Campaigners have highlighted why they want to save an East Lancs hospital cemetery’s protected status and restore the site, as a bishop considers options for the site’s future.

Headstones at Calderstones Hospital Cemetery at Mitton Road, Whalley, were controversially removed in the past and a vehicle track laid over what are believed to be former garden of remembrance areas.

The cemetery served the old hospital there from around 1915 to 2000. More than 1,100 people were buried there or had their ashes placed there over the years, it is understood.

The site is also the final resting place for the ‘Booth Hall babies’ – children evacuated to Calderstones from Manchester’s Booth Hall Hospital in 1939.

Next to it is the Queen Mary’s Military Hospital Cemetery. But the appearance, ownership and status of the two plots are very different.

The hospital cemetery was sold two decades ago and has been the focus of plans for a crematorium.

But campaigners claim the site has been neglected since the sale. Now, they hope the Bishop of Blackburn will maintain the site’s consecrated status, preventing it from being redeveloped.

Many headstones have been removed from the hospital cemetery. Grass appears overgrown.

Two chapels of rest are in varying states of disrepair. Parts of the entrance gate have been stolen, campaigners say.

A crucifix above the gate appears to have become lop-sided, and they fear that crematorium plans could see a road or other structures built upon graves or areas where ashes were placed.

Meanwhile, the nearby military cemetery is managed by the Commonwealth Graves Commission. It is well-kept, campaigners say, with mowed grass and all the headstones and memorials in good shape.

Recently, Ribble Valley Mayor Cllr Mark Hindle and councillors have raised concerns about the site’s condition and removal of headstones.

For the proposed crematorium, the hospital cemetery’s consecrated status would need to be changed by the Church of England to allow any future building work. The Bishop of Blackburn is currently considering the status and recently held a public consultation.

The Friends of Calderstones and Brockhall Hospital Cemeteries group hopes the bishop will preserve the consecrated status.

A relative’s view

Maria Evans visits the burial plot of her uncle, Geoffrey Tebb, the brother of her mum, Stella Evans, at Calderstones.

Maria, who has Manchester and Chorley links, said: “Geoffrey died in 1947, aged 27, and was buried at Calderstones. He had some sort of condition.

"The family wanted to bring him back to Manchester but could not. My mum was only young at the time. I don’t think my nana came here very often. But our family always talked about Geoffrey. It was not a secret.

“Time passed. In later years, I called Calderstones about visiting and was told there was a housing estate planned or due. We were a bit gutted but never pursued it.

"Later, I was looking at the friends’ group website and read the cemetery had not been built upon but there was new housing elsewhere at the hospital site.

“We did not know where Geoffrey’s grave was. But Dennis Buckley from the friends’ group helped us to locate it. That was 65 years to the date that Geoffrey died. All my family live in Wythenshawe, Manchester, but I now live in Chorley. I look after his grave.

"We hope the bishop won’t de-consecrate the ground and they won’t build a crematorium. It would be nice for the cemetery to be left as a cemetery.”

She has questioned why headstones were apparently removed from the site.

Maria added: “I just want the people here to have some dignity. They were part of families.

"They were mums, dads, sisters and brothers. But there is no indication that they are here. It’s sad."

She fears she may have to remove her uncle’s wooden cross if plans for an access road, for the crematorium, come to fruition.

A former staff member’s perspective

Ellen Duperouzel is a former Calderstones Hospital nurse who lives nearby.

She said: “I was a nurse here from 1984 to 2019. I looked after 15 elderly ladies.

"The hospital was called an asylum and was for people with learning disabilities. It changed a lot over the years I worked there.

“For me, this situation is very emotional. A lot of the ladies who I looked after did not have relatives or didn’t know their relatives. Or their relatives didn’t want to know them. That was quite common.”

She recalls times when it was just her and a priest present, when two of the ladies' ashes were interred.

“Flowers were provided by the hospital managers and there was just me and the priest. It was one of the saddest things I have ever witnessed,” she added.

Records may be missing but Ellen believes gardeners kept track of some burials and had “really good personal recollections”.

She added: “These people don’t deserve to have a tar road over their graves. I wrote to the bishop and was really upset about things.

"We just want these people respected – and their final resting places."

David Fitzpatrick worked in several capacities at Calderstones Hospital, in catering, administration and service management. He lived on the hospital estate but now, retired, lives in Sabden.

He said: “We looked after these people over many years. They became like family. Some of them did not have great lives. They included women who had children out of wedlock.”

Regarding the headstones, he added: “I’d have thought that stones would have belonged to relatives. If the bishop decides he will not de-consecrate the ground, why wouldn’t the gravestones be brought back to the cemetery?

“There is another cemetery nearby which is nearly full. I know there is a trend towards cremations but some people still want to be buried. And some religions or denominations require burial.”

He questioned whether the two-acre site was sufficient for a crematorium and the proximity of nearby homes.

Campaigners say details for some areas of the site are unclear. Around a quarter of the site apparently does not have graves. There were also two gardens of remembrance. Cremations were usually held in Accrington with ashes returned to the site.

He added: “I think the cemetery was sold for around £2,000 to the first owner. Cemetery sales happened at other asylums too.

"Now, a lot of old sites are cared for by Friends of groups. But we cannot do up things here because we don’t own the land, and with planning permission for a crematorium, the value of this site will be higher.”

Retired mental health worker Dennis Buckley said: “If the land’s consecrated status is taken away, it will become a speculative site with enormous value.

"We want the bishop to uphold its consecrated status in perpetuity. Then the owner would soon realise the land won’t be worth much.

“The logical thing would be for this to become a Whalley cemetery, owned and managed by Ribble Valley Council. People from the area could be buried here. But the council cannot afford the price of valuable land.

“Consecrated status cannot be reinstated, once it has been taken away. So this site could become a location for new houses or a McDonald’s restaurant. The bishop’s decision on consecration will be key to the future value of the land. ”

Dennis worked with Manchester patients at Calderstones. He now locates unmarked Calderstones burial plots for relatives using cemetery plans. Overall, there were possibly 2,000 plots, it is understood,

He was involved with two cremation ceremonies there. An access road has been laid which the friends’ group fears may cross some garden of remembrance areas.

There are also concerns a future car park or other structures could cover other sensitive areas.

Dennis added: “I don’t think it’s possible to put a road down and a car park on this site without going over the garden of remembrance.

"There would be no opportunity for families to visit their loved ones because they would be under concrete.”

A social history treasure trove

The Calderstones site illustrates family, hospital and social history, campaigners believe. Changing attitudes and treatment of mental health conditions can be seen.

Also changing attitudes and treatment of women, girls, pregnancy, sex outside marriage and adoption.

Jean Lord, a friends’ group supporter said: “This is not just about old times – this includes recent history; the 1990s and 2000s. We have got records from 1989 and verbal accounts. It’s a big project.

“There are many different stories here about families, ancestry, people being adopted. people discovering relatives or siblings. For so many reasons, it’s important to look after this site, the people laid to rest here and their relatives who want to learn about their family stories.”