FOR those interested in Yorkshire history, Victorian cemeteries are both fascinating and bewildering in equal measure.
Few in West Yorkshire are as interesting as Lister Lane Cemetery in Halifax, “home” to more than 20,000 souls who were buried there between 1842 and the 1960s – among them a noted Chartist whose death was remarked upon by Karl Marx.
Fifteen years ago the cemetery was an overgrown tangle of weeds, plagued by vandals and had become a dumping ground for stolen cars which were then set alight.
Today, thanks to the efforts of volunteers, it is a green oasis and a pleasant place to while away an hour or two on a sunny afternoon.
And soon visitors will no longer be confounded by the endless names and graves thanks to a £3,800 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories scheme to the Friends of Lister Lane Cemetery.
The money will allow the group to put up illustrated noticeboards, provide bench seats and help fund new information booklets about the cemetery.
The year-long project will help paint a clearer picture of 19th and 20th century Halifax and its inhabitants.
David Glover, chairman of the Friends, said: “The heritage which that plot of land contains is a microcosm of 19th century Halifax, being the last resting place of many of our industrialists, such as the Crossley brothers, building society founders, soldiers, architects and music-makers.
“Six mayors of Halifax lie buried in the cemetery; three members of Parliament are buried there, and there is also a memorial to a famous Speaker of the House of Commons, JH Whitley.”
Mr Glover and his colleagues have already discovered a great deal about some of the thousands of people who are buried at Lister Lane.
Not all of the stories now being unearthed involve the wealthy, said Mr Glover, who has worked hard on the research to ensure that the focus is not just on the monied and the well-known.
“One of the largest funerals held at Lister Lane was in 1853, for a poor but significant working man, the noted Chartist, Ben Rushton.
“This event was mentioned soon afterwards by Karl Marx in a bulletin sent to the New York Daily Tribune.”
Marx reported that “upward of 200,000 people were assembled at Halifax, a number unprecedented even in the most excited times”.
Although the Friends have cast doubt on the numbers reported by Marx, they agree that it was indeed a massive occasion for the town.
The project will also include the stories of Halifax men who fought at Waterloo and more recently in Afghanistan.
Also buried at the cemetery is Lieutenant Colonel Godfrey Phipps Baker, a friend of Raffles (the founder of Singapore) who was one of the first Westerners to sketch the world-famous Buddhist temple of Borobudurm in central Java, Indonesia. But the majority of the 20,000 burials were of ordinary people.
“The chief aim of the All Our Stories project is to enable visitors to Lister Lane to discover on-site and by visual means how industrial and commercial Halifax developed, in an accessible and relaxed environment,” Mr Glover added.
“We are most grateful that the Heritage Lottery Fund has recognised our volunteers’ dedication to improving the cemetery.
“In the 1990s, the cemetery gates had been stolen, the whole place looked like an overgrown jungle, and sometimes vehicles were set alight there. By 2000, an enthusiastic small group of local people were deeply concerned about this appalling condition of the cemetery.”
The Millennium saw the creation of the Friends as a charity with the backing of Calderdale Council, owner of the cemetery.
“With the help of groups of other volunteers, successive clearance projects were carried out. Much was achieved, and for the first time in years the gravestones of many past Halifax residents could be read,” Mr Glover said.
“Today it is a green oasis in a densely populated area of the town.
“But few realise the enormous effort which our members continue to put into keeping the cemetery tidy, and the back-breaking work involved with clearance of undergrowth.
“We are urgently looking for fresh blood in this connection. The money from the Heritage Lottery Fund will help us embark on a fresh project, which we are sure will be of interest to all interested in our local history.”
The cemetery is normally open two days a week, Wednesdays and Sundays.