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2018.06 Lawnswood Cemetery

The History of Leeds in 53 Acres

Lawnswood cemetery was founded in 1876 – a Victorian wooded 10 acre plot. Much extended, it was taken over by Leeds City Council from the Headingley-cum-Burley Burial Board in 1972. It is now tended by four full-time gardeners helped by the Friends, a volunteer group of enthusiasts, who hold monthly Action Days. The Friends have also accumulated some archival material and have produced a useful single sheet walk leaflet which gives key information and a map with insets: their excellent website is very informative:

We went one better since our guide, local historian and Headingley Rotarian Ann Lightman was once Chair of the Friends and has a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of the history of Lawnswood cemetery, its design and planting, and the biographical detail of many of the often eminent people buried here.

Joined by Ruth and David who had seen the invitation, a small group of Headingley Rotarians followed Ann through William Gay’s bosky woodland into the “new” (c 1940’s) memorial gardens for cremations. From the Cross gardens we turned into the original burial ground behind the chapel. This has Anglicans on the right and non-conformists and others on the left, divided by the main drive. You might expect the more austere protestant sects to have the plainer funerary monuments, but you would be wrong: in death it is wealth that declares itself in ostentatious extravagance and the mill owners, clothing manufacturers and industrialists were predominantly non-conformist. Here we met angels, obelisks, truncated columns, poppies, twining ivy and images of death.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fine tomb of Sam Wilson, cloth manufacturer at Bean Ings Mill, Wellington Street and benefactor of his large art collection to the City. The three elegant ladies at the statue’s base depict Faith, Hope and Benevolence! Two other prominent monuments caught our attention: Ethel Preston (died 1911) the wife of a manufacturing chemist, is depicted standing at her front door. Next to Ethel is a fine bronze of ‘The Sower’ by Arthur Hamo Thorneycroft.

One grave of particular interest was that of Obadiah Nussey (1812-1902), the woollen manufacturer and Mayor of Leeds who was responsible for moving the assizes from York to Leeds, founding the Leeds Exchange  and also persuading the Clothworkers’ Company to set up a school as a base for research and development in the cloth-making industry. As a result they sponsored the creation of a Department of Textile Industries at the Yorkshire College in Leeds, followed in 1885 by a Department of Dyeing and Tinctorial Chemistry. In this lies the origin of The University of Leeds.

Less comfortable viewing was the vandalised section of the Victorian Cemetery and hearing of how the Books of Remembrance had been taken from the open reception building and destroyed this Easter. Passing Into the 1919 extension adjacent to New Adel Lane which contains the War Memorials we walked down one side, noting the graves of Victor Watson, of Monopoly fame and eminent surgeon and medical innovator, Baron Moynihan. His incisive surgical skills combined with a new attention to hygiene in the theatre: the use of gloves made from American rubber and sterilised clothing. Offered a resting place in Westminster Abbey, his family declined in favour of favour of his Leeds home. Passing the chapel and crematorium buildings we heard something of its early achievement and modern problems: as the first in England to use gas (opened 1905), its burners are now in need of replacement and capacity is stretched to accommodate the larger human frames with which it must deal and the sheer number.

Our final stopping place was the grade 11 listed Columbarium, an arcaded edifice designed to pigeonhole the cremated remains of up to 2,000 people. Dedicated in 1934, it has been full for some time. The outside and inside of the arcades and chapel contain memorial slabs. The style is reminiscent of Memorial Court of Clare College, leading to the University Library at Cambridge.

We are extremely grateful to Ann for bringing this historic cemetery to life and for sharing her enthusiastic and sometimes sardonic take on the evidence it provides of the dramatic apotheosis of Leeds as a leading industrial city in the nineteenth century.


15 June 2018


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