Surprisingly, in contrast to the Victorian obsession with all things morbid and mourning, the well-known (and even much-loved by some!) Layton Cemetery on Talbot Road Blackpool had a very low-key and inauspicious beginning.
One of the main reasons for its presence is an Act of Parliament, which in 1871 radically changed the administration of local government and public health in England. A profound effect of this Act, as far as Blackpool was concerned, made illegal any further interments within the nearly-full St John's Churchyard in the town centre. Burials had been taking place there continuously since the church's foundation 50 years before, starting with the burial of one John Butcher, aged 3 days, on 14th of October 1822.
Before that time a burial in the Christian faith on the Fylde coast could only officially take place at the few parish churchyards in existence - which for most Blackpool residents meant All Hallows Bispham, a good few miles distant and accessible only on foot, horse-drawn carriage or bicycle.
Burials at St John's Churchyard continued for a while after 1871 but it was only to be a period of grace. Suitable land was urgently sought close to the town centre, and so able to be reached by the tramway network. Layton had spare land which fitted that bill perfectly and was already linked to Blackpool by New Road (now Talbot Road).
Without delay, Blackpool Corporation purchased 5 acres of land close by Layton Square and work began at once to clear the site, build drives, chapels and an administration centre. Links with that time to the present day include the cemetery's Mortuary Chapel, the Administration office, the gates, gateposts and the drives and walls. Layton Square became the terminus of the new tramway and it became affectionately known as “the dead stop”.
In fact, trams were once used to transport a coffin and the mourners to the cemetery. Alex Hollas was a tramways inspector and had been killed in an accident at the depot in December 1912. His last journey was by casket to the cemetery on board the No 5 tram, followed by mourners in the No 6! One of these trams is still in existence.
When the cemetery opened, John Wray (an ancestor of the family of monumental masons) was appointed to record all burials, exhumations and unusual incidents. He remained in post for 40 years and his records are in use to this day.
Then, suddenly, a potential problem appeared with regard to having a cemetery at Layton. An isolation hospital was already in existence on the site and its presence in the midst of a cemetery was proving to be an unpleasant distraction for local residents; so it was quickly demolished following the departure of the patients.
Layton Cemetery was dedicated on the 7th of February 1873 and opened 7 days later. It was consecrated by the Bishop of Manchester in August of the same year. The first burial to take place was that of John Slater, head gardener at Bailey's Hotel, on the 9th of February 1873, and his gravestone is still in existence. John Slater was, however, not buried in a prime plot.
Blackpool Corporation had realised early on that they could sell at premium prices the most prestigious plots close to the main entrance to wealthy and prominent residents of the town. This would also add to the prestige of the cemetery - as well as filling the town hall coffers. And so the graves either side of the main drive which led up to the grand Church of England Mortuary Chapel – the Grade II listed symbol of Layton Cemetery – became the prime resting places of choice for the great, the good and most importantly the well-off of the town, with prices to match!
As the years passed, Layton Cemetery expanded as the remaining land to the north, as far as Mansfield Road, was bought up piece by piece. By continuing down the main drive, walking past the Mortuary Chapel and into the cemetery extension, you leave the Victorian era and move into the 20th century. The massive polished granite tombs with their angels, obelisks and urns are suddenly gone - and in their place are more simple, utilitarian gravestones, there not to impress the bystander, but simply to tell you details about the person who is buried and when they died.
As you continue your walk the 20th century rolls on, and evidence of the carnage of two World Wars soon begins to make its presence felt. There are hundreds of war graves dotted all around, and even a Polish Cemetery dedicated to the Polish airmen who died in Blackpool during and after World War II.
A Cross of Sacrifice, awarded to the cemetery by the British and Commonwealth War Graves Commission, immediately becomes visible standing immaculately and proudly in perpetual memory of the service men and women who gave their lives to their country in her time of need.
Last year my colleague Nigel Robinson-Wright, one of the cemetery volunteers, enlisted the help of local schools and friends to make a garland of hand-knitted poppies to adorn the Cross. Mr Robinson also organised a service of remembrance, again with the assistance of local schools, probably a first in the history of the Cross of Sacrifice being placed there.
By the 1930s it became evident that Layton Cemetery was soon going to be replete like its predecessor at St John's. However, this time things were not left to the last moment and plans were soon in place to deal with this eventuality. Bearing in mind changes in ideas and tastes with regard to disposal of the dead – especially now that cremation was becoming more acceptable - a bold and futuristic approach was needed.
An open expanse of land in a country setting was required on which to build a brand-new purpose-built cemetery, with a crematorium, to replace Layton. The ideal place was found at Carleton, and the facility was opened in 1935.
Today, Layton Cemetery occupies 22.2 acres and has 22,300 graves, but no longer accepts requests for new burial plots. But with its 400 war graves and Cross of Sacrifice, its Polish Airforce Cemetery and Jewish and Muslim sections, Layton Cemetery still has a relevant purpose to this day and provides an open space in the heart of Layton for people to enjoy sunshine and fresh air in an historic setting surrounded by names of famous people, who together made Blackpool the greatest holiday resort in the world.
Denys J. Barber