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Opening times

  • Sunday
    Closed
  • Monday to Friday
    Closed
  • Saturdays and Bank Holidays
    Closed
  • FREE ENTRY

Churchyard Discoveries

Work is underway to revitalise the Cathedral’s churchyards with an accessible and decorative pathway, new seating, planting and an interpretive trail.

Such an archaeologically sensitive area requires careful monitoring by the Cathedral Archaeologist. Ancient burials will be left undisturbed wherever possible by not digging down further than 700mm.

The Dean of Newcastle catches up with Dave Heslop as he excavates an unavoidable shallow grave.

Burial records expert, Pat Halcro, has researched the history of St. Nicholas’ Churchyard and the disappearance of many of the burials there.

Here’s what she found out:

“Built on an earlier foundation, the church we recognise dates from the 14th century with many alterations over the subsequent years. Burial records for the congregation began in the mid 16th century and a survey of the whole site of the church and churchyard was made in 1770 by Charles Hutton. The churchyard has always been the smallest of those of the four major churches of Newcastle; for example, in the 19th century it measured 2,628 square yards compared with the 4,342 square yards of St. Andrew’s.

It appears that, even in the 14th century, the churchyard was so overcrowded that there was a need for a charnel house inside the church to allow graves to be emptied, the bones to be stored and to allow further outside burials. The churchyard at the time was open and unenclosed with neighbouring houses so close that only a narrow path existed between them and the church. Conditions around the church were dire; soil, rubbish and dung piled against the church walls. The greatest number of burials appeared to be in the south-west part of the churchyard where up to four feet of rubbish had been allowed to accumulate. Some of these may well have been illicit burials.

Over the years, details of burials and grave monuments have been lost. Construction that affected the churchyard included the building of the Tomlinson Library in 1740-41; this reduced the pathway around the church.

Gravestones stacked ready for repositioning follow 2020 capital works.

In 1761, public subscriptions were raised to level the churchyard and enclose it; a “neat and handsome brick wall” was built with a wooden fence, or palisade, on top. A path was made for pedestrians around its perimeter. However, it appears that the size of the churchyard was considerably reduced and there appears to be no record of the fate of the original grave markers.

In 1765, a fierce storm washed away part of the bank at the eastern side of the church; the power of excess water had been added to by the flooding of the Lort Burn, where buildings were destroyed, falling into the Painter Heugh. It is not recorded if any graves were also washed away.

In 1812-1813, iron palisades on stone bases replaced the wall of the churchyard, and in 1926, a metal frieze containing biblical phrases in Latin in red gothic script were added to the railings.

In 1824, the charnel house was cleared out. It had been used for many years but had been finally walled up. In 1826, all the visible bones and burials under the floor were removed and buried, probably in the churchyard.

In 1847 and 1853 government legislation was passed against internments either inside churches or in their adjacent churchyards. This had been instigated by ongoing public health concerns and led to the proposed development of parochial cemeteries around the outskirts of Newcastle.

On 18 November 1853, a meeting was held for the rate payers in St Nicholas’ Parish to consider the need to close the churchyard and open another on the outskirts of the town. St Nicholas’ churchyard was subsequently built in Fenham in 1857-58 on a five acre site. There have been reputedly 23,600 people buried in this cemetery; relatively few graves are now recognisable.

Following the closure of St Nicholas’ original churchyard in the mid-1850s, other construction took place including the refectory, neighbouring Milburn House in 1905 and a new carpark in the 1970s over the eastern churchyard. Some headstones were re-sited in the wall and raised platform area. Very few records now exist but there are two surviving inventories of the churchyard that have proved invaluable in informing us of previous burials and their positions.

In 1832, Thomas George Bell made a full inventory of the churchyard monuments. He records 179 burial sites and gives details of the inscriptions, which he calls epitaphs, on many of the stones. This document is held in the Woodhorn Museum Archives.

In 1906, John Madsen compiled an inventory of the monuments. He lists 152 stones, gives details of inscriptions where possible, and correlates his stones with those on the Bell list. He also very helpfully includes a plan of the positioning of the stones. This document is held in the City Library. This is invaluable as it gives the details of exterior monuments prior to all the building works in the 20th century.

In December 2017 I made a new inventory of the 42 existing monuments still standing. It gives details of the size and materials of the monuments, their current position, and inscriptions where possible. Only eleven stones are in the same position as in the Madsen document! You can ask to see the inventory and a copy of Madsen’s plan in the Cathedral Office.

Pat Halcro talking to the site foreman about wealthier people buried inside the building through the ages.

I’ve also researched brief details on the history of people named on the stones, some supplied by Madsen. Other details comprise information from directories, parish records, wills and newspapers. It seems that the churchyard burials have never included the very wealthy landowners and aristocracy represented inside the Cathedral. People buried outside seem more of the “middle class”; merchants, shopkeepers and publicans, skilled traders and craftsmen. They worked hard to achieve respectability in the town, rather than achieving this by inheritance. These are the people who helped to build our city”.

Gravestone of Luigi Grassi from St. Giorgio near Como in Italy. Grassi and Rampoldi were importers of French and German toys and were located in Grey Street in the 1840s.

Extract and gravestone images courtesy of Pat Halcro.