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Houghton Hillside Cemetery: A Time Line of its history

Hillside Cemetery entrance, early 1900s

This time line was first compiled by Paul Lanagan in early 2004 following many years of tireless research. It has been updated to include recent happenings at the Cemetery.

An unauthorised, plagiarised version of this Time Line exists online, however it is scattered with grammatically incorrect addendums, which cannot be relied upon. Such plagiarism belittles the fact that many of the facts in this Time Line were only discovered when Paul Lanagan was researching other avenues of Houghton's heritage.

Please enjoy this accurate and thorough version.

1581 - The earliest inscription on a headstone (mostly all buried) at St Michael's Churchyard dates from circa 1581. Over 8572 burials took place in the churchyard between 1793 and October 1853, which works out at three burials per week. It was officially closed for burials at the Court at Buckingham Palace by the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty in Council on August 11th 1854.

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

1815 - Construction work was carried out at the Houghton Cut opening during the Napoleonic Wars (some claim by Prisoners of War though Paul Lanagan has not been able to corroborate this yet).

Rev & Hon John Grey, MD, DD, rector of Houghton-le-Spring 1847 - 1895

1847 - Rev John Grey, nephew of Earl Grey, became rector of Houghton-le-Spring.

1852 - In response to the health risk that overcrowded churchyards posed, the Burial Acts of 1852 and 1853 enabled local authorities to administer their own cemeteries. Parish vestries elected Burial Boards to manage them.

One of the bills from 1853

1853 - Outbreak of cholera in Sunderland and surrounding districts and announcement of the cemetery proposals. This was the cause of much controversy between Rector Grey and his parishioners. They didn't like the idea of being buried at the "quarry hole" and were outraged at his suggestion of a local tax to pay for the walling of the ground; however many of the residents ended up being buried there, including many well-known Houghtonians.

This Time Line should not be copied without permission.

One of Rector Grey's responses to the Cemetery objections

1854 - August 11th - An order was passed at the Privy Council, Buckingham Palace, for the discontinuance of burials at St Michael & All Angels' churchyard, Houghton-le-Spring.

1854 - Monday September 4th - Consecration of the burial ground, near Houghton Cut, by the Bishop of Exeter after an order from the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston. The first burials took place on September 19th 1854.

1856 - July 10th - It was believed for many years that while riding on the moors above the cemetery, William Standish Standish of Cocken Hall fell over the cliff with his horse; he was buried in a vault in the rock face, in the same spot where he allegedly fell. His ghost is said to haunt the graveyard and re-enact the fatal fall. Sadly Mr Standish Standish's vault has been vandalised many times over the years. Recent research suggests that it is more likely that Mr Standish Standish died at Cocken Hall from an illness as does the inscription on the vault.

1862 - October - The Elliot family applied for a vault at the Hillside Cemetery.

1862 - A new entrance to the burial ground was constructed (the original passed through the neighbouring Houghton Hill Farm which was then owned by the Church). A lych gate was built and a garden area installed. In October 1862, it was reported that:
"Cemetery Improvements.—A beautiful arch has just been completed at the entrance of the cemetery of Houghton-le-Spring, Durham. The design, which is by Mr. Butterfield, of London, consists of a detached massive buttress, supported, ribbed arch, surmounted by a neat Latin cross, and flanked on each side by a low pallisaded "ogee" wall, which is finished by a suitable stone pillar. The stone is from the Usworth quarry, and the stone work has been done by Mr. Brookes, of Houghton. The pallisading is ornamental and characteristic, and is by Mr. Walker, of Newcastle, and the oak gates by Mr. Henry, of Durham. The whole work is being done at the expense of G. Elliott [sic], Esq."

The erection of the lych gate coincides with the time that Sir George's young daughter, Elizabeth, was interred at Hillside Cemetery. Copyright © Books of the North 2004

1871 - February 23rd - General William Beckwith of Silksworth and Trimdon, Colonel of the 14th Hussars, died and was interred at the Hillside Cemetery.

