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.


  1. I don't know about ghosts either. I don't believe in post-mortal consciousness in any form, but I do think it is possible to experience things that do not (yet) have a straightforward scientific explanation. I think animals are a good barometer, and based on that, I don't think Tia has met the (alleged) ghost so far.

  2. I think there are things we don't yet have a scientific understanding of, but I always get spooked when either of the cats stop whatever they're doing and just stare at something that I can't see...