Over the years I’ve visited the final resting places of my ancestors in Toxteth Park Cemetery many times. The cemetery which opened in 1856, is a most marvellous place, filled with many thousands of Liverpool’s past residents – here is Liverpool’s real history!
When we first visited the cemetery the old Sefton General Hospital hadn’t long closed and the buildings were still standing – great parts of which formed the old Toxteth Park Workhouse. As was fairly common in the days when the NHS was created many old Workhouse Infirmaries and their ancillary buildings were utilised as hospitals – the same happened with Freedom Fields Hospital in Plymouth.
As can be seen from the photograph below, the old workhouse/hospital buildings have been largely swept away and in their place a large ASDA dominates the site! How things have changed. I wonder if my ancestors were to return to Liverpool today whether they’d recognise the place? Somehow I doubt it – especially where so many changes have been effected in Toxteth – old streets completely demolished and new houses built.
Nevertheless, one building they would recognise, of sorts, is the old Anglican or ‘Established Church’ mortuary chapel located within the cemetery. It’s seen better days (!) and its decline has prompted me to research something of its history; (I half expect to find the building gone each time I visit, due to its dereliction).
The Anglican Chapel, grade II listed, had a sister chapel located on the other side of the cemetery – a Non-Conformist chapel located in the Non-Conformist section. That chapel has gone – so it makes this old Anglican one even more important to protect.
Both chapels were designed (in 1855) by Thomas Denville Barry, architect; the cemetery layout was designed by William Gay of Bradford.
In its Listing [note 1], the chapel is recorded as follows:
The Anglican mortuary chapel (listed grade II) is sited on high ground, embanked to the west, 220m south-south-east of the principal entrance. It is the only one remaining of two mortuary chapels indicated on the OS map of 1893, the other, a Nonconformist chapel, having formerly been sited 210m to the west on a cross axis to the main drive. The stone Anglican chapel with patterned slate roof is in the Decorated Gothic style with a short bell tower to the north-west. The design of 1855-6 is by T D Barry.
Barry was the successful candidate after winning a competition to design the two chapels as well as a lodge and the public gates on Smithdown Road. An advertisement for the competition was published in the Liverpool Mail of 2 December 1854:
Soon after Barry’s winning designs had been selected a ceremony was organised for the laying of the foundation stones for both chapels. This duly took place on the 5th July 1855.
The Liverpool Daily Post of 6th July 1855 reported on the interesting ceremony as follows:
Yesterday afternoon, a large and varied assembly did honour to the occasion of laying the foundation stones of two chapels, in the spacious plot of land recently purchased for a general cemetery, in Smithdown-lane. The day was beautifully fine, and contributed in no small degree to lead all the spectators to appreciate the beauty and suitableness of the site for its objects. As yet, there is little to distinguish it from the surrounding fields, excepting a few indications of the builder’s art and the excavator’s labour. The ground is rather undulating, and, from the depth and richness of the soil, and the running through it of a small brook, it will afford great scope for the taste of the constructors, and those whose melancholy but chastened duty it may be to render sweet tokens of affection and homage to the memories of the dead. A fuller description will be found in the observations of some of the speakers.
About a quarter-past three o’clock, a procession of gentlemen came from the entrance to the ground, up to an excavation, where was placed a large stone, and a block triangle, on which was suspended the other stone, the lowering of which constituted the ceremony. Amongst the gentlemen were Mr. M. Gregson, Mr. T. Smith, Mr. W. Rathbone, Mr. J. B. Yates, Mr. J. Robertson, Mr. H. S. Alpass, the Rev. Rector Campbell, the Rev. Mr. Hampton, the Rev. Mr. Powell, the Rev. Mr. West, the Rev. Mr. Robberds, and the Rev. Mr. Harkus.
On the arrival of the procession at the scene, some of the workmen proceeded to arrange for the reception of the upper stone. A bottle, containing a plan of the proposed chapel, and two newspapers of the day, were first put into a square hole which had been cut into the stone; this was covered over by a copper place, about six inches square, containing the following inscription –
“Toxteth Park General Cemetery. This foundation stone of a chapel for the performance of the burial service according to the rites of the United Churches of England and Ireland, was laid by Matthew Gregson, Esq., July 5, 1855. Burial Board – M. Gregson, Esq., Messrs. Thos. Smith, Rd. Miller, Jos. Harrison, Jos. D. Carter, James Robertson, Horace Seymour Alpass, Wm. H. Ogden, Daniel Craig. Architects – Thos. D. Barry, Esq., and Wm. Gay, Esq. Builder, J. Ladd. Clerk of the Works, Mr. John Hartley.”
