Pet Cemetery: Love and Loss in Northumberland Park

Pet Cemetery Northumberland Park Tynemouth
In loving memory

Sometimes you stumble upon something bizarre, beautiful and baffling on your travels, close to your own home.

On a recent walk through Northumberland Park in North Shields, I was surprised to discover a historic pet cemetery tucked away in a quiet corner of the Victorian park.

Struck by its solitude and quiet ambience, I was intrigued to find out how this unusual pet graveyard came about.

Home for Heroic Pets

Northumberland Park

The Northumberland Park Pet Cemetery is one of only a handful of historic sites commemorating pets in England.

It dates back to the late 1940s, a time when honouring a close four-legend friend with a marker or gravestone was becoming more popular.

After calls for several dogs to be honoured for heroic service, the RSPCA sent a letter to the North Shields Town Clerk in 1948 suggesting that a corner of a public park should be set aside for a Pets’ Cemetery.

A year later, a layout for the pet cemetery was approved by the council and a small plot of land was set side in a quiet corner of Northumberland Park.

Dogs of War

Walking through this quiet space, I was surprised by the number of working dogs immortalised in the cemetery. Many were the subject of incredible stories of heroic behaviour and acts of service.

Look carefully and you’ll spot the headstone erected by the RSPCA to commemorate ‘Pop’, a courageous Alsatian dog which saved many people’s lives in World War Two.

‘Pop’ worked with the British armed forces in Italy to detect landmines but was later demobbed with leg wounds. He lived his last years in Tyneside, enjoying beach walks with his owner.

Sadly, he was found dead at the foot of Cullercoats cliffs not far from his home in January 1949. He was buried at the Pet Cemetery as an act of remembrance for his work during WW2.

Nearby is a gravestone celebrating the loyal service of ‘Trixie Fox”, another canine war veteran who served in World War Two.

Trixie was rescued from the Normandy beaches in 1944 and is described as a “real treasure” on the well-tended tombstone (see below).

Little is known about Trixie Fox’s exploits but it’s likely that the dog was rescued and brought back by sea following a period of army service.

Sniffing out trouble c/o Imperial War Museum

It’s hard to imagine what a harrowing experience it would’ve been for Trixie Fox in the thick of the action in northern France with the sound of guns, bombs and explosions.

Dogs were sometimes used as ParaDogs, parachuted behind enemy lines, working with soldiers.

During WW2 the British government called for people to “lend” their pets to the war effort. Many people volunteered their much loved pets for military service.

The dogs were trained to locate mines, stand watch, and help with sniffing explosives. They were also used to alert Allied troops of the enemy. 

Some soldiers also adopted dogs during WW2 whilst others kept them as mascots designed to raise morale and provide comfort amidst the hardships of war. 

The British merchant ship, the SS Killarney reported that its troop rescue efforts at Dunkirk were hampered by “what appeared to be the whole canine population of France and Belgium from taking passage with her”.

A lot of these animals had attached themselves to Tommies, but many had to be shot to prevent them boarding the rescue boats, or prevent them from starving to death when left behind.

Photo – ‘War dogs’ – a companion dog (left) c/o and sniffer dog c/o Imperial War Museum.

Another dog at the Northumberland Park cemetery is called “Nigger”, a name which would be deemed highly inappropriate today. He was another World War Two veteran who served on the beaches of Dunkirk.

He was the mascot of a mine sweeper which was based at Albert Edward Dock, now the site of the Royal Quays Marina in North Shields.

Later in his life, he was adopted by the Tyneside Dock Police and is said to have ended his days at the Whitley Bay Dogs’ Home in 1951.

Faithful Friends

It’s not just heroic dogs of war which are buried in the Pet Cemetery, although these are some of the oldest graves to be found in Northumberland Park.

There are all sorts of pets, mainly buried between 1949 and the 1950s and ’60s, with increasingly elaborate gravestones.

Some headstones simply state the pet’s name, from Lassie and Duke to the ever popular Rover and Laddie.

Remembering ‘Twinkie’

Other headstones provide an insight into how owners relied on these faithful friends and beloved companions.

