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The "remarkable, often hidden narratives" of Sheffield General Cemetery

After extensive repair, conservation and events, the Cemetery’s history and wildlife continue to resonate with many in the city, writes Activity and Engagement Officer Meghan Tipping.

Sheffield General Cemetery full res 63
Liam Rimmington

For many across the city, Sheffield General Cemetery is completely unknown. For others it’s just a convenient shortcut on their way to other places. But this hidden oasis of heritage and wildlife, set back from the busy Ecclesall Road, offers so much more.

The General Cemetery opened in 1836 as a burial space for people of the nonconformist faith. Sheffield Council have had responsibility for it since 1979 and it also benefits from the commitment of Sheffield General Cemetery Trust (SGCT), which has successfully restored two of its architectural gems, the Gatehouse and the nonconformist Samuel Worth Chapel.

The grade II* gardenesque cemetery boasts imposing catacombs, sinuous paths and striking Egyptian revival buildings which are emblematic of Sheffield’s northern industrial heritage. Creeping decline over the latter half of the twentieth century has allowed nature to soften the hard edges of its monuments, providing a unique green space near the city centre.

In 2018, the Council were awarded a £3.8 million Lottery grant for a programme of repair and conservation works and a three-year activity programme to help more people find out about what makes the cemetery so special. Work started in 2019 to protect it as a heritage-rich and biodiverse public park close to the city centre.

Early in the project, the pandemic brought into stark relief the significance of this tranquil green space and the importance of it for the wellbeing of the 30,000 people living on its edges.

Sheffield General Cemetery full res 27
Liam Rimmington

As well as managing the challenges of the pandemic, together the project team and the trust engaged the community to remove barriers to visiting the site. The imposing Samuel Worth Chapel, for example, could be seen as a physical barrier, requiring a conscious decision and courage to step inside. To overcome this, we have hosted a variety of events and activities to highlight the multi-functionality and inclusivity of the space – from film screenings, workshops and music events of multiple genres under the Cemetery Sessions banner to death cafés, society meetings and exhibitions like Dig Where You Stand. Our open-minded events team welcome all ideas.

When the chapel was unusable during the pandemic, the cemetery’s outdoor space became our museum. A new approach to interpretation saw the development of audio trails like Industrial Connections, which enabled people to discover stories of political, social and religious significance in their own time. Temporary outdoor exhibitions encouraged people who had been using the cemetery for daily exercise to engage more deeply with the site and learn about the people buried here.

As the Activity and Engagement Officer, with a background in education, I see the abundant potential to spark curiosity and learning across this unique outdoor space. I champion the opportunity for dialogue and learning in the outdoor space at any opportunity, not only at school and university levels, but across any and all age groups.

The remarkable, often hidden narratives of the Cemetery have spoken to young people, families, men, women, people of colour and LGBTQIA+ communities. From exhibitions with ISRAAC showcasing the Sheffield Somali community’s connection to industry to collaborations with Sheffield Museums Young Makers exploring Sheffield’s unresearched confectionery history, the Cemetery’s rich and diverse heritage resonates with many. Sessions such as the Our Wild Cemetery writing workshops with Dal Kular, exploring our relationship with the unique nature within the cemetery, offered an opportunity for people to see the site through a new lens, as well as bringing in new visitors.

As the project draws to a close this year, activities relating to football, artists and the natural history of the site are still to be announced and we have a wide range of events planned for the Samuel Worth Chapel and the surrounding green space.

Like many Victorian cemeteries across Britain, Sheffield General Cemetery experienced significant neglect, yet with nearly 200 years of deep-rooted Sheffield heritage and abundant nature across the site, the project team and the trust aim to change perceptions of this unique and beautiful site and encourage people to come and explore all it has to offer.

by Meghan Tipping (she/her)
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