A HISTORIAN believes he has found spiritual symbolism in a long-lost burial ground.

While researching the history of the Ayresome Cemetery, a vast graveyard now buried under an urban park and playground in Middlesbrough, Steve Waller discovered the layout of the site, which he believes held hidden meanings.

He started by intricately recreating plans of the old cemetery in Linthorpe Road, and ended up discovering what could be symbolism encrypted in the unusual design.

Mr Waller, who is now campaigning for a Blue Plaque to mark one of Middlesbrough’s biggest secrets, said: “Apart from the history of the graveyard, my biggest kick has been finding this symbolism, especially the shape of the Holy Grail.”

After blowing the dust from early archive documents, he discovered that 11,000 bodies lay beneath Ayresome Gardens, a park surrounded by a main road and terraced houses, and he painstakingly recreated a huge plan of its layout.

Founded in 1854 to cope with the sudden expansion of the town, it was Middlesbrough’s first purpose-built graveyard and designed at a time when religious and cultural symbolism in architecture was rife.

“The artwork they used in the design was incredible,” said Mr Waller, of Middlesbrough.

“I think it took about five years to produce it. It might be that Middlesbrough was emerging as the Infant Hercules and as they had a bit of money they wanted to show it off.”

He said that, unlike the uniformity of most graveyards which are organised in simple columns and rows, the twists and turns in Ayresome Cemetery hide special meanings.

Mr Waller believes he can put his finger on shapes that include butterfly or angel wings, the letters AD, ancient gods of the Underworld, and right in the middle, the Holy Grail.

Funerals were still taking place at Ayresome halfway through the 20th Century – 84-year-old Florence Gjers was buried in 1950.

Hers was the final grave of more than 4,100 to be sealed, some vaulted, each large enough to hold three bodies.

Whole families would have bought up neighbouring plots to secure their final resting place – years before they drew their last breath.

Paupers, beggars, the mentally insane and the diseased share the cemetery with the great and the good of Middlesbrough past, such as merchants, entrepreneurs, MPs and town founders. Today there is no trace of any of them.

Mr Waller has also discovered that dozens of cholera victims lie just feet below a basketball court. And a car park beside a neighbouring building covers the graves of 14 children.

“The Sixties came along and all our lovely old buildings were bulldozed,” he said.

“This cemetery was probably the last thing on their minds.

“But there must be a hell of a lot of people descended from these people in Middlesbrough who don’t know anything about it.”

More than a century of history, including the yard’s two neo-classical-style chapels and all its paths, was simply swept aside when Ayresome Cemetery was decommissioned in 1962.

Many of the headstones were propped up against the walls for a few years as officials talked about preserving them.

Then in 1978, they were taken away and smashed up.

Today there’s nothing to mark the role the graveyard played in the lives of generations of Teessiders – or the town-sized population of bodies below its surface.

But Mr Waller wants to change all that. Not only has his colourful, intricate map, first sketched on three sheets of wallpaper, brought the place to life again after months of hard work, but now he wants an historic blue plaque to mark where the cemetery was.

“It’s part of our social history,”

he said. “It’s just unique.”

Ann Thirsk, acting senior assistant archivist at Teesside Archives, which acted as a hub for Mr Waller’s research, agreed: “I do think it deserves a Blue Plaque.

“It’s going to create big interest.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’s unique because of its style of design. There’s a reason they designed it like this.

“It’s quite a mystery. We think there is some kind of symbolism in there from the architect. I think it should be known to the town. It was so nearly, nearly lost.”

■ A catalogue is being put together to identify each grave and Mr Waller’s map will be reproduced for visitors. Anybody who believes they may have relatives in the cemetery is asked to contact Teesside Archives in Middlesbrough’s Exchange Square on 01642- 248321.

Whose remains lie under Ayresome Gardens...

Among the 11,000 bodies are:

● Edward Saggerson, Chief Constable of Middlesbrough Police for 23 years, who went “insane” and died in North Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum, York.

● Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid, politician and founder of the Evening Gazette newspaper, helped introduce free education for everyone under the age of 13.

● The children of Middlesbrough’s founding fathers, Henry Bolckow and John Vaughn.

● Members of the Collingwood family – a wellknown Middlesbrough jewellers.

● John Gjiers, a Swedishborn ironmaker who settled in Middlesbrough and pioneered blast furnace design.