Photographs by the author. Formatting and perspective correction by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
General view of cemetery with chapel in background.
History of the Cemetery
The York Public Cemetery Company was formed in 1836 with the object of providing burial space for citizens of any denomination outside the city walls but at a convenient distance (see Murray 1-14). The graveyards of the city’s medieval churches were literally full to bursting, and even the burial grounds used by the Nonconformists were within the walls and of limited extent. The York Public Cemetery was a public company and paid a dividend, following the lead of, for example, the Liverpool Necropolis founded in 1825 (Murray 7). The major building was the Chapel of 1837, by one of the most active members of the cemetery company, the architect James Pigott Pritchett, who was also responsible for the original lay-out (see Pevsner and Neave 180). The cemetery is located on Cemetery Road, York, YO10 5AJ.
The cholera epidemic of 1832 had helped to make the insanitary and indecent state of affairs in the city obvious to the City Council and other persons of influence. In preparation for the expected arrival of the highly infectious and deadly cholera, it had been necessary for the city authorities to think about and organise isolated accommodation for the sick, safe disposal of their waste, and fresh ground for burials – ground never to be reused, unlike the churchyards. There were 185 deaths between June and October 1832, and the bodies were buried in a new ground now seen between York railway station and the city wall (Murray 3-4).
Left: The cholera burial ground formed just outside the city wall in 1832. Right: The area used for burials in York Cemetery in the cholera epidemic of 1849.
The York Cemetery was functioning when cholera returned in 1849, and 147 of the 155 who died then were buried in thirty public graves in an unused area behind the chapel, between it and the then southern boundary; the mass graves would not have been unexpected as they were an emergency health measure. It was also a regular condition of the cheapest burials: a poor or public grave could be as much as 19 feet deep, and it would remain open several weeks to take a maximum number of dead. The maximum was quoted as five bodies per grave in 1848, but this was an overall average and in practice the cheapest graves held many more than that, partly due to the high infant mortality rate (Murray 28-30). Those who bought private grave spaces for their family also reused the same plot, as monumental inscriptions show. The practice of mass graves economised on land, provided the undisturbed rest which sentiment required, and was an improvement on the earlier situation in the city. The cheapest burials were at cost price, and a special hearse was provided for the convenience of the poor who lived at a distance: this perhaps was the combined mourning coach and hearse designed by J. R. Croft of Bayswater in 1837 (Murray 24-25).
Left: The present layout of York Cemetery, with the Victorian areas on the left. Right: The first gravestone, for Charlotte Hall (died 1837). It had sunk into the ground to the level where the colour changes.
The area occupied by the cemetery increased piecemeal over the years, but it is the northern half of the present cemetery which dates from the Victorian period (Murray, successive plans, 31, 39, 47). The initial area was divided in half, with the western part near Cemetery Road being for Nonconformists, and the inner part consecrated by the archbishop for Anglicans. Winding paths were laid out, and trees, including many exotics, planted; for a while some spare ground was let as an orchard. The first burials took place in 1837. The cemetery, open free to all, became a place of recreation for citizens: this was in contrast to, for example, Museum Gardens in town which were reserved for the members of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.
Links to related material
- Close-up of information plaque in the 1832 cholera burial ground>
- Plaque and Memorial to John Snow [who discovered the cause of the disease], York
- Cemetery buildings (chapel and lodge)
- Boundaries (gates, railings and walls)
- Selected monuments
- Later history
Ellerby, William, and James Piggott Pritchett. Manuscript , and introduced by Edward Royle. A History of the Nonconformist churches of York. Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, 1993.
Murray, Hugh. This Garden of Death: The History of York Cemetery 1837-2007. York: Friends of York Cemetery, 2008.
Pevsner, Nikolaus, and David Neave. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
Created 15 March 2022