Romance of a Cemetery by Richard Whittington-Egan

I have just been taking the waters at the Liverpool Spa. The flat, Slightly iron‑tinted taste of the ice‑cold water is still on my tongue, and although, mercifully, I do not suffer from rheumatism, I understand that the spa water used to be regarded as "tending to the cure of rheumatic complaints."

Actually, the Spa is a chalybeate spring which flows from the rock at the base of the cliff‑like wall which lines the eastern side of St. James's Cemetery. It first came into prominence in 1773 when James Worthington, a Liverpool surgeon, published a small tract recommending its use in cases of loss of appetite, nerve disorders, lowness of spirits, headaches "proceeding from crudities of the stomach, " rickets and weak eyes. A little later in that same year, another Liverpool physician, Dr. Thomas Houlston, wrote a more ambitious pamphlet be lauding the virtues of the mineral spring and subsequently made a communication on the subject to the Royal Society. Though never styled "holy," the spring continued in great esteem, principally for the cure of disease of the eye, for more than a century, and I have been told by an old inhabitant of Liverpool that he could remember the time when hundreds of people would come from all over Lancashire and wait in line with small bottles to take away some of the precious liquid. Latterly, however, the Liverpool Spa seems to have fallen into disrepute and there are very few visitors to the spot where, beneath the pious inscription:

Christian reader view in me,

An emblem of true charity,

Who freely what I have bestow,

Though neither heard nor seen to flow,

And I have full returns from Heaven,

For every cup of water given.

the mirifical spring still spills unceasingly into its own stone basin.

At the time of the spring's discovery, the site of St. James's Cemetery was a quarry which had for countless years supplied sandstone for building purposes. Many of Liverpool's ancient buildings, including the Town Hall, the old Corn Exchange, St. Thomas's, St. Paul's and St. John's churches, were constructed of stone hewn from it. By 1825 the quarry had become exhausted and the Corporation, to whom it belonged, had to find an answer to the awkward question of what to do with the extensive excavation which lay like a Brobdingnagian wound in the heart of the town. Too immense to be easily filled in, it was at first proposed to convert its ten neglected acres into a public garden. It was just about this time, however, that the Middlesex authorities, faced with a similar problem, decided to utilize a disused quarry at Kensal Green as a cemetery the Liverpool city fathers gave their approval to the formation of a company which undertook the conversion of the quarry to a burying‑ground. So it was, in the February of 1825, that a new cemetery in connection with the Established Church, and named after St. James's Church, Toxteth Park, was commenced. The cemetery was consecrated in 1829 and the first interment took place to the accompaniment of one of the worst thunderstorms of the century on June 11th of that year. Since then there have been some 57,774 interments, the last of which was on July 10th 1936, and now the old burial‑ground is full.

Standing in the midst of this vast stone forest of memory, the eye is bewildered by its crowded profusion of tombstones. A little exploration is rewarded, however, by the discovery of some extremely interesting graves. Here you will find for instance, a tablet commemorating Sarah Biffin who, though born in 1784 without either arms or hands, contrived to become one of the most noted artists of her day. She worked with a long‑handled brush, one end of which was secured beneath a pin or loop on her right shoulder, and the other she manipulated with her mouth. Her work was patronized by four British Monarchs‑George 111, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria‑and such was her fame that she is even referred to by Charles Dickens in Chapter 37 of Nicholas Nickleby and Chapter 28 of Martin Chuzzlewit. In later life she fell into great poverty but, befriended by Richard Rathbone, she ended her days in comparative comfort. She died at Number 8 Duke Street on October 2nd 1850. Here, too, is the tomb of William Lynn, landlord of the Waterloo Hotel at Aintree; the man who may be said to have initiated the Grand National when, in 1836, he persuaded his farmer neighbors to permit an annual Liverpool Steeplechase to be run over their land at Maghull. And all about you are the graves of sailors and master mariners who, after lives spent on the tossing oceans of the world, have found a final harbour deep in the still heart of this peaceful corner of Sailor Town. Among them lies Captain John Oliver, veteran of the Battles of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar, in which latter he served under Lord Nelson on H.M.S. Victory. He died in 1876 at the advanced age of 102. And here, too, rests Captain William Harrison, who commanded the Great Eastern, the Great Iron Ship.

