The St Mary’s Churchyard Action Group (CAG) Volunteers are a non-religious group who work within the historic graveyard of St Mary the Virgin, in Church Lane. The site is the size of three football pitches, with gravestones that date back to 1641, and is of a semi-wild condition bordered on its south side by Prestwich Clough.
The Church itself is Grade I listed and there are a further 25 Grade II and II* historic monuments, buildings, gravestones and features within the churchyard, of local, national and global importance.
In the late 1990s the Churchyard had been declining for several decades. With the Church using just a small area for current burials, the older sections were falling into disrepair and nature was claiming much of the site, making it inaccessible to visitors. There was also a lack of burial records, stopping families from finding their ancestors.
A group of parishioners decided that action must be taken to restore and protect the churchyard. As the brambles approached steadily towards the Church tower, the area was at risk of being lost entirely. In 2003, the first group meeting minutes were recorded, and the following year, Commonwealth War Grave Commission funding was secured for the maintenance of the 48 CWGC burial plots of ex-service men and women located at St Mary’s. That makes 2023 our 20th anniversary!
In 2006, the volunteers achieved another milestone with the commissioning of a memorial to five thousand inmates of ther old Prestwich Asylum buried at St Mary’s between 1850 and 1930, many in unmarked pauper graves.
Further hard work by the group then succeeded in securing National Lottery Heritage funding, which allowed for improvements to pathways, walls and railings, a site survey identifying the heritage structures and wildlife habitats across the 7.5acre site. The funding created a conservation plan to outline future works, and the burial records were also collated with those that were visible to create a database of known burials.
There was great interest with volunteers uncovering lost and forgotten grave stones, and researching the stories of the people connected with them. A notable find by the volunteers was the grave of William Sturgeon, which recorded his occupation simply as The Electrician. William had actually invented the Electromagnetic motor, amongst other creations, and his technology lives on inside cars, hairdryers, MRI scanners and washing machines. Sadly he died penniless but a local benefactor paid for his grave stone. Other notable graves that the volunteers restored access to were those of the Prestwich Artisan Naturalists: Buxton, Percival; and Horsefield, and The Manchester Poet – Charles Swain. Plus William Grimshaw, The Gramophone King, one of the first ever Disc Jockeys…
The grave of a notable member of the Chartist Movement (by the same name: William Grimshaw) still remains un-located, and occasionally graves are still being uncovered dating back to the 18th century. Who knows what stories are yet to be uncovered…
The great age of discovery in the Churchyard started to wane, and as the tasks became more about maintenance, litter picking and sweeping, the volunteers grew up or moved on and the number of volunteers fell. Now the volunteers number about eight or nine, and we get assistance from Community Payback teams who do a lot of raking, cutting and strimming around the site. With their help, the volunteers deliver over 120 remembrance crosses to graves every November.
The volunteers meet every Tuesday, 8:30am (brews by 10:30), and perform the pressing jobs of the season, be it the planting of bulbs or trees, weeding, sweeping of leaves or minor repairs of pathways and graves. They always seek to swell their ranks and, at home, the volunteers help promote the activities of the group, apply for funding so they can buy tools, benches and gravel; employ tree surgeons or stone masons as required, and during selected weekends during Spring and Summer they offer free tours of the Churchyard. During the tours, the stories of the rich, famous, inventive, artistic and sometimes unfortunate people of Prestwich and beyond are recounted.
Future projects for the volunteers include the restoration of two listed monuments, the War Memorial Cross and the John Brooks Memorial, and also to improve the health (and safety) of the woodland and habitats that share our wonderful space…
For lots more details on the work of the St Mary’s Churchyard Action Group plus details of the graveyard, tours and much more – click here
There’s also a route for walking tours around the Churchyard – click here
Follow the Group on Facebook – Friends of St Mary’s Churchyard