As the cultural historian CP Lee has observed, Southern Cemetery is the dead centre of Manchester.
It really is vast: stretching over 55 hectares, it’s the largest municipal cemetery in the UK and the second largest in Europe. It’s beautifully maintained and fulfils its role as a peaceful, leafy spot. The downside – as you’ll know if you’ve ever wandered in to try and find the resting-place of a loved one – is that with about three quarters of a million people buried there, you need to know precisely where you’re going. Frankly, you could do with a guide.
That’s where Emma Fox of Manchester Guided Tours comes in. While researching other tours, Fox kept discovering fascinating local stories which ultimately led, as all local stories surely must, to Southern Cemetery. Taking the initiative, she contacted the custodians of the cemetery and found them to be very enthusiastic about the prospect of starting up a regular walking tour. It has to be said that many of world’s biggest cemeteries run such ventures for visitors, and Southern certainly had the potential to support one.
Now, there’s a hurdle here, neatly encapsulated by CP Lee’s nifty quip quoted at the start. It takes a real lightness of touch, the right balance of warmth and sensitivity, to talk about the dead without being too flippant. Graves and tourism don’t necessarily fit together easily. Thankfully Fox does a sterling job, telling many fine stories about late, great Mancunians, all of which are engaging and celebratory but never maudlin, over-earnest and, needless to say, even remotely disrespectful.
Fox’s walking tour spells out exactly how and why Southern Cemetery came into being in 1879, with Manchester then in its Cottonopolis pomp, playing host to a massive influx of mill workers. Up to that point local burials had a reputation for being neither dignified nor particularly hygienic, but this new development was conceived as a vastly improved solution.
Over a couple of hours, Fox deploys nimble, well-informed, finely-detailed storytelling, and a pleasingly infectious enthusiasm while leading visitors around a cross-section of notable graves. She covers Trafford’s Sir John Alcock (of the aviation duo Alcock and Brown) who took the first, hazardous uninterrupted flight across the Atlantic in June 1919, accompanied only by sandwiches and two black cat mascots. But they made it, all the way from Newfoundland to Connemara and into the history books. Alcock’s memorial even features stone propellers, though they’ve not all lasted intact over the past century.
There’s the huge, elaborate tomb of Victorian textile millionaire John Rylands and his wife Enriqueta, whose public generosity brought us the magnificent John Rylands Library. Nearby we find the last resting place of Mr Rylands’ contemporary Daniel Adamson, the successful engineer who kick-started the Manchester Ship Canal and the consequent industrial boom from a meeting at his Didsbury home.
One of the most celebrated figures buried here – right next to his parents – is Salford’s L.S. Lowry. Rather sweetly, a previous visitor has come armed with chalk and drawn a discreet little matchstick man on the side of Lowry’s gravestone.
Football fans are well served with respectful visits paid to the graves of local legend and much-loved Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby as well as Billy Meredith, reputedly the world’s first celebrity footballer, and even John Henry Davies, the wealthy local brewer who first bankrolled and christened Man Utd after a chance meeting with a lost dog in 1902.
There’s something of a theme here, namely that Victorian philanthropy is one of the cornerstones of modern Manchester. Another fine 19th Century story is that of pioneering policeman Jerome Caminada, who rose from the Deansgate slums to become Manchester’s first CID inspector. According to some, his talent for cracking remarkable cases mark him out as a real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. At the other end of the scale there’s the late Tony Wilson, who died in 2007 and whose highly polished granite gravestone, designed by Factory Records‘ own Peter Saville, salutes him as a ‘broadcaster’ and ‘cultural catalyst’. The dedication, chosen by his family, is from from Mrs G Linnaeus Banks‘s 1876 novel The Manchester Man. It reads thus: ‘Mutability is the epitaph of worlds/ Change alone is changeless/ People drop out of the history of a life as of a land though their work or their influence remains.’ Wilson, it can be argued, is one of the architects of modern-day Manchester.
Many other, less familiar lives are remembered along the way, from those interred by public burial – the so-called ‘pauper’s graves’ – and the remains rehoused from what was Withington Workhouse, before it was redeveloped as a hospital. There are memorials to those lost in both World Wars, particular in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1915–16, and to those who perished in the Dan-Air disaster in Tenerife in April 1980. It’s not all uplifting – nor should it be – but it is never less than fascinating, and it’s delivered with a very natural sympathy.
It emerges that roughly 75 per cent of Mancunians now choose cremation rather than burial, and this figure is increasing all the time. Coupled with practical issues of space, this might mean that, one distant day, the life-span of Southern Cemetery will reach its end. But it’s still a way off and, for now, tours like this tell a sort of alternative history of Manchester and its environs. It’s not only the facts themselves which are absorbing, but also the curious connections between them (the slums in which Jerome Caminada grew up, for instance, were in the exact same neighbourhood that became home to John Rylands Library).
It’s not remotely the final word on Southern Cemetery – at this size, how could it be? – but Fox manages to cherry-pick some extraordinary tales, and alludes to many more. There’s even talk of expanding the project to cover a whole range of specialist subjects in the future if this goes well. So if you have an interest in local history but you’ve been wary of spending your leisure time peering at graves, relax: this is expertly done and you’re in safe hands. And yes, you may well find that your new-found sense of the cemetery’s sprawling geography is useful on future private visits.
By Andy Murray
Main image by Alfred Searls
Where: Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester
When: Next tour is July 12, 2015 at 10:30am
More info: www.manchesterguidedtours.com
To read Alfred Searls’ article on Southern Cemetery, click here