Sir George Elliot's vault at Hillside Cemetery

1877 - June 3rd - Priscilla Maria Beckwith, a founder of the Catholic community in Silksworth, died and was interred in the family tomb.

1881 - William Reid (60 years old), the Parish Sexton, his wife Mary (59) and daughter Mary Jane (24, schoolteacher), were living in the Cemetery Lodge. The sixty year old Sexton and his wife originated in Ireland. Mary was buried at Hillside on June 20th 1886.

1882 - William Shanks, a famous amateur mathematician, died aged 70 years and was buried at Hillside Cemetery on June 17th 1882. Find out more about him by clicking HERE.

Thomas William Usherwood Robinson

1888 - August 28th- Thomas William Usherwood Robinson was the son of a well-known Houghton brewer and was connected with the excavation of the 'Seven Sisters' Neolithic barrow at Copt Hill in 1877. In 1853 he was a Churchwarden at St Michael’s Church and he was against the Cemetery proposals, however he was laid to rest at the Hillside Cemetery on August 28 1888.

Houghton-le-Spring Cemetery, Durham Road

1891 - Plans for a new municipal Cemetery on Durham Road were revealed by Houghton le Spring Local Board of Health. Petitions for a section to be consecrated were submitted however these were declined despite the municipal Cemetery at neighbouring Hetton-le-Hole having a consecrated section.

1892 - March 1st - The 'new cemetery' opened on Durham Road at a cost of £4000,and this municipal cemetery is still currently in use. In 1892, Houghton le Spring Local Board of Health applied to the Secretary of State for an Order to close the Hillside Cemetery.

Sir George Elliot's vault at Hillside Cemetery

1893 - February 23rd - Henry Fenwick MP for Houghton-le-Spring raised the question of Houghton Hillside Cemetery in Parliament, by asking the following question:

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been called to the fact that, owing to the crowded state of the old cemetery at Houghton-le-Spring, it is impossible to carry out the proper burying regulations; and whether he will send a Government Inspector to report on the same, with a view to ordering it to be closed, seeing that a new cemetery has been provided out of the rates at a request made by the parish vestry in 1889? Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

The Secretary of State, Herbert Asquith, replied:Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

My attention had not been called to this case before the question of my hon. Friend was put; but I will cause all proper inquiries to be made, and if I find it is necessary, I will send a Government Inspector down in order that he may make a full Report.

On July 25th, the issue was revisited by Houghton's MP, Henry Fenwick:

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has received the Report of the Inspector sent down to inquire into the state of the Houghton-le-Spring old burial ground; and what steps he intends to take in the matter?

The Secretary of State reponded with:

I have received the Inspector's Report, which states that he, in company with several members of the Local Board, the Medical Officer of Health, and a number of parishioners, inspected the burial ground. The rector was represented by two of his curates and the sexton. He reports that the cemetery stands in an open situation outside the town and is two acres in area, and the soil is dry and not unsuitable, and that there is still space for fresh interments in virgin soil, and from the evidence which he obtained he is satisfied that the water supply to the town is not affected, and he can see no sanitary reason for closing it; but he further reports that the Regulations under which it was placed by Lord Palmerston have not been carefully obeyed with respect principally to the laying out of the ground and the size of the grave spaces; consequently, I have given instructions that the Church authorities should be directed to observe the amended Regulations, a copy of which has been forwarded to them. Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

A letter was issued from the Secretary of State informing the Churchwardens of St Michael's that the Regulations laid down by Lord Palmerston in 1854 for the Hillside Cemetery had not been observed with regard to the laying out of the ground and the size of the grave spaces.

1893 - December 23rd - Sir George Elliot, Bart., M.P. died and was interred in a vault at the Hillside Cemetery.

The overcrowded plateau section of Houghton Hillside Cemetery

1894 - The refusal from the Local Board of Health to have a section of the Durham Road Cemetery consecrated, and the fact that the Hillside Cemetery was almost full, led for calls for the burial ground to be extended. The extension took place after permission was granted from the Bishop of Durham and the Home Office. The first burial in the extension took place on December 22 and was for Martha Storey. The site deeds reveal that the burial ground had seven trustees, including Rector Grey and Avery Norman Robinson.

