Leicester Cathedral Revealed – A Curious Case of a Lead Coffin

We have another exciting update from Leicester Cathedral. Project archaeologist, Amber Furmage, tells us more about the excavation of our first lead coffin and a newly named individual, Edward Entwistle Wilkinson (1796-1846). The coffin, recently found in the middle of the excavation area, was interred in one of the final burial rows in this part of the churchyard; rows which were in use from the late 1820s through to the closure of the cemetery in 1856.

Archaeologist Amber Furmage excavates the lead coffin recently found at Leicester Cathedral. Image: ULAS

Born in Whalley, Lancashire in 1796 to the surgeon Christopher Wilkinson and Mary Wilkinson (née Ashton), relatively little is known about Edward’s early life. He appears to have followed in his father’s footsteps, and was appointed House Surgeon and Apothecary at the Leicester Infirmary in 1820, aged 24.

The governors of the Leicester Infirmary thought very highly of him, rewarding him for his ‘diligent and able service’. During his 17 years at the Infirmary Edward Entwistle Wilkinson expanded the Dispensary, improved the medicinal planting in the hospital’s garden and helped procure an ‘Infirmary Carriage for Accidents’. In 1836 he left the Infirmary, taking up a new post as the first resident medical officer of the then-newly opened County Asylum (now the Fielding Johnson building at the University of Leicester) in 1836 – the full-time position, combining the roles of house surgeon, superintendent and secretary, paid an annual salary of £200 plus board. At the Asylum, his peers praised his talents and conduct and ‘his ability and tenderness in the treatment of patients’.

The University of Leicester’s Fielding Johnson Building, originally built in 1837 as the County Asylum. Image: UoL.

In 1841 he was living on St Martin’s, close to the parish church – the census describes him as a surgeon and lists servants William Barker (aged 17) and Elizabeth Headley (aged 30) living in his household. It is possible that it was through the church that he met his wife, Elizabeth Stretton, who was born and raised in the parish. They married in August 1845 at St Brides Church in Liverpool before returning to Leicester.

Leicester Infirmary as it looked during Edward Entwistle Wilkinson’s tenure as House Surgeon there. The main hospital building to the right still exists as part of the Victoria Building of Leicester Royal Infirmary. The Fever House, built in 1820, stands to the left. Image: University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

Sadly, the marriage lasted only 9 months before Edward’s untimely death from typhus fever in July 1846 at only 50 years old. Typhus, a disease spread by infected fleas, lice and mites, was endemic in Leicester in the early 19th century, with occasional epidemic outbreaks. One such occurrence was in March 1846, around Great Holme Street in Leicester’s West End. The Leicester Chronicle (dated March 21st) reported that ‘out of the 75 houses, containing 245 inhabitants… there have been 24 deaths and 132 ill of fevers.’ Many of those inflicted were taken to the Fever House at the Leicester Infirmary. Edward’s death certificate records that he had suffered from typhus for 6 weeks before his death on 4th July, and given both the timing and his occupation, it seems possible that he caught the disease through his work. Edward was buried at St Martin’s, in a grave plot next to his father-in-law, William Stretton (d.1840), and probably close to other Stretton’s, all buried together in a family row.

Following his death, a plaque in the South Aisle of the Cathedral (then St. Martin’s parish church) was dedicated to Edward Entwistle Wilkinson and his wife, a practice reserved for those who had made a significant impact upon the community. This action thus further highlights the status and influence he achieved over his lifetime, becoming an important local figure in the 27 years that he can be attested for in Leicester. His gravestone also survives, re-erected in Saffron Hill cemetery following a mass clearance of the gravestones from the Cathedral Gardens in the 1980s.

The memorial plaque for Edward and Elizabeth Wilkinson on the wall in the South Aisle of the Cathedral. Image: ULAS

Clearly Edward Entwistle Wilkinson had a fascinating life, though his death and burial is equally interesting. His coffin is a particularly extravagant example of 19th-century funerary customs, having originally been a triple-shelled coffin, consisting of two layers of wood sandwiching a sand-cast lead lining. While much of the wood had rotted away in the 177 years since his burial, fragmentary remains of two tin-dipped iron decorative motifs were found on the lid, as well as a pentagon-shaped brass name plate.

The lead coffin containing the remains of Edward Entwistle Wilkinson, showing both the pentagon-shaped brass nameplate from the outer wooden coffin, and the shield-shaped lead motif on the inner lead coffin. Image: ULAS
The two nameplates. At the bottom the pentagon-shaped brass nameplate from the outer wooden coffin, bears the inscription “Edward Entwistle Wilkinson. Born 17th May 1796. Died 4th July 1846.”. Above is the shield-shaped lead nameplate fixed to the inner lead coffin, with the initials “E. E. W.” and the year “1846”. Image: ULAS

Attached to the lead coffin itself, beneath the wooden lid, was a secondary name plate, this one in a traditionally masculine shield-shaped motif. It featured an inner border, emphasizing the outline of the shield, as well as engraved lettering with the initials “E. E. W.” and year of death “1846”. Even though none of this would be seen through the outer wooden coffin, a series of decorative elements were also inscribed into the lid and sides of the lead coffin, with two diamond shapes extending across the length of the lid, and a further four diamonds spread across the head, foot and each side of the coffin. In addition to this, the lid had a decorative border around the edge, with traces of white paint exaggerating the detailing.

Further coffin furnishings included the remains of a fabric covering on the outer wooden coffin, held in place with rows of iron upholstery studs. Like the wood, relatively little of the material was preserved, though a sample recovered appears to be of a velvet or suede-type fabric. A total of eight die-stamped iron grip plates were also found along the sides of the coffin, though these were severely fragmented when the lid and sides of the lead coffin collapsed under the weight of the soil above it. Along with the grip plates were eight cast-iron handles. While corrosion obscured some of the details, enough was observable to identify a central floral motif upon each handle, with a swirled pattern covering the surrounding surface – the grip plate and handle design appear to be the same pattern as those adorning Anne Barratt’s coffin (d. 1855), whose story we have told previously and can be read here.

One of the handles attached to the outer wooden coffin, featuring a central six-petalled flower and a pattern of swirls extending around the rest of the handle. Image: ULAS

The lead coffin was in poor condition and could not be lifted intact. After thorough excavation and recording, the lead sections were lifted, leaving behind the remains of the wooden base from the outer coffin. This revealed a final detail in the coffin’s construction, with two wooden struts built into the base to provide extra support for the lead lining.

The fully excavated coffin with the lid removed. The weight of the overlying soil has caused the sides of the coffin to buckle inwards. Iron handles can be seen lying around the base of the coffin. Image: ULAS

Altogether, a triple-shelled coffin containing a lead lining is estimated to weigh up to a quarter of a ton, the resources required to construct such a piece reflecting the wealth and status of the individual interred within, or at least the aspirations of their family. The inclusion of fabric, wood, lead, iron, tinplate and brass upon Edward Entwistle Wilkinson’s coffin required the craftwork of multiple people and is indicative of an affluent member of society, for whom no expense would be spared regarding his funerary arrangements.

Edward and Elizabeth had no children. Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth moved back to live with her mother, Mary, and her sister, Ann, on Granby Street, at the family home she had only left nine months earlier. Her mother died the following year and was buried at St Martin’s next to her father William. The two sisters continued to live together until Elizabeth died in 1875, aged 71, she was buried in Welford Road Cemetery.

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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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