St James Cemetery, nestling alongside Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, is a little haven of peace and tranquillity away from the urban bustle. But this oasis of calm hides a long history of life and death in the city. From the sixteenth century, the land was used as a stone quarry, providing sandstone for the growing town of Liverpool. By 1825, it had been mined to extinction – with no useful stone left, it formed only an ugly scar on the landscape. However, other parts of city were overcrowded: the cemetery at Low Hill, Everton, for example, was near-full and it was increasingly hard to find space to bury Liverpool’s dead.
The corporation proposed a new cemetery on the site and raised £20,000 by public subscription. John Foster, a Liverpool architect and senior surveyor to the Corporation of Liverpool from 1824-34, was commissioned to design a cemetery in a similar style to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He created a magnificent and dramatic space. Along the east wall, a series of ramps led to 101 catacombs cut into the rock face, while below, winding, tree-lined pathways crossed the burial ground. Looming above, to the north-west, was the Oratory, the cemetery’s chapel where funeral services were held, a Greek-style temple which is still standing today; and a house for the Minister, now long gone.
The cemetery site also featured Liverpool’s only natural running spring, which you can still find along the East wall. This was first discovered by quarrymen in 1773 and it was believed to be especially beneficial to take the waters for “loss of appetite, nervous disorders, lowness of spirit, headaches proceeding from crudities of the stomach, Ricketts and weak eyes.”
Perhaps the most famous burial was that of William Huskisson, the MP we wrote about in October last year, who was the first person to be killed by a passenger train in 1830 during the official opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. But the cemetery housed a mind-boggling 57,773 others. The rich were laid down in catacombs and vaults while the poor were buried in pits, covered only with a thin layer of soil before others were laid down on top of them. Kitty Wilkinson (whose story featured in last week’s blog), John Foster (the architect himself), Robert Cain, founder of Cain’s Brewery in Liverpool and Sir William Brown, the merchant banker who donated the money to build Liverpool Central Library were all buried here, amongst many other notable Liverpool citizens.
The last burial took place in July 1936 and there was little maintenance or security in the years that followed. Unsurprisingly, St James Cemetery degenerated, unloved and unwanted. Only in the late 1960s did the fortunes of the area shift for the better. Plans were laid out for a public garden and the vast majority of gravestones were moved.
The urban park now enjoys Grade I Historic Park status and is used by individuals seeking a quiet moment’s reflection as well as families and community groups. Many clues to the land’s former uses remain and it’s fascinating to wander round and look at the reminders of the thousands of lives that ended here.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.