Secrets of graveyard that rose from the dead

Volunteers have given life back to Heaton Graveyard, saving a rich slice of Bradford’s history. Sheena Hastings reports.

One of the volunteers at the Heaton Graveyard project, Tony Harney. Below: Margaret Gray

YOU could argue that graveyards and cemeteries have never been more popular. There will always be those who want to be interred in the shade of a tree in a quiet churchyard.

Some graves are visited regularly and tended by loving hands with flowers, plants and maybe birthday wreaths or Mother’s Day tokens. But other plots are sad and overgrown.

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Both are potentially of great interest to the growing hordes of family history researchers around the globe, some of whom spend their holidays or retirement travelling to the lands of their forebears, immersing themselves in the places they have read about in online records of towns and villages far away.

Margaret Gray

Ten years ago, anyone arriving from abroad to bow their head at the last resting place of a relative in Heaton Graveyard would have been, almost literally, taking their life in their hands if they tried to enter the walled one-acre site in the heart of Heaton Village, Bradford.

Such was the ghastly, densely overgrown state of this once-magnificent Victorian graveyard that it was impossible to see the gravestones or monuments. Rampant ivy and great tangles of every kind of pernicious weed had taken over. Sycamore trees had run riot, sinking their roots into graves and rising up again, smashing all before them. The burial ground – and all its precious freight of history – was in danger of being lost forever to secondary woodland.

The burial ground is owned by Heaton Baptist Chapel, although it’s not purely for those who follow that faith. It is not affiliated with, or funded by, any local authority.

The original site was instituted in 1824 when a small Baptist Chapel and graveyard built at a cost of £770. As Bradford and its population grew with the rapid development of the textile trade, it became clear that the site needed to be expanded, so in 1868 a further portion of land was purchased for £300.

The old chapel itself was demolished in 1896, and the stone was used in a large new chapel building at the corner of Leylands Lane and Highgate, just across the road from the graveyard. It too was demolished in 1987.

There are over 1100 graves and, according to the chapel register, around 9,000 people have been interred since 1868. The graveyard is “open”, or “working”, so it cannot be considered for closure for another 50 years. The last burial was at the end of 2012.

As well as being the resting place of many ordinary locals and worthies of the neighbourhood, there are the graves of several thousand paupers and their children, buried in communal graves many of which lie under the present pathways and are not recorded.

The souls buried here are an important part of the rich history not only of this village but of Bradford and West Yorkshire. Margaret Gray, a woman with deep roots in Heaton and a great passion for local history, decided back in 2003 that it was time for a rescue mission.

“My family lived in cottages adjacent to the graveyard and all around the village. Although I grew up down in Manningham, I spent a lot of time as a child at my grandma’s in Heaton. It was a lovely, quiet, carefree place. When I later became a police officer and met and married Malcolm, another officer who was also from Heaton, we moved back and spent 30 years living there. It was a close-knit place with a special feel to it, and we were very happy.”

A decade ago, Margaret went to the vicar and asked for permission to look into pots of money that might be available to help with a clean-up of the sacred ground that had become a magnet for drug-taking and fly tipping.

She held a public meeting, which was well attended by supportive locals, and Heaton Graveyard Community Project was born in early 2004.

“A group of 20 volunteers came forward to start the huge job of clearing the place,” says Margaret, who’s in her late 60s. “We still meet every other Saturday, and work from 10am to 5pm, or a bit less in winter. We divided the acre up into five sections and it took us a year to clear each one.

“At first we had to use our own tools and equipment, but thanks to bits of funding and donations over the years we’ve managed to buy proper kit. It’s been back-breaking at times, but gradually we brought the graveyard back to life.

“As we cleared each section pieces of history came to light. We found graves of wool people, delvers (quarry men), textile mill workers and owners, stonemasons, builders, farmers, local ‘nobs’ like the Greenwoods...”

The group even found the graves of members of Margaret’s own family, including that of a 16-hour-old baby, that she had not known were there. Events like bulb and plant sales were held to finance further work, and to show how 
the graveyard was being transformed.

Nine years on, the group of volunteers has dwindled to nine stalwarts who still meet and work every other week. They’ve strained every sinnew at times, but they’ve performed wonders, with benches, clean grassy paths, rebuilt walls, and every stone and monument proudly visible for visitors to read about Heaton and its people. The project has won awards including one from Britain in Bloom.

“Older people use it as parkland now, and will sit on a seat for the whole afternoon on a nice day,” says Margaret. “I came by the other day and a cyclist was in there having his lunch, and often you’ll see people having a quiet read.”

Margaret shows groups of schoolchildren around the graveyard, as a way of explaining Heaton’s involvement in the city’s history. The 1928 World War I memorial stone has recently been restored, remounted and re-dedicated with the help of Co-Operative Funeral Care.

Margaret is justifiably proud of what the team has achieved but she’s also anxious about the future. “I’m nearly 70 and less and less able for heavy work, so we do need new blood. Although local people are pleased with the improvement, they don’t take part.” Two of the regular volunteers now live in Lincolnshire, but still keep up the good work.

Volunteer Tony Harney feels the effort has been worthwhile.“Hard work and injections of supportive donations have turned an abandoned cemetery into a peaceful resting place, where people walk, read or sit and watch the wildlife among the memorials surrounded by well-tended flowers and shrubs. It is sometimes hard work, but we give up our time to give the village something to be proud of, and in spring thousands of bulbs are a riot of colour.”

Margaret, whose heart is in Heaton although she lives a few miles away now, says: “The people buried here should be remembered. They were our past and made our future.”

If you have family buried in Heaton Graveyard and can offer information for a book Margaret Gray is writing about Heaton Graveyard, contact her by email at [email protected] or via