In this article Dr Emma Liggins accompanies local guide Emma Fox on a socially-distanced tour of Manchester’s Southern Cemetery. Emma Fox has been delivering her highly-informative ‘Show Me Manchester’ Tours for a number of years and considering Covid-19 Pandemic measures, she is currently offering virtual tours and also private group tours (up to 5 people at a social distance), which can be requested via Direct Message to Emma's Facebook page.  

 Dr Emma Liggins is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature in the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies - she has previously written for Haunt about Southern Cemetery here. Her book 'The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories: Gender, Space and Modernity, 1850-1940' will be published by Palgrave later in 2020. She is also leading a 15 July online research seminar on the 'Long Nineteenth Century' with the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies – link here.

By Dr Emma Liggins

During lockdown, green spaces such as cemeteries and graveyards have been attracting more visitors. As places of tranquillity and natural beauty, they offer a welcome respite from working and studying indoors. But have you ever considered a guided tour of these important places of memorialisation? Now that lockdown restrictions are slowly easing to allow access to heritage sites, this is a perfect opportunity to learn more about the forgotten histories of Manchester residents from the Victorian era to the present through visiting their final resting place.

Southern Cemetery, the largest and busiest municipal cemetery in the UK, situated in Chorlton, 5 miles south of the city centre, is the burial place of over 400,000 people. Opened in 1879, it rivals the big burial sites in London like Kensal Green in size and architectural design, with its wrought-iron gates, Gothic chapels and long tree-lined avenues. Crammed with decorative angels, funeral urns and imposing war memorials, it is a multi-denominational, multi-cultural space, embodying the diversity of Manchester past and present. As Morrissey wrote in the iconic Smiths song ‘Cemetry Gates’, inspired by his walks around this suburban burial-ground, ‘all those people, all those lives/Where are they now?’

I was lucky enough to be in one of the first guided tours of the cemetery after lockdown (in a socially distanced group of 5) with the entertaining and knowledgeable tour guide, Emma Fox. An expert in Manchester’s industrial heritage and cultural history, Emma has been conducting tours of the cemetery since 2012.  She also offers tours of the city centre and its environs, which focus on Factory Records, fashion, the Bridgewater Canal, old pubs and ‘Gangs of Manchester’, the story of the Scuttlers, the notorious late-Victorian gangs known for their criminal activities in and around Manchester and Salford. A passion for the city and its history is clearly at the forefront of her work; as she explains, “I consider myself very lucky to be showing my Manchester, the original modern city, and its architecture, people, heritage, creativity and radical attitude to visitors and locals every day”.

I caught up with Emma Fox to find out more about the creative ways in which the tourist industry in Manchester has responded to COVID-19 and why she thinks a tour of Southern Cemetery is particularly revealing about death cultures, urbanisation and the city’s forgotten residents.

By Dr Emma Liggins

Hello Emma. 2020 has been a challenging time for the heritage industry. As a Manchester tour guide, how have you adjusted to lockdown and social distancing restrictions?

“I’ve had to learn how to create virtual tours, leading people from the comfort of their own homes via Zoom using images and google maps, through the streets, history and stories of Manchester city centre. It’s been great fun actually, a bit trial and error, but I like seeing people’s faces and their responses on my screen. Virtual pub tours have been popular, no surprise there.

“It is wonderful to be back out in the open air leading tours, Zoom can’t replace the fresh air and human interaction.  The tour you came on was only my second since lockdown.  I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the intimate, personalised nature of the small group size we’re allowed.”

What first inspired you to become a tour guide and what do you find particularly interesting about cemeteries compared to some of the other public spaces you have researched?

“I think it’s that I’ve always loved a mixture of subjects, and that tour guiding ticks so many boxes – history, arts, sports, architecture, literature, music, plus I studied German as part of my degree and wanted to find a job in which I could make use of it. I had a pretty unfulfilling office job, two tiny children and wanted a job that I could enthuse about, that would stretch me, that would be constantly evolving, that was flexible. I found it. I love the semi-academic nerdiness when researching, meeting people, being outdoors and being freelance.  It sure beats a dull 9-5 job.

“The cemetery is filled with stories of extraordinary lives, and in such variety, more so than any other single public space.  Couple that with the avenues of mature trees, the tranquility, the wildlife, the beautiful grave stones… the wording and the carving, it creates a great sense of calm and tangible connection to the past.”

