A stunning, green oasis not far from the city centre, few may realise that St George’s Field - at the north edge of the Unviersity of Leeds’ campus - is the final resting place of nearly 100,000 people.
The “forgotten” cemetery was one of the city’s first, yet now - after the removal of most of the headstones in 1965 - there is little to acknowledge its past, with the area even billed as “green space” for students and visitors to “enjoy”, on tourism site visitleeds.co.uk and the University’s website.
Originally called Woodhouse Cemetery, it was first opened by the Leeds General Cemetery Company in 1835 to help meet demand for burial space in Leeds after the cholera outbreak in 1832.
Historic documents report that by the 1930s the cemetery was running out of space and becoming neglected so in 1956 the university - whose buildings surrounded the site - acquired the company by buying up shares.
In 1965, the University of Leeds Act of Parliament was passed which allowed the university to remove monuments and tombstones and create a public open space - a controversial decision which led to the formation of the Leeds Cemetery Defence Organisation.
The Yorkshire Evening Post reported at the time (left) that the organisation protested to the Leeds Clergy Chapter for their backing of the university’s decision, stating: “For a body so exalted and important as yourselves to pass judgement on a controversial matter of such sentimental importance to so many people is... an impertinence.”
But the university won and from March to November 1968, contractors removed headstones and memorials - some kept by the Leeds City Museum, some retained and others covered over - and the area was landscaped. Christine Bairstow, 72, recalled her father being so horrified at discovering his baby daughter’s gravestone missing that he went to the police, thinking the area had been vandalised.
“The cemetery was like a building site. My father and I went to Millgarth police station and reported her cross stolen and all the other headstones. Our dad was so heartbroken, the policeman was so kind and took us home in a police car. The next day an inspector came and told us the university had acquired it.”
In accordance with the Act, the university was to contact all known owners of burial plots prior to landscaping and to allow for compensation requests for the loss of burial rights and plots - but Christine said he father was never informed.
By the time burials eventually stopped in October 1969 and the site reverted back to its pre-cemetery name of St George’s Field, a total of over 95,000 people had been laid to rest there.
These included 105 casualties of both the First and Second World Wars – yet their memorial can be found at Lawnswood Cemetery rather than on site.
Peter Frances, of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, told the YEP the University of Leeds Act of Parliament in 1965 presented the commission with a “fait accompli”, forcing them to find an alternative way of commemorating the Woodhouse Cemetery’s war dead. “We couldn’t mark the graves at that location [any more] but we still have a duty of care to remember those individuals. That’s why their names are on the screen wall at Lawnswood Cemetery.”
He added that that commission still inspects the war graves in Woodhouse every three years under its duty to guarantee the sanctity of those burials.
The cemetery also houses a memorial to lost firefighters from the city as well as notable residents including William Darby, better known as Pablo Fanque, who was the first black British circus owner and became the inspiration of the Beatles song ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ from their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album of 1967.
The University does have a map of the burial plots, which was drawn up in 1967 and can be used alongside burial registers to work out the approximate location of graves, but, as university bosses have admitted to Christine Bairstow, it is unlikely that the precision location of one specific body could ever be identified.
A University spokesperson said: “The University encourages visitors, including students, to use the field in a respectful manner. There are clear signs around the field and we brief students living in the nearby accommodation about respecting the space, and make them aware of its history.
“Mrs Bairstow is a regular visitor to the University and we have offered support over the years, including planting a tree for her sister, erecting a memorial plaque, and most recently, outlining the Ministry of Justice licencing process.”