Friday, 3 March 2017

The Great Burial Scandal

The Great Burial Scandal is a story and I have to thank Ida Bradshaw for picking up on the old references and unearthing the awful truth.

And it is a pretty gruesome one which is difficult to comprehend as you walk through the old parish graveyard on a warm spring day.

 But back in 1881 it was according to some so full that “it is now difficult to tell where there is any land left for new graves, [and because] so many internments have taken place there is not 2ft of earth between the coffin and the surface.”*

There were also lurid tales of existing gravestones being broken up and thrown into the midden of the Bowling Green Hotel to allow new ones to be erected and worse still of bones and skulls appearing and being transported away in wheelbarrows.

Much more was revealed at the official Government inquiry opened by the Home Office in the November of 1881. One witness spoke of “human bones .... knocking about the highway. Only that morning a jawbone with teeth in had been picked up.” 

There were also past sextons who reported the difficulty in finding space to place a coffin and the ever present danger of unearthing past burials. William Caldwell described how he regularly “disturbed human remains in digging” and once before he “could get down to any depth I smashed into another grave, and I was flooded by liquor and human remains.”

Now given that the first parish church had been opened in 1512 it should perhaps not be surprising that the place teemed with the dead. As the Reverend Booth admitted, while the burial records only dated back to 1753 he had come across a headstone from 1660, and confirmed “that the burial ground had been enlarged three times.” Moreover “the interior of the church was filled with graves and the worshippers, Sunday by Sunday, knelt in the dust of their fathers.”

Some of just how crowded the place had become can be got from comparing the picture taken in 2008 and that of 1860, both of which are looking south to where the church was sited.

Medical opinion increasingly turned on the heath issue which was compounded by the rapid growth in the population of the township.

But the real scandal seemed to be that the local church authorities had continued to bury the dead in the church with the present sexton denying that there was a problem and the Reverend Booth being critical of the evidence of previous sextons. Despite plenty of evidence that for a decade or more finding new spaces was difficult.

Of course we should temper our shock and disgust a little and remember the practice of removing old burials to accommodate new was a traditional practice.

 Also I do have some sympathy with the argument made out by Reverend Booth and some correspondents to the Manchester Guardian that for those with family plots there was a real link with wanting also to be buried in the parish church.

But the Home Office Inspector was “satisfied that the churchyard is exceedingly full and that you want an order for the closing of the churchyard and the only thing to talk about is the exceptions.”

The following year this was carried out with the proviso that where families had an existing grave an internment could go ahead providing that the graves could be opened to a depth of five feet without exposing coffins or disturbing human remains.

Finally in 1930 the remains were exhumed and reburied in Southern Cemetery, which I suppose should have closed the story were it not for the discovery of some body parts during the archaeological dig in the late 1970s and early 80s but that is another story.

Pictures from the collection of Andrew Simpson 2008, and the Lloyd collection circa 1860

*from the Chorlton Ratepayer Association to the Withington Local Board of Health January 12th 1881

References from the Manchester Guardian 1881-86, Manchester City Council Town Clerks’ Papers Re Closed Burial Grounds 1930, reports in the dig by Angus Batemean

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