Collection: MS 421: Leeds General Cemetery Company Ltd Archive

Archive Collection icon Archive Collection: Leeds General Cemetery Company Ltd Archive


Title: Leeds General Cemetery Company Ltd Archive

Level: Collection 

Classmark: MS 421

Creator(s): Leeds General Cemetery Co. Ltd. (1833-1967)

Date: 1733-1992

Main language: English

Size and medium: 31 boxes, 74 volumes, 2 card index boxes; manuscript papers, typescript papers, manuscript books, letters, maps, plans, black and white photographs, index cards, brochures

Persistent link: 

Collection group(s): Leeds General Cemetery

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Includes: corporate correspondence and records; committee minutes; shareholding records; financial records; records relating to property ownership and other legal matters; papers relating to the operational management of the business; and records of burial.

Administrative or biographical history

The Leeds General Cemetery Company was established in 1833, with the aim to provide and maintain a public burial ground in Leeds. Lack of adequate provision for burials was an issue for Leeds after the cholera outbreak in 1832.

A letter was published in the Leeds Mercury calling for the creation of a public cemetery for all religious denominations in the city; a number of the Leeds elite then formed a committee to pursue this aim. The first meeting of the committee was held on 24th June 1833, where a sub-committee was created to investigate options for a cemetery site. The land chosen was St George's Fields near Woodhouse Moor, close to the road to Headingley and Otley. Due to its location, the cemetery was also known as Woodhouse Cemetery.

The committee was able to raise the funds for the build and launched a public competition for the design of the cemetery. This was eventually won by the architect John Clark. The first stone of the boundary wall was laid in March 1834 and the whole build completed by 1835 for a sum of £11,000. The Cemetery opened the same year, with the first burial on 23rd July. The company was originally constituted by a trust deed on 1st July 1835, later registering as a joint stock company in December 1844.

The main operational work of the cemetery was overseen by the Registrar who was initially in charge of both the burial ceremonies, the burial registration and the daily management of the cemetery. This role was later split between a Registrar (or Manager) and a Chaplain, with variations on this title.

In the 1930s it was becoming clear that the cemetery site was running out of space and that the enterprise would cease to be viable. By the end of the Second World War, the cemetery had become rather overgrown and neglected. As early as 1922 the University of Leeds had considered acquisition of the cemetery; by that time its buildings surrounded the site. It wasn't until 1956 and after some controversy that the University eventually acquired the company by buying up all the shares, then converting it to a private limited company.

The University subsequently obtained powers under the provisions of the University of Leeds Act (1965) to landscape the site. This was private legislation which empowered the University to create a public open space by the removal of headstones and other memorials; and prevented further interments after October 1965. In accordance with the 1965 Act, the University contacted all known owners of burial plots prior to landscaping and supplied documents enabling them to request compensation for the loss of their burial rights and plot. Before the landscaping began, a complete photographic record of the gravestone inscriptions was made by the University Bursar, Edmund Williams, and copies of photographs could be sent to plot owners if requested.

The Company went into voluntary liquidation in October 1967. From March-November 1968, contractors removed headstones and memorials (some were collected by the City Museum, some retained and others covered over). The area was then grassed-over and landscaped. The existing Chapel was designated of special architectural and historical interest in 1963 and remained in place. The Leeds General Cemetery contains the graves of 105 casualties of both the First and Second World Wars; a memorial to these individuals is situated at Lawnswood Cemetery.

Burials eventually ceased in October 1969, but the site continued to be used for the scattering of cremations. Since the opening of the cemetery in 1835 a total of over 95,000 interments had taken place. In the autumn of 1969 the area was re-opened to the public under the name of St George's Fields, the original name of the site before it became a cemetery.

Robert F. Fletcher, ‘The History of the Leeds General Cemetery Company, 1833-1965’, thesis for Master of Philosophy, University of Leeds (1975)

Maurice W. Beresford, 'Red Brick and Portland Stone: A Building History', in Studies in the History of a University 1874-1974, by P.H.J.H. Gosden and A.J. Taylor (eds.), (E.J. Arnold & Son Ltd: Leeds, 1975), pp. 133-180.


The records of the Leeds General Cemetery Company were acquired by the University of Leeds when it took over the Company, and kept by the Bursar's Office. They were then all transferred to the Brotherton Library in batches in 1977 and 1978.

A history of the Company was the subject of a thesis for the degree of MPhil at the University of Leeds, submitted by Robert F Fletcher in 1975 [a copy may be consulted in the Brotherton Library]. Fletcher was given access to the records of the Company and his thesis included a provisional and partial list of some of the archives.

A hand list was produced for the collection in March 2000. The records listed mainly covered the period prior to the University obtaining ownership in 1956. The order of items in the hand list was neither strictly chronological nor entirely systematic; some attempt was made to group some files in a similar order to the list produced by Fletcher. The hand list appeared to group the collection into three sections by record format, and separate the business papers from the burial registers:

1. Burial and Associated Registers (MS 421/0-28)
2. Business Papers: Mainly Books and Registers (MS 421/31-103a)
3. Business Papers: Mainly Bundles and Envelopes of Loose Items (MS 421/104-190).

The hand list contains an appendix which shows which files were included in Fletcher's list, and their new reference numbers. An index to the contents of the collection was produced alongside the hand list.

The collection was later added to the Special Collections online catalogue under reference number MS 421, replicating the contents of the hand list. The previous version of the MS 421 catalogue did not include details of the records created and kept by the University relating to the Leeds General Cemetery post-1956. These records have been catalogued and can now be found in sub-collection MS 421/6.

As mentioned in the Biography section, before the cemetery was landscaped and headstones removed, a complete photographic record of the monumental inscriptions was made by the University Bursar. Unfortunately the copy held by the University architects was destroyed by fire in the 1970s, while the set of negatives deposited with the Registrar General in London, in accordance with an agreed interpretation of the relevant clause in the Act, cannot currently be located.

These records were catalogued as part of the Wellcome Trust-funded Medical Collections Project (2015-2018).


The existing collection reference number of MS 421 has been maintained, however, reference numbers for individual files or items have been changed. Any previous reference numbers have been recorded in the new catalogue entries.

The collection has been organised into five separate sub-collections in order to reflect the main activities or areas of work of the Company during its period of operation. There is a sixth sub-collection for the records created or kept by the Bursar of the University of Leeds relating to the Cemetery. This is to reflect the separate provenance in the files for the records originating from before the University took over the running of the Company.

MS 421/1: Corporate, Administrative and Shareholding
MS 421/2: Property and Legal
MS 421/3: Records of Burial
MS 421/4: Operations
MS 421/5: Finance
MS 421/6: University of Leeds records relating to the Leeds General Cemetery Company Ltd

The original arrangement of papers within individual files has been maintained.

Access and usage


This collection is subject to various access conditions. Please see individual catalogue descriptions for further details on access.


Material in this collection is in copyright. Photocopies or digital images can only be supplied by the Library for research or private study within the terms of copyright legislation. It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain the copyright holder's permission to reproduce for any other purpose. Guidance is available on tracing copyright status and ownership.

The University of Leeds respects the rights of copyright holders and their representatives. The University endeavours to ensure that all content hosted on the Special Collections website is compliant with UK Copyright law. View the Special Collections takedown policy

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