The Rev. Mr. Hampton next read a selection of prayers. Mr. H. S. Alpass, in a neat speech, addressing Mr. Gregson, said that he had been requested by the Burial Board to express their unanimous wish that Mr. Gregson should lay the foundation stone of that new cemetery. He concluded by handing to Mr. Gregson a beautiful silver trowel, bearing a suitable inscription.
Mr. Gregson next proceeded to address the assembly on the solemnity of death; and he dwelt on the various awful and affecting associations of a burial ground. Then stepping down, and the stone having been laid on a bed of mortar, he took a neat polished mahogany mallet, and, accompanying the latter part of his sentence with three knocks, he proceeded to repeat “I lay this corner stone of a chapel for the performance of the burial service according to the rites of the United Churches of England and Ireland, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.” He then again addressed the assembly, and afterwards called upon the Rev. Rector Campbell. The reverend rector, amongst other observations, said that he was inclined to ascribe the delay with which the people of this country had entered into the formation of cemeteries outside of towns to a good, a just, and a thoroughly- English feeling, moreover, which sought to have the remains of beloved relatives and friends lying in connection with their places of living worship. He was glad that such feelings were observed, and he regretted that necessity compelled them to encroach on so good a custom. The severing of burial places from places of religious worship might diminish the deep impressions of the sacred and solemn character of death. But so long as they had such cemeteries as that would be, with a consecrated building, he should rejoice in the multiplication of them. After alluding to the vocation of the Christian minister, the rector concluded by saying, in reference to the division for Dissenters, that he did not wish to interfere with the religious worship of any man. Let him worship God according to his own conscience, and he would not say nay. But he might express his wish that the Church of England was the church of the people; and it should be no fault of his if it were not so (applause).
Prayers were again offered by the Rev. Mr. Hampton, and the proceedings upon this division of the ground were concluded.
The gentlemen next moved in procession to the place apportioned of for Dissenters, where a similar form was gone through.
The Rev. Mr. West, Wesleyan Minister, read a portion of Scripture, and prayed.
After the laying of the stone, Mr. Gregson, after expressing his wish to tolerate and conscientious dissent, gave the following history of the proceedings: – He said that, in consequence of recent acts of parliament, a committee of gentlemen was appointed, on behalf of Toxteth Park district, to procure land for a new cemetery, sufficiently large to meet the wants of that great population. The committee was, therefore, much indebted to Lord Sefton for having granted that piece of ground for the purpose. They had got it at the very reasonable rate of £500 per acre, a total of £15,000.
Mr J. B. Yates was called upon to say a few words, which he did, evidently much affected with the solemnity of the occasion.
Mr. Rathbone next addressed the assembly in a brief and laconic manner, in which he eulogised Mr. Gregson.
After some observations from the Rev. Mr. Harkus, the proceedings were brought to a close by the Rev. Mr. West, who, after expressing on behalf of his non-conformist brethren, their thanks to Mr. Gregson for his uniform courtesy, asked the blessing of Heaven upon their labours.
Eleven months later, on 9 June 1856, the cemetery and the Anglican chapel was consecrated by the Lord Bishop of Chester. The Liverpool Daily Post published another full article (10 June 1856) on the proceedings:
Yesterday being the day appointed by, the Lord Bishop of Chester for consecrating the chapel and cemetery belonging to the Burial Board of Toxteth Park, that ceremony was performed with the usages, religious and secular, customarily observed on such occasions. The cemetery itself is a spacious quadrangular piece of ground, thirty acres in extent, situated on the south side of Smithdown Lane, and just exterior to the borough boundary. It is enclosed by a substantial and well-built wall on three sides; the front or side next Smithdown Lane being protected by a handsome iron palisade, broken at intervals by elegant pillars of rustic masonry, and ornamented in the centre by a handsome gateway, with two commodious lodges, one at either side of the gate.
The cemetery is tastefully laid out in level terraces and sloping banks, intersected by broad and winding walks, bordered by flower plots, patches of shrubbery, and rows of trees. Conspicuous among these latter are fine specimens of the weeping elm and weeping ash; graceful birches, fine thorns, mountain ashes, and many varieties of pines, including the silver pine of the Himalayas, and several well-grown araucarias. Among the shrubs there are some beautiful rhododendrons, Irish yews, azaleas, and dwarf pines. The general design of the ground is marked out by well-defined oval walk, which, occupying the centre, is intersected by a broad walk in the line of longitudinal axis, crossed by a narrower one marking the transverse axis of the ellipses. At each of the extreme ends of this transverse walk is a chapel of small dimensions; that on the left or east side, along with the whole of the ground on the same side of the longitudinal centre walk, being devoted to the burials of those connected with the Established Church; while the ground and chapel on the opposite, or west side of the same walk, are appropriated to the funerals of Dissenters.
