The Glasgow Necropolis - Times Past

In partnership with the Glasgow Times​, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Nerys Tunnicliffe writes about the Glasgow Necropolis.

Located on the hill next to Glasgow Cathedral, the Glasgow Necropolis with its elaborate tombs and memorials is an atmospheric site. It has seen 50,000 burials since it opened in 1833. As well as the interment registers, the City Archives hold the financial and lair records for the cemetery, and the Merchants House Committee books, giving unique insight into the history and development of the cemetery. It passed into the care of the council in 1966 and has become a popular tourist attraction.

It's the final resting place for many notable Glaswegians from Lord Provosts like publisher William Collins, philanthropist Isabella Ure Elder, and the fire officers tragically killed in the 1960 Cheapside Street and 1972 Kilbirnie Street fires. Monuments include designs by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Macintosh. The first burial was at the Jewish section, of Joseph Levi a jeweller and burials of other faiths from Quakers to Catholics have followed.

The Merchants House of Glasgow purchased the rocky hill as part of the Wester Craigs lands in 1650, for the stone quarry on the estate. Fir trees were planted on the western grounds too difficult to quarry from, and the area became known as Fir Park. When the Fir trees began to die out due to the city’s industry, other trees such as elm were planted creating an arboretum and park.  In 1825, the column and statue to John Knox, funded by public subscription, was added to the park’s summit as a centrepiece. 

Records show the Merchants House considering opening a new ‘garden’ cemetery at Fir Park from 1828. Future City Chamberlain John Strang wrote ‘Necropolis Glasguensis’ in 1831 in support of the idea, arguing that ‘A garden cemetery and monumental decoration afford the most convincing tokens of a nation’s progress in civilization…’. 

The idea had a commercial aspect with profitable fees for plots, but there was a real need for more planned urban cemeteries. Glasgow’s ever-increasing population growth from the early 1800’s led to greater demands for burials, with poor housing and sanitation affecting morality rates too. Existing burial grounds were becoming massively overcrowded, compounded by outbreaks of cholera and other diseases, prompting hygiene concerns.

At the same time, the emerging middle class, profiting from Glasgow’s trade boom, wanted better sites for commemoration of their deceased. The fashion for elegant and ornate funerals and monuments, which reached its height in Victorian times, was just beginning in the 1830’s. 

The Necropolis was intended to be a beautiful and sanitary non-denominational cemetery, similar to the park inspired Parisian cemetery Pere Lachaise. There was an emphasis on planning, landscaping, trees and shrubs. The Necropolis’ first superintendent was a garden landscaper, George Milyne. There were strict rules requiring plans for all monuments to be submitted for approval, fines for any visitors ‘interfering’ with plants, fences or tombs, and strictly no dogs or cattle permitted on the grounds! This careful design, and its 3500 eclectic monuments make the Glasgow Necropolis the stunning and historic site it is today.
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