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Christine Chapple

Christine Chapple 1950-2005: Pioneer in the restoration of Undercliffe Cemetery

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Christine outside the Lodge in its original position on Rooley Lane, before it was moved to Undercliffe & officially opened by the Lord Mayor in 1991.

(Original photo in the Yorkshire Post, cited by Colin Clark & Reuben Davison: ‘In Loving Memory: The Story of Undercliffe Cemetery’ Sutton Publishing, 2004).

Christine Chapple is remembered as a tireless campaigner for the purchase and restoration of Undercliffe Cemetery in the 1980s. This brief biography is based on my remembrances of Christine at that time, the various pamphlets that she wrote about the history of the Cemetery, and newspaper reports by the Telegraph and Argus about the campaign to Save the Cemetery.  There will undoubtedly be others who knew Christine and could add to this account: if so, please get in touch via the email address on our website.

Born in 1950, as Christine Ratcliffe (I think) Christine had family grave papers dating back to 1885 for a plot in the consecrated section, just off the main boulevard. She therefore had a very personal investment in the future of the Cemetery, but as a local historian, she also had a firm belief, with Sir Winston Churchill, that:

‘The country which destroys its past, deserves to have no future’…

Those of you who know a little of the Cemetery’s history will be aware that it was a commercial enterprise established by a group of businessmen in the 1850s and initially very successful. However, a hundred years later the Cemetery was in decline, and by 1976, the Cemetery Company had gone into liquidation. The Council were offered the Cemetery on three occasions, but declined to take it on, given the resources that would be needed to repair and run it. The liquidators subsequently locked the offices and gates and dereliction and destruction ensued. A couple of years later, in 1978, hopes were raised for a brighter future as a buyer was finally found, but when the property developer and his son from Baildon moved in, they began to knock down the buildings on site: the original Lodges at the top entrance, the two chapels on the main boulevard and, finally, the gatehouse entrance at Otley Road. Horrified, Christine set up the ‘Friends of Undercliffe Cemetery’ and work groups were established to tend different areas. Whilst with a working party one Sunday afternoon in September 1981 with husband, Tony, and son, Michael aged 4, she was approached by a passer-by who asked her ’can you do anything to stop the removal of kerb stones from graves in the cemetery?’. He then showed what the new owners were doing in another area of the Cemetery. When Christine saw what she felt was the desecration of graves, this sent her into orbit. She wrote later:

‘the shock that I felt is still with me even after all this time and the realisation that I just had to do something’

And she did, taking on both the Council and the property developer owner. Galvanised into action, she contacted a reporter, Paul Parker, at the T&A. The story became headline news in the T&A the next day, Monday 28th Sept 1981, with photos of the property developer wielding a sledgehammer, amassing gravestones for waiting lorries. In the years that followed, Paul Parker became an important ally at the T&A, and many more Bradfordians joined the Friends of Undercliffe Cemetery through this publicity.

Christine, supported by her husband Tony and the Friends pressure group, fought tirelessly to rescue the Cemetery from what they saw as the ravaging hands of the new owner, mounting a relentless campaign to persuade the Council to compulsorily purchase the Cemetery. Such was her dogged, terrier-like determination that in time, she became known by some at the Council as ‘that bloody woman from Gomersal’. She was indeed tenacious, constantly ‘on the case’ of any and every official, but it paid off.   In November 1981 the Council’s Planning Committee paid a visit to Undercliffe to see what was happening for themselves and, according to Christine, they viewed the scene in ‘shocked silence’. A public meeting about the future of the Cemetery was arranged at Central Library for the end of the month, attended by a large number of concerned Bradfordians. A steering committee was formed with the idea of setting up a trust to protect the cemetery.  A leading firm of solicitors, Last Suddards, provided free legal support. They advised the Friends that although the owner had title to the land, that it was the grave owners and descendants who owned the gravestones. It was hoped that this would restrain the owner, and that he might consider donating the cemetery to them for safe-keeping, but the property developer was nothing if not tenacious himself, arguing that he needed to sell the stones to pay the rates (council tax) and so he continued to remove and sell them by the lorry load, including stone from the buildings that were originally part of the cemetery infra structure. A dossier was compiled by Christine and the Friends, with photos and notes of stones removed – this was forwarded to the Council’s solicitors in 1983, with a request that they take out a court injunction to prevent any further removals, but this was turned down by the Council’s Leeds- based solicitors. The final building left standing, the gatehouse at the Otley Road entrance, was then demolished (1983).

Christine and the Friends then decided to appeal for help at a national level. An application was submitted to the Department of the Environment to consider listing some of the most important monuments to protect them. Listed status was subsequently granted to six monuments, and in June 1984 the Cemetery was made a conservation area.  This proved a turning point and at last, on 1st March 1985, Bradford Council compulsorily purchased the Cemetery and took responsibility for its future.  This had taken four and a half years of campaigning, and had become almost a full time job for Christine with the support of her family and the Friends. A celebratory meal was called for and it took place at the George and Dragon in Apperley Bridge (also, co-incidentally, where current volunteers enjoyed their 2019 Christmas meal).  

In the following year, 1985, restoration began. Over sixty new jobs were advertised as part of a Manpower Services Commission (MSC) scheme, with work beginning in 1986. The running of the Cemetery was handed over to a charitable company of ten Directors, including Christine and myself. The MSC scheme, in partnership with the Council and Cemetery Board of Directors, kick-started the huge amount of work needed to restore the site to its once proud state, including the restoration of roadways, walls, entrances, the steps to the historic core and parking areas. The current Lodge was identified as possible replacement for one of the old entrances that had been knocked down (see photo above)  and was relocated from its Rooley Lane site, with an official opening in 1991. Undercliffe also had to continue as a working cemetery, and Christine became the Bradford (Undercliffe) Cemetery Company’s first Registrar, with myself as deputy, ensuring that burials could continue and that new plots could be purchased.  

Christine’s work, and that of her husband, Tony Chapple, was recognised in The Bradford Civic Society Merit Award in 1986 for:

‘their initiative and persistence towards the preservation of Undercliffe Cemetery and for co-ordinating public interest which led to the acquisition and restoration of a monument of local and national interest’ (citation).

Christine also wrote/ co-wrote with other members of the Friends several booklets, recording this phase of the Cemetery’s history:

‘Bradford’s Great Heritage in Stone’ (no date)

Undercliffe Cemetery: The Friends’ Fight to Save It’ (1987)

‘Undercliffe Cemetery: The Reason Why’ (1987)

The Friends were eventually disbanded, their mission complete, and after a couple of years as Registrar, Christine relinquished the role as the family moved to York for husband Tony to take up a new job. They became involved in other cemeteries more local to them, and Christine was involved in setting up the original National Federation of Cemetery Friends.

I am not sure what happened after that as we lost touch, but Christine sadly died ‘came home’ to the Cemetery having passed away on 2nd July 2005 at the age of 55 in Inverclyde Hospital in Scotland following an illness. In 2018 Tony Chapple returned to give us an archive of newspaper cuttings, pamphlets and other memorabilia associated with the Cemetery that they had collected over the years. The T&A published an article about his visit which you may have seen on on our website at the time.

Jacqui Ambler (additional research in the grave registers by Marjorie Hopkinson).

Updated May 2020.

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