In all probability when the proposal to build a new Asda superstore in Swinton comes before Salford Council's Planning Panel it will be passed. It is almost not worth reporting another proposal to build another supermarket in Salford. As one resident told me, "Supermarkets in Salford are like cabbages in a cabbage field"; however this story has a number of twists. But let's start at the beginning…
When Salford Council sold Swinton Precinct to private owners (which many say was the beginning of the Precinct's demise) there was a covenant on part of the site for the Council to care for the land. The covenant in question was created by the Unitarian Church when the Unitarian Church of Swinton was demolished in 1984. When Salford Council sold the Precinct it also sold land which it had been entrusted to care for by the Church. That land contained the graves of over 300 people.
"The church put a covenant on the land, they said to the Council, `We want you to have the land, we want you to care for it, here's a covenant so you can't develop on it'" says Michael Moulding, of the Friends of Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground group "Whilst that covenant was in place the Council sold it to a private company and that is the most disgraceful thing you could ever do to a burial ground that also contains a war grave."
So why after selling the land nearly twenty years ago has this issue come to light?
The Precinct is owned by the West Bromwich Building Society who repossessed the site from the previous owners, who owed in the region, it has been claimed, of £30million. The building society has employed receivers, in this case GVA Grimley, whose role is to search for the best ways for the West Bromwich Building Society to get its money back. The best way they have identified to do this in the short term and allow the Precinct to appear attractive to potential investors, is to build a new supermarket on the Precinct.
People will argue that another supermarket will be the death of many of the existing independent shops and they will point to the Council being the architect of all this by selling the Precinct originally. Council's such as Rotherham have shown, despite the recession, town centres full of small independent shops can flourish with area loyalty cards, attractive rents and other financial incentives.
Now you may be wondering what all this has to do with covenants and burial grounds? And the simple answer is that slap bang in the middle of the existing car parks on Swinton Precinct is the site of the old Swinton Unitarian Church, now just a patch of grass, but underneath containing over three hundred graves, including men who died in a pit accident and a grave containing a Private Blears - his grave was confirmed to me as a war grave by Matt Morris of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He further stated that on principle the Commission is against the disturbance of war graves, but conceded that they have no say in any regulatory process.
With a covenant on the land it is extremely difficult to develop, and this is where our story would come to a full stop. However, it doesn't because on the 22nd June 2011 the Manchester District Association of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (MDA) signed paperwork for a payment of £125,000 to remove the covenant allowing the owners of the land to use it how they saw fit.
Ken Johnson, President of the MDA, told me that the church had lifted the covenant "at the request of the owner to give a clean title to the land and to enable better use to be made of it, if appropriate... Many cases arise where it becomes necessary to build on land once used as a church or a graveyard.
"It will be for the planning authority to decide whether it is in the best interests of the local community to have a new store built on the site or whether the situation will remain as it is at present" he added "The MDA has no opinion on this matter."
I asked Mr Johnson if this was a short sighted view and actually opened the church up to accusations of greed by taking the money and running. He refuted this by saying the church had considered two questions… Firstly, the question of priority. It had decided, using scripture, that as long as the dead are treated respectfully when exhumed, the living must take priority.
Secondly, would there be a benefit from the removal of the covenant? "We came to the conclusion that by removing the covenant the investors in the building society, the builders of any development and those they would employ and the people who would be employed in the long term on the site would all benefit. Many of these would be local people. We felt that any use to which the land would be put would be better than which obtained at the time, and that this too should be of local benefit."
Mr Johnson further felt the need to explain how the £125,000 had been used. He stated that the money has been used solely to help good causes such as Lifeshare, the destitute of Oldham and many drop in centres. I cannot help feeling that perhaps it may have been better if the monies received had been used for the church's work in the Swinton area, after all the people being disturbed were from this town.
The church however will not be fully able to rid itself of accusations of, at best naivety, or at worst greed. They must have had a fair idea when releasing the covenant that the land would be used to build a supermarket. Layne Mercer, a senior director of the receivers GVA, informed me that they had received a number of bids from potential supermarket partners and Asda's was most preferable because it was the least destructive. The covenant was released in June 2011 and the plans submitted towards the end of the year. It is highly unlikely that the drawing of plans and consultations with other supermarkets happened after the covenant was released.
