Community's efforts to rescue 'forgotten' graveyard

A graveyard that was mistakenly smashed down nearly 20 years ago and left to overgrow could be turned in a memorial garden after community figures met to discuss a plan of action.

Friday, 2nd April 2021, 7:20 am
A group is looking to restore an old graveyard on Baptist Lane in Ossett that was abandoned 20 years ago. L-R Darren Byford, Rachel Driver, Anne-Marie Fawcett and Tracy Shields.

The site off Baptist Lane in Ossett was bulldozed in 2002 after it was claimed the gravestones and monoliths had become unstable.

The unpopular decision was taken by the administration at the Baptist Church, which defended the move by saying it would then restore the site, but that never came to fruition.

During the work that followed many of the headstones were broken when the church simply asked them to lay them down. Either way, it put paid to any possible restoration hopes.

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Anne-Marie Fawcett at one of the graves.

Now a number of groups have come together to begin talks on creating a memorial garden on the site.

These include local historians from the group Ossett Through The Ages and South Ossett Baptist Church, with the backing of Wakefield Council’s Ossett district councillor, Darren Byford.

Rachel Driver, who has been spearheading the move, described the current condition of the site as “distressing”, but is confident that steps can be taken to make amends.

She said: “We’ve agreed that working together is the best thing going forward.

Some of the graves date back to the 1800s.

“None of us independently could achieve what’s needed, but together we can.

“I’ve spoken to an archaeologist about any necessary steps that need to be taken. As we aren’t excavating anything, it’s not a problem.

“So it’s very much in the preliminary stages, but we are all positive and have made the first contacts.

“We all understand mistakes were made and together we want to put it right.”

The site off Baptist Lane, marked out in black. (Google Maps)

The the old church on Baptist Lane was demolished in the 1970s and a new housing development now occupies part of the road.

Many of the graves at the site date back to the 1800s, but the last person to be buried was an elderly gentleman who died in 1972.

A former mayor and mayoress of Ossett are also buried at the site, along with their family.

Up until recently, it was thought that around 300 people had been laid to rest there, but further studies have shown that the remains of up to 800 people have been interned, with up to six buried in one plot.

Coun Darren Byford, who is backing the proposals, said: “It’s a very sad situation, to be fair, it should never have been allowed to get as bad as it has. It’s really in a dreadful state.

“The community is coming together to create what could be an inspiring memorial garden in the not-too-distant future.

“The mistakes of the past in this instance give us an opportunity to remember those souls who are buried in the peaceful space.”

Tracy Shields, minister in training at South Ossett Baptist Church, was not part of the administration in 2002 and knew little about the controversies until it was raised a matter of weeks ago.

But she is hopeful of a positive outcome and said: “Although we are at the very early stages of gathering expert knowledge on how we are able to proceed, it is our sincere hope that by coming together we will be able to establish a respectful community space we otherwise would not be able to achieve on our own.

“We would welcome anyone with a personal interest, especially those who have relatives laid to rest within it, to contact us using [email protected] in order for us to keep everyone up to date with any plans that are made.

Reports from 2002 suggest that well-meaning “safety concerns” were at the heart of South Ossett Baptist’s Church decision to remove gravestones from the site.

The minister at the time told the Express: “We had some complaints from health and safety officials saying some of the gravestones were unsafe.

“Our top priority is the safety of the public so we mounted a clean-up operation in the cemetery.

“The cemetery itself has not been used for 30 years and no-one even visits it.

“We intend to put the graves back in a way they would be safer to the public and are asking for their patience with us while we do that.

“The last thing we want to do was upset people but we had to make the cemetery safe.

“There is no easy way to do this and I hope people can just keep their patience while we finish the job.”

While the church insisted that the stones be laid down, there were apparent communication problems during the following work which left many beyond repair and leaving any hope of restoration in tatters.

Furthermore, there was friction in May 2002 when it was revealed that a number of the new homes on the surrounding site were encroaching on the cemetery after a miscalculation over its boundaries.

It was meant that dozens of bodies could be buried under the foundations of some new properties.

Wakefield Council admitted it had no power to exhume the remains.