St Mungo’s New burial ground was opened in 1832. It adjoined Castle Street on the east and lay between the Royal Infirmary and the Asylum for the Blind. It was designed and executed by James Cleland, superintendant of Public Works for Glasgow Town Council and author of ‘Annals of Glasgow’, a history of the city’s public services, societies and institutions.
James Cleland was also the driving force behind the clearing and landscaping of Glasgow Green, transforming the area into a public park. He is commemorated on the tenement building at the top of Buchanan Street, which carries the inscription ‘The Cleland Testimonial’. His work on census taking and demographic statistics was taken up by British Government officials for the national censuses of 1821 and 1831.
Cleland laid out St Mungo’s burial ground in a formal style and it was Glasgow’s first ornamental cemetery. The only remaining section of his design is an archway between the Infirmary and the former Glasgow Blind Asylum.
In its early years, the burial ground was a prestigious place to be interred. When Major General Grant of the 58th Regiment of Foot died at the Tontine Inn in 1841 while en route to Dublin, the Morning Post reported on his burial with full military honours in a solemn and imposing ceremony witnessed by many thousands of the city’s citizens.
But by 1869, the matter of pauper or pit burials was again under debate. At the Police Board meeting of 14 September 1869, the members considered a letter of complaint from the Lord Dean of Guild, regarding:-
“ the overcrowded state of St Mungo’s Burying-ground and of the offensive and improper manner in which the dead were buried in it… Mr Munro intimated that instructions had been given for the discontinuance of the system of pit-burials as apparently carried on in St Mungo’s Burying-ground.”
The Board’s intramural committee had reported that the unclaimed dead, formerly interred in pauper graves in St Mungo’s, were now being sent to Sighthill Cemetery in Springburn Road.
“[It was] a state of things that was positively disgraceful – an amount of pit-burials in the city greater than anywhere else in the world – hundreds of coffins lying together without any earth between them – reaching to within ten or twelve inches of the surface of the ground.”
The Board also discussed at length the impact of such practices on the nearby Infirmary and the well-being of its patients. A high mortality rate in the Royal Infirmary a few years previously had been traced back to a common grave containing cholera victims. Its opening and disinfecting had produced an instant improvement.
The Police Board had considered but ultimately dismissed as unfair to lair owners the possiblity of closing the St Mungo’s burial ground entirely. But there seems to have been an increasing awareness of the problems of inner city burial grounds. St Mungo’s was closed to new burials by order of the sheriff on 7 May 1870 except for existing lair owners. The bodies were exhumed and reburied in Riddrie in 1903 and the site was redeveloped by the Royal Infirmary in 1906.
Burial registers for 1834-1854 and 1855-91 are held by the Mitchell Library, together with a lair register for 1832. No monumental inscription list is known.
[Image of photo by Thomas Annan of a portrait of Dr James Cleland (1770-1840) courtesy Glasgow Archives]