Eastville Workhouse, BRHG research project

There is rightly scandal in the press at the 800 babies buried in unmarked graves in Galway.

But this was not a unique occurrence. Bristol Radical History Group BRHG has established that 3,300 adults, children and babies were buried in unmarked graves in an old cemetery (now a piece of open ground) behind the Eastville Workhouse on Fishponds Road in Bristol. The workhouse death records from 1855 to 1895 establish these burials took place. Some human remains were found in the 1970s when the workhouse buildings were demolished in order to build the new estate. After the development thousands of paupers’ graves were left unmarked in waste ground.

BRHG are pressing for a memorial on the site to remember these lost generations.

Our starting point for the project was the awareness, by members of BRHG, of the open ground behind the site of old workhouse. There is no sign to on the spot to mark its past use as the cemetery for the workhouse; today it is a place for dog walkers and occasional rubbish dumping. It is ironic that just across the road from the site is Greenbank Cemetery, where better off members of society are remembered.

BRHG want to understand the Victorian period where the treatment of ‘paupers’ can be compared with today, where people are forced to rely on food banks, starved by measures such as the Bedroom tax and where people are disrespected in life and in death. We wanted to look at the kind of society that our rulers seek to replicate; not from the high point of a present supposedly superior time with welfare safety nets, but from today’s perspective of a ‘war on the poor’. A key marker of disrespect is burying people in unmarked graves; in the Victorian period paupers were disrespected in life and seen as worthless once they had passed away; their death and burial not worth recording or marking. Even today in 21st century Britain there are ‘pauper graves’ with no headstone or marker of the person; some are even buried in communal graves. In Bristol in 2010/11 there were 108 ‘pauper funerals’, in 2011/12: 142, and in 2012/13: 140.

While there was a workhouse (one of the three Bristol ‘Unions’) on the spot since the 1850s, first known as Clifton Union, finally Barton Regis Union, a dedicated cemetery was not consecrated until 1855. The construction of the cemetery was doubtless influenced by the general lack of burial spaces in local churchyards which had a ‘detrimental effect’ on the local environment, with graveyards full to overflowing and human remains being strewn over the ground. The state of cemeteries was seen as one of the most pressing public health issues.

The minutes of the workhouse Guardians and original records of the three Bristol workhouses were held in St Peter’s and destroyed by second world war bombing; however the Bristol Mercury (on line) reported the weekly Guardian meetings. Additionally the Bristol Record Office holds microfiche records of deaths in the Eastville workhouse, along with the admissions and “creeds” of those who entered. We examined all the microfiche records for the forty years the cemetery was in use recording all the names, ages at death and parishes of origin of those buried there. Not all the dead in the grounds of the workhouse, some were ‘taken away by friends’, buried privately in a proper dignified way or given to Medical schools. We did not record these names.

We have made a record of all those unremembered and unmarked and will be producing the entire list of 3,300 people buried on the site.

Sample

Year Month Day Surname First Name Gender Age At Death Parish Grave Number
1856 Jul 16 Paul William M 76 St Phillip 50
1856 Jul 20 Snary? John M 65 St Phillip 51
1856 Jul 23 Prewett Thomas M 84 St George 52
1856 Aug 3 Hicks Elizabeth F 85 St Phillip 53
1856 Aug 5 Pyne Abraham M 79 St Phillip 54
1856 Aug 8 Hodges Johanna F 74 St Phillip 55
1856 Aug 11 Harris Ann F 64 Clifton 56
1856 Sep 7 Loveridge Maria F 12 St Phillip 139

(Children had a different grave numbering)

The parishes (who had to pay for the coffins) were St Phillips, St George, St James and St Paul, Clifton, Westbury on Trym, Winterbourne, Stapleton, Henbury and Stoke Gifford.

We are able to see the patterns of death: the times of year, ages, gender and are analysing atypical peaks and troughs in the data.

Next steps

We want to look at the census records and the details of some actual causes of death.

We now want to reach out to people in the Eastville areas to include their memories and views on this situation.

Do they, like us, want to create a memorial to these long, unmarked dead?

Do they have ancestors without a grave stone, whom they would like to remember.

Or does this seem a grisly thing to point out?

We will be holding a public meeting at the end of July in Eastville and plan an event on the green at the end of September.

Di June 8, 2014

eastville-workhouse

4 Comments

  1. I believe John SNARY who appears in your sample list of burials may belong to my SNARY family. I have a John SNARY chr 2 oct 1796 at St Phillip & Jacob who would have been aged 65 in 1856. He married Louisa Warren in 1838 at Bristol St James. The couple appeared in the 1841 census living at St Ann’s Place with one daughter Elizabeth and in 1851 living at the same address, now with a son Charles.

    Good luck with your campaign!

  2. Can you let me know when and where the July meeting is please?
    Would be happy to get involved with fund raising for some kind of information board. I think it’s too long ago for a ‘memorial’,anymore than one would have a memorial at a(n) historical site.
    Interesting to note that; in the example you show above; some of the people lived to a ripe old age. Maybe the simple work house food was actually a healthy alternative to the crap we are offered / encouraged to eat today. No money for tobacco or grog?
    p.s. anything to liven up Eastville Cemetery which is dull as dishwater (compared to Arnos). Which is a shame as it’s my local.

  3. I am really pleased to hear about this. I have heard this before and I walk on this bit of ground nearly every day walking my dog. I have often thought about how good it would be to mark the lives of these people in some way. It could work with local schools and improve the area for all. I would be interested in exploring some ideas. When do you meet?
    Also there are some really interesting graves [if I can say so] in Greenbank. The rows of graves of people killed in St Pauls in WW2 and the grave of the little boy with the poem warning about the dangers of chewing gum and the stunning ornate Chinese gravestone. Untapped history and some stories to tell for sure.

  4. Why won’t it let me post my comment!! It says duplicate detected!
    When do you meet?
    Also there are some really interesting graves [if I can say so] in Greenbank. The rows of graves of people killed in St Pauls in WW2 and the grave of the little boy with the poem warning about the dangers of chewing gum and the stunning ornate Chinese gravestone. Untapped history and some stories to tell for sure.

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