Uncovering the secrets of a graveyard
13,000 PEOPLE WERE BURIED AT ST JAMES’ CHURCH IN BENWELL
FOR more than 170 years, St James’ Church in Benwell has sat in the heart of an everchanging community.
When it was built in the 1830s, the area to the West of Newcastle was one of the most desirable residential areas on Tyneside, and home to some of its wealthiest and most influential families.
In 1901, St James’ was described as “a beautiful little churchyard, lying as it does on a gentle slope facing south and commanding a most extensive view of the Tyne and Derwent valley”.
But, by the mid-2000s, the decaying church was in a state of disrepair, and faced an uncertain future.
The graveyard, meanwhile, had become a wilderness of rubbish, weeds and broken memorials.
But now, thanks to the hard work of a dedicated band of volunteers, St James’ Heritage and Environment Group, the graveyard is now once more a pleasant and attractive place to visit.
Strenuous fundraising efforts have also succeeded in re-roofing and repairing the John Dobson-designed church.
But is was clearing the overgrown and uncared-for graveyard which shone a light on a lost, forgotten past.
Among those buried at St James’ are Richard Grainger, the developer responsible for the transformation of Newcastle’s town centre.
Also, John Buddle, the coal owner and mining engineer known in his time as “The King of the Coal Trade”.
And Walter Scott (not the novelist!), one of Britain’s first self-made millionaires whose construction company was responsible among other things for the first underground railway tunnel in London.
But a spokeswoman for St James’ Heritage and Environment Group said:
“Most of the 13,000 or so people are buried at Benwell were neither rich or famous.
“They included farmworkers, coal miners and servants – and increasing numbers of factory workers as the 19th century progressed and this area became the location of some of the region’s major industries such as armaments and heavy engineering at Armstrong’s works.
“The graveyard was also the final resting place of many of the unfortunate inhabitants of the workhouse which lay within the parish boundary (on a site which later became the General Hospital on Westgate Road).
“For 100 years, young children accounted for half of those buried in St James’ graveyard, as disease and poverty caused thousands of young lives to be cut short.
“For example, two young sons of the headteacher of the Royal Grammar School - Claude and Denton Christopherson - who died at 4 and 5 from scarlet fever and are buried there.
“St James’ graveyard can truly be said to tell the story of Newcastle’s West End.”
■■Meanwhile, as part of the ongoing fundraising effort, the church has produced a set of cloth bags printed with a unique drawing by local artist and architect Cyril Winskell. You can purchase one of these limited edition bags for £6 each (£10 for two) directly from St James’ Church, or by post from St James’ Heritage and Environment Group, c/o Search, 74 Adelaide Terrace, Newcastle, NE4 9JN. Cheques should be made out to “St James’ Church”.
■■The group has also produced a series of short films on their project. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the above address for information.
Buddle Road, Benwell - John Buddle is buried at St James’
Charlotte Pit, the last coalmine to close in Benwell - in the 1930s
Sir Walter Scott (not the novelist) worked on Newcastle Central Station
Armstrong’s Elswick works, 1890 - many men who worked here were buried at St James’
St James’ Church and graveyard, Benwell, Newcastle, has undergone major improvements in recent years
Richard Grainger’s grave, St James’, Benwell
Two of the Christopherson brothers were buried there