10 May 2014

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Peter - a true friend of  Wardsend Cemetery
They say that you can't have too much of a good thing and so today I was back at Wardsend Cemetery for a guided tour led by two of its most passionate advocates - Peter and Old George from "The Friends of Wardsend Cemetery". Peter is a craggy old Sheffielder who spent his working life in the steel industry but has always been fascinated by local history. He had many stories to tell about the cemetery and its inhabitants - including so-called ghost stories.

He drew our attention to the intricate carvings that festoon many of the gravestones. Some of the craftsmanship is quite fantastic (see below) and he also said that in the 1860's written inscriptions incurred a charge of three old pence per letter from local stonemasons.

We heard the tale of a twenty three year old amateur footballer called George Beaumont who was playing a game at Walkley on Christmas Day 1877. The ball went over the stone boundary wall - adjacent to the pitch. Poor George vaulted after it, not realising that there was a deep stone quarry on the other side of that wall. He plunged to his death. His grave includes a foot-stone with the shape of an old leather football carved upon it. Of course the game of football - as we know it today - began in Sheffield only twenty years before young George's premature demise.
Old football on the footstone of George Beaumont's grave
Old George - Craggy Peter's sidekick - told me where to look for the graves of some Sheffield Flood victims of 1864. As on Thursday afternoon,  I wandered off into the jungle of ivy, knotweed and bramble. Once again. I must have checked out thirty or forty gravestones but still I couldn't find a grave from the time of that awful and largely forgotten flood. Old George promised to email me a map with more precise directions.

Aside from the ghost stories, Peter told us about a phone call he had once  received from a local dog walker. This fellow had been startled one morning when he saw a head pop out of a grave. It was one of those graves with a vaulted stone lid. The police were called and they discovered that someone had made a sleeping place - actually inside the grave with blankets, a sleeping bag and stubs of candles. Clearly the homeless man who slept there had been in a very grave situation!

Anyway, I guess I'll be back at Wardsend - once called World's End - in the not too distant future. Third time lucky as they say - if I am going to track down the flood victims' graves. Other flood victims were buried elsewhere - including St Nicholas's churchyard at High Bradfield - so I am only expecting to find three or four graves at Wardsend. I hope that this blog is not becoming too ghoulish for you. In the midst of life we are in death - or as my old grandfather used to say - "In the midst of life we are in debt".
Other ghoulish visitors listening to Peter's tales

16 comments:

  1. Why do cemeteries hold us in a thrall? I seem to remember my father telling me some of our distant forefathers are residing in Highgate cemetery. I've always meant to go see. Can you get a Glass's guide type of thing of coffins and their contents I wonder?

    LLX

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    1. I am sure that Highgate Cemetery will have lists and plans of its inhabitants' whereabouts. You just need to dig around - not literally!

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  2. I think there are a few stories right there in Peter's face. If only those features could tell a tale.

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    1. Yes Carol - that man is a tough old bugger. I bet he has seen a lot of things in his life and his passion for local history was infectious. Hewalks with an awful limp and needs the assistance of a stick.

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  3. I have never been one to visit cemeteries, but the ones that I have are filled with interesting stories. Two come to mind.

    One is in Halifax where most of the bodies that were able to be recovered from the Titanic are buried. Including a little baby that was never identified. Their graves are situated so that from a distance you can see the outline of a ship's hull.

    I visited an old graveyard in Idaho Springs, Colorado years ago with my sister (who is kinda' into grave rubbings and weird stuff like that). There are so many young men buried there who were immigrants from from Germany and Sweden and Austria and died quickly working the gold and silver mines in the west. Their hometowns and dates they came to the United States were listed as well as the family members that they left behind. And so many babies lie there who did not survive their first winter of life in the harshness of the Colorado mountains.

    All those stones, some of which only have a small bit left and some of which are still very intact, hold stories of those beneath and make you reflect on the life that ended.

    Wonder is the beginning of wisdom, Socrates said.

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    1. Thank you for your two little graveyard stories MT - fascinating! "Wonder" can have two meanings. If we "wonder" we may be simply thinking about things - wondering about what happened or what might be for example. But "wonder" might also be about a feeling of awe - the lower jaw hanging, the eyes wider - incredulous. I wonder which "wonder" Socrates was thinking of.

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  4. That picture of Peter makes me wish I were a sculptor. What a face!
    And never have I see such carvings on a gravestone - stunning.

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    1. If we knew how to translate the lines on Peter's face we would, I am sure, be in possession of a fascinating life story.

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  5. Poor George! Couldn't anyone with local knowledge have warned him? I'd love to hear one or two of the ghost stories you've learned on your visit.
    As I'll be in Sheffield next month, I think I'll look up Wardsend Cemetery and how to get there.

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    1. Miss Arian - We have a larger and arguably more impressive Victorian cemetery. It is also disused and it is called The General Cemetery. It is on Cemetery Road but can also be accessed from Ecclesall Road. There are some large and impressive graves in there. Wardsend is more secret and the graves tend to accommodate more ordinary people.

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  6. Peter has the face and demeanour that compels one to try and talk to him. Also, I seem to recall a statue of him staring down from a cathedral somewhere.

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    1. In viewing St Peter you are in effect looking at a picture of how you will look when/if you make eighty.

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  7. This really is a trip worth taking. It's a superb place and a real character as a guide.

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    1. Why did Peter remind me of you? Maybe it was his grumpy demeanour, his unkempt beard or his saintly disposition.

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  8. Oh I love looking at old gravestones, YP - and one of my most favourites of the pictures you've posted over the years has been Malcolm's angel, which somehow stuck in my mind.

    The graves were such wonderful expressions of the tastes, financial and social standings of the individuals and their families.Today, graves have to be almost universally selected to allow easy maintenance with no edging or to be of uniform character. In dumbing down this and the other rituals surrounding death I think that we have lost something very precious both in terms of historical value and in the sense of allowing families to express their grief and regard for their loved ones in the way that helps them most - and to therefore journey on through the bereavement process at a pace that is suitable for them.

    When you wrote of Paul's funeral, what struck me at the time was how very right that community had gotten things and there was a real sense of his family being upheld and supported for as long as they needed it; would that other places would be so wise.

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    1. Thanks Elizabeth. Yes my Malcolm picture in the snow is one that I was especially pleased with. And you are right that we don't handle death naturally any more. We make it genteel and civilised with everything in its place - as if following a manual. Given your former working roles I am sure you have given departure from life a lot of careful contemplation.

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