Relatives’ plea to ‘remember and respect history’ of ‘forgotten’ Leeds cemetery

Christine Bairstow with members of a Facebook group Raymond and Kathleen Fozard, and Steve Terrington.
Christine Bairstow with members of a Facebook group Raymond and Kathleen Fozard, and Steve Terrington.
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Relatives of loved ones buried at the former Woodhouse Cemetery have called for more to be done to remind people of its history and encourage more “respect” for those laid to rest there.

Yesterday the YEP revealed how one relative, Christine Bairstow, 72, has taken the drastic step of applying to have her twin baby sister’s body exhumed from the cemetery – now called St George’s Field – at the north edge of the University of Leeds’ campus.

Way in: The main entrance at the site of the cemetery.

Way in: The main entrance at the site of the cemetery.

The pensioner said she was “sick” of the way students at nearby halls of residence, and others, had been treating the area “like a back garden” and described seeing people play football and have parties over where people are buried, as well as witnessing a couple having sex just 12 inches from where her sister Pauline lies.

Read more: Help save my sister from ‘forgotten’ Leeds graveyard.

The cemetery dates back to 1835 but was later taken over by the university, which in 1965 secured an act of parliament to remove most of the headstones and memorials and landscape the area to provide an open space. By the time burials eventually stopped in October 1969 and the site reverted to its pre-cemetery name of St George’s Field, a total of more than 95,000 people had been laid to rest there.

A group on Facebook created by Christine earlier this year to unite relatives over those buried at the former Woodhouse Cemetery currently has more than 140 members.

Friends of Woodhouse Cemetery was formed after Christine initially posted in the ‘Memories of Leeds’ group and within 24 hours received over 500 comments.

Steve Terrington, whose family have lived in Woodhouse for over 100 years, helped Christine set up the group.

He said: “Myself and a few other people would like at least the name being changed back to Woodhouse Cemetery and not St George’s Field as it is now, as this would remind people that it is first and foremost a cemetery. At the moment various sources refer to it as “a recreational area” and I would like people to be made aware that it is now a “garden of rest” and not a place for people to play sports in as has happened in the past.”

Gloria Thompson’s grandfather, aunt, great grandparents and great uncle and aunt are buried at the former cemetery. She told the YEP: “I strongly feel that this should be named back as a cemetery and not be allowed to be used by people disrespecting the graves. I do visit now and again and it’s so sad to see the grave stones being worn away and uncared for.”

Paul Relton, 36, of Horsforth, said he recently found out he has eight relatives buried at Woodhouse Cemetery. “I find it sad that a cemetery holding the remains of 97,000 Leeds folk has been landscaped over for the sake of a field,” he added.

Read more: The picturesque Leeds beauty spot is the final resting place of nearly 100,000 people.

Another member, Ian Rogers, recalled: “My grandad was buried there but my grandma had him exhumed and moved to Lawnswood when she found out about the university taking it over. Big thing in those days, had to be done in the dark with a police presence.”

However not all relatives of those buried at Woodhouse feel as strongly about the issue. Trevor Hainsworth told the YEP that as far as he is aware, no one in his family was consulted about the landscaping of the cemetery but said he’d rather the area be used than be a neglected cemetery.

“Surely it is better that the university at no small cost to themselves, has made something of the area rather than letting it become overgrown and abandoned like so many other cemeteries in most towns and cities.

“I feel sorry for the few families who have recent memories connected to the area, but now the area is at least being used, we need to move on and make the best of the green areas we have.”

Another, who did not want to be named, told the YEP they “love the place as it is” and since it is the “back garden” for university residence Henry Price, “you can see the temptation for the students who live there to use it as such”.

However they added “more should be done” to emphasise the fact that it was a cemetery, with many buried there.

For Christine, fear over what may happen in the future – after she has gone – to her sister’s remains proved the crux of her decision to have her exhumed.

“They want people to treat it as a field or park – what’s the next step? One day I fear they will build on it and the cemetery will be lost. That can never be allowed to happen.” She added: “My sister and the 93,000 people buried in the cemetery deserve better.”

A University spokesman said: “St George’s Field is an important place for reflection and contemplation for the whole community, including our staff and students, who are encouraged to enjoy the space whilst also respecting its history. We do not accept that the Field is used commonly for inappropriate activities and we manage the area to prevent this. We continue to welcome Mrs Bairstow and others to the Field to mourn or to pay their respects. We are proud to be able to facilitate such a peaceful public open space for the enjoyment not only of the University community but also for the wider community as a whole.”