One poignant sign simply says “Bruce – Always Faithful”, a common sentiment amongst the 200 pet graves. The themes of loyalty, friendship and companionship live on through the commemoration of these animal friends.

There are also a few surprises. One RSPCA headstone remembers “Bambi”, a deer fawn cared for by the animal welfare charity in 1954.

Do Dogs Got to Heaven?

Pet Cemetery Northumberland Park Tynemouth
A modern pet gravestone from 1985

Today the cemetery is full and there is no room left for recently departed canine and feline friends. But the graveyard is a reminder of how important pets are in our society.

The wording on many of the grave stones suggests the owners’ hopes for reunification with their pet in an imaginary afterlife. 

A carpet of snowdrops and crocuses covers the Pet Cemetery in the early spring, making the stories behind the gravestones even more touching.

Faithful Friends

Faithful to the end

But when did pets first become trustworthy and faithful companions? And what are the earliest examples of pet burials?

Dr Eric Tourigny of Newcastle University has undertaken an archaeological survey of gravestones at British pet cemeteries from Victorian times to the present.

Archaeologists think that our relationship with dogs began about 15,000 years ago while cats joined them 6,000 years later.  It’s harder to determine when we started keeping them purely for companionship, possibly in the late 18th and 19th Century. 

Byron owned a Newfoundland dog called Boatswain (pictured above) who died of rabies in 1808. After his death, the poet built a grand tomb on his estate at Newstead Abbey which was used to commemorate his beloved dog.

Some wealthy people included their dogs in monuments including Baroness Burdett-Coutts, one of the richest Victorians in England, who immortalised her border collie in her St Pancras Cemetery memorial.

“References to animals as family members increase after the Second World War, coinciding with a rise in the use of family surnames on pet gravestones,” says Dr Eric Tourigny

“Some early adopters of surnames put them in quotation marks, as if to acknowledge they are not full members of the family”, he points out.

The history of keeping pets goes back much earlier, of course, to prehistoric and Roman times. But modern pet ownership, for entertainment and companionship, began in Britain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Their relationships with people varied from purely functional (working dogs/security) to emotional attachments.

In earlier times, a few wealthy households held small scale funerals and erected memorials to deceased pets in their private gardens.

The First Pet Cemeteries

Video: Watch a film about Hyde Park pet cemetery

By Victorian times expressions of sentimentality following the loss of a pet became more acceptable. But it wasn’t until the late 19th Century that the first public pet cemetery in Britain appeared in London. 

When a dog called Cherry died in 1881, its owner asked a gatekeeper at Hyde Park if she could be buried there.

A space was set aside in the gatekeeper’s personal garden – and Hyde Park became England’s first public pet cemetery. Over the following decades, it became the place for wealthy Londoners to bury their beloved companions – and hundreds of dogs were buried there.

Pet Cemetery Northumberland Park Tynemouth

An increasing number of public pet cemeteries continued to flourish across Britain throughout the 20th Century.

But the Pet Cemetery at Northumberland Park remains one of the earliest to commemorate pet animals and celebrate their contribution to our lives .

A walk around the cemetery is a poignant reminder of the powerful bond between pets and people. For many owners it’s a connection between human and animal which continues into the afterlife… with some embracing the idea that their pets are simply “sleeping”…

Planning Your Visit – Northumberland Park Pet Cemetery

The Pet Cemetery is located at Northumberland Park on Tynemouth Road between North Shields and Tynemouth. Admission is free. The park is open daily between 10:30 and 16:00.

The nearest Metro is Tynemouth, 10 minutes walk from the park. Parking is available on street close to the park.

The cemetery lies off a quiet path a short distance from the main north gates at the top end of the park. There is a park map near the entrance to help you locate it.

The park also boasts formal gardens, ponds, play areas. a bandstand and woodland trails. It’s also a good bird watching spot with visitors including kingfishers, water rails and ring-necked parakeets.

Discover the History of Pet Cemeteries

“We are only Sleeping, Master” – a brief history of pets and cemeteries.

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