Encountering the Dead in All Saints Park

Encountering Corpses III Exhibition

Encountering the Dead in All Saints Park

December 2017



Helen Darby

Research Impact and Public Engagement Manager, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Manchester Met

Encountering Corpses Exhibition curator

Most people who have spent some time around the Manchester Met campus have seen the four markers at the park entrances, or have heard rumours to the effect that this was once a graveyard. However, it has been a great surprise for our team to discover the sheer mass of deceased humanity that still reside amongst picnicking students, hurried workers and (every summer) naked people on bicycles. With the help of Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage and the Manchester Central Library Archives+ team we have discovered burial records for over 16,000 people. Crosschecking against Manchester City Council records shows that the remains have not been moved. So we know with some certainty that here, as with other sites in Manchester such as Angel Meadows and the recent excavation at Cross Street Chapel in the city centre, the dead of Manchester past are not very far away.

In light of these discoveries, we have put together some responses, in the hope that new generations of park users and passers-by might think a little about the forebears under their feet. We have collected here some writing that talks about the history of the park, and also about the wider matters of memorialisation and encountering the dead.

Within the park itself we have arranged two installations, a visual installation which references 500 of the people named in the burial records and a sound installation that serves to bring the listeners consciousness into the physical space of the park, prompting a time of reflection and consideration of our neighbours under the earth.

We hope very much that engaging with this work will provoke new ways of seeing our little park within the University, exposing more layers of its history and bringing forth discussion about what is means to live in a city so steeped in histories of all kinds.

As well as the art installations we have also engaged with scientific investigations in the form of radar scanning, which we hope will show up some of the structural aspects of the covered-over burial ground.

This is just the start of our investigations and we have only just scraped the surface. We hope to return during Manchester Histories Festival 2018 with more historical information, more scientific data and more art. Your own responses to this project are also very welcome via our Twitter account @EncounterManMet


Encountering Corpses

Professor Craig Young, Professor of Human Geography, Manchester Met

Encountering Corpses Project Lead

The Encountering Corpses project is concerned with the many ways in which we increasingly encounter the material remains of the dead in a variety of contexts in contemporary society.

“We” (perhaps more so in Western societies) tend to think of the dead, once buried or dispersed, as static and immobile and separated from life. And yet corpses are increasingly the focus of contemporary social interest, are increasingly represented in diverse ways in different media, and are often surprisingly mobile.

Encountering Corpses thus focuses on the ways that corpses perform diverse roles as material subjects and agents embedded in wider networks composed of human and non-human, material and immaterial actors. Dead bodies often form parts of complex assemblages of sites of burial and disposal, artefacts associated with burial sites or forms of remembrance, memories, ceremonies, and rituals (both personal and everyday and led by the nation-state and spectacular).

Throughout this there is also a concern with the ethics of talking about and representing the dead. There must be respect for the dead as individuals and as loved ones. Encountering Corpses invites us to reflect on our own encounters, experiences, emotions and reactions to this increased presence of the dead body in contemporary society.


All Saints Park 1890 (Image courtesy of Manchester Libraries and Archives)

History of All Saints Burial Ground

Michala Hulme, Lecturer in History, Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage, Manchester Met

At the start of the Nineteenth-Century the population of Manchester stood at 76,788, by 1831 it had more than doubled to 187,022. This population increase was brought by industrialisation, which saw labourers leave their villages and flock to the towns to seek employment. Manchester transformed from a moderate sized market town into the industrial heart of Britain.

As the population rose dramatically, so did the number of people dying. By the middle of the century, the crude death rate for Manchester was 33 per thousand, which was above the national average at 22 per thousand. The town’s mortality rate exceeded that of London, but was less than its neighbour Liverpool.

To cope with the high mortality rates, several new places to inter the dead opened across the town; This included graveyards, burial grounds attached to churches and three large joint-stock cemeteries.

All Saints Burial Ground officially opened on Wednesday 19 April 1820. Its aim was to cater for the parishioners of All Saints – an area just off Oxford Road. The burial ground – which was attached to the new All Saints Church – was funded by the Rev. Charles Burton. The total cost of the church and burial ground was £16,000.

The first interment was that of twenty-one-year-old Fanny Knowles, who lived on London Road. Her funeral was conducted by the founder himself, Charles Burton. It would be another month before the next interment took place. In the first year burials were slow with only 55 interments, however, by 1851 the number had increased to over 600 per annum.

The number of interments had started to rise rapidly in the 1840s and by 1850s the burial ground, like many other places of burial in Manchester, had become a real concern to the local residents, who were worried that waste matter from the freshly buried corpses was seeping into the water supply and contaminating those living in the town. This was not just a Manchester problem. Industrial towns throughout England were running out of burial space and were having to inter corpses in overcrowded and unsanitary places of burial. This led to several government backed reports into a perceived ‘burial crisis’. The government’s solution was to introduce a series of Burial Acts throughout the 1850s. They resulted in the appointment of burial boards, which could use money from the rates to establish public cemeteries. The Burial Acts also permitted the closing down of local burial grounds and churchyards, and the promotion of municipal cemeteries as a preferred method to bury the dead


All Saints Park 1910 (Image courtesy of Manchester Libraries and Archives)

On 31 March 1856, All Saints Burial Ground was partly closed under direction of the new Burial Acts. No new graves were allowed to be dug and only interments in private graves and vaults that already been purchased were permitted. However, the part closure of All Saints did not satisfy the local residents, who complained to the Manchester Guardian that graves were remaining open for weeks, thus damaging the health of those that lived in the Oxford Road area. One resident called himself ‘one who objects to being poisoned’.

