A Brief History of Cemeteries in Leeds

This week, Librarian Antony Ramm brings us a very brief history of cemeteries in Leeds, and highlights some related stock held at the Central Library. You can read much more about this history in Jim Morgan’s essential The Burial Ground Problem in Leeds, c.1700-1914, while on this site you can read a previous article about burial records at the Central Library and browse a research guide covering the same subject. 

The Opening of Leeds Cemetery (aka Beckett Street Cemetery): 1842-1847
Our story starts in 1842, when it became increasingly clear that the old parochial graveyard at the Parish Church of St. Peter’s was no longer fit for purpose, mainly due to overcrowding. Robert Baker, town surgeon from 1825 and councillor from 1838, commented graphically on the state of that burial ground in his 1842 report on the sanitary condition of Leeds*:

The need for a new solution was clear and the most obvious approach was to extend and expand the parochial burial ground. Unfortunately, however, this was not possible given disputes between Anglicans and Dissenters in Leeds at that time, with the latter – who largely controlled the Vestry meetings that could approve the Church Rate necessary to fund additions to the parish grounds – refusing to make an agreement, on the grounds that a Church Rate was payable by all ratepayers in the township – including those, such as Dissenters, who stood to gain little or no benefit from that tax. As such, it became increasingly clear that a ‘municipal solution’ was the only possible avenue to explore.

The Corporation quite quickly lobbied Parliament to approve the powers necessary to fund, build and operate such a municipal cemetery. The 1842 Leeds Burial Act was the result – itself spun out of the  1842 Leeds Improvement Act – and authorised the Corporation to take the necessary steps.

The Central Library holds several copies of both those 1842 Acts, but by-far the most interesting is an edition which has been bound together with various news-cuttings and other documents – one of which is a detailed plan of the land chosen by the Corporation to be the site of the new cemetery.

The specific land chosen was that belonging to William Beckett (who had been elected as an M.P. for Leeds in 1841), though his neighbour, Griffith Wright Jr. (the editor of the Leeds Intelligencer) approached the Corporation to indicate that he believed they should also purchase his land (toward the top of the map above), as the existence of a cemetery in such close proximity would inevitably to a decline in the value of his property. As we can see from the letter below, which has been bound together with the Central Library’s aforementioned copy of the 1842 Leeds Burial Act, that was a request that the Corporation agreed to – with the Town Clerk, Edwin Eddison, asking that Griffith Wright let him “know when I can see you on this subject…”:

Eventually, all matters were resolved and the new Leeds Municipal Cemetery was opened in 1845 – with two separate sections; one for Consecrated (i.e. Anglican) burials, and another for Non-Conformist (or ‘Unconsecrated’ – i.e. Dissenters).


But that was far from the end of this initial chapter in this brief history. The arrival of the municipal cemetery should have been followed by the final closure of the parish graveyard in 1845. That, however, did not occur until 1847 – and the reason for that can be seen in this extract from the 1842 Burial Act for Leeds:

In short, this section of the Act indicates that the Vicar of Leeds was entitled to the same fees for burial in the Consecrated section of the new Becket Street cemetery as he would have been for burial in the old parochial burial ground. This short paragraph caused a significant controversy in Leeds (in truth, a continuation of the same debates and disputes which had driven Leeds politics since the 1820s); why this caused such a problem can be seen in the following news-cutting, which can be found bound together with the 1842 Burial Act for Leeds:

The key lines are these:

The Town Council of Leeds thinks otherwise. It has determined that those fees to the Vicar shall be paid out of the general fund, formed from the money received from the interments in the unconsecrated, as well as the consecrated portion of the Burial Ground; thus compelling Dissenters…[t]o contribute towards the payment of the Vicar’s fees…

In response, the Corporation agreed to raise the fees paid by those wishing to be buried in the Consecrated section of the burial ground, in order to cover the fee to be paid to the Vicar (then Walter Farquhar Hook). That, in turn, caused its own controversy among the Anglican community in the town who, not unreasonably, felt discriminated against. As a result, the Bishop of Ripon, the ultimate authority for any decision to close a parish burial ground in his Diocese, refused to grant such permission until the fees issue was finally resolved in 1847. The published letter below, from a volume entitled Reply of the Burial Grounds’ Committee of the Leeds Town Council to the Charges made by the Vicar in his Reply to the Memorialists (etc) – Bound with Proceedings as to the Overcrowded State of the Burial Grounds (1846/47) shows the moment when the Bishop made that initial non-closure decision public:

The Emergence of Local Burial Boards: 1853 – 1900
The 1842 Leeds Burial Act authorised the Town Corporation to operate municipal cemeteries across the whole borough. Only a handful were  built across the 19th-century, however. That was not to say that the graveyards beyond Leeds itself were not subject to the same pressures of overcrowding as that for St. Peter’s had been – quite the contrary; but the major difference was that ratepayers in those out-townships  organised their own Burial Boards under the auspices of the national 1853 Burial Act.

One early example of such an effort is featured in a pamphlet held at the Central Library, addressed ‘To the Inhabitants of Armley.’ It is evidently a reply to objections made by the Vicar of Armley to their efforts:

Interestingly, on page 2, we find the Armley Burial Board’s implication that they sense a change in the fees collectable by the Vicar – if increasing numbers of inhabitants are buried in the proposed township cemetery, rather than the Church graveyard – lie behind those objections:

The debate seems to have been settled in the Vicar’s favour, as there is no record of a cemetery in Armley until 1887.