Southern Cemetery By Dr Emma Liggins

Poets and travel writers have sometimes considered the graveyard as an archive, a place of memories and hidden histories, of those who died tragically young or lived long enough to become famous. On your tour I loved hearing more about the many past residents of Manchester, from sportsmen to artists to the foundling children buried in the seemingly empty space which borders onto the Nell Lane side of the cemetery. Can you single out one or two of the stories associated with those buried here that you find most fascinating or surprising?

"I think to have Enriqueta and John Rylands, Matt Busby, Tony Wilson, Sir John Alcock and L.S. Lowry all in one place is exciting in itself and that’s what inspired me to lead the cemetery tours in the first place. 

“The fact that we have Maria Pawlikowska Jasnorzewska, one of Poland’s most renowned poets, buried here fascinates me. They call her the Polish Sappho, she wrote in the interwar years on taboo topics such as incest and not wanting to be a mother, not just poetry though, prose and plays too. She followed her husband here at the outbreak of the war and sadly died of cancer while here. She also wrote poetry about Manchester in the Blitz, about cups of tea to soothe the rubble and grief.

“On the war theme, I also like that Winifred Pickles, from ‘oop north’, was asked by the BBC to read the news during the second world war so that he could not be understood or copied by the Germans.  His was probably the first non-received pronunciation, northern voice to be heard on the airwaves.

“One more, the sculptor of the Colston statue in Bristol is buried in here, John Cassidy. 

“There are 400,000 unique life stories in there, it’s hard to pick.”

You talked about the cemetery as being a beautiful place in all different seasons, on both sunny days and in bleak winter light. Have you ever visited the cemetery after dark, or done any night-time tours?

“Not yet.  Maybe I should lead a Gothic themed tour.  Maybe we should co-curate one Emma?”

I’d definitely be interested in that, particularly as I’m drawn to Gothic spaces. Do you think the cemetery is haunted – have you ever had any disturbing experiences whilst doing a tour?

“It could be haunted, I haven’t had any unusual or supernatural experiences so far.  Most of the people working in the cemetery say they have though. I’m waiting for a mysterious tap on the shoulder or apparition.”

Southern Cemetery By Dr Emma Liggins

I noticed that the decorations and inscriptions on the gravestones are very varied. There seems to be more of a trend to use colour photographs in certain areas of the site. How do you think this links to class, nationality or religious denomination, and what are some of the more unusual decorations to look out for?

“You’ll see portrait photos mostly in the Catholic section; it’s a tradition brought from Italy in particular, but they have been commonplace in the Catholic countries of Southern and Eastern Europe for many years, and taken over to the USA a long time ago too.  Families feel they can keep a connection with their loved ones through seeing their face on the gravestone. It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years but has only been allowed here for a few decades.

“I like the intricately carved passion flowers seen on many older graves, symbolising Christianity; each part of the flower represents an element of the crucifixion.  A wander round the cemetery will reward you with finding unusual carved decoration on the front and the back of the gravestones. There’s a beautiful bas-relief by John Cassidy on the back of a grave not far from the central circle that’s worth seeking out.”

Finally, what are you currently researching – what more would you like to find out about the cemetery or Manchester? Are there any other burial-grounds in the city which might offer alternative ways of thinking about the dead?

“I would really love to find more ‘notable’ women buried in the cemetery.  I was certain there would be some suffragettes in there but have not managed to find any.  The story of women is not so well documented historically; it’s going to take a lot more digging.  If you know of any, please get in contact with me.

“Angel Meadow, near Victoria Station, over looked by the Co-op HQ, has around 35,000 people buried, mostly in mass unmarked graves during the time of cholera. The way death was so anticipated and normal two hundred years ago is shocking.  So seemingly blasé about the dead, children played football with skulls as they worked their way to the surface in Angel Meadow.  I think this place does give us an alternative way of looking at the dead, and changing attitudes. People picnic there now, little knowing what lies beneath.

“I’m researching more about slavery and Manchester’s links with it at the moment.  I’ve been leading guided tours on ‘Manchester, Cotton and Slavery’ for years but it’s important to keep adding layers of knowledge. It feels important right now.”

To get in touch with Emma Fox, she is available on social media as @showmemcr, open to Direct Message or emails to

By Dr Emma Liggins

Images: Dr Emma Liggins