This Time Line should not be copied without permission.

1895 - November 14th - The funeral of Rector John Grey took place at the Hillside Cemetery. It is said locally that whilst on his deathbed at the Rectory, he could hear the men blasting rock in preparation for his grave. A trade directory from this time records George Brown, Sexton, as living at the Church Cemetery, Sunderland Street. The burial registers suggest that George had a 5 year old son called William, who died in August 1894 and was buried in the Cemetery. Copyright © Books of the North 2004

1897 - August 4th - Joseph Bland Pearson, an auctioneer from Nesham Place, was killed in horrific circumstances and was buried shortly afterwards at Hillside Cemetery. Joseph had fallen from a train on his way to Fencehouses from Sunderland. Find out more about him by clicking HERE.

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

Edwin Place at the Hillside Cemetery

1903 - The burial registers record Margaret Place (27 years old), residence: Cemetery Lodge, as being buried on November 9th 1903. Edwin Place was Sexton until the 1920s and resided in the Lodge. At this time, nanny goats were used to keep the grass down.

Crimean veteran, George Wheatley

1906 - Crimean War veteran, George Wheatley, died on December 11th 1906. Copyright © Books of the North 2004

1907 - A section in the Durham Road municipal Cemetery was finally consecrated.

The memorial for Avery Norman Robinson, d 1926

1926 - August 26th - The last of the Hillside Cemetery trustees, Avery Norman Robinson, died and was interred at the Hillside Cemetery. Mr GH Stevens, Solicitor and Church Street resident, became manager. His present day granddaughter, Virginia Gatherer, was one of the founding members of Friends of Houghton Hillside Cemetery in 2003.

1936 - 1938 - Reconstruction of the Houghton Cut opening.

1930s - 1940s - J. W. (Bill) Scott, caretaker and gravedigger, lived in the Lodge with his wife. He was a drinker – but never in pubs – and his wife made homebrew in the Lodge cellar. One day a shelf collapsed and she cut her hands and knees on the glass. She subsequently caught blood poisoning and died!

This Time Line should not be copied without permission.

1940 - July - During World War II, high explosive bombs were dropped on the Houghton Cut/Hillside area of Houghton-le-Spring.

1942 - February - The then Sexton-Caretaker resigned due to ill health and the site was passed to the Urban District Council for the duration of World War II. A Council workman became a tenant of the Lodge.

1950 - Following years of 'discussions' between the Urban District Council and St Michael's Church over the official responsibility of the Hillside Cemetery, the caretaker (a Council employee) vacated the Lodge and the 1942 agreement was terminated. Gordon English lived in the Lodge at this time but apparently wasn’t connected to the Cemetery. The last occupants were Mr & Mrs Green and their son and daughter.Copyright © Books of the North 2004

1961 - February 11th - One of the few sets of ashes to be interred at the burial ground were those of John Morgan Forster on February 11th 1961.

War graves at Hillside Cemetery

1962 - circa - Owing to the bad state that the Hillside Cemetery was in, three Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstones were removed from the site. Four new ones were erected at Durham Road Cemetery as alternative commemorations. Copyright © Books of the North 2004

1970 - Reconstruction of the Houghton Cut opening for the A690 dual carriageway.

1971 - July 13th - The most recent date on a headstone currently held on record is that of Mary Jane Wanless. (Another funeral did take place several years afterwards although it was not registered in the set of burial records/grave registers).

The headstones just before they were bulldozed

1973 - September 4 - On the 119th anniversary since the burial ground was consecrated, the Diocese of Durham Advisory Committee gave approval to the removal of kerbs, headstones and memorials from the Hillside Cemetery. The plateau area was completely cleared; local man Alan Hilman and a colleague were hired by the Urban District Council, and the headstones were buried in a large crater.

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

Hillside Cemetery plateau in 1973

2002 - October - The Standish vault was vandalised, revealing gruesome acts of desecration inside.

This Time Line should not be copied without permission.