Mr Johnson says that the MDA has no opinion on how the land would be used - but would they not prefer the land to be made into a memorial garden for shoppers, rather than as it will be used, as a service yard for HGVs? Perhaps the MDA's naivety can be illustrated fully with the statement "It will be for the planning authority to decide whether it is in the best interests of the local community." Quite clearly the MDA hasn't been a party to how the planning authorities have decided in the best interest of the community in Salford before.
Unfortunately for the Unitarian Church, their good faith may be tarnished with their association with the developers, who have done little to endear goodwill in the community with some of the insulting reasons they have used to justify their desire to build over the burial ground. Which simply put, is that the people of Swinton have lost any right to challenge over the way this land is used because they have disrespected it.
Asda was asked by the Friends of Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground - formed to try and save the burial ground from the developers - to amend their plans so as not to destroy the burial ground. Asda representative Philip Bartram was quoted by a member of the Friends as saying this was refused because the people of Swinton had treated it as `disrespected waste ground'.
Speaking before that final announcement Layne Mercer of GVA Grimley stated to me that they did originally wish to "avoid any disturbance of the burial ground area, for both moral and economic reasons." However due to a number of reasons, such as space and health and safety "the current layout, which we [GVA/Asda] consider to be the optimum design" will see the burial ground built over.
"It is understood that all gravestones and funerary monuments were removed at the time of demolition and for the past 28 years there has been very little evidence that the church ever existed or that this is a burial ground" says Layne Mercer, justifying the removal of the burial ground and the exhumation of 313 people.
"It is unfortunately the case that the burial ground itself has, since, the church was demolished, appeared to all intents and purposes to be a patch of grass within a car park area, used mainly for locals to exercise their dogs" he adds "There is sadly no sign that the burial ground has been treated in any respectful way over this period. We certainly do not see this as a fitting way to leave those resting there."
I put it to Layne Mercer that it doesn't seem very respectful to remove people from the place they choose to be buried in. He responded by saying "In our view, the deceased and the families chose to be buried in a cemetery environment, within an active churchyard and with appropriate memorial or monuments. This is a far cry from the actual situation for the last 28 years."
Points which to a neutral seem mostly valid, a point which I put to the Friends of the Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground, when I asked them why, if people were so concerned with this burial ground, had the site been left. They explained that people didn't know the site was a burial ground, a point GVA Grimley themselves made in a radio interview. The Friends of the Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground argue that this lack of knowledge was due to a lack of care when the Council looked after the land, which became worse when the land became privately owned. Signage which had been erected went missing in 1984, and the owners, when asked, didn't think it was appropriate to replace it.
Asda and GVA are on extremely thin ice on the question of "respect", for in the plans submitted they were to remove the bodies from Swinton and rebury them in Peel Green. After pressure from the Friends of the Unitarian Burial Ground they will now (if planning permission is granted) be reburied in Swinton Cemetery. When the last person was buried in 1962 in the Unitarian Burial Ground, Swinton was not part of Salford, it was a completely separate town.
The fact remains, though, that Asda wants to build on this land, and at this moment all that stops them is their lack of planning permission, something they will seek to gain when they go before Salford City Council in early April. So what do Salford's councillors think?
Ward councillors Howard Balkind (Lab) and Martin O'Neil (Independent) did not feel the need to reply to my questions. Councillor Norbert Potter (Lab) responded to say that he would not comment, as he is a member of the planning committee and intended to speak and vote on this. I am still waiting for Councillor Potter's response as to why he voiced his approval for the Moorside High School build which removed him from being able to vote in that particular debate?
Councillor Antrobus was contacted by the Friends of Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground, who like Councillor Potter declined to comment. Council Antrobus, a senior councillor and member of the Planning Committee, will perhaps be a little uncomfortable as a leading local historian that Asda have announced a donation to the Swinton Heritage Trail initiative (whatever this is).
The political dimension to this has taken a further twist on a personal level when it was revealed that Salford MP Hazel Blears almost certainly has a relative buried in the church yard. As part of their protest the Friends of the Swinton Unitarian Burial Group have been researching the list of burials, trying to find relatives and as a result have found the link to Ms Blears which has been confirmed with "99%" accuracy by one of her relatives. Ms Blears has yet to respond to my questions to her on this.
