Leicester Cathedral Revealed – the 19th-century burial ground

ULAS archaeologists have now been on site at Leicester Cathedral for a month and today is a good time to start revealing what has been found so far. Mathew Morris, the archaeology team leader for the Heritage Learning Centre excavation tells us more…

For my first project update I want to focus on the 19th-century burial ground. A quick search online shows that around 17,500 people were buried at St Martin’s (Leicester Cathedral) between the mid-16th century and the closure of the cemetery in 1856, with nearly 4,000 of those buried here in the first half of the 19th century alone. This was a period when mortality was high, especially in towns like Leicester where rapid industrialisation, overcrowding, poverty and poor sanitary conditions meant it had one of the highest death-rates in Britain, exceeded only by Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester.

St Martin’s church (Leicester Cathedral) viewed from the south as it looked in 1792. The burial ground in front of the church is full of gravestones although the area we are excavating (right of the tower) is mostly bare. (Image: John Nichols)

Old drawings and photographs show that the burial ground south of the church was originally full of tightly packed gravestones. Most of these have been moved or removed during various rearrangements of the Cathedral Gardens over the past 100 years and it was hoped that, when the Song School was built in the 1930s, the builders would have also cleared the more recent burials before construction began. This has proved not to be the case, however, and rows of 19th-century graves are still present beneath the old building’s floors. Discovery of these graves has necessitated a phase of archaeological excavation much earlier than planned in order to carefully and sensitively remove the burials before they are accidentally damaged by the initial construction work.

Archaeologists excavate one of the 19th-century burial rows. (Image: ULAS)

The excavation so far has identified that the graves are laid out in neat burial rows which shows that a methodical burial system was taking place in the 19th century. As of the time of writing this update we have excavated 30 skeletons and we expect this number to exceed 50 before this phase of work is completed. In the area south of St Dunstan’s Chapel and east of the south aisle there are at least seven rows of graves laid out at right-angles to the cathedral. Most graves contain multiple burials, one above the other, most likely because they were family burial plots. This area of the church yard is also the closest place people buried outside the church could be to the alter and the area, therefore, would have been in high demand as a burial ground.

All of the burials so far are in coffins (I’ll talk more about the coffins in a later post) and are placed with their heads to the west. Most of the burials are earthfast, but scattered across the burial rows are a number of brick-lined vaults. These all have a similar design with brick walls mirroring the shape of the coffin. The bricks have been painted a cream or white colour creating a neat, sterile burial environment. At least six of the vaults have two tiers of burials separated by slate floors. In two of these multi-tiered vaults the upper chamber remained empty, presumably because they remained unused when the burial ground shut. Another vault had been reused to store charnel (loose human bone), presumably collected from the burial soil by grave diggers when they disturbed earlier burials.

Two brick-lined graves. The upper chambers of these graves were both empty but both contain sealed lower chambers which will be excavated in the next phase of the project in 2022. (Image: ULAS)

One vault also contained a surprise. During the excavation it was discovered that it was backfilled with soil and many slate fragments. Initially we thought these were going to be the remains of the capping stones which had broken and dropped down into the vault but instead they turned out to be the smashed remains of a gravestone. We’ve put a little film together showing this discovery which can be watched below.

Discovery of a gravestone. (Video: ULAS)

We have also been able to trace the names on the gravestone. Trade directories indicate that George Spencer was a needle maker living on the High Street in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His niece, Charlotte, the daughter of George’s sister Jane, married Thomas Ross in 1829. Whilst Charlotte predeceased her uncle the gravestone appears to have been erected in George’s memory with Charlotte’s name added underneath. Unfortunately, we do not know where they were buried but it is unlikely to have been the brick-lined vault in which the stone was found as it only contained the remains of one individual.

The reassembled gravestone for George Spencer and Charlotte Ross. The inscription reads ‘In affectionate remembrance of George Spencer, who departed this life, October 25th 1834; aged 42 years. Also of Charlotte, wife of Thomas Ross, and niece of the above who died April 21st 1831; Aged 22 years.’ (Image: ULAS)

Putting names to burials is very difficult, even when they are less than 200 years old. In my next update I will take a closer look at one person we have identified by name, so watch this space…

Leicester Cathedral Revealed is a £12.7m restoration of the Grade II* Cathedral, made possible with the Heritage Fund. Find out more about the project at https://leicestercathedral.org/

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