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24 September 2014

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Local History

The Fanque memorial in St George's field
The Fanque memorial in St George's field

Life and death in Leeds

An important piece of life, and death, in Leeds is to be honoured by Leeds Civic Trust with the city's newest blue plaque.

Now hidden within the campus of the university the Leeds General Cemetery Company's site at St George's field is an important piece of Leeds' Victorian history.

The site was planned because such was the state of Leeds' Parish Church graveyard in the 1830s that heavy rain would wash away the earth and expose pieces of shattered human bone.

The Parish Church graveyard was literally full up and in order for bodies to be placed in family plots the gravediggers would remove previous burials, smash the remains and re-inter them alongside the new coffin.

It was these smashed human remains that would sometimes be uncovered by bad weather. The appalling sight upset the sensibilities of the newly rich middle-classes and led to the formation of the Leeds General Cemetery Company in 1833 and the purchase of the site.

The purchase cost of £11,000 was raised through the sale of shares and a public design competition was held. Burials included many of Leeds’s Victorian elite, the cemetery closed after the last interment in 1978. 

Interviews and pictures of the cemetery:
Images: St George's Field >
audio Secrets of the cemetery Pt. 1 >
audio Secrets of the cemetery Pt. 2 >
Audio and Video links on this page require Realplayer

Britain's first black circus owner Pablo Fanque (real name William Darby) is commemorated in the graveyard. Born in Norwich in 1796, Pablo was a trained horseman and (strange but true) inspired a line in the song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, on the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album.

Tragically the Fanque monument also records the death of his wife Susannah Darby in Leeds, she was crushed by timber and died instantly when a grandstand on the circus ground at King Charles' Croft (off the Headrow) collapsed onto her.

Many of the memorials were removed when Leeds University took over responsibility and landscaped the site.

The plaque on the gatehouse will be unveiled by Dr Julie Rugg, from York University and head of the Cemetery Research Group.

The text of the plaque will read:
Alarmed by the insanitary and overcrowded state of the Parish Church graveyard and body snatching, the Leeds elite bought £25 shares in the Leeds General Cemetery Company. It acquired St George’s Fields and created this fine private cemetery, where many Leeds worthies lie.
Architect: John Clark
Opened 1835.

St George’s Field is situated off Clarendon Road, behind the Henry Price flats (halls of residence) on the Leeds University campus.

last updated: 25/04/06
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