Paul and Shabina and I took the second years on the Digital Victorians module to the Cemetery on Friday. This was the first session I had designed for students and the idea was to introduce them to the Death and the Victorians whilst also illustrating the potential of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). I’ll start with a few words about the cemetery itself, and then talk about the task I set them.
Edgerton Cemetery opened in 1855 but this followed a protracted dispute over both its layout and how it was funded. The need for a new cemetery in Huddersfield was widely recognized at the time. The problem was that something like 38,000 people had been interred within 2 acres of land at the parish church in the eight hundred years or so of occupation on that site. This was considered this to be insanitary and was causing issues when digging new graves. Similar problems were becoming apparent across the country in the nineteenth century, with increasing population and attendant concerns for sanitation leading to the opening of a series of municipal cemeteries, including the so-called magnificent seven cemeteries in London.
Although the need for a new cemetery in Huddersfield was agreed, the problem for the dissenters of the town was how it should be funded. It was recounted at a noisy public meeting in 1852 that the Vicar had, after procuring a plot of land at some point in the 1840s, sought to raise the money for a new cemetery for the Anglicans of the town through public subscription. After this failed, he had then attempted to levy a church rate on all the rate-payers of the town, which included dissenters. Incensed at the thought of having to pay for cemetery they couldn’t use, this rate was defeated by a vote in December of 1847 and the issue of finding a new burial ground was left to Huddersfield’s Improvement Commissioners to solve.
By early 1852 the Commissioners had submitted a Bill to Parliament. But this Bill found even less favour than the church rate with the dissenters as it would entail the closure of their burial places and still represent a charge of £10,000 on the rate-payers. Their response was to petition against the Bill. However, the Bill was passed, and after some further wrangling about the design and placement of the chapels, the cemetery was opened in 1855.
Our trip to the cemetery was designed not only introduce the students to the issues surrounding death in the nineteenth century, but to explore these issues through technology. Geographical Information Systems are widely used in databases connected with planning and development. They allow information to be represented spatially so that the effects of planning applications can be assessed. This might be to allow the user to asses the effect of a new development on the setting on a listed building, for instance. For this session, I was inspired by the development of a Burial Ground Management System by Atlantic Geomatics, which uses an unmanned aerial vehicle to take images of a churchyard in order to create a 3D model of the site, onto which information about the graves can be recorded. At Edgerton, the Huddersfield & District Family History Society has created an index and photographed many of the graves, which is currently being verified, but is available to view at the Root Cellar in Meltham. A less extensive index is here.
Making a 3D model of the cemetery is slightly beyond my capabilities but I wanted to introduce the students to the possibilities of GIS even if it was just the tip of the iceberg, so I decided to geolocate a number of graves in the cemetery of eminent Huddersfieldonians of the nineteenth century. To do this, I set about looking for reports of funerals held at Edgerton Cemetery in nineteenth century newspapers. I found a lot of reports and I was then able to locate about twenty or so of their graves in the course of a few short trips to the cemetery. I then used a geocaching app on my phone to record the grid-references of the graves. The limitations of the app meant that the sites couldn’t be located with pinpoint accuracy, but they did indicate their general vicinity. The plan was then for the graves to be mapped using a grid reference finder and for the students to look for the graves using a map app on a mobile phone. Once they had found them they were to take a picture of the gravestone. Once back at the university, they would use the nineteenth century newspapers to research an obituary for one of the deceased. I also decided to locate a time capsule at another grid reference for the students to find. This contained newspaper articles about the cemetery, some chocolate coins, and the lyrics to the national anthem, based on a time capsule discovered in Bolton in 2010.
On the day itself I gave a short introduction to the cemetery and set the students off to find the graves. In practice, the lack of accuracy of the grid references made the graves difficult to find, that and my not having explained to the students that I had mixed up the list of references, so that they didn’t correlate with the name on the same line of the page. The idea of this was to make it so the time capsule, which was placed in front of the memorial to Joseph Brook, was less easy to find. This should have been clearer in the instructions! My initial plan had been to put plastic flowers on the graves they were looking for, but I discounted this for because of time constraints. Inevitably, the task was a little too difficult and some students gave up in favour of worrying about a pigeon that had become trapped by an open window in the gatehouse of the cemetery which appears now to be derelict. The time capsule was eventually found however and the students that found it took a special interest in the chocolate coins found within.
Perhaps based on how it turned out, the exercise was not strictly a success, but it was enjoyable to put together and I hope the students benefited from this introduction to the Death and the Victorians and are keen to explore further the uses of GIS. I certainly enjoyed researching the subject and exploring Edgerton Cemetery itself. I probably read a bit more than was necessary, and perhaps I’ll write up a lit review for a future blog post.
James Stevens Curl (1972), The Victorian Celebration of Death, Newton Abbot: David and Charles
David Griffiths (2013), Joseph Brook of Greenhead ‘Father of the Town’, Huddersfield: Huddersfield Local History Society ( Discussion of the Cemetery pp37-39 &52-56)
Pat Jalland (1996), Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford: O.U.P
Julie-Marie Strange (2005), Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain 1870-1914, Cambridge University Press
‘Huddersfield Church Rate Meeting’ The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Saturday, December 18, 1847
‘The Local Chronicle’ The Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser (West Yorkshire, England), Thursday, November 30, 1850
‘The Huddersfield Cemetery Scheme’ The Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser (West Yorkshire, England), Saturday, April 24, 1852
Edgerton Cemetery, Huddersfield © Tim Green via Flickr
Photo of me doing something weird with my face © Paul Ward