As already stated the area of this cemetery is thirty acres, which have been converted from their original state into the present ornamental condition of the burying ground at an expense of about £26,000, the sum £15,000 having been paid for the land, and the remainder having been devoted to the enclosing, levelling, laying out, and planting the ground, and building the two chapels and lodges. Of the thirty acres it is estimated that fully eight are occupied as walks and shrubberies, the remaining 22 being set apart for the purpose of sepulchre. Internally and externally, each of the chapels is a counterpart of the other, with the exception that the one belonging to the Established Church has a spire-ette in the north-east angle, formed by the junction of the porch with the main wall of the edifice. Both the chapels are in the Norman ecclesiastic style, of good proportion, and well varied outline; and both are furnished with only a few rows of benches and a reading desk. Internally, the roofs of each are of light open-timber framing of varnished pine – plain, beautiful, and unpretending. Both of these structures, as well as the lodges, have been, erected from designs by T. D. Barry, Esq, architect; and the ground has been laid out in accordance with the plans, and under the supervision of Mr. Gay, of the Bradford Cemetery; the whole of the contracts being executed by Mr. Ladd of Edge Hill.
The ceremony of the consecration had been fixed to commence at eleven o’clock; and, notwithstanding the threatening state of the weather, a large concourse of ladies and gentlemen were present at that hour, within a few minutes of which the Lord Bishop drove up to the gate, where he was received by the contractors, the members of the burial board, the members of the Town Council, and others, who, formed in the following order of procession, moved from the lodge to the chapel:
MEMBERS OF THE TOWN COUNCIL
ARCHITECT AND SURVEYOR
THE BISHOP OF CHESTER
Among the members of the Corporation present were – J. H. Turner, Esq., Deputy-Mayor, in the immediate absence of his Worship the Mayor, Messrs. Gregson, Halhead, Fernihough, &c.
Immediately on having formed, the procession marched to the chapel, where the rites prescribed for the consecration of such and edifice were duly observed and gone through by the bishop; after which the whole cortege, headed by his lordship, perambulated the ground set apart for the interment of those connected with the Established Church, returning again to the chapel, where the prescribed prayers and benediction having been pronounced by the bishop, his lordship, together with some of the leading clergy and the deputy-mayor, signed the deed of consecration, and, as far as they were concerned, the services of the day were at an end.
Opening of the Dissenter’s portion of the cemetery:
In compliance with previous arrangements, a series of devotional exercises took place, commending at one o’clock, in the chapel belonging to the Dissenters. These consisted chiefly of prayers and addresses suitable for such an occasion. The chapel was filled by a highly respectable and attentive audience, which was addressed by the Rev. Mr. Birrell, and the Rev. F. A. West. These services concluded the impressive ceremonial of the day, and at their conclusion the numerous parties who had taken part in them retired.
The above article is helpful in providing a brief description of the interior and exterior of the chapel. It wrongly records the chapel was built in the ‘Norman’ style – it is instead truly Gothic.
On a visit to the cemetery in 2012, I found the chapel wasn’t then quite as heavily boarded-up as it has subsequently been on my later visits. Back then I was able to glimpse the badly vandalised stained glass window in the northern end of the building. Although it was terribly damaged it was possible to appreciate its colours and some of the depictions contained within. Sadly ensuing years has seen further damage to the window although it now appears to be better boarded for protection.
One can only hope that the 162 year old chapel can be restored and preserved in some way before it deteriorates too much further. Clearly the provision of such a chapel was deemed very proper in 1855, especially if the Rev. Rector Campbell’s sentiments are anything to go by. Clearly the then new practice of burying loved ones in a large scale cemetery was a great shift from burying in church and chapel yards and so marked a conscious shift which necessitated their final resting places to be near a consecrated chapel. Since Toxteth Park Cemetery is lucky enough to possess its consecrated Anglican Chapel it deserves better treatment.
Burial practices have certainly changed since the 1850s and the chapel hasn’t now been in use for decades. Nonetheless, these days, considering the rapid growth of interest in family and local history, the chapel lends itself to being restored into a super visitor centre wherein cemetery visitors could learn something on the history of Liverpool and especially of Toxteth and her residents over the years. I for one would be greatly in favour of such an “attraction”.
Despite sometimes being a little too over-sentimental, I cannot help but feel there must be many others who wish to see the old chapel restored. The building has played its part in the family history of many thousands of Liverpudlians and others all over the world. So come on Liverpool City Council! – I shall keep hoping there is a future for the old chapel yet.
Note 1: see the Listing for Toxteth Park Cemetery, including buildings and memorials here: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001611
© Graham Naylor