In her much-loved classic Seven Golden Miles Kathleen Eyre traces the history of Blackpool from its earliest times to the 1960s. Her book tells us that when people began to take an interest in going to the seaside in the late 18th century - primarily for health reasons but later for recreation as well - there were just a few hundred people living along the Fylde coastal strip.
Conditions of everyday life in this sparsely-populated area were extremely basic, and to celebrate or mourn their rites of passage – birth, christening, adolescence, marriage and death – people looked to the church; one of the few was All Hallows Church, Bispham, where graves in the churchyard date back many hundreds of years. St John's Episcopal Chapel, later St John's Church in Blackpool town centre, did not come onto the scene until 1820.
The first burial in St John's churchyard took place on 14 October 1822 and interments continued there until late Victorian times, when on the 3 December 1871 Henry Bruce, the Home Secretary, stated that St John's graveyard was now full to capacity and no further burials would be allowed.
So the search was on to find a new burial ground, near enough for people to travel easily from Blackpool town centre, but large enough to accommodate an ever greater number of burials due to the rapid growth of the resident population. Between 1801 and 1881 the population of Blackpool had jumped from 500 to 12,000 and showed no signs of slowing down.
Cremation at that time was more or less banned due to the traditional influence of the Christian Church, which always maintained that cremation was a pagan rite making resurrection impossible on the Day of Judgement.
So the only limiting factors to the location of the new burial ground were that it must be within easy travelling distance of the town centre, and also provide adequate room for future expansion.
The site in Blackpool which fulfilled these criteria was located at Layton, and 5 acres of land were originally acquired for the purposes of laying out areas for graves, drives, mortuary chapels and an administration centre. This became the Blackpool Cemetery, which we know today as Layton Cemetery, and was opened on 14 February 1873.
In 1902 cremation was finally given Parliamentary approval and crematoria began to be established in major towns and cities in the United Kingdom. However, there was no space available for a crematorium at the Blackpool Cemetery, and in any case the people of Layton would likely be hostile to one being sited next to their village centre.
But with a population of more than 47,000 people now living in Blackpool the cemetery at Layton continued to fill up fast, and it became necessary to buy more land and demolish two of the three mortuary chapels in order to create more space for graves.
To exacerbate the pressure for burial plots, the First World War saw Blackpool become the centre for the treatment and recovery of war victims and of course many died, meaning even more graves were required at Layton.
There are over 200 military graves in Layton Cemetery, and the Cross of Sacrifice indicates that it is the location of a major Military Cemetery. By the 1920s availability of land to expand the Blackpool Cemetery at Layton was reaching its absolute limit and it became obvious that a new burial ground was urgently needed.
The Corporation had to act fast, but the way forward had already been shown in a far-sighted plan to relocate the cramped 19th century Victoria Hospital, situated on Whitegate Drive, into the countryside beyond Stanley Park. This area was the Whinney Heys Hall estate and had been bought by Blackpool Corporation in 1930. It was an area devoid of development with more than adequate room to expand well into the foreseeable future.
This bold and far-sighted relocation out of town was made possible by the fact that by the 1920s and '30s private cars, buses, and goods vehicles were now commonplace, and the road system around Blackpool was being greatly improved. So with the transport problem solved, the plan to site a new cemetery and crematorium for Blackpool well away from densely populated areas was now becoming a reality.
The site chosen, next to Carleton Lodge Farm, had sufficient room for the anticipated future expansion, but being only a short distance from Bispham it was also easily accessible. Kathleen Eyre called the 1930s “the period of Blackpool's greatest achievements” and new developments during this decade included the Derby Baths, Talbot Road Bus Station, St John's Market, the Technical College, public libraries, Stanley Terrace Municipal Offices, Stanley Park Cafe & Golf Clubhouse, and many more – not least of all a brand-new cemetery and crematorium near Carleton village.
The hand of genius behind all this development was John Charles Robinson, Borough Surveyor and Designer from 1920 to 1944. He was involved in the acquisition of the land for the new Carleton Cemetery and took a personal interest in the laying out of the site and construction of the new crematorium, the foundation stone for which was laid on 5 February 1934 by the Mayor of Blackpool, Charles Tatham.
Robinson's design for the crematorium is said to have been inspired by the legendary Mausoleum of Mausolus, but my personal view it that the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, which was in the course of being constructed at the time in the Gothic revival style, is another serious contender. In any event, like all of Robinson's other creations, Carleton Crematorium was way ahead of its time both in its design and function.
In 1935 cremation only accounted for 4% of funerals, whilst today the figure is over 75% of people choosing cremation over burial. Throughout that period Carleton Crematorium has stood the test of time. Moreover, resistance to cremation by the western Christian Church has now all but disappeared. Many high-profile people have opted for cremation including members of the royal family, thus making the practice more socially acceptable – or even ‘the norm’ these days.
For the record, there are over 22,000 graves in Carleton Cemetery and the first cremation at the Crematorium was on 25 September 1935. Carleton Crematorium is set in semi-rural surroundings and is a very pleasant place for a stroll or rest amongst the green spaces, trees, rose garden and natural water features.
Graves of well-known people at Carleton Cemetery include Frank Randle (comedian), Brian Rossi (entertainer), Arthur Worsley (ventriloquist), Norman Evans (comedian), Tony Carr (composer and impresario) and Norman Murray Walters (escapologist).
Famous people cremated at Carleton include Reginald Dixon (organist), Violet Carson (actor, pianist), Stan Mortensen (footballer), Charles Barlow (bandleader), Jimmy Clitheroe (comedian), John Comer (actor) and Beatrix Potter (author).
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Denys J. Barber