Vault of William Standish Standish photographed by David Allan

2003 - March 29th - Paul Lanagan started work on recording the remaining headstone inscriptions at the cemetery. For name lists click HERE.

2003 - April 5th - The Standish vault was vandalised and desecrated by children no older than 10 years old. The tomb was resealed with reinforced metal sheets shortly afterwards.

Paul Lanagan documenting headstones in 2004

2003 - May 11th - The 100th name was added to the database after the 86th inscription was recorded.

2003 - July 22nd - Plans were put in motion for the formation of 'The Friends of the Hillside Cemetery' group, with an aim of having a positive affect on the condition and use of the Hillside Cemetery.

2003 - September 4th - The 149th anniversary since the burial ground was consecrated was marked by the official announcement that proposals were afoot to restore and preserve the Hillside Cemetery through the creation of a 'Friends of...' group.

2003 - October - A photograph display and historical talk by Paul Lanagan preceded a public consultation on the future of the burial ground.

2003 - December 3rd - The inaugural annual general meeting of the Friends of Houghton Hillside Cemetery took place. A committee was formed and a constitution was adopted.

This Time Line should not be copied without permission.

2004 - Wednesday July 28th 2004 - Official notice of the application for the discontinuance of burials at the Hillside Cemetery appeared in the local press.

The first Hillside Cemetery open day

2004 - Saturday August 7th 2004 - An Open Day was held to commemorate the burial ground's 150th anniversary and over 150 people were in attendance.

2004 - October - The renowned writer, photographer and broadcaster Lucinda Lambton became patron of the Friends group.

2005 - February 23rd - A man who vanished from his home was found lying dead in the snow-covered Hillside Cemetery on Wednesday February 23 2005. The man was reported missing from his home in Penshaw a few days before. His body was discovered by a lady walking her dog. At the time of the discovery a member of the Friends of Houghton Hillside Cemetery was in the burial ground with an architect, discussing the lych gate restoration.

2005 - March 22nd - The Hillside Cemetery was officially closed for burials in non-existing graves.

Restoring the lych gate

2006 - The Friends restored the lych gate archway. Work started on August 8th 2006 and was completed on August 22nd 2007.

A femur bone belonging to William Standish Standish. Photo by the Sunderland Echo.

2007 - In the last week of December, the vault of William Standish Standish was desecrated again, the last time being in April 2003. Shown above is a member of the Friends of Houghton Hillside Cemetery holds one of William's bones (Picture: Sunderland Echo).
Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

William's coffin during the reinterment

2008 - Thanks to help from Churchwarden David Turnbull and Associate Priest Rev Derek Newton, the Standish vault was cleansed, William's bones were reinterred on Wednesday January 9th 2008. The vault was sealed securely. Shown above is the repaired coffin

2008 - March - The Friends proposed to demolish the brick built WWII air raid shelter in the Cemetery's entrance passage. Paul Lanagan subsequently resigned from the Friends.

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

The vandalised lych gate in February 2009

2009 - February - The Cemetery was severely vandalised: the re-erected headstones were toppled and cracked, the lych gate was graffitied and the crucifix on top was snapped.The following names made up the graffiti:

Ant. Tubz. Huzzy. Miller. Stu H.

Do you recognise these names?

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

Some of the recovered headstones in August 2010

2010 - August - The cross on the lych gate, which was damaged more than a year previously, was eventually removed for repair. In the same week, a large area on the plateau section of the Cemetery was excavted by volunteers from a local youth group and many of the bulldozed headstones were recovered.Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

2012 - The cross on the lych gate, which was damaged in February 2009 and removed in August 2010, was finally replaced in March 2012. On Good Friday, April 6th 2012, Houghton Hillside Cemetery was the setting for the Parish Church's 10th annual Passion Play. Rev James Menzies, assistant curate of Hetton Lyons, took on the role of Jesus while the Rector, Canon Sue Pinnington MBE, narrated over a loudspeaker, with music provided by local musicians. A large crowd was in attendance, following regional and national news coverage. Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012

The Passion Play at Houghton Hillside Cemetery, Good Friday April 6th 2012


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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