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the history of Hanley Cemetery

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Historian Fred Hughes writes....   

The words of the poet W. H. Auden, “Death is like the roll of distant thunder at a picnic,” carries immense aura among the forests of granite in Hanley Cemetery. Yet, in such lovely surroundings, Auden’s words speak more for life than of death. The picnic fragrance of freshly cut grass and the pungency of a distant wood fire are more appropriate to the living than the departed. Here, along the gentle slopes wedged between the Cauldon and the Trent and Mersey Canals, I meet companions Pat Simm and Gillian Carter.

“It’s one of the pleasures of my day,” says Shelton resident Pat age 67. “It’s easy to say I come here to visit my husband’s grave. But it’s more than that. There’s a peace about this place that gives me great pleasure.”

While Pat and Gillian, from Hartshill, sit beside clusters of poplar and alder, Pat’s old Labrador Molly stretches lazily on the grass completing the idyll. “It’s the tranquillity here, and the pleasant pastures that lead to the canal side. It’s like an oasis in the heart of the city where everything stops,” Gillian agrees.

It was in the 1850’s that a number of prominent inhabitants proposed that the newly-formed Hanley Borough Council should provide a public park for its citizens.

“And they couldn’t have picked a better place,” says historian Steve Birks. “The location for the park was to be on land belonging to the Shelton Hall Estate built in 1782 by the Chatterley brothers. Shelton Hall’s spacious gardens would make an ideal pleasure ground looking across the valley to Hartshill and Wolstanton.”

But some inhabitants had other ideas, one of whom was John Ridgway.

“Interestingly Ridgway, an important pottery employer, opposed the suggestion of a park arguing that a public cemetery was a more urgent facility,” Steve continues. “When Hanley became a borough in 1857 Ridgway was its first mayor. He had to make the decision – Pleasure Park or Morbid Graveyard. Ingeniously he managed to combine the two. The cemetery was opened in 1860 and Hanley Park was deferred until 1897 eventually built on the other side of Stoke Road.”

The Staffordshire Advertiser covered the opening on a glorious May Day in 1860 reporting that a 2000-strong crowd cheered Ridgway and the Bishop of Lichfield’s arrival at the new, Regency-styled, Cemetery Road where the consecration of the chapels was made.

The chapels at Hanley cemetery
The chapels at Hanley cemetery

“The chapels building really is something special,” says Steve. “Each one is actually a separate entity connected by three open archways. The centre was designed for carriages with pedestrian access through two side arches. The whole is made from shaded sandstone with a central tower surmounted by a spire. And the floors are paved throughout with Minton encaustic tiles. There’s no doubt that Hanley’s cemetery chapels are architecturally the most impressive in Stoke on Trent, but I fear they’re being allowed to go to rack and ruin. Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Fenton cemetery chapel was demolished in 2001; Burslem chapel is about to be demolished. And even though Longton and Hanley chapels are listed buildings and protected from summary demolition, I’m afraid the condition is being allowed to deteriorate fast.” 

In front of the chapels is the prominent monument of the first town clerk of Hanley Edward Challinor. Nearby are the family graves of the Huntbach’s, pioneering department store owners. And all around are memorials to the Hanley Victorians who made the town great – Pidduck, Goodson, Mayer – each with a street named after them. The famous Shirley family, and the Twyford’s; the Dudson’s and ‘Honest’ Sam Clowes, the first working potter to become a Member of Parliament. And many more, so many that I seek out Shelton resident Don Maddocks to guide me.

"she being the first person buried in this cemetery"
the grave memorial of Sarah Toft
- in the Roman Catholic area of the cemetery-
"she being the first person buried in this cemetery"

“There had already been a couple of burials before the official opening,” says Don, age 83. “The first was Sarah Toft of Hanley who died April 25th 1860. The memorial actually says she was first person to be buried here.”

Don leads me through a maze of gravestones with expert familiarity.

Gravestone of Timothy Trow

In grateful memory / of
Timothy Trow / Aged 21 years / Tram Conductor
who lost his life by drowning
in an heroic attempt to save / that of a child
at Boothen Stoke-on-Trent
April 13th 1894

“You know about the memorial to Timothy Trow, the young man who died saving a child from the canal at Stoke? Well here’s his family grave,” he indicates. “The plain granite cross has been pushed over for safety reasons by council officials,” he says. An outrage, I respond silently.

bronze plaque to the memory of John Livesley
who died in the American Civil War

CIVIL WAR/ OCT 12 1838 OCT 23 1867

And then we’re off in search of other icons – a curious rusting cast iron memorial to the Hawley family; a bronze plaque to Private John Livesley, a soldier in the New York Cavalry during the American Civil War. Two brothers age 17 and 18 killed in the Sneyd Pit disaster on New Years’ Day 1942. Closer to the canal are the memorials to Madame Reymond and her protégé John Cope, founder and conductor of the North Staffs Symphony Orchestra respectively.

“Can you see what’s happened here,” cries Don. “Someone’s pushed this memorial over and probably made it more unsafe than before. Why the council can’t preserve all this history instead of allowing the memorials to deteriorate is beyond me.”

I nod in agreement.


more on Hanley Cemetery


2 October 2008

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