The church of St John the Evangelist, together with its churchyard, opened in 1848 following a gift of land and funding for the building by two sisters Mrs Maw and Miss Walton of the Walton family from nearby Marsden Hall.
The area at the time was essentially a rural one, with the church serving the sparsely populated community of Great Marsden. The local population would have made a living from a mixture of farming, quarrying, coal mining and hand loom weaving.
Life in the area was a real struggle with much poverty, high infant mortality rates, epidemics, poor diets and low life expectancy.
The arrival of the railway in 1849 was key to the rapid growth of cotton mills, extensive house building and an increasingly urban population. Nelson was born. The Industrial Revolution had arrived!
In the absence of another burial site in Great Marsden, the churchyard at St John’s became the last resting place for the majority of residents of the rapidly growing ‘boom’ town of Nelson. On several occasions the churchyard had to be extended into surrounding farmland to cope with the demand for burial space. The municipal cemetery was eventually opened on Walton Lane in 1895.
There are over 17,000 people of all denominations buried in over 7,000 graves in the six and a half acre churchyard.
Many had no connection with St John’s Church and many weren’t born in the immediate area but moved here from the middle of the nineteenth century when the cotton industry needed workers in the mills.
By the new millennium the churchyard was in a sorry state of disrepair. Inaccessible and invaded by Japanese knotweed, brambles and rhododendrons, most of the headstones were no longer visible and vandalism had become a serious problem.
By 2005 the situation seemed hopeless but a group of enthusiastic volunteers and interested parties from the community took action and set up the Friends of St John’s Churchyard as a registered charity dedicated to its restoration.
A ten year plan was formulated starting with a programme of knotweed spraying followed by the removal of shrubs, surveying of headstones, the removal of kerbstones, extensive groundworks and re-seeding with low maintenance grasses.
In 2013 a Remembrance Garden was created for the interment of cremated remains.
The Friends of St John’s Churchyard received a National Lottery grant of £8300 to research Nelson’s First World War Heritage as recorded in St John’s Churchyard. Awarded through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s First World War then and now programme, the project will focus on generating a database of the casualties, researching and documenting their lives within the local community and creating a permanent memorial to these local men in the form of a Garden enhanced by information boards.
To mark the Centenary of the First World War, the project will enable people in Nelson and surrounding areas to come together to preserve the stories and heritage of the local people who lived and died during the First World War. Volunteers will acquire new skills through completing guided research; media requests will enable the public to share family items such as photographs, newspaper clippings, documents, letters and photos of keepsakes, as well as family tales passed down to help them build a clear picture of what life was really like.
The information will be accessible to all through this newly created website. Events and exhibitions will publicise and share our findings and at the same time commemorate the lives of ordinary men from our community who died as a result of the First World War.
There are over 100 local men buried or commemorated in the churchyard at St John’s; until now there has been no permanent memorial recognising all of them. In this Centenary year it is fitting that we acknowledge and remember their huge sacrifice and discover and share as much as we can about their lives and also those of their families left behind.
The group are all volunteers who have worked to restore the churchyard by combating Japanese Knotweed and damage done by vandals