St John's Church, Park, Sheffield

Revolting Proceedings in a Sheffield Burial Ground April 1865.

Before relating this macabre event, it should be pointed out that although St John's, Park, Sheffield still exists and is a thriving church. It appears that the burial grounds that were adjacent to the church are still there there. The gravestones were removed many years ago but have survived. They were moved to the perimeter and laid flat in two rows.

Funnily enough my maternal great grandparents were married in this church on Xmas Day 1878, less than thirteen years after these "revolting proceedings" occurred

Engraving of St John's Church, Park, Sheffield


The report appeared in the Leeds Mercury dated 18th April 1865 and is titled

Revolting Proceedings in a Sheffield Burial Ground

"During the last week the gravedigger connected with the church of St. John in the Park, was discovered committing an act of desecration of a really horrifying nature and as it is not the first time similar disgusting proceedings have been detected in connection with the same burial ground, it may now be hoped that steps will be taken to finally close the ground. It appears then that a a parishioner named Dowker, in the early part of last week lost a child by death, and applied to the proper parties to have a family grave in St. John's churchyard, stipulating that such a grave should be nine feet deep. On Wednesday in the same week the gravedigger commenced digging the grave and when he got to the depth of some five or six feet, came plump upon a coffin containing a corpse - not the mere dry bones of a skeleton, but flesh, sinew and bone, and hair described as red. the fellow evidently knew how to dispose of such an obstruction, and but for the discovery of his proceedings at this point, Mr Dowker, would have been led to believe that he had obtained a new family grave "nine feet deep".

Just opposite the spot where the grave was being made lives a Mr. Quibell. the chamber window of his house looks into the ground and some of Mr, Quibell's family thought that the spadefulls of earth thrown out by the operator were often mixed with lumps of a suspicious looking substance. Mr. Quibell was at his dinner at the time, and after repeated protestations from female members of his family, went to look at what was going forward, and saw not only flesh, but fragments of what a corpse had been dressed in thrown out. These matters the gravedigger was clearly throwing into a smaller hole at the side of the grave, evidently made for the purpose of receiving them, but the man, from the depth he was working did not see that some of the suspicious matter lodged on the surface instead of rolling into the supplemental grave and thus was exposed to the view of those that were noting the proceeding. Up till this time none but Mr. Quibell's family had noticed what was going on, nor was the gravedigger aware that he was observed, although a young man, his attendant, cast sundry glances at Mr Quibell's windows, as though apprehensive of detection.

Before taking any steps Mr. Quibell, stopped two men who were passing and asked them to look into the churchyard. They jumped over the wall and after a brief examination shook their heads and passed on. Another person soon came up and he also got over the wall and came back to Mr. Quibell shaking his head, stating at the same time, in reference to what he saw, that "all the body except the legs had gone". The gravedigger now finding that he was likely to be in a fix appears to have hastily covered his work over with earth and hastily departed. Mr Quibell in the meantime had sent for Mr. John Crossland, and at the suggestion of the former, a piece of iron  was procured to fish out as it were, the matter that had been thrown into the small grave in order to be satisfied as to what it was, and the result  was just what was anticipated. By this time people began to assemble, and in a short time, there was a great multitude, whose feelings were naturally enough indignant at such a discovery, and at Mr. Crossland's request Mr. Jackson, the chief constable, sent six policemen to keep order. The gravedigger, who had a respect for his own person, got out of the way but later in the afternoon was discovered in the neighborhood and then had to run and seek protection in a friend's house. here the matter seems to have ended, and it is strange that so gross an outrage upon decency has not hitherto become more widely known.

On the following day it was ascertained that the mutilated remains had been removed, probably during the night. the interment of Dowker's child took place, we understand, during the afternoon of the day on which the discovery was made, and Mr Dowker, ignorant of what took place, complained that the grave was not so deep as he had stipulated for. The answer was that another grave should be made according to his wish, and we are informed, that this has since been done, and that the body of the child has been re-interred. The government authorities have been written to on the subject, and a reply has been received from Dr. Holland, Her Majesty's Inspector of burial grounds, so that it is hoped we shall soon hear that the burial ground of St John's church is closed. - Sheffield Independent" 

The phrase "it is not the first time similar disgusting proceedings have been detected in connection with the same burial ground" gives an indication that this was not an isolated event. At the time these "revolting proceedings" took place, Sheffield was in the grip of unprecedented growth and it's public services, meagre as they were, were under intense pressure. The traditional churchyards were unable to cope with the ever increasing numbers of the dead,  and so incidents like this were probably more common than is realised. It is probably no co-incidence that within the next decade, the local burial board initiated steps to establish a municipal cemetery on Intake Road (now City Road).  

The other point to note is just the sheer horror of the scene at the churchyard. The throwing out of a badly decaying corpse is an outrage at anytime but bearing in mind Victorian suspicion and fear of death, it is a wonder that the gravedigger was not "interred" himself. Only a few years earlier there had been a full-scale riot at Wardsend Cemetery when it was discovered that the sexton "had been in the habit of disinterring bodies and disposing of them for dissection" I only came across the incident by chance and so if anyone can supply me with any further information, please contact me

Engraving of Sheffield taken from St John's Church, Park,1874

In April 2008, I received some further information from a local historian

"the burial ground is still there, and the gravestones have also survived, but have been moved to the perimeter and laid flat in two rows.

Also, from the Sheffield Local Register:

12 March 1857
Dr. Holland, inspector of the Board of Health-enquiry as to interments at St. John's, Park. Complaint failed.

28 Apr 1863 . David Walker, grave digger of St. John's Church, Park, charged with defacing a tombstone. Information dismissed, because the evidence failed to show that the act was done " willfully and maliciously."

19 Apr 1865
Meeting of the owners of graves in St. John's churchyard, in reference to serious malpractices charged against the officials, and the alleged
desecration of the dead. Adjourned to the 24th, when a stormy meeting was held.

29 May 1865
The Secretary of State directs that St. John's burial ground be placed under the control of the Health Committee; burials to be restricted to the owners of graves. The ground subsequently wholly closed."

The meeting on 19 April 1865 was obviously held in response to the macabre revelations that were detailed in the newspaper report, but it seems that feelings were still running high five days when a "stormy meeting" was held. An indication of the intense pressure that was brought to bear on the authorities is the response of the Secretary of State just over a month later - he more or less closed it down!

The following three photographs were taken on 25th December 2008 (Xmas Day). It is not as sad as you think!. I was not trying my new digital camera out but remembering that 130 years ago to the day, my great grandparents Alonzo and Mary Ann Hemsworth were married in the very same church.   


It is difficult to think that this was the site of "such disgusting proceedings"

As a postscript I was contacted in August 2012 by a descendent of the family mentioned in the article

"I think the child in question is Clara Dowker who died in the 2nd quarter 1865. Her father is my Great Great Grandfather, John Dowker (1838-1924) and I think he is the Dowker in this article.

The same person is also related to Private Harry Poole who was executed by the British Army in December 1916


Leeds Mercury dated 18th April 1865

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, April 23, 1865; Issue 1170.

The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Friday, April 21, 1865; Issue 23653.

The Sheffield Local Register:

Sheffield History Forum

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This page was last updated on 09/02/15 17:43