The unmarked grave of a pioneering activist for women workers is at risk of being buried by building works, her family have warned.
Sam Johnson is leading a campaign to stop Manor Park Cemetery in London from ‘mounding over’ the burial site of her great grandmother Sarah Dearman (née Chapman).
Mounding is a process where headstones are flattened with a JCB and new soil is placed on top and left to settle over several years, allowing another layer of graves to be placed on top.
Sarah (1862-1945) was one of the leaders of the 1888 matchgirls’ strike, which saw over 1,000 women and girls at the Bryant & May match factory in London’s East End go on strike in protest at poor pay and unsafe working conditions.
She later became one of the first working-class women to represent their union at the Trade Unions Congress.
Sam told WDYTYA? Magazine: “We’re now at the situation we are, which is kind of crisis point, because they intend to mound basically this month and it’s only covid-19 that’s actually stopped them doing it right this moment.
“We’ve appealed to the Ministry of Justice to step in and not completely stop the mounding process, but at least put a halt on it just for the moment, so it can be investigated properly, and make sure that everything that the cemetery says that they do actually does happen.”
Sam only found out about Sarah’s involvement in the matchgirls’ strike while doing family history research at the end of 2016, and only found her grave site in Manor Park Cemetery in 2017.
When she began liaising with the cemetery about it, they said they had no plans to mound over the area where Sarah was buried.
“Then very quickly they changed tune and said ‘Oh actually no we are probably going to be mounding over that area in five to ten years’,” she said.
Sam and her family put a wooden cross and chain-link fence on Sarah’s grave, which is currently a patch of grass, and began raising funds for a headstone.
They raised £7000 thanks to money from the trade unions GMB and Unite, but Sam was then told by a third party that Manor Park had changed their plans and were planning to mound Sarah’s grave in 2020.
Sam said: “The thing that really concerns us and why we’re trying to campaign to stop it [is] if they don’t put enough soil on top, the obvious danger is that they dig down into the existing graves and disturb the human remains, which is obviously illegal.
“Now they maintain they don’t do that but we’ve got no assurance.
“There’s no regulation at all to check on this which is why we’re pressing the Ministry of Justice to look into this because it comes under their remit to look after burials and graves.”
Although Manor Park say that the new layer of soil is seven feet deep, Sam sent WDYTYA? Magazine a photograph of her husband Graham standing next to previous mounding work in the cemetery, which shows that he’s taller than the soil layer.
Graham Johnson beside mounding work at Manor Park Cemetery (Credit: Sam Johnson)
She said the cemetery had already mounded over the graves of Sarah’s husband Henry Dearman (1867-1922) and their children Charles (1894-1894) and Elizabeth (1900-1921).
“There’s no way we can visit their graves because they are lost completely and what’s worse is not only have they been mounded over, but the cemeteries keep no records of where graves were,” she said.
Manor Park have offered to let Sam buy a plot of the new layer of earth above Sarah’s grave, but she said that wasn’t good enough.
“There’s several issues with that.
“One is we’ve got no idea what the timescale is – it could be two, three, four years before the earth is settled enough ready for us to buy the plot.
“Also then there’s the question of where are we going to get the money to buy a plot from.
“Having just raised thousands of pounds to buy a headstone we’re now faced with this new additional cost.
“And not least what it means for all the other people in the area as well.
“There’s lots of other graves that will be lost so it’s not quite as straightforward.”
The Matchgirls Memorial organisation, of which Sam is a trustee, have written to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland asking the Ministry of Justice to intervene to put a halt to the mounding and carry out an independent inspection of the site.
The letter was signed by 44 MPs, peers, historians, trade union leaders and organisations, including Angela Rayner MP, Baroness Burt of Solihull, Lord Hendy QC and the Women’s History Network.
Actor Anita Dobson is also supporting the campaign.
She said: “Sarah and these women fought for our working rights and to destroy her resting place is abhorrent.”
Over 8000 members of the public have signed an online petition to save Sarah’s grave (available here).
Sarah Chapman (circled) with the Matchgirls Union Committee (Credit: Sam Johnson)
‘A terrible loss’
Sam Johnson added that mounding over graves is “a very brutal process”.
“We’re all brought up to respect graveyards and not tread on people’s graves and here we are with thundering great machinery running over it.
“Having only just discovered Sarah’s wonderful past with the matchgirl strike and discovered her grave, we’re about to lose it.
“It would be a terrible loss to lose her again having only just found her.”
In a statement, Manor Park Cemetery said: “The company has already offered Mrs Johnson an assurance that, on reclamation, she would be offered first refusal to purchase a lease of the new grave space above Sarah Dearman’s existing grave where a proposed newly commissioned headstone could be positioned enabling all who wish to visit to do so.
“Sarah’s grave will not disappear.
“To date, Mrs Johnson has not confirmed she wishes to do this.
“An entry has been placed in The Book of Remembrance by the family, the company is currently maintaining the grave until the area is reclaimed.
“So that the achievements of Sarah Dearman receive the recognition they deserve, other offers to Mrs Johnson include the siting of a memorial to Sarah Dearman close to the Civilian War Memorial, a memorial plaque or a nearby bench.
“We feel Manor Park Cemetery, its directors and management have acted in a wholly reasonable and sensitive fashion to Mrs Johnson’s situation.”
When asked about the case, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson told WDYTYA? Magazine: “Because it doesn’t involve the disturbance of human remains, we don’t have any power to tell them not to and they don’t need to ask us for that permission.
“This is a decision wholly down to the private cemetery and not to do with us.”
If you have family members buried at Manor Park or want to help the campaign, please contact Sam Johnson on 02380 552 009 or email@example.com.
Rosemary Collins is the staff writer of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine