Monday, 21 October 2013

19th Century Protest aka Research is Continuing

It was with a mix of sadness and elation that I took down my work that was part of the Place and Memory Exhibition at Holy Trinity Church on Saturday, what had taken a long time to research, create, set up and get lit the way I wanted it the week before took all of 5 minutes to take down and put back into bubble wrap and carrier bags. I was sad to see it come down but excited that it had all come to fruition and been up in the first place plus I have had an expression of interest in buying it. Someone else said they would put it on their wall. I'm counting this as high praise indeed.

My interest in St George's Field is continuing though and I am looking forward to paying repeated visits to take more photographs and to watch it change colour and form as autumn and winter progress through into spring.  My research will also continue as I am thinking of applying to do an MA and am in the process of putting together a research proposal. My research hasn't just been the history of the site itself but also the history of Leeds and the victorian period in general. I am slowly but surely becoming obsessed with the victorian and early edwardian periods.

One of the reasons Leeds Burial Company was such a success (until the end of the First World War when it began to go into serious decline in terms of numbers of new burials) was that in such class conscious times it was quite exclusive. Unlike the municipal cemeteries which opened in the late 1840's who took *shudder* paupers  Leeds Burial Company did not (though it did take the bodies of stillborn children from Leeds General Infirmary) and class difference was not only alive and well in victorian times but also lauded and perpetuated even in the face of  death the great leveller . Plus unlike the churchyard burials where plots were reused here you were guaranteed a plot that hadn't been used before.

Overcrowding in church graveyards had been an increasing problem in Leeds as the population grew, it was said that when it rained body parts came floating to the surface in Leeds Parish Church. Letters to the Mercury and Intelligencer complained of both the smell and the sight of various churchyards within Leeds and of the pressing need to do something about it. A church grave digger was quoted as saying that the smell was 'dreadful beyond all smells, there is nothing to exceed it' and the increasing numbers needing burial meant that at the time corpses didn't remain undisturbed for decent intervals and so their 'disintegration and decomposition constituted a distinct hazard to the health and welfare of the living'.

The victorians believed that many diseases were caused by foul miasma so preventing the build up of foul air that could infect and kill was very important. And many of Leeds churches must have stank as the nearby not very deeply buried dead began decomposing plus interments still took place within church building themselves as well and were only outlawed by legislation with the passing of the Cemeteries Clauses Act in 1847. It makes me glad that I can read about this from a 21st century standpoint as opposed to actually having to live it.

Place and Memory has finished in its current incarnation but we are hoping to restage it elsewhere - details will be on here as soon as they are confirmed

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Origins of Leeds Burial Company......

In 1833 various leading Leeds businessmen got together and bought the land that became Woodhouse Cemetery and has now reverted to its original name of St George's Fields. They saw a viable business opportunity and a way of breaking the stranglehold of the established church on burial facilities by offering places for a similar price in a purpose built brand new burial ground free from the taint of already occupied graves.

On the 26th December 1833 work began on the tree planting and the boundary walls - they were to be built at a height of 12 foot and at a cost of £1,169. The grounds were never consecrated so it could be used by any religion or none though in practice it was most popular with non conformist christians.

Prior to this there had been a competition to design the cemetery buildings which attracted 17 entrants from all over the country. J Clark an architect from Leeds was the winner. His brief was to design buildings of 'suitable dignity and repose' and also to create a 'place of edification for the living' as the victorians were very keen that cemeteries weren't just about paying respects to the dead.

Hence the popularity of grave poems like this:   'And when you come my grave to see, prepare yourselves to follow me' and 'Praises on gravestones are vainly spent, a life of goodness is a lasting monument'

 entrance on Cemetery Road 

The entrance on Cemetery Road housed the registrar office, the registrar and the sextons. The original plans also included a watch tower but the Anatomy Act of 1832 reduced the need for graves to be watched over to prevent the corpses within them being stolen for dissection so it was decided its additional cost couldn't be justified as it was no longer needed.

The Chapel (which like the grounds was never consecrated so it could be used by any religion or none) was quite unusual in its design as the back wall was made almost entirely of windows to let in as much natural light as possible. It suffered from damp though and in 1857 it was redecorated and a stove fitted to try and counteract the damp and the cold.
                                                        View of the back of the Chapel 

             View of the Chapel from the front with hillock made from bulldozed monuments when it                      closed to burials in October 1969 and was landscaped into the garden form it has today.

