In 1854, the Undercliffe Cemetery Company announced to the public they were open for business. In his initial address, William Gay, Undercliffe’s first Registrar and designer, extolled the virtues of this new amenity as being “tastefully laid out” on “dry soil”, and that it “will be planted and kept up in such manner as is best adapted to the locality”.
The Victorians were deadly serious in their approach to and familiarity with death. Bradford’s population had grown from just over 6,000 in 1801 to 182,00 in 1851. With this expansion, on the back of the industrial revolution, came a scale of pollution and disease that increased their mortality rate in line with productivity. By 1830, the Bradford Observer reported that the parish graveyards were “decently full”.
At a time when the dead of Bradford’s overcrowded churches and graveyards were causing a crisis in public health and offending the moral decency and sensibilities of the City Fathers, the former hillside farm offered a much-needed solution and quite literally a breath of fresh air.
With its wide, main promenade, the 26 acre site was designed to be utilised by the living as well as the dead. The First Book of Rules, 1854, stated that the directors “endeavour to preserve the greatest possible decency and decorum, in the conduct of interments”; they also desire to throw the cemetery open to the public as much as possible, and “so long as propriety of behaviour is observed, none will be excluded from the grounds, who desire to avail themselves thereof, either as a place of relaxation or for contemplative retirement.”
Dressed in their Sunday best the good and great were there to see and be seen both in flesh and stone. By the late 1970s, the Undercliffe Cemetery Company was no more, burials were expensive and out of fashion, our relationship with death was broken and the cemetery fell into disrepair. A public outcry in the 1980s followed news of a developer removing stones and demolishing buildings. A vigorous and vociferous campaign secured an uncertain future.
Since that time a tireless band of volunteers have breathed new life into the site. Granted Grade II* Listed status the site also contains six memorials which themselves are listed for their importance.
With around 123,00 burials and 23,000 graves the site is a mixture of Victorian opulence and gothic extravagance, and ranges from the subtle simplicity of Quaker Yorkshire stone slabs to the colour and vibrancy of today’s memorial decorations.
The very first burial took place in 1854 and Undercliffe still serves its community. The good, the great and the ordinary continue to be buried and cared for at the site.
As the new Registrar and Co-ordinator I am looking to capitalise on the success and hard work of Neil McLellan, who, after 11 years of guiding the cemetery, retired last month.
McLellan together with a board of trustees led by a former Lord Mayor and councillor, Allan Hillary, has overseen the transformation from a vandalised site that was on the brink of being lost, to a place described by Dr Julien Litton as the “zenith of England’s cemeteries… it is an enigmatic place and it does fill you with the kind of awe you would expect from a Victorian cemetery.”
In line with William Gay’s address, I’m keen to encourage our enjoyment and participation of one of “Yorkshire’s finest parks” while balancing the need of maintaining and offering the appropriate service, support and regard at the most critical time of losing a loved one.
The Victorians loved the idea of a ‘Garden of Sleep’ where you could go and enjoy the fresh air. They would go to talk and meet with both their dead and living relatives and friends. The huge mortality rate obviously gave them an intimate and almost constant connection to the great mystery of death. The story of that relationship together with the progress and development of Bradford can be traced, read, and analysed through the stones. They give testament to the now quiet voices that belong to all those who contributed to the success, or otherwise, of the city of Bradford.
Through the dates, names, and epitaphs there is a vast treasure trove of social history. It’s the ultimate collection of love and death, charting the rise and fall of dynasties across the social and economic divide. The sacrifice of war is sadly well represented, with the echoes of those who gave their lives resonating.
We can find the men and women who worked, crafted, manufactured, invented, wrote, campaigned and painted. We can empathise with loving parents, siblings, grandparents and, most desperate of all, the many infants and children, whose names are often unrecorded, who sleep on.
For their voices to be heard we need to encourage people to walk, sit, talk, laugh and enjoy the phenomenal space that we have at Undercliffe. We are opening the Lodge building to art groups, writers’ circles and want to encourage the local community to use the space. The hope is that people become familiar and comfortable with the space and learn to cherish it.
To help get that message across Undercliffe Cemetery Charity has started a creative collaboration with Bradford College’s photographic and graphic students, led by lecturer Andy Vaines.
“When an opportunity arises like this, we jump at it. The photography and graphics students were introduced to its hidden gems by resident historian Andrew Barker. He gave us a fantastic insight into some of Undercliffe’s eclectic and magnificent tombs, mausoleums, and burial plots,” says Vaines. “The aim is for the students to reflect the site and its importance both as a local cemetery, a place of beauty and meaning. There’s lots more research and work for students to do before our exhibition in September, which will be shown at the Dye House Gallery in Bradford.”
As an outdoor space it’s hard to beat, there are fantastic views and there is a wonderful sense of beauty and calm. In the heart of the busy urban environment it really is a green oasis that should be enjoyed by visitors, mourners and volunteers alike.
Which is why our aim is to put the spotlight on this 166-year old Victorian site and celebrate its heritage and importance to this great city.