Another out-township cemetery opened after the introduction of the 1853 Burial Act was that at Lawnswood, operated by the Headingley Burial Board. In the collections at the Central Library, we find a small brochure published just five years after the opening of that cemetery in 1875, setting out the ‘Tables of Fees and Charges, with Rules and Regulations’:

What this pamphlet does not reveal, however, is the extent to which issues around burial fees were as present in Headingley as elsewhere in Leeds (as we have seen). In fact, in 1892, the then-current Vicar of Headingley took the Headingley Burial Board to court, after discovering that his predecessor had agreed to waive fees owed to him for consecrated burials unless he personally led the service. The case was recorded in the Law Times, and the edition covering this dispute has been archived in the Central Library collections – here is an extract:

As is made clear in these sections, the Vicar (“Wood”) was pointing out – again, possibly not unreasonably – that he “cannot offer to attend at a funeral unless [he] know of it, and the board must give [him] notice”; that is – the Vicar was unable to collect the burial fees he was entitled to for leading a service because the Headingley Burial Board was not informing him those funerals were set to occur. The consequence of this omission can also be seen in the claim that the burial board “have permitted unauthorised and unqualified persons to perform the service” in the Vicar’s absence. Perhaps not surprisingly, the court found in the Vicar’s favour, though he agreed to waive fees owed to him (he had made a backdated claim to the starting date of the previous agreement made between his predecessor and the Burial Board) in return for the Board meeting his legal costs.


All the above should make it fairly clear that burial fees were a major issue in the development of the cemetery system in Leeds during the latter-half of the 19th-century. But, as important as the underlying issues motivating such disputes undoubtedly were, these arguments can seem tawdry and in poor taste when considered in this context:

This is a small collection of original receipts for the purchase of plots at the Holbeck Burial Ground, dated 1898. Seeing and handling these receipts, in all their plain simplicity, drives home to the viewer what ultimately lies at the heart of those debates around burial fees: the final dignity of those who had recently died.

Cemeteries as Sites of Heritage and Memory: 1965 – 1984
We started this brief history by stating that the story began in 1842 with the development of the Leeds Cemetery, also known as Beckett Street Cemetery. That was not quite true, however. Missing from that statement of origins was the emergence of an earlier non-denominational cemetery in Leeds: the Leeds General Cemetery based in Woodhouse, privately owned and operated, and designed to offer a burial space for that large group of Dissenting town citizens who did not wish to be buried in the Parish Church. The General Cemetery opened in 1835 and proved to be extremely popular (so much so that continual burials there seemed to impact on the usage of the municipal cemetery, once opened in 1842.)

The reason why the General Cemetery was not mentioned at the beginning of this article was simply that its place in this history has more to do with its closure than its opening. In 1956, the nearby University of Leeds purchased a controlling stake in the company operating the cemetery (which by this point had fallen into a state of neglect and was little-used), with a view to the continual expansion of the University academic and student facilities. By the mid-1960s a final decision had been made about the cemetery’s future, a description of which can seen in the following Memorandum issued by the University:

The particularly interesting part of this explanation for our purpose is the last paragraph:

That such steps will inevitably give rise to much concern to many people whose relations and friends are buried in the Cemetery is naturally regretted very deeply…

What is missing here is any acknowledgement that the Cemetery’s ‘levelling’ should be “regretted” on the grounds of its status as a local heritage space in its own right – and not ‘only’ because the removal of gravestones impacted on those people with a direct connection to any ancestors buried there.

This makes for a clear contrast by the time the next major development proposal for a historic cemetery in Leeds was made, in 1984 – when the City Council made plans to convert Beckett Street Cemetery into a similar ‘Garden of Rest’ space as the General Cemetery. Below is an extract from a joint report from the Leeds Civic Trust and the  newly-formed Friends of Beckett Street Cemetery, which makes clear that the heritage value of the cemetery was a core aspect of their opposition to its ‘redevelopment’:

It seems possible – though further research would be necessary – that the loss of the General Cemetery twenty-years previous influenced the nature of the opposition to the plans for Beckett Street and, especially, that stress on the historic value of the site. One small piece of evidence for this thesis is a photocopy of a letter sent to a local newspaper, bound together with the aforementioned 1984 report – the last paragraph being the relevant section:

It seems clear enough, then, that memories of the General Cemetery were still present when debates around the future of Beckett Street Cemetery were taking place. Pleasingly, the efforts of the Friends and the Civic Trust were successful and the planned changes were scrapped in 1985. The Friends were true to their word and created a heritage trail – an early copy of which can be found in the Central Library collections, alongside similar leaflets for other local cemeteries; a suitable place to end this brief history, with today’s recognition of cemeteries as spaces of significant community heritage and memory, and a tribute to those voluntary groups that strive to protect such important sites:

To view most of the books and other stock items mentioned here, please contact the Local and Family History department of the Central Library: 0113 37 86982 / localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk.

*The 1842 Robert Baker sanitary report for Leeds can be found in a volume entitled Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population in England

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