Its popularity was at its height in the latter half of the 19th century as the owners paid for the installation of privies and a drinking fountain to accommodate all the visitors who came for a walk round its gracefully landscaped gardens and to learn something of the lives of its inmates.

It continued to be a very popular place to be buried til the end of First World War when it began to decline in popularity and there are letters to the local press periodically from the 1920's onwards complaining about the overcrowding and decline of the grounds. It went from a height of 1047 burials in 1863, 1110 in 1918 to just 11 in 1968 and 5 in 1969.

At the height of its popularity it had the cachet of being a private cemetery as opposed to the municipal cemeteries where the people from the workhouse went as one of the worst 'crimes' you could commit in victorian times was to be so poor as to have to throw yourself upon the mercy of the parish.

Plus unlike the church cemeteries it wasn't full of previous graves which had to be reused and it was far removed from the filth and stench of the rapidly growing city centre. But Yorkshire College which became Leeds University was growing up around it and it couldn't expand beyond its existing boundary walls. By the 1950's the bulk of the burials were of those who had either already bought a plot or were being added to existing family vaults.

By October 1969 the university had bought shares in the company from the remaining shareholders and began the process of landscaping it into the form it has today, hundreds of stone monuments were destroyed in the process and a couple of weeks ago I went to the Thoresby Society to look at some slides taken in the last days of the Woodhouse Cemetery which showed the bulldozers in action - but that's material for another post.....

Place and Memory the exhibition which I've been doing all this research for is on at the Holy Trinity Church on Boar Lane, Leeds til Saturday 19th October every day 10am til 3pm. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Grave Wording

When I was little my walk to school took me past a graveyard, and the local park where my beloved swings lived also backed onto it. If you stood on the swings and swung high enough - something I rarely did as I was too much of a wuss and I didn't like putting my muddy shoes on the swing seat you could just about see the lines of neatly kept graves the other side of the railings. I was lucky then as I had no experience of grief or losing anyone so didn't understand that what I saw as pretty stones with flowers could be the focus of pain and loss for others and so avoided wherever possible.

As I grew up it was victorian and churchyard graveyards that I fell in love with - with their higgle piggled monuments, crypts, mausoleums and repeated motifs, especially if they were in the process of being reclaimed by ivy and bindweed which I know most gardeners hate but which I think is really rather pretty.

 My favourite victorian graveyard in Leeds is St George's Fields which aside from the non denominational chapel and gatehouse has little of its original features left in their original places. I picked it for my place as part of the Place and Memory project - details of which can be found here
It saw its first interment, that of military surgeon George McDermott on the 23rd July 1835 and its last in October 1969 when it was landscaped into the form it has today. It is one of my very favourite places in Leeds - peaceful, historic and slightly hidden away.

When St George's Fields was at its height of popularity and profitability it was the done thing to have as ornate and fanciful a monument and to have as big and grand a funeral as possible. Its busiest years were in the mid to late 1800's, there were 72 burials in 1835, 687 in 1848, 876 in 1858, 905 in 1860, 1047 in 1863, 1110 in 1898. There were also 1110 interments in 1918 - as not only was there a flu epidemic but also an outbreak of measles. The numbers steadily declined in the following years and there were just 11 interments in 1968.   

Big funerals and monuments weren't just a way of paying respect to the dead but also how much you could afford to spend on them and there were many changes in funereal fashion over those years. The monuments you see surviving today will have cost a fortune. Then as now most graveyards had a stone mason attached to them whose services you had to use so along with the burial fees it was also a nice money maker for the graveyard owners. Even those who could barely afford anything else scrimped and saved to have their name put on a marker stone with others - dying without leaving a physical mark upon the world regardless of your achievements within life itself seemed one of the worst things that could happen to you - well aside from a paupers funeral or the dissection table that is.

Grave poetry was very much the in thing in victorian times for some religions and I have spent many a happy hour collecting verses from St George's Fields, Undercliffe, Holy Trinity at Meanwood, Lawnswood, Aldborough and here are two of my favourites. They may seem formulaic, trite and mawkish and maybe they did at the time too - as we have no way of knowing whether the people paying those respects actually meant what they were putting on their loved ones graves or if they were bowing to the pressures of social mores and fashion. Many also sought to improve behaviour on the part of the reader and to remind them of their own mortality.

Go home dear wife and shed no tears, 
I must lie here til Christ appears
A joyful rising from the grave
So while in the dust I sleeping lie
Do you prepare yourself to die. 

A sudden change I in a moment fell
I had not time to bid my friends farewell
Make nothing strange death happens to us all
My lotto day, tomorrow you may fall.

