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28 October 2014
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The Victorian way of...death! (2)
Hidden History
Take a trip back in time!

In the second of a series in which Bradford people look back at the district's hidden history Pete Crosier - who works at Bradford College - shows that in that city the dead were not always allowed to lie in peace...

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Undercliffe Cemetery

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FACTS

Undercliffe Cemetery is described by some as possibly the finest collection of Victorian funerary art in the North of England

The cemetery was opened in 1854 by the Bradford Cemetery Company, and many of the rich, famous and notable inhabitants of Bradford have been buried there.

Undercliffe is still in use for burials and is now in the care of the Undercliffe Cemetery Charity, a voluntary group who maintain and promote the site as a valuable educational resource and monument to Bradford’s Victorian Heritage.

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These graves were of course in the out-laying parts of the Cemetery and remain unmarked in the areas of the graveyard that are now collapsing and remain overgrown to discourage the public from venturing too far into the area.

Company Graves were dug and left open until they were filled, with sometimes up to 30 bodies. It did not take long for these graves to become full, disease was widespread among the working classes and they reposed in death as they did in life, in close proximity to their fellow men. It's recorded that in Leeds such graves, containing up to 35 bodies, were no more than twelve feet deep.

Bradford had rapidly industrialized and its population had consequently grown at an alarming rate. In 1801 Bradford had a population of 13,624. By 1821 it stood at 26,309, almost doubling in twenty years. This quickly rose to 42,000 by 1828 continuing onto reach 43,527 in 1831. By 1841 the population stood at 66,715 and continued to rise to stand at 103,778 in 1851.

Mawson's tomb
Architect William Mawson was as well-housed in death as in life
The massive use of parish graveyards meant that the older ones became full, yet everyone still had the right, according to the rules of the Church Of England, to be buried in the churchyard of the parish in which they died. Even suicides were allowed to be buried in the churchyards, but between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight, and without the rites of the Church.

An Act of 1823 had put an end to the practice of burying suicides in some public highway with a stake driven through them. What had once been a small village graveyard was now expected to accommodate the dead from the new towns.

But the problem of overcrowded graveyards wasn't something that started in Victorian times. Saint Cuthbert had first added churchyards to churches in 752 when it was decided to provide consecrated ground in which to bury the dead. In 1267 all churchyards were enclosed thereby limiting their size.

In medieval times graveyards had many heavy demands placed upon them. Death visited the land on a regular basis. Charnel houses were constructed to accommodate the bones of the dead that were removed from the ground to make way for new burials.

The churches themselves became burial grounds with their floors filled with corpses and crypts being constructed under them. By the Stuart period many graveyards were already full or overcrowded. Some were described as "filled up with earth or rather the congestion of dead bodies.. to the very tops of their walls." This is why old graveyards in many places are now above street level and why some churches appear to have been built in a hollow compared to the surrounding churchyard.

The Independent Chapel in Kipping Lane, Thornton had burials under the east end in a vault twelve feet wide. Originally the vault entrance had been above ground level but by 1854 it was some two-and-a-half feet below the ground outside. As early as 1721 the Reverend Thomas Lewis spoke of "the indecent and dangerous custom of burying in churches and churchyards."

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