Whilst there has been a surge of publicity against this proposal, with radio interviews, Facebook campaigns, etc, it has focused around the removal of the bodies interred in the cemetery and the destruction of a war grave. There has been little or no reporting of the affects on living people.
Ten homes will be demolished for this proposal. The developers will move some tenants on Chadwick Walk to other vacant properties on Chadwick Walk, although as Layner Mercer of GVA confirmed, four tenants will have to find accommodation elsewhere, although they will be helped with this.
Unfortunately, none of those who will lose their homes wanted to go on record and tell their stories, which leaves questions as to how the planning and consultation process has made the residents, some elderly who have lived in these homes for years, feel this way. The only thing they would say is that they were against this build, but how can they protest, when they need the developer to re-home them?
In a conversation with one agency for background information I was asked `Do you think this is just a group of residents using a convenient war grave to stop ASDA?' Ken Johnson of the MDA also made a similar point. The Friends of Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground reject this, and the evidence backs them up, as they haven't asked ASDA not to build, but simply asked for the plans to be amended to leave this small plot of land and the people buried in peace. As Peter Sharples, who has 12 relatives buried on the site, said "I would like it to be left alone…"
There is the further question: Will a new Asda benefit the existing shops on Swinton precinct? Developers say yes.But will the clothing shops and charity shops benefit, when Asda sells discount clothes? Will the cafes and fish and chip shop benefit, when Asda generally has a coffee shop? Will the newsagents and card shops benefit, when Asda sells papers, cigarettes, sweets and lottery tickets? Will the computer game shop benefit, when Asda sells games and electrical goods? Will the butchers benefit, when Asda sells meat? Will another supermarket kill the Precinct and not, as claimed, save it? Big fish and small ponds spring to mind…
For people opposed to this, what is more galling is that WALMART, the parent company of Asda, as part of its corporate social responsibility policy, gives millions of dollars to military charities to support veterans. It seems, sadly that this does not extend to veterans dead or alive beyond the borders of the United States…
And the final irony is that the Unitarian faith is based on the teachings of Jesus, and one of his most notable acts was to chase men from the Temple of Solomon who were buying and selling animals and lending money. 2000 years later on the site of a church set up to worship his teaching and burial ground of his followers, the 21st Century version of whom he chased out will build a new place of business.
Find Friends of Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground on Facebook
* So Who Is Buried Here To Cause All This Fuss?
The most well known person buried is Private Wilbraham Lomax Blears who died serving this country in WW1, injured once he went back to the trenches to suffer a gas attack which lead to his slow and painful death at a military hospital in Huddersfield.
Three men buried who lost their lives in the Clifton Hall Colliery Disaster on the 18th June 1885 are also buried in this cemetery, the Clifton Hall Colliery was on Lumns Lane and the explosion in 1885 lead to the deaths of 178 local men. The three men buried in the Swinton Unitarian Church are Joseph Pearson of 13 Park St, Swinton. He was brought out of the pit alive but died a few days later from his injuries. Pearson was a day wageman who left behind his wife Sarah Ann and five children. John Collier, (35 years of age) of 5 Folly Lane who was bricklayer and died in the pit. He left behind his wife Alice. Finally John Mannion aged 25 of Holland Street who was a miner and was killed in the pit leaving four children.
Perhaps if you glance though the list of the names of the people buried in this grave yard, no one but the most emotionless person would find it anything but sombre. Names such as James and Robert Hobson who died aged four days old in 1882 or Dora Bradburn who died aged two days in 1906 or Robert Longworth who died aged ten days in 1910. There are in total 43 children under ten listed as being buried here, robbed of life before a chance of living it.