Place and Memory Exhibition is at Holy Trinity Church, Boar Lane, Leeds from 12-19th October 2013, 10am til 3pm every day except Sunday. Free admission   

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

I don't believe in ghosts.....but I do believe places can be haunted.....

When I picked St George's Fields as my place for the Place and Memory project (details about it can be found here) I picked it for a couple of reasons - mostly because it's one of my very favourite places in Leeds. Plus in spite of its being surrounded by the bustle and busyness of Leeds University it is a quiet, peaceful space and a perfect place for contemplation.

I also picked it because of its associations with memory as it used to be a cemetery and because 'old no longer used for burial' cemeteries are generally amongst my favourite places to visit. There is something about victorian cemeteries in particular that I adore with all their draped urn stonework, broken columns, obelisks and to my cynical 21st century eyes mawkish and sentimental grave poetry.

Cemeteries are traditionally places filled with memorials - some laudatory, some elegiac, some poetic and some downright heartbreaking. St George's Field was used as a burial space from July 1835 until October 1969 and some 93,556 people were buried there in plots measuring 7 feet long by 3 and half feet wide and 9 feet deep - though you could also have a deeper brick lined vault if you wanted to pay extra.

Today at at St George's Fields there are numerous freshly planted trees and dedicated benches within its environs. The victorians intended their cemeteries to be places not just of rest for the dead but also edification for the living. Many of the cemeteries created from the 1830's onward were designed along garden lines and I'm sure the original movers and shakers behind the Leeds Burial Company would be pleased to see it still in use in that way today.

It is limited in its use by Act of Parliament to be a place 'used for quiet enjoyment and rest'. In spite of not being used as a burial space for over 40 years - to my eyes it still very obviously a cemetery. None of the bodies were exhumed and although some of the monuments were cleared and some moved to into new arrangements it still looks and feel like a garden of remembrance - if not a cemetery.  The esteemed painter John Atkinson Grimshaw is buried within its walls though sadly his memorial has been lost.

I don't feel at all unnerved there but I do wonder if others find it a creepy place as it is so quiet most of the time, but one thing I don't like is the use of graves as pathways. It feels wrong to me somehow to be walking over monuments - especially when the people who are listed on these stones couldn't afford a grave or headstone stone of their own and had to share it with strangers. Chances are they will have either scrimped and saved to get this for their loved ones, or paid into a burial club to ensure it could happen or simply gone into debt to ensure either themselves or their loved ones had a public remembrance. A form of public remembrance was terribly important then, in the same way that memorial facebook pages are now.

In victorian times the worst things that could happen to you on your death were either a paupers funeral or medical dissection. A paupers funeral meant you would be put in a communal grave, possibly even without a coffin (or if one was provided it would be of the very cheapest materials and afford no protection from the worms) or just in a shroud depending upon what your parish offered. But what was considered most dreadful was the lack of public memorial, all you got was a notation in the notebooks of the workhouse and the cemetery register.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 was brought in to stop bodysnatching - the practice of robbing graves to supply medical schools with cadavers for students to dissect.  Or rather it licensed it and brought it under local authority control as it meant that unclaimed bodies from the poorhouse could be sent to the local medical school for dissection. Prior to this the only corpses it was legal to dissect were those of criminals.
The most infamous illegal medical school suppliers were Edinburgh based Burke and Hare who kept the 'not really all that bothered where his subjects came from' Dr Knox in bodies in 1828 though they dispensed with the grave robbing bit of bodysnatching by (mostly) taking the easier option of murdering their lodgers instead.

Leeds was not without its bodysnatching gangs either - in June 1831 John Craig Hodgson took custody of the scalded body of Thomas Rothery which had been dug up from the cemetery at Wortley Parish Church. He had been killed in a accident at Batesons Mill. Hodgson often looked after bodies until he could find a buyer for them - at a price of £12 a subject which was a small fortune then. But this time he was caught in possession of Thomas's mortal remains, put on trial and found guilty. He was sentenced to 6 weeks in York Castle and fined. His house was known locally as 'Resurrection Cottage' but it and the street it stood on are no longer there, where it was is now a builders merchants and bathroom supplies warehouse at Sheepscar Interchange.

Like I said I don't believe in ghosts but I do believe places can be haunted - haunted by their past, by our preconceptions of places and by the way some events just leach into the stones and walls and refuse to leave.

Place and Memory Exhibition is at Holy Trinity Church on Boar Lane, Leeds from 12th - 19th October 10am til 3pm every day except Sundays - free admission.