Scarcely had the new cemetery opened its gates when, in September 1830, one of its most distinguished sleepers was laid to rest in this quiet dormitory of the dead. This man was the Right Honorable William Huskisson, M.P. for Liverpool, who had the dubious distinction of being killed by Stephenson's first engine‑the Rocket. His tomb is that small, domed, circular temple which dominates the centre of the cemetery and is its grandest monument. He rests within beneath a fine marble statue of himself executed by John Gibson, R.A.

I could not help contrasting the lonely grandeur of Huskisson's magnificent mausoleum with the humble stone which, amidst a cluster of undistinguished graves, marks the spot where lies all that was mortal of Catherine Wilkinson. Of less exalted rank in life, Kitty Wilkinson is every bit as much a Liverpool immortal as William Huskisson, and while the mountain of laurel wreaths has long since withered and mouldered away from the politician's bleak, locked temple, I found on Kitty Wilkinson's grave a beer bottle from the narrow brown neck of which sprouted a gay little posy of wild flowers. It was a tribute which she would have loved. This Kitty Wilkinson was a remarkable woman but it is mainly on account of her work during the dreadful cholera epidemic of 1832 that she is remembered. Apart from fearlessly nursing the sick and dying, she threw open the tiny kitchen of her own home so that people could use her boiler to wash the infection from their disease‑laden clothing. Ten years later, the first public establishment of baths and wash‑houses in this country was opened in Upper Frederick Street and Kitty Wilkinson and her husband were put in charge of the place which had come into being as the direct result of an idea that had been born in their own kitchen.

Walking through the cemetery, one sees here and there a broken cross, an urn toppled from its pedestal, a gruesomely decapitated angel. This damage is not so much the result of the passage of the years as the work of teenage hooligans who scale the inadequate wire‑fencing at night and amuse themselves by hurling stones at the monuments. But there are other and less violent changes. The lichen has crept over old tombstones and smoke has mellowed their pristine whiteness to a sort of charcoal grey. Weather has softened corners which, like sharp‑angled sorrows, have grown less acute with time. The snows and rains of the years have blunted the deeply‑incised anguish of epitaphs until they have become blurred as old memories. And yet the hand which has erased so much extolling of virtues has left clear a terrible indictment. Upon the tall headstone of Sydney Evans, wife of John Evans, solicitor of Caernarfon, who died, aged 7 1, on May Day, 1833, is engraved the sorry story of a mother's pain:

"By her express desire it is stated on her tomb that she was the

affectionate mother of a son whose unparalleled wrongs and persecution in Caernarfon, Carnarvonshire, Liverpool, Lancashire, perpetrated, brought her old age oppressed with sorrow to the grave."

There it is, an accusing finger perpetually pointing from the coffin. It is as if the sorrowing mother would pursue her errant son beyond the death‑bed. All those wrongs happened so very long ago, and yet their graven record cries out across the years like an unquiet voice from the grave.

And everywhere is evidenced a gentler neglect. The shining ivy twines about its sculpted image and nature has drawn a kindly green coverlet of tall grass over many little mounds. It is well, for this neglect has brought

a wild beauty in its wake. Although it is a valley of the shadow of death, upon a sunny day St. James's Cemetery does not strike one in that way. It seems rather, a little oasis of fresh green fife in the stony bosom of the hill, where bright butterflies flit about in the warm sunshine and birds sing lustily in the sanctuary which has been provided for them there. It is a place to equal the lovely cemetery at Constantinople with its Piranesi‑like walls pierced by tiers of catacombs, its sloping ramps, down which great hearses of the past lumbered, drawn by gleaming horses with tossing black ostrich plumes, and the beautiful little mortuary chapel, a perfect miniature Greek temple, standing darkly upon its escarpment in wonderful contrast with the flushed face of the new cathedral. Today, its surface no longer broken by the sexton's spade, the old burying‑ground lies tranquil. It is a haunt of ancient peace and on long summer evenings it is the chosen rendezvous of youth and age. The children play among the tombstones; the old men sit and smoke their pipes, and if they think of death in these placid surroundings it is as a friend who comes with the soft‑scented dusk to soothe tired eyes and gently close them in a long, long sleep.

Mike Faulkner 2016