Sheffield takes pride in its history. With roots deep in its hidden castle and the steel scarred narrative of the industrial past emblazoned across its many museums, you don’t need to travel far to see the past of the masses framed for easy consumption. Yet a far more personal and individual experience of Sheffield’s past […]

Sheffield takes pride in its history. With roots deep in its hidden castle and the steel scarred narrative of the industrial past emblazoned across its many museums, you don’t need to travel far to see the past of the masses framed for easy consumption. Yet a far more personal and individual experience of Sheffield’s past can be found nestled just off Ecclesall Road. If history is truly the voices of the dead speaking to us from another time, it is strangely appropriate that to find the individuals of Sheffield’s history you need only take a walk through the General Cemetery.

Following the cholera epidemic that assaulted Sheffield’s swelling population in 1832, the city’s churchyards found themselves overflowing. But in this Dickensian landscape the middle class flourished on the new wealth of industry and sought to provide a higher standard of living for their families’ departed. A need was expressed for a churchyard separate to the traditional Anglican Church, and the Sheffield General Cemetery’s nonconformist chapel was built in 1836 to answer this need.

If you take a stroll through the cemetery today the influence of this nonconformity is present everywhere. Take the back entrance and you will come across the surprisingly pagan image of the Ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail, symbolising the unending cycle of nature. The buildings also have a rebellious nonconformity in their Roman and Egyptian architectural influences.

The General Cemetery became a place of many sides, home to profitable conformity alongside civilised rebellion and all within a graveyard that was equal parts parkland. Now, the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust goes to great lengths to carry on the tradition of making the natural beauty of the cemetery accessible to all as a place of relaxation and belonging. The charity is dedicated to the preservation and improvement of the sprawling site and is set to embark on larger projects like the restoration and rebirth of the nonconformist chapel itself. Most importantly, the trust seeks to care for and share the stories of the Sheffield residents interred within.

On my travels through the cemetery I came across the graves of some of Sheffield’s most prominent historical celebrities, like Mark Firth. While Firth’s wealth lay in steel, his lasting legacy was in the establishment of the University of Sheffield. Initially the university was comprised of three separate institutions: the School of Medicine, the Sheffield Technical School and Firth College, which saved the older institution from collapse in 1879. In May 1905 the University of Sheffield was granted the royal charter that combined these institutions and by July the new Firth Court building was officially opened by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Should you ever wish to look the king in the eye you can still find the impressive statue of the monarch overseeing traffic in Fitzalan Square.

Elsewhere is the grave of Samuel Holberry, a man who encapsulates the nonconformist slant of the cemetery. Holbery was a famous chartist who led the first mass political party to represent the working class in Britain, fighting for freedom of religion and education. He was arrested for his part in the Sheffield Rising of 1840 and soon after died in prison. The modest grave that remains is the end of the legacy of a man whose funeral drew 50,000 mourners to swell the procession from Attercliffe to the cemetery.

Some of the stories behind the graves tell of unbearable tragedy. One holds a resident that is forever unnamed, simply ‘a baby’ found in a drain in 1869, wrapped in a parcel, having died from neglect. Another man’s name found here is forever associated with its own great tragedy. John Gunson was chief engineer at the Sheffield Waterworks Company, and is forever associated with the Dale Dyke Dam disaster that in 1864 claimed the lives of 238 people and 700 animals. Gunson was on site on the night of the disaster, having been called to inspect a crack in the dam wall. It was decided that the crack was harmless, but nevertheless Gunson released the valves to lessen the pressure of the water. After the dam burst an enquiry ruled that there was no way the disaster was foreseeable despite the crack, yet Gunson was forever haunted by the tragedy. His grave reads that he is now “removed from all suffering and strife”.

Sheffield’s history is all around us. Here at the General Cemetery it sleeps among the tangled brambles, awaiting discovery. If you want to experience the history for yourself, the trust holds a variety of events throughout the year which, in true English style, end with a good old cup of tea. Find the next from 2pm on 6th October or explore the cemetery website.

Photo by Blatant Photography

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Leanne Williams.