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Lost cemeteries, pretty gardens

Jonathan Schofield and the central Manchester gardens that hide a spooky secret

Written by . Published on March 5th 2010.

Lost cemeteries, pretty gardens

SOME might think that Manchester is the ultimate hard surface city centre. Maybe so, but there are already several oases in the city centre, if you know where to look. You just have to walk over someone’s grave. Or picnic on one. This is legal.

Much of the graveyard was run as an overspill from the Cathedral. In one corner are the cholera pits where more than 40,000 people are said to be interred. These were for the common dead, the destitute, the workhouse inmates.

Up until the late nineteenth century, the area we recognise as the city centre was awash with churches. By the end of World War One this had changed and the area had become the central business district, largely devoid of a resident population. The churches closed and were demolished. Of more than twelve Church of England places of worship in the city centre only the Cathedral and St Ann’s remain today.

Many of the former churches had sat in churchyards which were packed with dead. The happy solution for this ‘problem’ land was, in several instances, to turn the churchyards into gardens, and thus bring a bit of nature into the claustrophobic central Manchester streets.

Before St John's was a garderBefore St John's was a gardenThe best kept and loveliest of these green sanctuaries is St John’s Gardens, down St John’s Street, off Deansgate. The church of the same name was built in 1769 and demolished in 1932. Check the cross in its centre and it declares that the remains of 22,000 dead still lie all around, literally employed pushing up the daisies... and the roses and tulips. Amongst the dead is John Owens, the only individual still commemorated in the gardens. Owens was a cotton baron, who died in 1846 and left a large lump of money for the establishment of a non-denominational college which eventually became the University of Manchester. This is a favourite lunch spot (and good for a bit of morning Tai Chi), but it makes you wonder if the sandwich munchers are aware that they dine amongst so many departed.

Across town, behind House of Fraser (Kendals) is Parsonage Gardens. This tiny parcel of land has a history which goes back a long way. Given to the Church at the time of the Norman Conquest or just after, it seems that a priest’s house was located here stretching back to Saxon times. Then in the 1750s the church of St Mary was built amongst a packed area of houses beside the River Irwell. The church was demolished in 1880 as the population dispersed. You can still see the churchyard wall all around the gardens.

Parsonage GardensParsonage Gardens

The third churchyard site in the city core is busier. St Peter’s Square was centred on St Peter’s Church: the church was designed by James Wyatt (he also designed Heaton Hall in Heaton Park) in the late eighteenth century and was demolished in 1907. The site of the church sits next to the ugliest, clumsiest tram stop in town, in a patch of green close to the Cenotaph. A cross, with St Peter and the keys to Paradise, marks the site, and the dead, a posh lot, lie beneath, locked in their crypt tombs. You can still see part of the old church in Knutsford. Architectural magpie Richard Harding Watt bought the columns from the portico a hundred years ago and re-erected them at the rear of the Gaskell Reading Rooms on King Street in the town. This building now contains the Belle Epoque restaurant.

Under the shadow of the CIS Tower in the northern end of the city centre lies the most spine-tingling of the gardens. The former church here was that of St Michael. Much of the graveyard was run as an overspill from the Cathedral. In one corner are the cholera pits where more than 40,000 people are said to be interred. These were the for common dead, the destitute, the workhouse inmates. Bodies were usually buried in quicklime to hasten their decay, as it wasn’t unknown for the desperate poor to steal the bones, grind them down and sell them to farmers as fertiliser.

For a while, on the A-Z, the place was listed without irony as a ‘Recreation Ground’. On the higher part of the land was a more typical cemetery where, the story goes, Tony Warren found the names for characters in a TV soap he was dreaming up, Coronation Street. The cemetery even achieved international fame, appearing in Friedrich Engels’ book from the 1840s, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. In the last few years it has been tidied up to make a pretty green space...yet it somehow retains an air of the poverty and degradation that was the hallmark of this area for well over a hundred years. Confidential is pretty sure that the sales pitch for the many new apartments here doesn’t go, ‘pleasantly situated close to the city centre with easy access to local amenities including corpse-laden cholera pits’.

Other green spaces such as Sackville Gardens, Cathedral Gardens and Piccadilly Gardens developed in different ways, often through accident rather than design, but they do add up, with the former churchyard spaces, to at least a measure of green space to complement the event in Albert Square. We are not a completely concrete city.

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BoultonMarch 29th 2010.

Nice dead people, making the garden grow

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