The 1850s was not a good decade for All Saints Church and its adjoining burial ground. In 1856 the burial ground was closed and six years prior to that the church burnt down. Such was the severity of the fire, seven fire engines were called and the damage was estimated at £6,000. This led to a drop in burials until the church was rebuilt.

By the end of the Nineteenth-Century, the burial ground was in a state of disrepair and neglect with sunken graves, broken headstones, flooding and debris from Oxford Road scattered across the ground. However, it was not until 1910 that a solution to the problem was offered to the Parks and Cemetery Committee at Manchester Council. The idea was to turn the burial ground into a public park by removing the headstones and grassing over the graves. As public space was limited in the area, it was felt that a beautiful public garden would be a better tribute to the departed. Such projects had already been a success in other cities such as Liverpool. However, it would take another 25 years for this idea to be put into practice. Finally, on 27 May 1935, the All Saints playground officially opened. It was described as one of the ‘brightest places in Manchester, with 30,000 children enjoying the park in the first six weeks’.

During the Blitz of 1940, All Saints church was badly damaged by enemy bombardment and was later demolished. The church bell, that had hung in the church since 1820, was saved from the debris and shipped to Noranda, Canada, where it was hung in another church also called All Saints. By the 1980s, the children’s playground had been removed and the site was now just serving as a public garden. In the 1990s, Manchester Metropolitan University took over the lease of the grounds from Manchester City Council and installed the majority of the current landscaping. Over 16,000 remains, including that of Fanny Knowles, still remain buried under the garden.


Memory, Mourning and a Bodiless Death Culture

Dr Sam Edwards, Director, Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage, Manchester Met

Amongst the many contributions made by the twentieth century to the fund of human knowledge and experience was a final and profound reckoning with the fragility and impermanence of the body. For millennia, the body – its veneration, internment, disposal, resurrection – had been central to the processes and practices of ritual, memory and mourning. And then came war; bloody, brutal, industrial, ‘total’ war. In the aftermath of the carnage wrought on the Western Front during the ‘war to end all wars’ this fact forced the creation of a new commemorative grammar, and a new commemorative architecture.

In cities, towns and villages throughout the Empire the absent dead were brought home via structures that mourned their passing. Some would be eternalized as ever-vigilant sentinels; some as warrior youth headed for battle; and some as sainted soldiers whose sacrifice had redeemed the sins of the living. Regardless of the specifics of form and style, many of these designs implicitly sought to restore – visually – the body of those obliterated or disappeared. Bodies broken by industrialized combat were resurrected in stone and statuary.

Even where such corporeal resurrection was not quite so explicit, it remained implied or assumed. See, for example, the other popularly employed symbolism of post-1918 memorials: the Cross. See too, the central place of names in post-war commemorative culture: these were signifiers with intensified meaning precisely because the signified – the body – was no more. In a bodiless death culture, names were both substitute and substance. The horrors of the Second World War only accentuated this fact: in the age of air war and the atom, death was not just absence, but bodily disappearance.

There is an echo of this disrupting and distressing fact here at All Saints. For in the autumn of 1940, twentieth century total war came to Oxford Road, and to Grosvenor Park. The Church, which once stood here, built in 1820, is itself now disappeared; beneath the grass, meanwhile, lie the bodily remains of those who departed before the Somme, before Dresden, before Auschwitz, before Hiroshima.


All Saints Park 1910 (Image courtesy of Manchester Libraries and Archives)

Reawaken with the Dead of Grosvenor Square.

A new immersive site-specific soundscape set in Grosvenor Square.

By artist Debbie Sharp. http://debbie-sharp.com

Within your own tomb, you awake amongst their sleeping souls.

This immersive soundscape will place you deep within the landscape of All Saints Park, taking you on a personal journey where you will feel the presence of the 16000 bodies that were laid to rest in Grosvenor Square.

Made using live sound recordings on location at forgotten cemeteries and studio binaural recordings with death objects, movement and voice.

This work explores the traces of the forgotten and the intimate physicalisation of the passing.

Listen on Soundcloud here: soundcloud.com/mmu_rah



Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)

Ian Drew, Cathy Delaney & Kathryn Adamson – School of Science and the Environment

Ground penetrating Radar (GPR) is a geophysical technique, which can reveal buried features without the need for excavation. Manchester Met GPR equipment is used by geomorphologists in the Environmental Change research group to identify structures and changes in sediment below ground. For Encountering Corpses the equipment has been used in a more archaeological application to search for evidence of Grosvenor Square’s former use as a graveyard, such as buried headstones or parts of the church.

GPR surveys use a high frequency radio signal transmitted down into the ground from an antenna mounted on a trolley. These signals can be partially reflected by buried features with different electrical properties and picked up by a second antenna sensor. The radio signals penetrate through soils, sediments, concrete, tarmac and rock. The type of material will influence the effectiveness of the survey with dry sand most favourable and wet clay the least.

Different frequency GPR antenna signals will determine the resolution and depth of surveying and there is a compromise made between accuracy and depth for every project. High-resolution shallow surveys use higher frequencies and those requiring deeper ground penetration use lower frequencies but do not provide so much detail. For Encountering Corpses an initial survey of transects across the site used 100 MHz antenna (approx. 5m depth) to try and identify areas of interest.

Interpretation of the radargram images can quite subjective. Due to a cone shaped radio signal path and some transmission into the air it is possible to record reflections from the side and above ground which complicate the image. Although images are shown during the survey on the display data processing is often useful to increase clarity.