Manchester Tours: the rich and famous of Southern Cemetery

Desmond Bullen

Graveyard tours are all the rage; we take a roll-call of Southern Cemetery’s famous interments.

Inevitably, The Smiths will be brandished. How could they not? Their celebration in song of its hallowed ground is firmly entwined with its history. But Manchester’s Southern Cemetery is more than a former rendezvous for the callow Morrissey and Howard Devoto; that is only one cotton thread in the warp and weft of the tales that are told in its stones.

And it is high time Southern Cemetery’s tale was told. Père Lachaise in Paris and Highgate Cemetery attract pilgrims of varying sensibility, whilst Kensal Green has long thrown open its gates to those enthralled by its ivy-covered history, but Chorlton’s Southern Cemetery has been curiously unsung.

Until now, that is. Fittingly, it is a local lass (and Manchester Guided Tours leader), Emma Fox, who has been afforded the opportunity to narrate the stories engraved in its monuments, tales of two cities over as many centuries, and the lives that shaped them. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, a veteran of other walking tours, she is passionate about affording the graveyard – and its inhabitants – the respect that is rightly their due.

“Controversial in its day, its crematorium was set up under the slogan Save the Land for the Living”

The cemetery itself was founded in 1879, and remains even now the largest municipal burial ground in dear old Blighty. In the spirit of Manchester’s forward-thinking Victorian forefathers (and mothers), it includes the nation’s second ever crematorium; a controversial establishment in its day, and one owing much to the campaigning of the Manchester Cremation Society, who argued for the economic morality of the practice – at a time when dwellings for the working classes were often crowded and unhygienic – under the memorable slogan, “save the land for the living”.

Of course, many of those aforementioned forefathers are buried within the cemetery gates themselves, amongst them, John Rylands – the textiles millionaire and philanthropist whose wife bequeathed the library which bears his name to the city. His tomb – and hers, too, since her ashes were committed there – were once thought “the grandest” amidst its avenues.

This is the language that the headstones speak, while the biographies of its inhabitants tell too its social history. John Alcock’s presence testifies to the precarious early days of aviation; co-pilot on the first non-stop Atlantic flight, he was to die at an air show. Manchester’s footballing heritage is well represented. Sir Matt Busby, who endured both tragedy and triumph as the manager of Manchester United, is honoured here, as too is Billy Meredith, the toothpick-chewing Welsh talent who turned out for both Manchester football clubs.

There are others, too, who you can imagine being interred nowhere else. L.S. Lowry, of course, but also Salford-born Anthony H. Wilson, whose influence on his adopted city is as easy to lampoon as it is to underestimate. Indeed, his stone is the cemetery in miniature. An epitaph quotes from a 19th-century novel (aptly enough, The Manchester Man), whilst the monument itself, designed by Peter Saville and Ben Kelly and erected three years late, evokes the spirit of late 20th-century Factory Records, when everything seemed possible, and – in pop cultural terms, at least – it was the country beyond Manchester that seemed provincial.

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