Burial ground for all sects

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

St Mary’s Anglicans had been privileged to extend their graveyards around the parish church no fewer than three times between 1779 and 1809, but by the 1850s even they were running out of burial plots. For Scarborough’s many Nonconformists the situation was more critical: the small areas held by the Quakers, Baptists, Wesleyans and Independents had long since become so overcrowded that many of them had reluctantly buried their dead in the precinct of St Mary’s where only Anglican services were permitted.

However, in 1852, Parliament finally responded to a national crisis by allowing cities and larger towns to establish municipal cemeteries, open to all denominations on equal terms. Accordingly, three years later, under the terms of the Burials Acts, Scarborough set up its own Burial Board. In 1856 the Corporation bought 13 acres three roods and 30 perches of grassland, formerly known as Chapman’s pasture, from John Bell, owner of the Queen Hotel in North Marine Road, for £3,000.

As the first Ordnance Survey of Scarborough, published in 1852, clearly shows, Chapman’s pasture was then far from any occupied properties. What are now the upper end of Dean Road and lower Columbus Ravine were then merely footpaths. Indeed the whole length of what 40 years later was to become Columbus Ravine was no more than the bed of a stream called Raincliff spring. From Castle Road, Wrea Lane then ran northwards between brick works and beyond Penny Black Lane (Trafalgar Street West) before it ended abruptly where St Columba’s church now stands. Against the advantage of being an entirely green-field site in open country, Scarborough’s first municipal cemetery was remote, inaccessible and located on a steep slope. To reach it by horse-drawn hearse and carriage it was necessary to lay a new “Cemetery Road” 30 feet wide and the Corporation had to level out much of the lower grounds. At least there was natural drainage down to Raincliff spring.

Practical problems, however, were of small concern compared with ill-tempered religious rivalries. Local press reports in the old Gazette and the new Mercury convey some of the intense sectarian jealousies that still existed in Scarborough.

On Monday, November 12, 1855, a “turbulent” meeting, which began in St Mary’s vestry, ran over into the adjacent graveyard and ended “in an uproarious condition” in the Town Hall, failed to agree on the membership of Scarborough’s Burial Board. The Rev Benjamin Evans, leader of Ebenezer’s Baptists in Longwestgate, objected strongly to the nine men of the proposed Board, mainly, it seems, because he had been left out!

The Board was to be chaired by the Rev John William Whiteside, St Mary’s vicar, and included two Dissenter pastors, Robert Balgarnie and John Walker, but the other six were Anglican laymen. In his objection, Evans implied that the nine had been picked during his temporary absence from the town and as an amendment he proposed that the new Board should consist entirely of laymen.

When Evans’ amendment was put to Scarborough’s male ratepayers in an unprecedented poll, the result was 626 in favour and 388 against, a blow to Whiteside and the town’s Anglican establishment.

Misquoting Genesis 49, 27 and unable to conceal his triumph as well as his Biblical literacy, Benjamin Evans sent the following verse to the editor of the Mercury who published it on December 7, 1855:

Unhappy Town, when fierce sectarians rave,

In godless tumult o’er the peaceful grave;

And sad the victory when it can be said,

That wolves and Baptists howl around the dead.

The result, after much further contention, was that Dean Road cemetery, as it came to be called, was divided fairly equally between Anglicans and the rest. In July 1857, two quite separate consecration ceremonies took place. One was conducted by the archbishop of York, which began in Christ Church and ended in the cemetery’s Anglican chapel; the other, that same evening, led by the Revs Evans and Backhouse, who represented the Independents, was held in their own mortuary chapel next door. It had been agreed that the lower half of the graveyard was to be used entirely for Anglican dead and the upper allotted to all the remaining denominations. Three roods of unconsecrated land were reserved for Roman Catholics!

The two areas were separated and segregated by a wide common avenue running from the entrance gates to the two mortuary chapels which were built on either side of an archway supporting bell tower and spire. Even the entrance was flanked by two lodges, though only the same bell rang for both chapels.

The Rev Whiteside wanted a wall or railings to divide dead Anglicans from all the others, but had to be content with one continuous brick wall surmounted by coping stones and iron railings enclosing the whole cemetery,

Francis Prince, aged 52, formerly publican of the Ship Inn at Falsgrave, was the first interment in Scarborough’s new municipal cemetery on May 11, 1857. Today, you will find his grave in Section E, 30/24. If he had any particular Christian beliefs they are not recorded.

The last word belongs to Theakston’s comment in his Guide of 1858. He recommended a visit to the cemetery to residents and visitors alike: they would surely take “pleasure” in “its neatly-kept walks and well-trimmed beds, the beauty of its situation, and the extent of view around, rendering it an additional adornment to the town and neighbourhood”.

More than 155 years later, after decades of deliberate vandalism and shameful neglect, serious, respectful and commendable effort is at last being made to restore this former beauty to Dean Road cemetery.