History for Sale

Rag and Bone Man

Rag and Bone Man

History for Sale 

Bill Hartley salvages some buried heritage

A community may lose its sense of place and cohesion for various reasons. Economic decline or changes to the built environment are two of the most obvious. Sometimes though it can be brought about by the destruction of history: physical symbols that should connect people to their past.

In West Yorkshire there is a former mill town in what was once known as the Heavy Woollen District. This was far from being the quality end of wool textiles production since the town specialised in shoddy; the recovery of waste cloth which could be stripped and then rewoven. People old enough to remember the Rag and Bone man will have witnessed the first stage in the process of creating cloth made this way.

This business at the bottom of the wool textiles hierarchy helped the town to expand during the nineteenth century leaving former farm buildings marooned among houses built for textiles workers. Inevitably there was a coal mine, spilling its waste down a slope which created a barrier to further expansion. Then in the early 1880s came a peculiar twist in an otherwise standard tale of Victorian industrial expansion. Despite the best efforts of the colliery to wreck local drainage a mineral spring was discovered and bizarrely an entrepreneur decided this would be the ideal location for a spa.

Unsurprisingly New Harrogate was a failure. It would have been difficult for those taking the waters to avert their gaze from a colliery rapidly gobbling up the remaining farm land for waste disposal. Plus shoddy is the only raw material in weaving which stinks and lots of it was stored close by courtesy of the Victorian Rag and Bone men.

Weaving and coal mining attracted religious non conformism and it was this not the eventual disappearance of the two local trades, which delivered a blow to the community. The county is still littered with large structures which remind us of the size of the congregations these places used to attract and the Baptist church opened in the 1870s was no exception. Next to it a school was built to serve the growing population and so two of the focal points for an industrial community were established. Eventually the school moved to new premises but the Baptist church remained, becoming harder to maintain as the congregation shrank.

The Baptists were on the lookout for smaller and more convenient premises which eventually they found. The old church stood empty for a while until the demolition men moved in. Such buildings are rich in what is called architectural salvage: dressed sandstone, aged brick and of course well seasoned pews polished by generations of worshippers. Bits of it are probably in barn conversions and the like all over the county. A shrewd operator can negotiate a decent deal with the demolition people in exchange for all this salvage and several businesses in West Yorkshire operate to this day on what came out of such buildings.

Baptist Chapel

There was a problem though before the Baptists could finally shut up shop: the churchyard next door. It started to be filled during the high water mark of Victoria’s reign when there was the most money to be made from shoddy and coal. This was reflected in the size and grandeur of some funerary monuments. Lofty obelisks topped by huge urns, box tombs of quasi medieval design and crosses made from silvery granite rather than the local gritstone. Crowded in among these were the family plots with large oblong tombstones designed to be filled by the epitaphs of future generations. And making up the numbers so to speak were the humbler memorials of the other ranks, not just the elderly deceased but victims of industrial accidents and those sad records of infant mortality.

The story came to an end in the 1970s when the last interments were made. Recently enough one might think to ensure the churchyard retained its link with the living. Today however it is gone. Even more strangely the site is covered by housing; dull ‘executive’ designs, monuments in their own way to the last building boom before the crash.

The question is how can a churchyard still in use so recently be obliterated? Under the Disused Burial Grounds Act (1884) which was amended in 1981 it is a requirement that notices be displayed where human remains have been buried in the last fifty years, so that relatives of the deceased may object to any change of use. Interestingly the chief ally in getting round this requirement seems to have been our old friend Health & Safety. The church authorities whilst declaring that no-one ever visited the place (vehemently denied by local people) decided that the churchyard needed to be ‘made safe’ in case one of those massive Victorian monuments might suddenly topple over onto a non existent visitor. However they went further and images are to be found on the internet showing how even modest markers were levelled and smashed. It is a pitiful sight which under different circumstances would have been described as vandalism. What it achieved was the elimination of markers; focal points for the relatives of the deceased, so it was hard to say with certainty where a grave was actually situated. In effect those with an emotional link to the churchyard were defeated at the outset. Without posting a notice of intent the law could be it seems be broken and relatives of the deceased presented with a fait accompli. Articles in the local press told poignant stories of grandparent’s whose graves had now gone, local worthies including a former mayor and even war graves, markers commemorating those who had made it home only to die from wounds.

Following a sale to developers the final act was presumably to clear the remains which could then be disposed of like agricultural waste. A church with a mission to look after the spiritual and moral welfare of local people took this dishonest approach to removing an inconvenience and with it the history of a community.

The story ends with a final horrible irony. Destroy a churchyard and the boundaries go too. The developers were less than thorough and missed a bit. According to another report in the local press there are still 43 bodies down there, with houses and gardens on top.

WILLIAM HARTLEY writes from Yorkshire

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