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Houghton Hillside Cemetery: Its Origins and foundation in September 1854

Hillside Cemetery lych gate circa 1912


Take a walk around Houghton-le-Spring’s venerable past and when you come to 1853 you will encounter a dispute that tore our town into two. A great deal of agitation occurred in relation to a proposition from the Rev & Hon John Grey, Houghton’s Rector since 1847. Strongly worded handbills were pasted around the town, angry letters were published in the columns of the local press, and a flurry of public meetings followed.
Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012.
But what had the Rector proposed which caused such controversy?

The churchyard around the ancient church of St Michael & All Angels had been in use for hundreds of years, with the oldest date on a memorial being 1581. Following the arrival of cholera to Sunderland, the churchyard was literally overflowing with bodies and it was not uncommon for the gravediggers to disturb previously used plots. Something had to be done, and, using the power of the new Burial Acts, the Rector proposed that a new churchyard be consecrated on the site of an old quarry at the top of Sunderland Street, with a local tax paying for the enclosure of the churchyard.

Many residents objected to these proposals and a public outcry ensued. One such resident was the Rector’s own Churchwarden, Thomas William Usherwood Robinson! The Rector was branded a ‘double-dyed disgraceful and deceitful priest’, and despite the opposition’s proposal of a municipal cemetery located elsewhere, the Rector and his influential supporters got their way. An order from the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, granted permission for interments and the new churchyard, appeasingly known as the Church Cemetery, was consecrated on the 4th of September, 1854, by the Bishop of Exeter.

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012.

One of the bills from 1853

Rev John Grey
Thomas William Usherwood Robinson
Thomas William Usherwood Robinson
Rev John Grey
TWU Robinson
William Standish
Double-dyed & deceitful?
Cemetery objector
Not a headless phantom

Up until 1892 and the opening of the Durham Road Municipal Cemetery at a cost of £4000 [shown above], Hillside was the only place in Houghton where you could get buried but the site was soon running out of space. Despite requests by the now aged Rector Grey, the Local Board of Health refused to have Durham Road Cemetery consecrated.

The New Cemetery entrance

This particularly riled the old Rector as the municipal cemetery in neighbouring Hetton-le-Hole was consecrated; the Church authorities had no option other than to extend Hillside Cemetery on land to the east. The extension was consecrated by the Bishop of Durham and the first burial took place on 22nd December 1894.

Sir George Elliot - Bart., MP
George Wheatley
General Beckwith
Sir George Elliot, BART., MP
George Wheatley
General Wm Beckwith
Self-made Victorian
Crimean veteran
Beheaded the rioters

Even with the site having such a controversial reputation, many noteworthy denizens from across the district were interred at Hillside:

Vault of William Standish Standish photographed by David Allan

A NOBLE MAN One of the first to be buried in a vault, in July 1856, was noble man William Standish Standish of Cocken Hall, near Finchale Abbey. The origins of Houghton’s phantom headless horseman lie with William’s death, but in actual fact he died at his home from an illness at the age of 49 years. William, who was 18th in a direct descent from King Edward III, was originally known as William Standish Carr, but was granted a Royal Licence in 1841 to change his surname to Standish to fulfil a condition in the will of his cousin, Frank Hall Standish. To make matters even more confusing, William’s son (who is not buried at Hillside) became known as William Standish Carr Standish!

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012.

The Elliot Family Vault

SIR GEORDIE The self-made Sir George Elliot, Bart., MP, died at ten minutes past three on the afternoon of the 23rd of December, 1893, at 19 Portland Place, his London residence. His body was conveyed by train from Kings Cross to the station at Fencehouses, for a service at St Michael’s Church and interment in a large vault at Hillside. Geordie, as he was known, advised Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to invest in the Suez Canal, which resulted in England having control over the shipping route to India. He also gave advice to the Egyptian Khedive, and spent a good while in the land of the Pharaohs. He brought many relics back to Houghton; the mummified Egyptian Princess he acquired inspired his friend, Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, to write the famous mummy horror story, The Jewel of the Seven Stars (this mummy shocked modern day Egyptologists when it turned out to be male). Closer to home, Sir George owned the company which laid the first Atlantic telegraph cable, and in his capacity as MP, arranged for the new tongue of Big Ben in Westminster Clock Tower to be forged in Hopper’s Foundry in Houghton.

Thomas William Usherwood Robinson

THE CEMETERY OBJECTOR One of the most unexpected interments was for Thomas William Usherwood Robinson, the brave Churchwarden who opposed the Hillside Cemetery plans back in 1853. He died at his home, Hardwick Hall, in Sedgefield, on the 25th of August, 1888. The son of the well-known Houghton brewing family, Thomas was influential throughout the town, but sadly died long before the eventual consecration of Durham Road Municipal Cemetery in 1907. His funeral service at Hillside Cemetery was performed by his old nemesis, Rector Grey and I have often remarked how the Rector must have had a glint in his eye, but ever the professional he wrote the following in the Church magazine: Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012.

“I myself have to express my deep thankfulness for many, very many kindnesses shewn (sic) to me by him in connection with Church matters. My heart's prayer on the occasion of his funeral was that God may remember him for good for the many good things he has done for the Church in this Parish. I feel sure there will be much sympathy felt in this place for his widow and children.”

It took several weeks for Sotheby’s to auction off Thomas’s belongings from Hardwick Hall, such was his passion for collecting coins, antiquities, furniture, Stone and Bronze Age artefacts.

The plateau headstones in 1880

There are many more journeys through Hillside’s past that we could take, but we will save them for another occasion. For now, take a walk around Houghton-le-Spring today. Start at the Comrades Club and follow the path behind it up towards the Cut, taking in the distant views of the Durham coalfields. Cross under the A690 dual carriageway, take a left up the steep bank of Sunderland Street and you will arrive at the restored lych gate of Hillside Cemetery. You are invited to venture through the stone archway, past the only remaining brick built World War II air raid shelter left in Houghton, into the secluded haven that is the old Hillside Cemetery.

Copyright © Books of the North 2002 - 2012.


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

Thanks go to David Allan, Douglas Smith, David Wheatley, Dina Salter, Heather Williams, Phil Hall, Rev'd Dr Ian Wallis and all who helped with research into the Old Hillside Cemetery.



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