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Overleigh Cemetery Tour

Stories In Stone

If you're interested in learning about some of the fascinating stories behind the gravestones and monuments in Overleigh Cemetery, book this popular tour today.

Every Friday at 4.00 p.m.

from April to September.

£10 per person, with negotiable discounts for groups.

You’ll discover hidden gems, hear surprising stories and appreciate the quiet beauty of this hidden treasure where anyone who died in Chester from 1850 onwards was buried. Explore the fascinating stories behind the gravestones and monuments including Mary Jonas, mother of 15 sets of twins, all of them one boy and one girl, Ishizo Ishimura who died performing a double backwards somersault onstage, Mabel Frances Ireland Blackburne, who was rumoured to have died of chewing too much gum, and many more. 

(From the “Cheshire Live” website, June 3, 2023)

The Japanese acrobat who met an untimely end after performing in Chester

The tragic tale of Ishizo Ishimura is among a number of fascinating 'Stories in Stone' that feature in a new tour looking at historic graves in Chester


Angela Ferguson

  • 05:56, 3 JUN 2023


Overleigh Old Cemetery in Handbridge, Chester (Image: Christine Kemp)

The grave of a young Japanese acrobat who met a tragic end while performing in Chester back in 1915 is just one of the stopping points on a quirky new tour launched in the city.

The tale of how Ishizo Ishimura came to be buried in Chester, thousands of miles away from his homeland, features in the new Stories in Stone tour. The tour features stories of a range of historic figures buried in Overleigh Cemetery, which was the main burial ground in Chester from 1850 up until 1922 when Blacon cemetery opened.

Ishizo Ishimura ending up buried in Overleigh Cemetery at the age of just 23 after an attempt at a double somersault went wrong during a performance in the city. He was on stage with the Japanese acrobatic troupe, The Mikado Family, at the Royalty Theatre on City Road when he tragically slipped and broke his neck on November 29, 1915.

The young acrobat was given first aid at the theatre before being taken to the Chester Royal Infirmary, where he died the following day. His striking gravestone bears an inscription in both Japanese and English, simply stating he died on November 30, 1915 at the age of 23.

The fact that people in Chester today know about Ishizo Ishimura and many others buried at the site is testament to the dedicated work of people such as Christine Kemp, who has carried out extensive research on the cemetery.

Now residents and tourists visiting Chester will be able to find out more about some of the many people buried in the cemetery courtesy of the new Stories in Stone tour run by Chester Green Badge tourist guides Paul Woods and Caroline Ellison.

Paul Woods told CheshireLive: "Caroline and I are both recently qualified Green Badge guides and although I had often walked through the cemetery on the way from Handbridge to the city centre, it was only when I became a guide that I realised just what fascinating stories lie behind many of the graves and monuments.


Chester tourist guide, Paul Woods leads a tour of Overleigh Cemetery in Chester (Image: Paul Woods)

"Overleigh Cemetery dates back to 1850 when graveyards for the eight parish churches within the city walls were getting full up and a new burial site was urgently needed. Designed by well known Victorian architect T M Penson, who was responsible for Browns department store, the Grosvenor Hotel and the Queen Hotel amongst other city centre buildings, the cemetery had two chapels, two lodges, a chaplain's house and a large ornamental lake with three islands.

"Between 1850 and 1922 when Blacon cemetery opened it was the main burial place for the city, with over 80,000 burials recorded between 1850 and 2011, many of these being unmarked graves."


The grave of mother-of-33, Mary Jonas who died at the age of 85 in 1899 (Image: Christine Kemp)

Paul Woods told CheshireLive that amongst the other tales featured in the tour is the story of mum-of-33, Mary Jonas, who had an incredible 15 sets of twins, all of which were one boy and one girl.

Mary outlived her husband by seven years and, although many of the children died young, 10 were still alive when he passed away in 1899. A gentleman's magazine published at the time even awarded her a free copy for life for "contributing most to the population of the empire".

Paul added: "Probably the most well known grave at Overleigh Cemetery is that of Mabel Francis Ireland Blackburne, who was said to have died from chewing too much gum.

Local children used to learn a rhyme,

     Chewing gum, chewing gum, made of wax.

     Brought me to my grave at last.

     When I die, God will say

     Throw that dirty stuff away!"'

     Actually she died of whooping cough, at the tender age of three."

Paul said other notable graves include that of William Bidulph Cross, who made his own coffin from thousands of little wooden matchboxes over the 10 years prior to his death, even including a battery-powered light in the lid which was disconnected before he was laid to rest.

He added that there were plenty of stories of tragic deaths, from accidents, disease and wars, and some remarkable escapes including a train driver who survived a huge explosion near Saltney station when the engine's boiler weighing four tonnes burst and flew over his head and debris was found up to 150 yards away.

Paul said members of the Handbridge Women's Institute had recently knitted a new wreath for the grave of an airforce truck driver, Marjorie Anne Tucker, who was killed instantly crossing the line in Saltney behind a train when another train came unexpectedly from the other direction a few weeks before WW1 ended.

He described the cemetery as a "delightful place for an evening stroll", with wild bluebells, buttercups and daisies abounding in the spring. Paul also praised the team from Community Payback who do a "tremendous job" of keeping the cemetery well-maintained and uncovering and repairing graves which have been long forgotten.

Some of those involved have even continued volunteering after finishing their Community Payback work as they have enjoyed making a difference so much.

Paul said: "Community Payback led by Edwin Isambard Parker have been doing a tremendous job clearing the undergrowth, cutting grass and uncovering and repairing graves which have been long forgotten. Some people have even continued working at the cemetery after finishing their sentence because they enjoy making a difference.

"Local resident Chris Kemp has made it her life's work to photograph and research the graves, contributing a huge volume of information to the Findagrave website and to the Friends of Overleigh Cemetery Facebook group administered by Clare Anderson."

Christine Kemp told CheshireLive about another poignant gravestone marking the tragic death of eight boys who had a tough start in life attending an industrial school in the city back in the 19th century.

She said: "This is the gravestone for eight boys who were at the Industrial School, Boughton. They were aged between eight to 15 years old. The school began life as a Ragged School, dedicated to the free education of destitute children.

"They were open in the evenings and on Sunday from 2-4pm for the benefit of those who could not attend during the day. In 1863 the Boughton school was certified as an Industrial School. Magistrates could then send children there instead of to prison.

"The government paid for their upkeep. Goodness knows what crimes these children were deemed to have done to have ended up here."

The new tour costs £10 per person and runs at 4pm every Friday from April to September. Tours need to be booked in advance, or on the day prior to 1.15 pm, through the Visitor Information Centre at the Town Hall by calling in or calling 01244 405340.

Book through the Visitor Information Centre, Town Hall, Northgate St, Chester CH1 2HJ

Tel 01244 405340

or via Tripadvisor:

Interested in booking a private tour of Overleigh Cemetery on a date and at a time convenient for you? Get in touch today by clicking the button below:

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