Philip Larkin on his walk with John Betjeman through the disused Hull General Cemetery, (1964) declared it to be a natural cathedral. Over the years, it declined into an overgrown fly-tipping and drug abuse centre.
Enter a group of local residents in 2015. In the beginning they litter picked and disposed of the used syringes, but upon request, and with the support of local councillors, Hull City Council came to the rescue and now supplies litter bins, collects rubbish bags filled by the volunteers, and clears fly-tipped material. The City Council is responsible for disused cemeteries and recognises the vital work of the volunteers in keeping the area safe for users. In times of stressed finances, local community groups are a godsend, and the fact that residents do the work makes litter bugs think twice. It is more effective than litter picking by council workers, which would be seen as part of local services. It has worked! Over the years, the litter problem has dwindled from a disaster to an inconvenience.
And then this loose group of volunteers formed themselves into a name – Friends of Hull General Cemetery, with a mission statement.
‘For the benefit of all and in remembrance and respect, to maintain and to preserve Hull General Cemetery as a place of historical importance and natural beauty.’
This means the site is part of a designated conservation area and several monuments are listed including the gate designed by Cuthbert Brodrick. Furthermore, the cemetery has become a city wildlife site, enhanced by tree planting with help of the Woodland Trust. This also involves preservation of existing stock and so contributes to Hull’s outcomes for the membership of the Tree Cities Of The World network.
The Friends are a subcommittee of Hull Civic Society and have been caring for the Cemetery for the last 5 years in partnership with the landlord, Hull City Council. Their activities are documented and friends and supporters from all over the world communicate via a private Facebook page – Friends of Hull General Cemetery. Last count there were 1100 members, two of whom have produced sell-out publications. Other members stun the city with wildlife photos of birds, plants and butterflies and they have begun to archive quality photographs of wildlife and vegetation.
This work can be accessed via their website, which is updated with newsletters and articles.
Around 10 core volunteers maintain the cemetery and improve diversity to attract wildlife. They are the front line in the battle against fly tipping and alert Hull City Council. They also meet homelessness and drug abusers and involve support organisations such as Emmaus
But it isn’t only about maintenance. Research has become a major part of the activities. In addition to the 100 hours/week volunteers spend in the Cemetery, they put in a further 30 hours on research and admin etc. Apart from publications they are cataloguing the burials via a database in Access with an attached Excel index. This lists 1000 headstones with ca 4000 family names. It also contains images, which are cross referenced. Inclusion of details of Monumental Inscriptions are a pressing need before the headstones decay beyond recognition. And there are some remarkable burials there that need to be preserved.
Hull History Centre and the East Yorkshire Family History Society have stated how valuable a resource this is, and further work will include the burial registers being digitalised. Details of the 50,000 burials can be used for medical and social history research.
The Friends are not on their own. Apart from Hull City Council, they liaise with and receive advice from relevant national organisations and networks such as Caring for God’s Acre, Wildlife Trust, English Heritage, and National Federation of Cemetery Friends.
The common aim of caring for this unique site has created new levels of cooperation and trust amongst residents, organisations, and systems, which is of much wider community benefit. During lockdown, local people have documented how work within the cemetery and recreational use of the area, has protected against mental health problems. One volunteer attributes his success at quitting substance abuse to the work within the cemetery and the comradeship provided by the Friends. This is documented on the Facebook site demonstrating how involvement with the Cemetery and its care has positively impacted people’s physical and mental wellbeing. This of course translates into real economic benefit (see Community Social Capital).
One way to access the work of the Friends is to take part in guided tours during Heritage Open Days.
Over the last few months, a counter initiative has established itself, also made up from residents. They wish the cemetery to remain untouched. This is a point of view, but untouched will quickly revert to neglect and the loss of the resource. No one wants to see fly tipping and needles, which are a hazard to local children, dog walkers and parents using the newly laid-out paths as access to the local Thoresby Primary School.
This work by the Friends, is an exemplary grassroots initiative, which should inspire communities on an international scale – a remarkable symbiosis of ideas and talents.
Eva La Pensée – former employee of Hull City Council, historian and secretary of Friends of Hull General Cemetery and executive member of Beverley & District Civic Society.