• George Stamets

A Visit to St George's Fields (formerly Woodhouse Cemetery) at the University of Leeds

It's one of the most beautiful locations throughout the University of Leeds campus - and for many students one of its most unexplored and mysterious.

St George’s Fields is a 9.3 acre green space on campus, just across Clarendon Road from the city's much larger (64 acre) Woodhouse Moor (the latter known colloquially as "Hyde Park", derived from the name of the student-heavy neighborhood just west of campus). Whereas Woodhouse Moor is well-frequented by students and local residents, surprisingly few seem aware of the existence of St George’s Fields – perhaps in part because it is hidden on all four sides behind campus buildings. (It must at least be familiar to undergraduates living in the university’s large Henry Price Residences building on Clarendon Road, which forms one main boundary of the space.)

Since beginning my PhD in late 2016, I've been to St George’s Fields only a handful of times - always intending to visit more frequently, maybe with a book or paper from my ever-growing reading list. It’s a beautiful and typically very quiet space – a haven of tranquility in the middle of an otherwise bustling campus, and not far from the two main buildings where I spend my time on-campus.

Over the past six weeks of COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve brought a camera along on several walks around the largely deserted campus (see my earlier post), including a pair of early morning stops at St George’s Fields. After the first of these, it occurred to me that I knew almost nothing about the history of the space. Although it’s plainly a part of the university's grounds, there is a chapel in the middle of the site, and a number of monuments and gravestones – many dating to the 19th century – scattered throughout. If there are graves accompanying each of the headstones, a reasonable guess would put the number at a few dozen total. Whose remains are these, and how did they come to be located here?

The truth, I learned, is staggering: more than 95,000 interments have taken place at the site, which opened as a public, non-denominational cemetery in 1835 and was known as "Woodhouse Cemetery" (or sometimes "Leeds General Cemetery") until its closure in 1969. And despite appearances, these graves remain in place - the great majority with headstones either removed or covered over by grass.

A university webpage here describes the site’s history as follows:

"In the 1930s it was becoming clear that the cemetery site was running out of space and that the enterprise would cease to be viable. By the end of the Second World War, the cemetery had become rather overgrown and neglected. As early as 1922 the University of Leeds had considered acquisition of the cemetery; by that time its buildings surrounded the site. It wasn't until 1956 and after some controversy that the University eventually acquired the company by buying up all the shares, then converting it to a private limited company.

The University subsequently obtained powers under the provisions of the University of Leeds Act (1965) to landscape the site. This was private legislation which empowered the University to create a public open space by the removal of headstones and other memorials; and prevented further interments after October 1965. In accordance with the 1965 Act, the University contacted all known owners of burial plots prior to landscaping and supplied documents enabling them to request compensation for the loss of their burial rights and plot. Before the landscaping began, a complete photographic record of the gravestone inscriptions was made by the University Bursar, Edmund Williams, and copies of photographs could be sent to plot owners if requested.

The Company went into voluntary liquidation in October 1967. From March-November 1968, contractors removed headstones and memorials (some were collected by the City Museum, some retained and others covered over). The area was then grassed-over and landscaped. The existing Chapel was designated of special architectural and historical interest in 1963 and remained in place. The Leeds General Cemetery contains the graves of 105 casualties of both the First and Second World Wars; a memorial to these individuals is situated at Lawnswood Cemetery.

Burials eventually ceased in October 1969, but the site continued to be used for the scattering of cremations. Since the opening of the cemetery in 1835 a total of over 95,000 interments had taken place. In the autumn of 1969 the area was re-opened to the public under the name of St George's Fields, the original name of the site before it became a cemetery."

A photograph on a related university webpage here gives an idea what the space looked like in December 1962, several years before the university began removing or covering headstones. A few others can be found at the Leodis website maintained by the Leeds Library & Information Service.

I do not want to make any judgments in this short post about the ethics of 're-using' (modifying, etc.) graves and burial sites for other purposes, including green spaces intended for quiet relaxation. It’s a difficult matter involving a range of pragmatic and especially ethical considerations, both to the deceased and to their living descendants. (If you’re interested, one good entry into the debate might be this 2017 paper from researchers at the University of York, which draws a conclusion in favor of grave site re-use under certain conditions.) But a quick Google search of the phrase "Woodhouse Cemetery" points to several recent articles (here and here) providing further background and, importantly, describing the hurt experienced by some descendants as a result of the university’s actions beginning in the 1960s. I encourage reading those short articles.

For its part, the university now maintains a website offering extensive information about the history of the cemetery, including online burial registers and other resources. There are also small signs at each entrance (see photo above) requesting that visitors respect the history of the space - namely, by using it for "quiet enjoyment and rest" - and prohibiting ball games, which are of course a common sight just across the road at Woodhouse Moor. In the second of the articles linked in the preceding paragraph, a university spokesperson is quoted as saying that the university also "brief[s] students in the nearby accommodation about respecting the space and mak[ing] them aware of its history".

But because it seems plausible that a fair number of university students - and staff and local residents besides - only stumble upon St George’s Fields by accident, perhaps this is not quite enough. It’s very easy to walk into the site without noticing the small signs designating it as a place for "quiet enjoyment and rest" – and hence easy enough to bring a football or frisbee, or worse, believing the garden is just a smaller version of the large park across the road, at least aside from a few scattered monuments and headstones. Unfortunately, those with family buried here report that such activities are not uncommon.

One reasonable suggestion might be larger signs at each entrance featuring a photograph (such as that linked above) showing the site before the majority of headstones were removed or covered over; this would provide a clear understanding of the site's history as a large cemetery. Another could be a stronger effort to make information about that history more forthcoming across a variety of university webpages. (For instance, the university’s “Green Spaces” page under the “Around Campus” section of its website currently describes St George’s Fields simply as “a great place to relax and unwind” – not exactly helping to distinguish it from the nearby Woodhouse Moor. The "Prayer, Contemplation and Faith-Based Support" page directed at students does a little better, describing St George's Fields as a "cemetery site" which is "an important piece of Leeds's Victorian history" and "a peaceful green space to visit".)

If you get a chance, do visit St George’s Fields, enjoying the peacefulness of the site while taking care to appreciate its status as a resting place for a great many.

* Special thanks are owed to members of the “Friends of Woodhouse Cemetery” group on Facebook, who provided helpful information and links. Many members of the group have loved ones buried at the site, and some are able to visit regularly.

All of the above photos plus more from St George’s Fields (Woodhouse Cemetery) can be seen in high-resolution in an album on Flickr.

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