How the heck did I ever get involved with Jesmond Old Cemetery, is a question I often ask myself, and one I always address at the beginning of our tours or presentations… I blame my sons!! I’ve always had an interest in local history, collecting a few books on Newcastle life and culture (mainly pub life and culture, if I’m honest) on the way and, on Father’s Day in June 2007, I received a gift off my lads that began my love affair with Jesmond Old Cemetery…… it was Alan Morgan’s ‘A Fine and Private Place: Jesmond Old Cemetery’. Now then, I have to confess that I’d never set foot in the place prior to receiving the book, despite driving past it every day on my way to and from work. Obviously, like most commuters travelling along Jesmond Road, I was aware of the high walls and the imposing Chapels at the entrance, and even took the occasional opportunity to have a quick glance past the open gates when stuck in traffic but I’d never been in. This book changed all that…..
After opening the book, a whole host of familiar sounding place names leapt out of the pages at me; Dobson’s, the Hancock Museum, Pumphrey’s, the Laing Art Gallery, the Sutherland Building, Burt Hall….. all local ‘places’ I’d visited, drank in or worked in but now, here in my hands, was the answer as to where all of these names had come from – real people, who had once lived and breathed the same Tyneside air as me. What a revelation…. how exciting…. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the men and women who had contributed so much more than their names to Newcastle’s pubs, museums and buildings. So, off I went, Alan’s book in hand, really looking forward to strolling around that mysterious place behind the high walls, being inspired by the architecture of the monuments, reading the details contained thereon and ‘ticking off’ the famous names identified within the pages of his book – oh boy, was I in for a shock!! My vision of an orderly, neat and tidy Victorian cemetery was quickly dashed as I was faced with the reality of, in my eyes, admittedly, what can only be described as a mess!! Now, I know that ‘neat and tidy’ isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and that my idea of a ‘mess’ is another’s idea of perfection but I was really upset by what I saw that day. To be fair, not everything was messy – the most easily accessible footpaths and grassed areas were obviously tended to, but access to the vast majority of the monuments proved to be almost impossible due to the overgrown presence of brambles, nettles, vines, self-seeded saplings and something akin to a Triffid, which I later found out was called Japanese Knot Weed. So, what to do? Surprisingly, as I’m not usually one for being ‘active’, I decided to write to ‘the Coonsill’. I still have the letter I wrote to Bereavement Services, dated 14th August 2007, where I rather dramatically stated my ‘distress and embarrassment to find this monument to so many famous Tyneside individuals in such a state of neglect’, then went on to make a number of queries about ‘financial investment’ and ‘plans or projects that may be in the pipeline for restoring Jesmond Old Cemetery’, before going on to ask the fateful question, “is there a Friends of Jesmond Old Cemetery group that you know of?”