A number of other servicemen who died in the service of this country, who although not buried in the Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground, were commemorated on markers with the rest of their families. These were: L/Cpl Henry Worthington Smith reported missing 28yrs 24th March 1918; Lee Longworth KIA France 26yrs 9 Sept 1918; James Collier who died in France aged 34yrs 2nd Nov 1918; James Wolstenholme died at Devonport New Zealand aged 30 years 21st April 1914; Kenneth Lee RASC died in West Africa aged 26 years 19 Jan 1942; Kenneth Lee Agnew, RAFVR missing presumed killed over Germany aged 22, 14/15th Jan 1944
If you want to get involved with the Friends of The Swinton Unitarian Burial Ground Group, then you can join the group on facebook. They have a family history branch that will be happy to provide you with information if you think you may have relatives buried in the Church yard.
Words and photos Gareth Lyons
Main photo shows Private Blears image across the burial site
Update: 28th March 2012
This afternoon, Salford Star received a letter from ASDA stating that this article was `emotive in the extreme' and `unashamedly one sided'. We believe that the article did carry the views of GVA Grimley and ASDA, and make no apologies for either its tone or content. In fact, we thought it was rather mild.
The Salford Star is an online (at the moment) community magazine and not a mouthpiece for any business, corporation or public authority.
However we do print the letter below, because we're nice. Our readers are free to comment on it...
I am writing in response to the 26th March article – 'ASDA to Trash Salford Burial Ground'. This related to the proposed new Asda store at Swinton Shopping Centre, and the associated issue of the burial ground on the site, linked with the former Unitarian Church of Swinton.
Both Asda and our partners in this scheme, GVA, have been aware of the presence and history of the burial ground for a long time, and at no point have we been under the illusion that this is anything less than an important and poignant issue. We are equally aware of the strength of feeling in certain quarters of the Swinton community around this matter.
The recent article, however, was emotive in the extreme and unashamedly one-sided in its agenda of portraying Asda and GVA as uncaring at the least or unaware of the issue's importance at best. I feel very strongly indeed that this is an entirely false picture of our approach to the matter of the burial ground and I am keen to put the record straight.
In particular, within a very long and detailed article only a relatively brief reference is made to a crucial and highly pertinent point – that the burial ground has been almost entirely ignored and neglected for decades until recently. Given the site's notable history, there is nothing whatsoever to commemorate that history, and there hasn't been for many years. Whatever people's view on the proposed Asda development, we are surely not alone in believing that the total lack of any public recognition on the site of what has gone before is wholly inappropriate.
Those people laid to rest on the site were buried within a recognised cemetery linked to an established church. That is very clearly now not the case and we are proposing to address this via the following measures, which we feel will finally provide a fitting and long overdue tribute:
- The re-interment of bodies on site at Swinton Cemetery, in a properly designated and maintained plot, with appropriate formal acknowledgment;
- A form of memorial (most likely a plaque) within a prominent location on the site, to provide a historic point of reference;
- The design of any memorial to involve consultation with relevant community groups;
- A book of remembrance for local residents to sign; and
- A financial contribution towards the Swinton Heritage Trail initiative, with a memorial plaque likely to form part of this alongside an information board.
I trust we are not alone in seeing a significant tribute to the past being preferable to none at all.
Senior Property Communications Manager
Update: 29th March 2012
Gareth Lyons replies to ASDA
I can only respond by saying that my article took a long time to research and get the information from the parties involved.
I did mention the payment ASDA is making to the Swinton Heritage Trail (although I still have no idea what that is), and I did in detail explain the reasons I was given for the build by GVA. So how can I be one sided when I also asked the Church that sold the covenant and the local councillors and MP for their views? And don’t forget I also spoke to the Ministry of Justice to find out if what the people were accusing the council of was right or wrong, and I also spoke to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
To ASDA, the people in the Unitarian Church yard may only be bodies in different stages of decomposition, but to their relatives who have made their thoughts known, they are more than that. How can you write about people’s feelings without being emotive?
It seems to me that Mr Bartram doesn't understand that the Salford Star prints what it finds and does not just rehash corporate press releases, which other news services do. I didn't find people all happy and joyous that their relatives were being dug up. I didn't find people happy that they had been told they had been told to leave their homes. So should I ignore all that?
Is Mr Bartram joking, that he believes people should be thankful for a plaque, a book of remembrance and a donation? What the people want is for the bodies to be left and for ASDA to change its plans and make the site into a garden for shoppers. But ASDA won’t do that.
Mr Bartram is entitled to his view, as are the people who live in this community who have praised my article.