Secrets of All Saints Park revealed in two-day conference

(Originally published on Quays News, December 8, 2017)

Popular Manchester student spot All Saints Park is opening its gates to expose its dark past to visitors.

The gardens, located just off Oxford Road, are a student favourite, with many spending summer days preparing for exams on the lawn.

However, this year’s ‘Encountering Corpses’ symposium has unearthed the park’s past as an 18th Century cemetery.

Opened in April 1820, the Victorian burial ground accompanied neighbouring newly-built All Saints Church, which was demolished some years later after suffering heavy damage during the Manchester Blitz.

The Church was a popular hub of the community in south Manchester, hosting musical concerts as well as weekly services for its parishioners.

Michala Hulme, lecturer in history at Manchester Metropolitan University, who has investigated the site, said: “On 31 March 1856, All Saints Burial Ground was partly closed under direction of the new Burial Acts. The Acts facilitated the appointment of burial boards, which could use money from the rates to establish public cemeteries.

“The Burial Acts also permitted the closing down of local burial grounds and churchyards, and the promotion of municipal cemeteries as a preferred method to bury the dead.”

She continued:

“By the end of the nineteenth century the burial ground was in a state of disrepair and neglect with sunken graves, broken headstones, flooding and debris from Oxford Road scattered across the ground.”

“At the start of the following century, calls were made to the council to find an alternate use for the burial ground. Seen as a valuable open space in a built-up city, it was proposed that it should be converted into a children’s park.

“After 25 years of negotiations, finally, on 27 May 1935, the All Saints playground officially opened. It was described as one of the ‘brightest places in Manchester, with 30,000 children enjoying the park in the first six weeks’.”

The introduction of this haven for children would have been a welcome sight for the people of Manchester, as it was around the same time the industrialised Cottonopolis was described by German visitor Friedrich Engels as a place of ‘filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness’.

All Saints Church’s presence on its Grosvenor Square site is now only marked with a plaque, passed by hundreds of students daily.

‘Encountering Corpses’, which runs from December 8-9, seeks to tell the lives of those 16,000 people buried under the park.

The programme revolves around research, with the event hosting guest speakers from across the UK and the US, tackling subjects such as theory of the dead body, biomedicine, the digital dead body, celebrity corpses and how we encounter death on screen.

Professor of Human Geography and co-curator of Encountering Corpses, Craig Young, explained where the idea for the event had come from.

He said: “I had worked on post Communist Eastern Europe and the politics of identity in that context. I was interested in the mobility of the dead body and how that linked to issues of identity. After my inaugural lecture at the University, we decided to take the idea forward into Encountering Corpses.”

Co-curator Helen Darby added what she hopes the two day event will achieve: “Encountering Corpses, in it’s fourth year now, is about addressing the disconnect, where we know they’re there but we don’t feel they’re there or think about it. This art installation will help make people aware that there are 16,000 people underneath their feet, and ask themselves questions.”

“We wanted to bring an actual encounter to the symposium. In 2014, we went to see the Manchester Mummies and the following conference was in Southern Cemetery. Everybody has always said there are bodies in the park, which we had always regarded as an urban myth. We knew it had been a graveyard, but with more research we found out that there was in fact over 16,000 people buried here.”

Encountering Corpses includes art installations in the park, which the curators intended to allow visitors and frequenters of the park as an opportunity to try and connect with it’s past.

“It hadn’t occurred to me that the installation would make noise, but quite a few people have said it sounds like bones clattering when it gets windy, as if they were speaking to you.”

On Saturday afternoon, academics and artists will talk to visitors about their experiences of interacting with the former churchyard.

More information about the project can be found at https://encounteringcorpses.wordpress.com/

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