During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Liverpool spread out from a long established network of medieval streets grouped around its Town Hall and waterfront.
With ever increasing importance as a departure point for Ireland and the Americas, its population soared and revenues to the city and the port increased, but the tenements and cellars within which many people lived were recognised as being insanitary and unbecoming for such a wealthy city.
Not surprisingly the citizens who could afford to do so moved away from the waterfront so as to distance themselves from the overcrowding, squalor and infection so prevalent at the time.
An 1831 engraving of St James’ Cemetery. The Artist, T.T Bury, depicts the gentleman in the centre pointing out the grave of William Huskisson. The mausoleum was not built until 1836.
Bold Street, Mount Pleasant and Rodney Street succeeded one another as the city’s most salubrious addresses with many of the building materials for their development and for renewal within the city centre being sourced locally.
The sandstone ridge to the south of Upper Duke Street became a quarry in the middle of the eighteenth century, but demand for its stone was such that it was exhausted by 1825.
The quarry was then thirty metres deep, five hundred metres from north to south and 100 metres from east to west.
It was then converted into a cemetery by the city architect, John Foster Junior and since it was in the parish of St James’ Church in Upper Parliament Street, it became known as St James’ Cemetery.
The Cemetery is described in ‘A Stranger’s Guide to Liverpool’ published in 1829.
“This burial ground is situated at the top of Duke-Street, and is formed on the site of a delf, from which sufficient stone has been abstracted to construct many of the public buildings of the town and several docks. The cemetery comprises of 44,000 square yards of land, surrounded with a very strong and elegant stone wall and handsome iron railing. There are four entrances by gates, supported by handsome stone piers, two from the head of Duke Street, one from Hope Street and another from the south end of St James’ Walk, by an elegant archway, being the principal entrance to the lower part of the grounds.
The eastern side is nearly perpendicular, not less than 1,100 feet in length and 52 feet in height and is faced with masonry of the material taken from the bottom of the delf.
A bridleway commencing at the north end near Duke Street gradually descends upon an inclined plane and is intersected midway by another from the southern end of the ground:- each advancing beyond the point of intersection and continuing upon the same declination to the bottom.
The width of the cemetery is about 90 yards, and its length from the entrance at the southern end of St James’ Walk to the base of the rock upon which the Oratory is placed is about 500 yards; the western side and each end are formed by sloping banks planted with the smaller kind of forest trees and shrubs. The lower part of the burial ground is tastefully disposed in shrubberies and serpentine walks. The rights to 105 catacombs are available for purchase.
The church or Oratory stands an interesting and prominent object near the face of the perpendicular rock at the top of Duke Street. Its exterior exhibits a small but fine and elegant specimen of pure Grecian Doric architecture: it is 46 feet long and 29 feet wide.
For this classical gem which is a perfect specimen of a Greek temple, as well as the design of the cemetery and its catacombs, the town is indebted to the refined taste and professional skill of the architect of works Mr John Foster Junior.
Almost at every step St James’ Cemetery will be at once a credit and an ornamental appendage of the highest utility to the town and an object of curiosity and philosophical interest to the visitor.”
The Oratory (2016).
An 1830 drawing of St James’ Cemetery. The Ministers House can be seen in the centre of the image, which was situated on the site on which The Cathedral now stands.
The first burial took place in 1829 and it was that year that the Oratory was completed.
Bridleways (Ramps) were constructed to permit ease of access by funeral parties and tiered catacombs were built beneath them along the cemetery’s eastern boundary. More than fifty seven thousand interments took place between 1829 and 1936 when burials ceased. Since that time the cemetery has been a public park.
Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral was built to the design of Giles Gilbert Scott between 1904 and 1978 on the western side of the cemetery on a spoil heap known as St James’ Mount. The Cathedral is widely regarded as one of the great buildings of the twentieth century and attracts visitors from across the world. At 189 m (619 ft) long, it is the longest cathedral in the world and the cathedral also houses the world’s highest (67 m (220 ft)) and heaviest (16.5 long tons (16.8 tonnes)) ringing peal of bells.
The site was first a quarry and then a cemetery, it is now St James’ Garden. After years of neglect and vandalism, its regeneration has begun to reveal fascinating insights into the lives and deaths of our forebears. It now offers a peaceful, clean, green and safe environment within the inner city and whilst dominating the skyline, the Cathedral also emphasises the depth of its subterranean neighbour – almost parodying a medieval heaven and hell.
The Cathedral, Garden and Oratory are all listed Grade 1 by Historic England.