The Land Time Forgot: Sheffield General Cemetery

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Since its closure in 1978, the Sheffield General Cemetery has become a tangled mass of plants and undergrowth.  The classical abandoned buildings have long been bricked up and fallen into disrepair, while the tombstones of Sheffield’s Victorian luminaries disappear into the undergrowth.  Ironically, the final resting place of 87,000 people has become a tranquil haven where plant and animal life blossoms unhindered, a far cry from its once neat arrangement of tombs and terracing.

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A treasure trove for historians and urban explorers, Sheffield General Cemetery opened in 1836 as a Nonconformist burial ground – then a popular movement among the city’s leading industrialists.  It was one of the first landscape cemeteries in Britain and paved the way for a national movement away from overcrowded church yards.  The original buildings, including gate house, catacombs and Nonconformist chapel, feature designs influenced by classical Egyptian and Greek Doric (by architect Samuel Worth).

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An Anglican chapel designed by William Flockton was added in 1850 adjacent to the Cemetery Road entrance.  Built in the Gothic tradition, the abandoned chapel is notable for its over-sized steeple.  This feature is deliberate, as the chapel was designed to be noticed – ominous considering most business conducted there was funerals…

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Another interesting  feature is the Dissenters’ Wall, which runs from Cemetery Road to the Porter Brook near the main entrance, marking the separation between the Nonconformist and consecrated Anglican burial grounds.  When the cemetery passed into the ownership of the council following its closure in 1978, around 800 graves were cleared from the Anglican section to make way for a green space.  Since then, the rest of the site has become completely overgrown, though charming and mysterious as a result.

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While a dove denoting the Holy Spirit is engraved above the cemetery’s main entrance, some believe the location of the entrance next to the Porter Brook symbolises the soul’s final journey across the River Styx in Greek mythology.  The General Cemetery is also unique thanks to the decorative ironwork adorning many of the affluent graves, highlighting Sheffield’s place as a national and global steel centre during the Victorian era.

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Famous residents include industrialists Mark Firth and James Nicholson; George Bassett, inventor of Liquorice Allsorts; John Fowler, father of the man who designed the Forth Rail Bridge; James Montgomery, poet and publisher; John, Thomas and Skelton Cole, founders of Cole Brothers Department Store; Chartists Samuel Holberry and Isaac Ironside; Francis Dickinson, who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava; and finally, George Partington, who ran away at 17 to fight in the Crimea.  One of the Heavy Brigade, he was nursed back to health by Florence Nightingale after being wounded at Balaclava.  Partington survived the Balaclava, Inkerman and the siege of Sevastopol, but later died as a result of being thrown from his horse.

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Alongside the heroes and the wealthy are thousands of others whose grave stones tell the tragic tale of social and economic deprivation that accompanied the wealth of Victorian England.  In some areas the terraces are created from grave stones, many of them reclaimed from the defunct Anglican burial ground.  Today, the Friends of the General Cemetery work hard to preserve this historic slice of Sheffield history.  What’s clear is that Sheffield’s premier Victorian cemetery has become one of the city’s most mysterious abandoned places.  See more in this series by



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