Field trip to Rochdale Cemetery - August 2009

Why Rochdale Cemetery is dead interesting!

When Marjorie Mosley proposed a walk round Rochdale Cemetery I suspect most of us were a bit sceptical: yes there would be different types of stone to look at but so what? In fact Rochdale Cemetery has had a geological trail since it was opened in 1855. It was planned by Abraham Stansfield and two geologists: James Horsfall and Robert Law. It is thought that the idea was to ‘educate and instruct others in the science of the earth’ (Maxim ms.note 133).

So it was that 10 us joined her early on a Sunday morning to follow this trail.

She gave us an excellent handout listing all 27 of the different stones: they were usually small blocks up to 2ft high following a track round the main cemetery roadway. I will not give a list of all of them but will mention a few specifically. the stones had been laid out in a sort of chronological order: Volcanic Series (basalt), Plutonic Series (granites), Metamorphic Series (marble, porphyrite, serpentinite), Cambrian (slate), Silurian (limestone), Old Red Sandstone (as they called it: we know it as Devonian) (sandstone!), Carboniferous (limestones), Upper Carboniferous (coal in a sandstone trough), Coal Series (Millstone Grit, sandstones and flagstone), (all three are know known as the Carboniferous) Permian (Magnesian Limestone), Salt Series (gypsum, desert sandstone), Liassic (limestones) (these latter two are now the Triassic), Lower, Middle and Upper Oolitic (fossiliferous sandstones, Coralian limestone and Portland Stone), (now known as Jurassic) Wealden (marble), Chalk (Kentish Rag - which was actually missing) (both now included in the Cretaceous) and the Drift Series (glacial erratics) representing the Quaternary.

The trail started with a Starting Stone with a quote ‘In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth’ and a note that the trail moved from old to young rocks - this was found in a ditch by the side of the cemetery wall.

There was a Finishing Stone with the quote ‘Speak to the Earth and it will teach Thee’. This stone was actually hidden under a tree and not easy to see.

Marjorie started the trip with a short history of the development of the cemetery and noted that the Church of England dead were on one side of the road and the Catholics, Jews and non-conformists on the other. She had also told us that towards the back of the cemetery there was now a Muslim graveyard and that the headstones all pointed North East. No-one could explain why and she had not been able to find out. There is a very old yew tree in the area and apparently it was grown from the yew tree on Napoleon’s grave on St Helena. during the trip we also passed the grave of Benjamin Rudman, one of the original Rochdale Pioneers.

As we proceeded round the trail, it became clear that the rock specimens had come from various parts of the country together with Ireland and Italy. Sufficient detail had been kept that many of the quarries were known by name (for instance the granites were from Rubislaw Quarry, A McDonald’s works in Aberdeen). There were, as might be expected, local examples within the Carboniferous, Upper Carboniferous and Coal series from Buxton, Littleborough, Whitworth, Wigan etc. We saw a variety of different fossils: bryzoan, rugose coral, brachipods and crinoids.

Several of the limestones we saw had been referred to as “Marble” - this was a stonemason’s term generally applied to limestones. Stonemasons also tend to refer to anything else hard and that didn’t cleave well as granite even though it could be quartzite as that found in the Ingletonian Granite Quarry near Ingleton.

The Cambrian Clay slates had been carved into octagonal shapes, though no one knows why, possibly because they did not cleave as easily as other slates. The Liassic series was supposedly fragments of limestones taken from various locations Whitby to Lyme Regis but unfortunately these seem to have disappeared - road widening at that point had probably been the cause.The Wealden series was represented by ‘Bethersden Marble’ from Kent which is a freshwater limestone (used in Canterbury Cathedral) and containing Paludina fossils. The glacial erratics had not been identified and were now partly buried near the Finishing Stones and very difficult to find.

Whilst some of the stones are difficult to find, the value of the trail has been acknowledged and Marjorie said that funding is being obtained to renovate the trail and provide a guide. She will be very much involved in this and that is a credit to her research and persistence in persuading the Council that it needed to conserve this piece of history.

Professor Sir William Boyd-Dawkins (Manchester University and of the Boyd-Dawkins Room at Buxton Museum) was apparently very impressed by the trail and gave a public lecture and field trip round in June 1881 to 30 members of the Rochdale Literary and Scientific Society.

There may only have been 10 of us, but 128 years later, we found the experience extremely interesting and well worth the trip.

Jane Michael

O.S. Maps:
OS Explorer 287 West Pennine Moors.

Broadhurst, F.M., Eager, R.M.C., Jackson, J.W., Simpson, I.M. and Thompson, D.B. 1970 No. 7: The Area around Manchester. Geologists’ Association Guide.

Baldwin, A and Alderson, D.M 1996 A remarkable survivor: a 19th Century geological trail in Rochdale. Geological Curator Volume 6, No. 6

Kathleen Mais