In the city of the dead, life is to be found in abundance. It finds strong voice in the tiny throats of the many species of songbirds who abide here all year round; it finds purpose in the lives of busy squirrels, of furtive foxes and mischievous stoats; it covers the ground with a verdant green carpet of grass and moss, splashed here and there with colourful bluebells and mysterious red and yellow wild flowers; and it decorates its legions of trees in the richest of greens and a riot of seasonal colours that leaves even the most urban of folk breathless. This place, this Other Eden, is Manchester’s own necropolis, although here we call it Southern Cemetery.
Here then, in this place of peace for the living and the dead, the human history of Manchester is displayed side by side with its natural one, for this is an island of Victorian wildlife, a slice of open country that was enclosed in the 1870s before the world’s first industrial city completely overran its sleepy neighbouring farming communities. With typical Victorian confidence and foresight the city’s civic forefathers built their new necropolis on a heroic scale in Chorlton-cum-Hardy and, spanning some 40 hectares (100 acres), the site remains not only the largest burial ground in the UK but also the second largest in Europe. And soon, thanks to Manchester City Council and Natural England, the cemetery will be declared an official nature reserve, a title richly deserved and a fitting tribute to the wonderful efforts of all the staff who care so lovingly for the place.
In addition to this carefully encouraged natural bounty, there are six Grade II-listed buildings within the cemetery and the list of famous internees is impressive to say the least. It includes: John Rylands, L.S. Lowry, Sir Matt Busby and Anthony H. Wilson. But, for me, the most striking of the memorials to the great and the good is that of Sir John Allcock who, together with Sir Arthur Witten Brown, made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919. Now, if you’re thinking “hang about, wasn’t that done by the American chap, Charles Lindbergh“ the answer is a firm no. Lindbergh made the first solo flight some eight years later but the honour of the first crossing goes to Allcock and Brown, whose epic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber raised the morale of a country and Empire still mourning a million dead on the Western Front.
Allcock, a son of this city, had always been a resourceful man and while serving with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean during the Great War had designed and built his own fighter plane – the Allcock Scout, from parts salvaged from crashed aircraft. He later went on to shoot down two enemy aircraft with his Scout, all of which earned him a Distinguished Service Cross. But Captain Allcock was not fated to enjoy the fame brought about by his great feat of transatlantic daring as six months later he was killed, aged 27, in an air crash in Normandy. His memorial, a rather beautiful detailed Celtic cross, stands near the main gates to the cemetery and engraved on the white marble, beneath a propeller, is his epitaph: “In memory of our dear brother whose soul made the great flight 18 December 1919”.
To the west of the main gates the visitor encounters the first of three large memorials to those who fell in the two world wars. I vividly remember the first time I came across it, age five or thereabouts, on a trip to visit the graves of relatives with my mother and my aunt Margaret. Running on ahead as children do, I crossed beneath a screen of low hanging evergreens through which the sun fell in golden shafts, only to be stopped in my tracks at the sight of the great stone cross and the impossibly long wall, inscribed with so very many names, above which was the inscription “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”. Little wonder then that I should come to view it as an especially sacred place.
Flanking this particular memorial are the graves of Australian and Canadian soldiers who died of their wounds in one of the 30 odd war hospitals established in Manchester during the First World War. The graves themselves are lovingly tended and the immaculate headstones bear the most heart-breaking inscriptions:
Private J Connor MacLeod – 15th BN Australian Infantry – 10 June 1915 Age 21
“Too far away thy grave to see. But not too far to think of thee.”
Private Leonard Ross Smith – 50th BN Canadian Infantry – 2 November 1918 Age 28
“He suffered and died that his brother might live.”
Elsewhere in the cemetery there is another equally poignant memorial to the servicemen who fell in the Second World War (including one of two memorials in the cemetery to the fiercely brave Free Poles), as well as a peaceful garden and monument that commemorates the city’s civilian war dead.
On the eastern side of the cemetery, near Alfred E. Steinthal’s achingly beautiful 1892 crematorium chapel, designed in the Romanesque style and surrounded by a crematorium facility built to look like a Roman villa, the dedicated seeker will find a unique grave. Amid the heartfelt words of love and loss, and the repressive and expressive funereal poetry which abounds on 140 years’ worth of gothic and neo-classical memorials, there is one simple headstone that I shall never forget.
Its pleasingly plain stone is adorned with the following: “In affectionate memory of”… and then nothing; literally nothing. The rest of the stone is both a blank canvas and a fine joke – the most simple yet most memorable of epitaphs, for there is almost nothing to remember. When I first encountered it I thought of enquiring at the Remembrance Lodge by the main gate (well worth a visit by the way) as to the originator of this splendid act of funeral satire, but after a while I thought better of it. It’s strange to think that although I will never know the name of the person who rests beneath that stone I shall certainly never forget them.
It might also seem strange to be proselytising on behalf of a cemetery but I am a firm believer that if you want to know a place, if you want to understand where it’s going, you must first understand its history; you must understand from where it has come. Southern Cemetery is a fine guide when seeking to learn more about Manchester and its people. Yes, the rich and powerful that created Cottonopolis got to build their grand memorials to themselves, but we also refused to allow anyone to build upon the site of the mass grave of the destitute dead from the local workhouses.
To this end, guided tours of the cemetery are available and, in any event, this peaceful, green, tranquil place always makes for an interesting and enlightening walk at any time of the year.
Where: The Lodge, Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester
www.manchester.gov.uk/info/200032/deaths_funerals_and_cemeteries/5099/manchester_cemeteries_and_crematorium/5, Telephone: 0161 227 3205, email: firstname.lastname@example.org