Home after Home: Resting in Peace in Sheffield’s General Cemetery
Updated 15 February 2022
By Catherine Kennedy
Sheffield general cemetery can be accessed via Cemetery Avenue, off Ecclesall Road. These days it is adjacent to an urban thoroughfare and the Sheffield Hallam Collegiate Campus, but when it was purchased for development, the site was an ex-quarry and its location was sufficiently rural for potential customers to worry about the danger of body snatchers making off with their loved ones to the Sheffield Medical School.
Today, body snatchers are a distant memory, and the avenues of the General Cemetery are a picturesque walking and picnic spot, where the peace of eternal repose can be a welcome break from busy modern life.
Avenue in Sheffield General Cemetery
When the general cemetery opened in 1836, it was a private, profit-making enterprise whose owners were responding to market forces. Not only were existing graveyards struggling to accommodate the dead of a growing industrial city which had recently experienced another cholera epidemic, but the prosperous nonconformist communities in the area were reluctant to be buried in ground consecrated and regulated by the Anglican church.
On paper, it must have seemed a fool-proof business plan, but in practice, the combination of high fees and isolation from the city centre meant that uptake was slow. There were only ten burials registered in the first ten years of operation, and ultimately, the half of the site nearer the city was given over to Anglican rites. The neo-gothic Anglican chapel was built, and the ground to the east of the ‘dissenters’ wall’ was consecrated by a bishop.
Visually, the contrast between the two halves is striking. Most Anglican burials used a headstone, but the wealthy nonconformist families who populated the western side of the cemetery cultivated a distinctive style of monument. The nonconformist chapel and the gates to the cemetery show Egyptian influence, and many of the grave monuments are shaped as pillars, obelisks, and urns. Their classical and Egyptian flavours suggest a strong element of Freemasonry alongside Christian belief, and powerfully symbolise these graves’ occupants’ distinctive identity.
The nonconformist chapel
Beyond their striking visual style, the nonconformist graves are interesting for what they suggest about family life in the early and mid-nineteenth century. While Historians now refute the idea that the nuclear family was only just coming into existence at this time, there are many family graves in the general cemetery which suggest that families were keen to imagine their afterlife in heaven as a recreation of their earthly households.
The General Cemetery’s grave monuments may not mark plots where all the bodies of those mentioned are laid to rest, but they certainly name all the members of the clan and have been designed to accommodate the growth of the family in its eternal repose, at least in the form of inscriptions.
For example, the Hall family grave mentions four generations by name. Although the original patriarch, Francis Hall, ‘former vicar of Greaseborough’, almost certainly rests elsewhere, he was mentioned in the inscription marking the burial of his son John, a surgeon, who died in 1905, aged 82. When the family ran out of space on the original monument, they populated the area around it with inscriptions, such as that marking the passing of Francis Arthur, a doctor, who died in America in 1951 aged 84, or Alice Mary, another family member.
It is unlikely that Hall family burials were still taking place in the General Cemetery in the 1950s, but these late additions suggest the symbolism of named inscriptions on the family tomb enacted a powerful link to relatives these people still hoped to join in their final, spiritual resting place.
Hall family grave
One aspect of nineteenth-century life which complicated family structure was maternal mortality. While prosperous men regularly lived well into their eighties, they had often married at least twice during their lives, and many men’ coffins are flanked on both sides by wives.
The Nicholson family is an example of this. The first wife of James Nicholson, Harriet, was laid to rest in 1872, aged 47. However, she had been preceded by their young son John Arthur, who had died as a baby. Little John Arthur is represented at the front of the monument, leading the family into eternal repose. Harriet is memorialised on the side, with James joining her in 1909, to be accompanied later by Katharine, his second wife, whose inscription reads ‘affectionately remembered’. It would be interesting to know if James and Katharine had children together, or if she was affectionately remembered by the step children she brought up.
Harriet and Katharine’s grave
Baby John Arthur was not unusual. Many other children predeceased their parents in Victorian Sheffield. The monument for a different family called Nicholson mourns the passing of two little girls: Sarah Ellen who died in 1858 having lived one year and three months, and her sister Alice Mary who died in 1863 aged just one month. The monument erected by the grieving parents to house their little ones is hardly designed with them in mind.
Indeed, it can only be described as an austere phallic obelisk, representing the patriarchal nineteenth-century patriarch, William Nicholson, and his dignity as head of household. This juxtaposition of tender concern to maintain links to children who died in infancy, to remember them and be reunited in eternal rest, contrasts with the dominating masculinity represented by monuments like this one. William may have loved his family very dearly as individuals and have cherished the idea of being with them again, but he clearly saw himself as the final authority, and the family as his own possession.
Nicholson family grave
Poorer Sheffielders could not commission such grand constructions, and perhaps they did not want to. An 1870 headstone commemorates Robert and Martha Clarebrough and their children who died in infancy and childhood: Henry, aged five years, Martha, aged three weeks, Emily aged six months, and John aged eleven years. After so many bereavements, symbolically reuniting the family in the durable medium of stone must have represented the only comfort Martha and Robert had - that their religion promised them a reunion in a world of rest, where such tragedies could never occur.
Next to their grave, William Hunter, ‘licensed victuallier’, erected a headstone to his wife, Mary Ann, aged 36, detailing her virtues as a godly woman. William’s epitaph to his ‘beloved’ suggests a different attitude to the James Firths and William Nicholsons. He describes her as an ‘affectionate wife, kind companion, faithful friend.’ And goes on to say that ‘her liberal hand, aided by her benevolent heart was ever ready to comfort the distressed.’ This attention to Mary Ann as an individual with tremendous agency and personal identity contrasts with the wealthier graves and their concern for patriarchal dignity.
Of course, it is possible that Mary Ann’s exceptional qualities carried all before her; William was eventually buried with her, but there is no mention of children or a second wife. Perhaps he never met her like again, or perhaps he faithfully lived out his life in the hope that he would be reunited with her in the hereafter.
In contrast, there is an inscription to Eliza, ‘wife of the late James Astley’, alone on her headstone, with no later addition to mark the arrival of a second husband or children. Eliza died aged only 37 in 1858, and her fate, to be eternally alone (if only symbolically) feels especially tragic. The crowded inscriptions which surround her, representing loving families keen to be together in the afterlife, show that Sheffielders valued their families and could not imagine eternal life or rest without them.
Did some sudden tragedy befall Eliza’s family, making a new inscription impractical, or was she so unloved in life that others preferred to rest without her?
Given that single offspring are commonly included in their parents’ or other relatives’ graves around the cemetery, whatever their age, we have to wonder what misfortune could have occurred for Eliza to end up banished from the symbolic household. Perhaps her rest is the more tranquil for it.
The General Cemetery is a restful place to potter and provides ample reading material for the curious. The final resting places of many of Sheffield’s ‘great and good’ are here, alongside humbler citizens whose monuments are less grand, and the more personal for it. It is common to consider graveyards as places to ponder mortality and the worlds which may lie beyond death. But it is striking how much life there is in these inscriptions and sculptures.
Rather like the Egyptians, whose funerary art inspired the chapel and entrances to the General Cemetery, it seems its occupants could not imagine resting in the world to come unless it resembled the one they knew, where familiar faces and voices made them welcome.
Images: Credit to Catherine Kennedy