The cemetery went on fulfilling its function undisturbed for well over a century. It escaped serious damage during World War Two but a few headstones to the east side of the Middle Walk are said to have been hit by enemy aircraft fire.
However, in the mid 1960s plans were prepared for a dual carriageway to connect the Coast Road from Tynemouth with the Central Motorway East along a widened Jesmond Road. This inevitably meant encroaching on part of the cemetery, and in 1967 the private company was wound up and returned to the City Council. The proposed upheaval would involve major problems – about 600 graves (nearly 1,100 burials) some more than 100 years old, would need to be exhumed and reinterred, and John Dobson’s magnificent entrance gateway and chapels would have to be moved.
The legal machinery whirred into action. Noticed were issued and attempts made to contact the relatives of all those burials involved. Relatives were given the right to carry out removals to any other cemetery, up to a maximum cost of £100, or allow a transfer to another part of the cemetery. The Council undertook to re-erect all monuments and tombstones unless in a ruinous condition. Years later the number of unclaimed graves was ‘considerable’, and of those families successfully contacted only two opted for private removal. Only one was ‘not keen to have remains disturbed’. The rest of the tombs had to be moved without consent.
The estimated cost of re-siting the gateway and chapels amounted to £100,000. This seemed too expensive to the City Planning Department and demolition was proposed. However, pressure from conservation groups brought the Environment Minister into the controversy. Because the buildings were of exceptional architectural and historical importance, as well as being structurally sound, dry-jointed and capable of being re-erected elsewhere, he offered a 75 per cent grant. Suggestions for the new site included Leazes Park, Denton Burn Crematorium, a new entrance to All Saints Cemetery at the east end of Clayton Road, and replacing the gateway on Sandyford Road. Other plans involved making them into a symbolic gateway to the city at the eastern tip of Jesmond Old Cemetery, or just moving everything 40 metres into the cemetery, necessitating the transfer of even more graves. The problem was rapidly becoming a test of national importance as this time no historic building had ever been officially wiped out by a motorway.
REMOVAL OF GRAVES
In 1971 work began on the removal of the graves, ‘with the utmost reverence’ by the London Necropolis Company, and although they usually carried out exhumations at night constraints on this project meant that they worked in daylight too with protective screening. Public access was not allowed. All soil was sifted for remains which were then re-coffined and reburied. The work on the Jesmond Road border took several months and at a later date more exhumations took place on the Sandyford Road and in the South West area. Eventually the whole bypass scheme collapsed because of legal difficulties and when the project was resurrected nearly 30 years later the ‘dualling’ of Jesmond Road and the widening of Sandyford Road never took place.