and in her panic she ran down the street creating a gush of air which only made matters worse.|
1815 Richard Chambers, Frederick Short and
All thre had the misfortune to be members of the 'six hundred', who made a 'glorious' charge at the Battle of Balaclava with the Light Brigade.
|And one more to show that the Victorians really did have a different attitude to death;|
1866 An unknown woman suffered a heart attack
at a public bath in Princess Street. To assist identification
the body was taken to a nearby inn, the Three Horseshoes, and
put on public display.
Fawcett, a labourer working nearby, entered the inn and found himself looking down at Elizabeth, his wife.
|Sit down lad, you look as if you need a drink!|