Local History: The opening of Holbeck Cemetery

Burials had previously been carried out in local Parish Church grounds but with the coming of the Industrial Revolution even things in the Church grounds were about to change.

By the late 18th century with the vast increase in the urban population of the Parishes most churchyards had become extremely unsanitary and were beginning to present a major health hazard due to this overcrowding. At a time when there was increasing impetus for civic improvements the established Church had to acknowledge that a change in burial customs was inevitable.

Overcrowding in the Parish cemeteries in the early 19th century was so great, particularly after the many outbreaks of Cholera in the mid-century, when corpses in the urban graveyards were often buried at depths of only 18 inches to two feet (around half a metre) below the surface. St Matthew’s in Holbeck was a good example of this due to the ground being raised up until it touched the wall top, not an ideal situation because of the likelihood of spreading disease.

In 1833 the Leeds General Cemetery was established, this was run as a Joint Stock Company (this was a business whose capital was held in transferable shares of stock by its joint owners, in effect falling between a partnership and a corporation) which was set up to provide and maintain a burial ground in Leeds.

The site chosen was St George’s Field near Woodhouse Moor and close to the road for Headingley and Otley. The Cemetery was opened in 1835 and had cost £11,000; it was unconsecrated and intended for use by Dissenters.
This was the first cemetery in Leeds and can still be seen near the University, it was also known as Woodhouse Cemetery. Cemeteries approved by Burial Acts spread countrywide, and their number grew rapidly during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

Following the passing of the Leeds Burial Act of 1842, Leeds City Corporation opened three cemeteries, Armley, Holbeck, and Burmantofts (Beckett Street), which opened in 1845. The Hunslet Parish Council opened their Cemetery, also in 1845, but slightly before Burmantofts, becoming the first municipal cemetery in the country.

Holbeck Cemetery consists of approximately 10 acres of land in area and, typical of many Victorian Cemeteries it is situated on an elevated site. It overlooks Leeds and a vast expanse of country beyond. The land was purchased in 1856 for about £2,500, it cost another £7,000 to construct the cemetery, raised by rates levied on the people of Holbeck.

Included in this cost were two chapels whose foundation stones were laid on 28 August 1856, and two lodges at the Fairfax Road entrance, one of which still exists in private hands. The layout and design of the cemetery was carried out by Joshua Major (1786-1866) an English landscape gardener who had been born at Owston near Doncaster then came to live at Knowsthorpe, Leeds where he set up a landscaping business. He was awarded the contract for the original layout of paths and planting at Holbeck Cemetery in October 1857 and for his work he was paid the princely sum of £6.1s.0d (£6.05). Another of his landscape works in Leeds was Hanover Square as well as three parks which were opened in Manchester, Salford, and Birkenhead all of which had provision for athletics and popular games. In 1852 he had his own book ‘The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening’ printed.

Cemeteries at this time were laid out very much in the style of parks with flowing paths of gentle curves and dry gravel for our Victorian ancestors to promenade on Sundays after church. They were very much the place to be seen, the Victorians had a very different attitude to death than we have today, some of the monuments are in fact works of art. There was no Cross Flatts Park at this time.

The cemetery was opened on 1 July 1857; this coincided with the closure of the graveyard at St Matthew’s Church near Holbeck Moor. This was a period when other Municipal Cemeteries were being opened, the first two in Leeds were Hunslet and Burmantofts followed by Holbeck.

The consent of the Home Secretary, and the licence of the Bishop of Ripon having been obtained the cemetery was open for internments; but the portion set aside for the established Church was not consecrated until the Chapel was finished. There were two Chapels in the cemetery one for the Church of England (Rev Edward Wilson, BA) the other (Rev A Pickles) for Non-Conformists (Methodists, Primitives, Roman Catholics, etc), and the cemetery itself was divided into the two classes (divided in life and death).

This division was usually marked, in Holbeck Cemetery the only straight path runs from the Beeston Road gate to the site of the Chapels at the top and is marked by shin high posts with chamfered tops.

The first person to be buried in Holbeck Cemetery was three month old Ruth Mathers on 2 July 1857 and John Hutton Fisher Kendall (also buried here) the incumbent of St Matthew’s Church, Holbeck carried out the service.

Guinea Graves in Holbeck Cemetery

Poor people were either buried in unmarked Paupers’ Graves or Guinea Graves, many of which can be found in the Cemetery. These can be seen with names on both sides of the headstones, a solicitor or another person would invest in a plot or plots and make a charge of One Guinea (£1.05) for the privilege of being buried in the grave, originally they were only for seven persons but this soon went by the board. One of our graves is believed to contain 46 bodies.
The Cemetery contains a great many ‘Guinea Graves’ dating from 1857 to the closure for general burials in the 1940s.

There are 87 War Graves here, 21 of these being from World War Two, these graves are not laid out in a formal pattern but are scattered around the Cemetery. A Cross of Sacrifice stands at the Beeston Road entrance where the Annual Remembrance Service now takes place.

Friends of Holbeck Cemetery were formed to try and tidy up the Cemetery, that at the time was being used by drinkers and drug users, and was very successful. Over the years many people have visited from all over the world and much help has been given to all enquiries mainly from records found dumped in a skip outside the Civic Hall.

The Millennium viewing platform

To illustrate the state of the Cemetery before this the South Leeds poet Tony Harrison highlighted the problems in his poem ‘V’. To celebrate the new Millennium a Viewing Platform was built at the rear of the Cemetery with views overlooking Leeds and the surrounding countryside along with railings depicting the history of Holbeck and brass floor plaques. The children of Ingram Road Primary School taking part in this project. The theft of the brass plaques and later anti-social behaviour by beer drinkers led to the Viewing Platform being removed, a great loss. The railings depicting Holbeck history were however saved from being moved to Lawnswood Cemetery and were finally installed at the Fairfax Road entrance along with display boards.


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One Reply to “Local History: The opening of Holbeck Cemetery”

  1. Many thanks to Ken Burton for submitting this very interesting article about Holbeck Cemetery, one of my late grandmother’s daughter was buried in one of the Guinea graves in 1931. My grandmother took me to visit her grave in about 1964 when I was 10 years old , it’s a shame that the viewing platform had to be removed due to unsociable behaviour, once a few years ago myself and other people complained to the council because travellers had tethered some horses in the cemetery!

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