In the early nineteenth century more and more people were drawn from the countryside to towns and cities and the population boomed. This also included the numbers of people who died. By the early 1850s burials in church graveyards has become so unregulated that the grounds surrounding churches and chapels had become over crowded. The burial of the dead became one of the biggest sanitary issues of the century.
The Government passed the Burial Act in 1852, which required the Board of Health of local authorities across the country to establish purpose-made, landscaped cemeteries. The graveyard adjoining Chowbent Chapel, built in 1721 in Atherton had many burials throughout the eighteenth century (with permission from the Vicar of Leigh) but this dwindled to just a couple per decade in the nineteenth century. Likewise there was almost three thousand burials recorded between the 1720s and 1850s at the burial ground of St. John the Baptist Church. The burials stopped in 1857 when the first cemetery in Atherton was opened.
Following the passing of the Act, plans were drawn up for a cemetery in Atherton in 1855. Other municipal cemeteries were opened in neighbouring towns such as Wigan and Leigh around the same time.The cemetery is located on Leigh Road, a short distance from the town centre on land which once belonged Crab Brow Farm. It was purchased by the Atherton Cemetery Board from Lord Lilford for £400 (over £33,000 in today’s money). The site of the cemetery has been enlarged several times since its foundation.
Atherton cemetery had separate burial plots for different denominations, so ‘conformists’ (Church of England Protestants) would not be buried with ‘non-conformists’ (e.g. Roman Catholics etc). A common feature of Victorian cemeteries is mortuary chapels and a Lodge or gate-house. Fortunately both chapels and the lodge survive at Atherton. They were designed by the architect Thomas D. Barry and built by Mr Ludd of Liverpool.
The cemetery was opened in January 1857 which much celebration. The Bishop of Manchester came to consecrate the grounds and afterwards there was a large luncheon held at the Kings Head, Market Place. The guests included Mr & Mrs Hulton esq., the members of the Cemetery Board, other ministers and local personalities, such as Mary and Sarah Hesketh of Prospect House and James Burton, the industrialist of Tyldesley.
Atherton Cemetery Lodge
The Lodge was built between 1855-57 at the same time the cemetery was developed. It was designed by Barry and built of brick in an English Garden wall style with stone quoins for decoration. It features a steeply pitched slated roof and lancet windows. As well as being a dwelling there was a large room inside where the members of the Cemetery Board could meet.
The design is very ecclesiastical and it could easily be mistaken for a medieval church, which no doubt was Barry’s intentions, to remind the public that this was still a sacred site despite not being a typical church grave yard. In fact the East gable of the house has an iron cross on top of it (visible in the photograph below).
The Lodge was lived in by the cemetery superintendent, who was responsible for the care of the grounds. The local newspapers ran advertisements which outline the duties:
ATHERTON CEMETERY BOARD
WANTED, A MARRIED MAN, competent to keep accounts and to perform the duties of SEXTON, REGISTRAR and SUPERINTENDENT of the Grounds at the Atherton General Cememtery. Residence at the Lodge, rent free – Application, stating age, qualifications, and lowest salary to be made on or before the 29th inst. to the undersigned.
By order of the Board,
G. MARSLAND, Clerk (16th January 1857)
From the 1860s to the late 1870s Richard Hope was cemetery superintendent and lived at the Lodge. He was followed by James Eckersley who worked and lived there with his family. He is recorded in trade directories and census at the Lodge between 1882 and 1898.
The censuses of 1901 lists Charles Brown, aged 49, his wife Sarah Jane and their children; Lizzie, Jane, Harold, Annie, Sarah and Frank at the address, as well as a visitor Noel Thomas. Charles was previously a gardener which would have prepared him to care for the site, which had been enlarged to nine acres in 1888. By 1911 only Charles, Sarah Jane and their youngest son Frank are living at the five roomed Lodge.
The Lodge is still a private dwelling house today, although the care taking of the cemetery is under the responsibility of Wigan Council and no longer the occupiers of the Lodge!
The Mortuary Chapels
The two Mortuary Chapels are the real hidden gems of Atherton cemetery and they are described as “very Hansel and Gretel” by architectural historians Richard Pollard and Nikolaus Pevsner.
There are two Chapels, the conformist chapel with the steeple and the non-conformist Chapel which has a bell tower. They would have been used to store the body and held funeral services. They also would have been a place where family members and friends could offer their final prayers to the deceased, similar to chapels of rest in modern day funeral homes.
The Chapels are built of rock-faced stone and have all the adornments of a Gothic architecture which was so popular in the mid-nineteenth century. Below are some examples of the amazing masonry that is featured on these buildings. It is quite amazing how much time and effort Thomas D. Barry put into his designs and the craftsmen who made them a reality. It is also interesting to notice that the conformist chapel is far more richly decorated than its plainer neighbour.
The Leigh Chronicle from 1860 printed a notice of the cemetery opening times and rules. The cemetery was open Monday – Saturday 8am until sunset and on Sunday’s it was open from 4pm until sunset.
For burials, at least 48 hours notice must be given to the Lodge and three days notice given for vaults or brick lined graves. All interments in consecrated ground were conducted at 4pm in Autumn/Winter and 6pm in Spring/Summer Monday to Saturday and any other arrangement again required prior notice.
Despite all these careful rules and regulations, mishaps still happened. One unfortunate incident at Atherton Cemetery made it into the Manchester newspapers in January 1900. During the burial of a young girl, the grave was too small and the coffin overturned and exposed the deceased’s upper body. Her mother fainted in shock and the funeral was postponed.
Many of Atherton’s most prominent nineteenth century residents are buried at the cemetery, alongside ordinary citizens of the town. Whilst walking around the cemetery I also noticed a few of the graves of people who have been featured in past blog posts. Please click on the pictures below to read more information in the captions.
Despite the importance and the popularity of the cemetery, there was still some older generations who did not appreciate it. Reverend J.J. Wright recalled a conversation he had with a 90 year old woman in his book “The Story of Chowbent Chapel” published in 1921. The elderly lady was on her deathbed and Reverend Wright recorded what she said to him (in her strong Lancashire dialect):
” I know t’owd Chapel-yard is full, but I doan’t like being ta’em to yon simitary! I’d a deed long sin’ if yo’d nobbut promised to bury me i’ th’ owd Chapel-yard. Eh, I could rest theer, I could rest theer!”
(“I know the old Chapel-yard is full, but I don’t like being taken to the cemetery! I would have been dead long since if you had nothing but promised to bury me in the old Chapel-yard. I could rest there, I could rest there!”)
- Richard Pollard and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006) p.138
- John Lunn, –Atherton: A Manorial, Social and Industrial History, (Atherton: Atherton Urban District Council, 1971) p. 177
- J.J. Wright, The Story of Chowbent Chapel, (Manchester: H. Rawson and co., 1921) p.97
- Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 21 April 1855, p.8
- The Leigh Chronicle, 13 December 1856
- The Leigh Chronicle, 17 January 1857
- The Leigh Chronicle, 7 February 1857
- The Leigh Chronicle, 12 May 1860, p.4
- Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 26 January 1900, p.3