FOR nearly 40 years, volunteers have been working hard to look after historic Undercliffe Cemetery - no small feat when you consider the site covers 26 acres with 23,000 graves.

Now Undercliffe Cemetery Charity has been presented with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service - the UK’s highest accolade for volunteering.

Given in recognition of the charity’s “outstanding contribution to the local community”, the award is equivalent to an MBE.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: It takes a lot of work to maintain the 26-acre cemetery It takes a lot of work to maintain the 26-acre cemetery

As well as maintaining the grounds, graves and monuments, and hundreds of military graves, volunteers are also engaged in researching the stories of the Bradfordians buried there - from wealthy wool barons to those who ended up in pauper graves.

Volunteers also host regular tours, make burial records more accessible and ensure that plots are available for purchase and burial.

The charity’s longstanding chairman Allan Hillary says the award is a “tremendous boost” and recognises the dedication of all those involved in the Grade 2* listed cemetery, regarded as one of the most important in the UK.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: One of the volunteers at work One of the volunteers at work

“It’s a great honour - I’m chuffed to bits,” says Allan. “It’s a fantastic accolade, not just for the cemetery and the volunteers but for Bradford.”

The Queen’s Award is seen as the start of a new chapter for the team of nearly 50 volunteers. “Our volunteers have a range of roles - as well as maintaining the cemetery there’s all the research and promotion,” says Allan. “There is always plenty to do and we welcome new volunteers. There are skills we could use - we’d love to hear from painters and decorators, electricians, joiners and plumbers who could work on the cemetery lodge, and there is a great opportunity for ex-servicemen and women to help us look after the war graves here. We have 144 war graves, a Cross of Sacrifice and the names of nearly 400 men who died in all conflicts commemorated on family plots.”

Adds Allan: “At this time of year you can almost hear the grass growing. It’s like the Forth Bridge; it all takes constant maintenance.”

Opened in 1854, Undercliffe Cemetery is Bradford’s own historic sculpture park, hosting many spectacular monuments, including an Egyptian-inspired tomb guarded by sphinxes.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Volunteers work hard to clear the overgrowth Volunteers work hard to clear the overgrowth

A stroll around the landmark site - on its dramatic hilltop setting with panoramic views of the city - tells not only the stories in stone, granite and marble of those who shaped prosperous Victorian Bradford, but also those who endured the poverty, disease and squalor of its industrial heyday.

Victorian hierarchy continued in death: the 124,000 burials at the site are in plots ranging from grand, ornate headstones to paupers’ graves - one containing 124 people.

A magnet to film-makers over the years, the cemetery has itself been immortalised in films and TV productions such as Billy Liar, Peaky Blinders and more recently, Ava and Ali.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Team of volunteers working at the site last week Team of volunteers working at the site last week

Among those lying in rest at the cemetery are Bradford Pals, some of whom died within minutes of each other, going over the top, and a man who survived the Battle of Waterloo. “He was called Thomas Firth, and he died in 1871, aged 92. It’s incredible that he survived Waterloo,” says Allan. “Nearby is the grave of a man who died aged 20 in the First World War - he died on November 10, 1918, just a day before the Armistice.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: This time of year is particularly busy for the volunteers This time of year is particularly busy for the volunteers

“There are so many stories behind these graves, and our volunteers are doing a wonderful job clearing overgrowth and restoring the areas around graves. There are plenty of other jobs to do around the site too, and we’re desperate for volunteers.”

A list of ‘Bradford Worthies’ buried at the cemetery, which visitors can find out more about, are former Lord Mayors, mill-owners and other civic and industrial leaders. Also included on the list is Nancy De Garrs, former nanny to the Bronte siblings.

Nancy worked for the Brontes from the age of 13, first in Thornton then Haworth. She took the children for moorland walks and told them stories and, it is said, was thought of highly by their father, Patrick. Nancy helped to restore Patrick’s reputation when Elizabeth Gaskell’s Charlotte Bronte biography was published.

Nancy ended up in Bradford Workhouse at the age of 80, after falling into poverty when her husband died. With old age upon her, her last wish was not to be buried in a pauper’s grave. The Brontes’ fame meant she was visited by journalists in the workhouse, where she would talk at length about her time with the literary family. Her plea for a decent burial was taken up by newspapers, including the New York Times, and money was raised for a headstone.

But when Nancy died in 1886, a destitute widow aged 82, her nephew had her buried in an unmarked plot at Undercliffe Cemetery. The whereabouts of the headstone fund remained a mystery. In 1896 some of the ‘Bronte relics’ Nancy had been gifted by Patrick Bronte - she had always refused to sell them, despite her poverty - were sold by her nephew to the Parsonage Museum.

In 2019, more than 130 years after Nancy’s death, volunteers at Undercliffe Cemetery found her long-hidden burial plot, cleared the waist-high undergrowth and launched an appeal for a headstone.

* To find out out more about being a volunteer at Undercliffe Cemetery Charity visit

* There will be a tour of Undercliffe Cemetery as part of Bradford Literature Festival on Thursday, June 30.

Led by Gaynor Halliday and Steve Lightfoot, it takes place from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. To book visit